Once I was conferred my doctorate, you could have clocked my departure from academia with a stopwatch.
That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with academia; it’s just not my cup of joe. In considering the “why” of the career decisions I’ve made, I’ve come to the conclusion that culture and pay were my two biggest decision-making factors. So I’d like to touch on some of my experiences in the government, for-profit, non-profit sectors.
While I’ve never been a government civil servant, I worked in a government agency for almost seven years, 40 hours a week, as a contractor.
That means that my (for-profit) company had a contract with the government to provide “support” or consulting services. I was basically an on-site technical expert and program manager for an agency managing biomedical research programs. This was a granting agency that funded researchers to develop emerging technologies that would help prevent and treat injuries in our Warfighters.
This was my first non-academic experience. It’s an interesting environment – there’s a clear hierarchy, it’s very mission-driven, and there is careful oversight of the budget, which comes from taxpayer dollars.
Daily work is influenced by things like the Presidential Budget (and whether it’s been passed), the Defense Appropriations Bill (and whether it’s been enacted into law), Continuing Resolutions (which are put in place when the Budget hasn’t been authorized in a timely fashion), and even Government shut-downs (again, when budgets are not authorized).
Every agency has its own set of acronyms – in fact a creative person can write a memo entirely in acronyms with little effort. And you basically become an expert in all things PowerPoint. As a contractor, you are legally allowed to work exactly the number of hours that are stipulated in the contract, usually 40 hours per week. And as a contractor with a PhD, you are highly valued, even if you’re fresh out of graduate school.
So, it’s a 40-hour work week for generally good pay. Government civil servants are more like salaried employees, with government benefits. Contractors get the benefits of whatever company they happen to work for. While there are plenty of upsides, I found it difficult at times to be young and female in a government organization.
I was fortunate to find a home in a start-up, hired as employee #11 in a small business with big plans for growth.
This was a fantastic environment. Yes, there’s uncertainty with any small business, and as the company grew, there were growing pains. But every employee had a personal stake in the company, and both the company’s Founder and CEO really cared about each of us. They provided opportunities for professional development that were very entrepreneurial in nature, and preferred to hire talent over experience.
The benefits package reflected the attitudes of senior management, and was very generous with respect to paid leave, 401k matching, flexible work schedules, telecommuting, tuition reimbursement, and other perks.
We had a bonus program, which wasn’t as overflowing as larger businesses, but was generous nonetheless. We did run into issues with medical benefits, but the company did its best to provide the best medical care within reasonable financial constraints. We had company parties and outings, and it truly felt like I was cared about.
Upon my departure, the company stood at more than 100 employees, and growing. Not all for-profits are like this, but there is greater capacity for better benefits, bonus programs, etc. when money is coming in the door. Small companies have a different atmosphere than large companies, so make sure you understand the culture before accepting a position, and make sure that culture is something you’re going to enjoy.
Also understand that the financial capabilities of a For-Profit are proportional to the amount of profit they can bring in, and the interest of that company’s leadership in providing the employees with top-notch benefits.
You may be a small fish in a big pond at Big Company X, with excellent benefits but a sterile work environment. Or you may be a big fish in a small pond at Small Company Y with good/okay benefits and a company culture that promotes professional development. Or you may find yourself somewhere in-between. Either way, make sure it’s what you’re looking for. I worked a lot while at this small business. I took advantage of every opportunity presented, and (voluntarily) put in long days, not uncommonly pulling off 80-hour work weeks. Another thing to keep in mind.
In my current position, I find myself at the Director level at a mid-sized non-profit research institution. The staff is dedicated. The environment is quite casual (although after living in DC for 13 years, I still dress just shy of a full suit).
I work a basic 40-hour work week, and no one emails me in the evenings or on the weekends. I make a little less than I did in my previous posts (although only marginally so), the retirement benefits aren’t as great, the office parties are on-site instead of in some big fancy hotel (as I experience in the for-profit), and I lose out on some of the for-profit perks.
But the culture is one that I’m thriving in, and the mission is admirable. It takes a little more creativity to get some things done, and the entrepreneurial skills I developed are coming in handy. I work to build partnerships, both inside and outside my institution, and find opportunities to leverage and promote my institute’s assets. I consider this yet another opportunity to develop new skill sets, while enjoying a lifestyle that I’ve become accustomed to.
Not all government agencies, for-profits, and non-profits reflect my personal experience. But I think that in sharing my personal experience, perhaps I am providing a little perspective on the culture, salaries and benefits in these various sectors. There’s lots to consider in choosing your industry. It’s best to go in well-informed.
Thanks for reading!