What is the difference between research in industry and university?

Carrying out research in universities or industry is hugely exciting, but the aims and processes may be more similar than you think, as shown in the table. In my career as a researcher in healthcare, nutrition, petcare and botanicals, I’ve moved from hospital research, through five universities and two industry settings. In my most recent job, my company was taken over and sold, adding to my experience of research on the fly and passing through three different organisations.

There are many great blogs out there about people who have moved between university and industry, or vice versa, but I’ve done it several times. So what are the similarities and differences according to a seasoned mover?

I’ve summarised the main points in the table. What may be surprising is that many aspects of research are blurred and for some points there is a great overlap between universities and industry. Also to note that both organisations form great partnerships.

Type of research

In both university and industry, research can be ‘blue sky’ and in an exploratory phase, seeking new knowledge and looking for new discoveries on which to build the next steps. Academic research may be quite targeted if it is the result of external funding, and likewise, industry research can also focus-in on what is commercially required. So on balance I’d say university is more ‘blue sky’ and industry is more ‘applied’.

Purpose of research

University research very much as the focus of advancing knowledge and pushing back the boundaries of what we know. Research is extraordinarily diverse depending on the interests of the individuals, and packaged into departments (e.g. Medicine) or within research centres (e.g. Centre for Health). There very much is the emphasis on solving societal problems like improving health, climate change, understanding inequality etc.

Industry tends to be more inward looking, and companies creating products and services will be looking to drive their innovation to be competitive, creating new offerings and new market opportunities. Research can also be directed to improve quality and create efficiencies e.g. does switching from an organic to non-organic herb maintain the functionality?


It is rare in either organisation that someone will just have the free-reign to research what they want, due to finances and time constraints. There may be some quiet corners of universities where employees can research under their own steam without the need for funding, and some subjects like education are poorly funded anyway so people have to do so! However, anyone gaining funding or doing anything larger-scale will align with the university research strategy, or strategy of their research centre.

Similarly in industry, you will be very unlikely to research what you like, although might get away with small projects. You’ll align your work to deliver the goals of the strategic business plan, and goals may be financial or more purpose-led or both. Depending on the level of finance and resource, you’ll need to lobby and gain buy-in from senior leadership and any professional services that you require for support.

Support and delivery

How does the research get done? In industry your research community or ecosystem may span the organisation and external university or specialist research partners. Growing this ecosystem to help you get work done is hugely helpful. You may write literature reviews and do small pieces of research yourself but this is a challenge in a dynamic environment. You’ll go to academic conferences or use knowledge transfer organisations and groups. Within universities, you’ll have support from your department or centre, your students hopefully will be actively involved, and you’ll have your external peer networks. Anyone can access the academic societies that exist, although I must say as an industry person, there may be ill feeling toward someone from a commercial environment.

Students clearly play a central role in carrying out research at universities. It is wonderful when undergraduate students are involved in active projects and are encouraged to publish. Postgraduate students may be involved in industry products, through scholarships funded by the UK Research Councils for example.


Research is vastly expensive. It takes £ billions of investment for the scale of research that can create societal impact or launch a new drug. In universities you’ll climb the research ladder starting with small projects to hopefully land that large grant one day. This may be from UK government, the recently rejoined Horizon Europe or other overseas funding, or money from the university itself. Anyone looking to move to a university should seek ones that have money for new employees to support their career getting off the ground.

In industry, funding is allocated in annual budgeting, and a business case will be made for certain projects. This is an all year round activity, gaining buy-in from different commercial teams and being ready with the full financial request when it is budget time. Building partnerships with universities is a great way to boost funds e.g. case studentships or even internship schemes where some universities will fund a student over the summer or for a year long placement.

In both locations, understanding financial management and planning will be a great boost to you.


University research can allow you to pursue a programme of work for the duration of your career if you wish. It is a competitive climb to the top, and there is great pressure to be research-active and bring in £ thousands in some universities. Select your move wisely – you may relish the pressure but you might also prefer something more flexible. In industry research can pivot quickly. If an area is no longer desirable to consumers, or a problem has been fixed, you could be diverted onto new projects. This can be fun and enriching, but it can also be challenging if you feel you don’t have the knowledge and skills. If there is a very strong commercial goal, such as to get a new health claim on a pack, the research may be long-term over the course of many years.

Networks and stakeholders

Academic researchers will utilise their peer-groups e.g. nutritionists, physiologists, microbiologists. In industry, researchers will connect closely with other business functions to create a holistic approach – marketing, communications and all of the research and development (R&D) function if there is one.

Ultimately the stakeholders may be funding bodies, university leadership if funding was allocated from them, or senior business leaders. Hopefully you will have happy news to share with them on many occasions.

Research outputs and impact

The outputs and main currency of academic survival is the peer-reviewed publication. Outputs of the work will also be shared at conferences in the form of posters or short talks or videos. The aim is to share the findings with the community, gain feedback and scrutiny and form new collaborations.

The results of industry research may remain confidential and be used to secure intellectual property in the form of patents to protect inventions, and trade secrets. The results may be published – but this varies between companies with some wishing to share the expertise of its employees in corporate communications, but others having complete publishing embargos. Industry researchers may also attend conferences and network at academic events.

What is the longer-term good from all of this work?

Universities can have several goals here, firstly to create societal improvements, such as better healthcare, solve climate problems. Universities take great pride in their research and it is important for their reputation and standing. Individual researchers also value their research outputs, as numbers of papers in high-impact journals (rightly or wrongly) is viewed highly as part of promotion.

For industry, the impact is less for the organisation and individual reputation, but more in terms of commercial benefits. These may be financial profit – a new dog treat flies off the shelves. Increasingly companies are looking to be more purposeful, such as the B Corp community who help shape companies to be a force for good. Therefore, companies may align closely with universities in wishing to see positive change in the world.


These have been my experiences on moving between academia – industry – academia – industry and out the other side to my own business – Curiosity Research. I’ve very much enjoyed my time in both types of organisation – being a research creature, I just seek out opportunities where I can.

Credit: Beautiful photograph is via “pexels-chokniti-khongchum-2280568”.

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