Job security is a common concern among academic scientists who are considering transitioning to professional careers outside academia.
Presumably, these concerns are based on the horror stories of employees being “pink slipped” for no apparent reason, and the lack of any kind of an “all-protective” tenure system found in academia. But if we take a deep breath and really think about this for a moment, the realities are that the real level of job security is not very different between academia and industry.
In academia, a young investigator has value to the institution as long as they are bringing in research dollars, and we all know how tough the pay lines are these days for R01 grants. The average age for a PI receiving their first R01 is now about 44 years old. Getting hired as an assistant professor on soft money that can carry you for a year or two, or even three puts tremendous pressure on getting that first R01, and with today’s research budgets that is no easy task.
So you can be very good at what you do, but if your proposed research project is either extremely competitive, or not “in vogue” with respect to funding priorities, you’re out of luck. Not much security there at all.
In industry, it is absolutely true that an employee can be laid off without cause. There are no obligations by the company to the employee at all. On the other hand, companies are not fond of replacing employees. The general rule of thumb is that it costs approximately 1.5 times the average annual salary of an employee to replace them. Add to that the time lost until that position gets filled again. Either important work gets delayed, or other employees have to add that work to their own schedules. All of this costs the company, both financially and tactically, and can have a negative impact on the workforce as well.
So in industry, as long as you do the work you are expected to do, and play well in the sandbox (i.e. can work well in a team environment), there is little incentive to send you packing. That being said, there are certainly cases where companies will RIF (Reduction in Force) employees in order to make their “bottom line” appear better, particularly if there are performance bonuses for the executives in play. But for well-run companies, hard work and productivity is generally recognized and rewarded.
In either case, the more value you present to the organization, be it a university, or a large pharmaceutical company, establishing positive relationships and becoming a valued team player is your best insurance. So learn to develop your business and social identities and don’t worry so much about job security. If you’re good, and you learn these skills, it’s more likely that you will resign one position for a better opportunity than it is that you will be laid off or fired.