It's been a while since I returned to this topic. Many differences remain for me to talk about, but I though that it was time to address the biggest one, which is psychological. Some of you probably thought that the biggest difference was money. Can't ignore that one - it probably contributes to some of the effects I'll be talking about. But there's a separate mental component to graduate school that never really recurs, which should be good news to my readers who are working on their degrees.
Some of this is due to age, naturally enough. The research cohort out in industry ranges from fresh-out-of-school to greybeards in their fifties and sixties. (I can say that, since I'm in my early forties, the color changes in my own short beard notwithstanding.) Everyone in graduate school is a transient of one sort of another, usually someone whose life is still just getting going. But in the workplace, most people are more settled in their lives and careers. There are still some unsettling waves that move through industry, mergers and layoffs and reorganizations. But people respond to them differently than they would in their 20s - often better, sometimes worse, but differently.
And not all your co-workers in grad school are actually stable individuals, either. Some of these people wash out of the field for very good reasons, and you don't see as many of the outer fringes later on in your career. It's not that we don't have some odd people in the industrial labs, believe me. But the variance isn't as high as it is in school. Some of those folks are off by so many standard deviations that they fall right off the edge of the table.
Another factor is something I've already spoken about, the way that most graduate careers come down to one make-or-break research project. The only industrial equivalents are in the most grad-school atmospheric edge of the field, small startup companies that have one shot to make it with an important project. But in most companies, no matter how big a project gets, there's always another one coming along. Clinical candidate went down in flames? Terrible news, but you're working on another one by then. There's a flow to the research environment that gives things more stability.
The finish-the-project-or-die environment of graduate study leads to the well-known working hours in many departments. Those will derange you after a while: days, nights, weekends, holidays, Saturday nights and Sunday mornings. I worked 'em all myself when I was trying to finish my PhD, but I don't now. If a project is very interesting or important, I'll stay late, or once in a while work during a weekend. But otherwise, I arrange my work so that I go home at night. For one thing, I have a wife and two small children who'd much rather have me there, but even when I was single I found many more things to do than work grad-school hours. It took me some months after defending my dissertation before I could decompress, but I did. Having a life outside the lab is valuable, but it's a net that graduate students often have to work without.
But beyond all these, there's one great big reason for why grad school feels so strange in retrospect, and I've saved it for last: your research advisor. There's no other time when you're so dependent on one person's opinion of your work. (At least, there had better not be!) If your advisor is competent and even-tempered, your graduate studies are going to be a lot smoother. If you pick one who turns out to have some psychological sinkholes, though, then you're in for a rough ride and there's not much that can be done about it. Everyone has a fund of horror stories and cautionary tales, and there's a reason for that: there are too damn many of these people around.
Naturally, there are bad bosses in the industrial world. But, for the most part, they don't get quite as crazy as the academic ones can (there's that variance at work again). And they generally aren't the only thing running (or ruining) your life, either. There's the much-maligned HR department, which can in fact help bail you out if things get really bad. Moving from group to group is a lot easier at most companies than it can ever be in graduate school, and it's not like you lose time off the big ticking clock when you do it.
I can see in retrospect that I was a lot harder to get along with when I was in grad school. I responded to the pressure by getting more ornery, and I think that many other personalities deformed similarly. When I've met up with my fellow grad students in the years since, we seem to be different people, and with good reason. It isn't just the years.