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What's the difference between working in a lab and working in R&D for a company?

I'm graduating with my bachelor's degree in physics this May (yay!), and I learned that I loved working in the lab, performing experiments, doing computational analyses, drawing conclusions, etc. I'd love to work in a lab at some point but there seem to be a lot of entry barriers for physicists who don't have a higher degree.

I'm wondering what the main differences are between working in a lab and working in a research and development role in industry. Any insight appreciated!

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Willie’s Answer

I like to think that there are 3 categories of labs. The major differences are in the application of the knowledge.


1) Regulated Lab: will the knowledge to verify/validate and test samples for compliance and further actions or whatever along the lines of oversight for abiding by the rules or laws. Not going to be much fun stuff innovative stuff. Will be more routine and repetitive but certainly rewarding.
2) Business (R&D Lab): this lab environment (in my opinion) is not for a knee-buckler and is the most rewarding due to the ability to be involved in novelties (technology development). this is definitely a stressful environment. If you have the entrepreneurial spirit and fervor, this is a good route.
3) Academia (R&D Lab): this is lab environment is going to be a rewarding experience if you enjoy teaching, the research will be novel but also will be pigeon holed due to stated goals of research, awarded grants, and/or resources. In my opinion, this is a good route after a career in a business lab environment or a regulated lab environment. In my opinion, students get a better experience from a professor who has worked in industry (business or regulation) for a myriad of experiential reasons.
Thank you comment icon Yeah, good point making the distinction with the routine sample "regulated" labs. They're much more common in chemical or biological sciences than physics, but there are some doing physical tests like hardness, tensile strength, reflectivity and stuff like that. These routine labs often do take graduates without further qualifications - in fact, my first job as a graduate was in a radiochemical lab - with nuclear physics, there's a strong overlap with radiochemistry so there's opportunity for physicists to have some involvement there. Joseph Neilson
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Anup’s Answer

I think working in an academic lab allows greater freedom to pursue research hypotheses based on the general direction and research aims of a principal investigator. The goals of the research are one main difference compared to that of industry. Academic labs often are pursuing areas of research to further understanding of a field. Industry labs are geared towards development of treatments or instrumentation with more clear business implications.
Thank you comment icon I appreciate this, thank you for the advice. Abby, Admin
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Joseph’s Answer

Yes, there can be entry barriers for graduate scientists to get into academic or government-sponsored "big science" labs - the typical route into these areas often involves the PhD and postdoctoral research route. There are some graduate roles in these kind of areas, but they tend to be more operationally focused roles and less in touch with the cutting edge research.

Not having gone down the PhD and academic lab route myself, I'm not sure how qualified I am to speak of differences between those sorts of labs and industrial R&D, but my career path has taken me through a number of different types of lab and R&D roles, and I can probably make some useful comparisons between undergraduate teaching lab work and industry R&D.

The first distinction that comes to mind is the focus and the types of problems you investigate. Undergraduate labs are mainly to help you better understand the physics, so a lot of the early work you do essentially already has known answers that you're trying to replicate. They'll then gradually introduce you to doing actual "new" science later on to give you a taste of the process of real science and discovering something new; which is the direction academic labs will be working towards. Industrial R&D, however, is a bit of a different direction, generally more application-focused. Rather than trying to better understand some aspect of physics or the universe, it's generally more about solving a particular problem or making some device work. The distinction between physics and engineering becomes a lot more blurred in industrial R&D, and you develop more skills in fine tuning and optimising rather than in developing the fundamental physical understanding.

Another key aspect is intellectual property. In academic research, you're aiming to find things out and share with the wider scientific community by publishing papers. In industrial R&D, the research output is valuable information, and there's often a lot more care taken with regards to confidentiality and protecting intellectual property with patents and non-disclosure agreements.
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Mark’s Answer

My current role just requires a degree in the science field. I work in a lab as a chemist. I majored in Biology and minored in Chemistry, so I'm using my minor more than my major. However I really love what I do and not a lot of what I do involves Chemistry or my college degree. A large part of my job involves fixing Gas Chromatographs and making sure all of our laboratory equipment is calibrated and working properly. I started my career working as a laboratory technician, and then the company sent me to special classes to learn how to maintain and repair Gas Chromatographs. It's a pretty fun job to fix all of our laboratory equipment, and has turned out to be a very rewarding and successful career.
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Adit’s Answer

Although I have never worked in a pure R&D position in a company in my career, I have certainly held positions which required me to conduct research into new technologies, tools and platforms. I can say with a fair degree of certainty that the R&D positions in the industry would be much more competitive and results-driven compared to the ones in academia. You would also have to watch out for attempts to sabotage your work from your competitors or attempts to claim credit for what you have done. All of this makes working in the industry less fun than in academia perhaps because the level of competition is lower than that of the industry and the students have still not learned these sly, cunning maneuvers to get ahead whereas the industry veterans have become masters in using these tricks.
Thank you comment icon As someone who has experienced industry R&D, you're right that there's some cutthroat elements, but I don't think it's as bad as you make out. I certainly wouldn't agree that it necessarily makes industry less fun than academia; it's just the fun comes in different ways - I found elements like visiting customers to help with applications of our technology to be a particularly fun aspect. Joseph Neilson
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Kay’s Answer

Adding to Willie's answer - there will typically be several job opportunities in Regulated lab roles and shift work is a frequent option.
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Adit’s Answer

Working in a lab typically involves conducting research or experiments to develop new products or technologies. This can be done in a variety of settings, including academic research institutions, government agencies, or private companies.

On the other hand, working in R&D (Research and Development) for a company involves a similar focus on innovation and developing new products or technologies, but with a greater emphasis on commercialization and bringing those innovations to market. R&D teams in companies often work closely with marketing and business development teams to ensure that the innovations they are developing align with the company's goals and can be successfully brought to market.

Additionally, working in R&D for a company often involves a higher level of collaboration with other departments and teams within the organization, such as manufacturing, engineering, and quality control, in order to ensure that the innovations being developed are feasible and practical for the company to produce and distribute.

Overall, while both working in a lab and working in R&D involve conducting research and developing new products or technologies, the focus and context of the work can be quite different.
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