Whether to stay in academia or leave it, that is the question.

by: in: Education, Musingson October 28, 2016

The challenging question arises right after or few months before PhD graduation: whether to stay in academia or leave it for an industrial career. The answer obviously depends on the personal attitude and the opportunities available at the time. However, as a PhD student you have to foresee certain points in order to make an appropriate career decision. My goal here is to briefly review some of the general pros and cons of the contemporary academic and industrial career paths for PhD graduates based on scientific surveys on this topic or individuals experience shared on the web.

This might be less common for the engineering disciplines, but in general if you are a good student, there is this implicit motivation and nudge that you should stay in academia and pave the classical route towards the apex of professorship. It is the path that also advisors steer their best fellows towards. According to said surveys, doing a post doc is the default decision of the PhD students unless they explicitly consider their other options 1. Higher ability students in terms of academic measures are more likely to plan a post doc with the ambition of obtaining full time position in academia.

Although it is very tempting for most of PhD candidates, obtaining a successful academic career is terribly difficult. Consider that there is a restricted list of prominent universities willing to hire people with your expertise, provided that they decide to open a position relevant to your proficiency in the first place. These universities usually hire only one candidate for each research interest while there are quite a few people with similar research interests as yours. One has to add this primary difficulty to other individual wishes such as the favorite living location, the quality of the prospective university and that of its students and your partner’s job choices. While the number of post docs hired in the US has increased recently by 150% between 2000 and 2012, the number of full time faculty positions has plateaued and even decreased in some places 2.

In spite of all these challenges, academic career pays off in terms of intellectual freedom, schedule flexibility, being in the circuit of open great minds, the chance to cultivate young minds for the future, and a sense of pride that you have made it to this point. Independence intrinsic to the academic career allows you to work on projects of your dreams, while outside academia you have much less control over the projects you are required to work on. Time flexibility is a big advantage in the academic career: except the hours you might spend for meetings and teaching responsibilities, you usually decide how to dedicate your time to different tasks and when to arrange your holidays. Outside academic circles, however, most employers expect you to conform to fixed working hours.

The other option is to move to industry after finishing your doctoral studies. It may not be easier to get hired for industrial positions; however, there are more openings in the desired time and at the desired location. Openings for PhD graduates in industry may range from Research (with capital R to distinguish it from academic research) and Development positions to management and typical production positions which obviously include less direct research. In the former, you still experience the intellectual freedom of academia in a restricted manner. In the latter, you would not use the research capabilities developed during your studies, but the PhD degree may still translate to a higher starting salary and higher entry level at the company. In brief, the pros for industrial jobs are the higher chance of getting a positon in your favorite city and location, probably better work/ life balance and feeling of more immediate real world impact. But on the other side, there is also a higher likelihood of losing the advantages of the academic position, including the intellectual freedom, schedule flexibility and involvement in student mentorship (except within the framework of short student internships that the company may offer).

There is one particular way of joining the industry which has lots of similarities with staying in academia, and that is to found a “start-up”. While the idea of a start-up commonly evokes the picture of enthusiastic students who dropped out of school early to realize their dream, there are plenty of examples of PhDs initiating a business. There are many characteristics shared by work in academia and working for your own start-up. Similarities include schedule flexibility, high chance to receive rejection and constantly searching for sources of funding, dealing with uncertain ideas and usually managing a small group of people whom you know very well.

Even if your target is to find an industrial job, a temporary job in academia after the PhD studies is an option to consider. While a post doc is not often seen as stepping stone for non-academic careers, most of the surveyed students considered one year post doc as a necessary step to get a full time position in Research and Development 1. The general training you receive as a post doc, soft skills such as presenting ideas, writing scientific documents and grant proposals or supervising PhD students can be of great value for your future career, even if it is not in academia.

While working in academia or leaving it for industry both have their advantages and disadvantages, it is crucial that you consider both options rather than settling straight for a post doc position after the PhD by default. This way, you are aware of the risks and opportunities and can make an educated decision for your career path.

1 Sauermann, Henry, and Michael Roach. “Why pursue the postdoc path?.” Science 352.6286 (2016): 663-664.
2 Cyranoski, David, et al. “Education: the PhD factory.” Nature 472.7343 (2011): 276-279. Link.

Whether to stay in academia or leave it, that is the question.

Mahdi Asgari

joined The Interface Group in September 2013 as a PhD student with mechanical engineering training in his background, aiming to shed light on water and solute dynamics in the brain with the help of mathematical models. In February 2017, he finished his doctoral studies and started work as a post-doctoral fellow at the research and development center of Philip Morris International based in Neuchâtel, Switzerland. There he continued on computational biofluidics with his new research focus on respiratory tract deposition modeling and aerosol dynamics.

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