Industry vs Academia for STEM PhDs: 4 Things to Consider

by Martin D. Maas, Ph.D

Note: as a PhD with some industry experience, and a tenured but low-paying third-world academic position (which I left for a post-doc in the United States), I usually spend quite some time debating which career path is best for me. This post is an attempt to systematize that debate and to provide a hopefully unbiased overview.

1. The nature of the job.

On this day and age, it’s widely acknowledged that a PhD is not just a prerequisite for a job in academia and that there are many career paths for PhDs. The debate is now about which kinds of trade-offs are made between academic and industry careers, as the differences are, sometimes, vast.

In fact, the type of work you do in industry is of a different nature than the work you do in academia.

For example, there is no doubt that academia focuses on producing novelty. This results in projects which are always short proof-of-concept in style. In industry, on the other hand, a project can be as complex as it needs to be and can take years to complete, as long as it brings value to the business.

In industry, often quick results will be required, as everyone is a part of a team, while in academia there is more time for each individual to develop a thorough understanding of a topic. This leads to more opportunities to grow as an intellectual in academia, while the more collaborative nature of an industry job means that you can grow as a team player and a leader.

Academia moves slow and wide in order to be constantly exploring new territory, while industry moves fast to build into promising areas. This also means that the industry will often have a higher and more tangible impact on society. As an academic, the impact you can on society will be usually more indirect, with sometimes the most tangible outcome being the education of future industry leaders.

2. Funding R&D in industry and academia

Academics spend an incredible amount of time on writing grant proposals, and competition for funding is fierce. On the other hand, in established companies, funding is much more stable and predictable, so researchers don’t need to worry about writing proposals.

Industry funding also allows teams to build the product they envision without needing to go through the standard peer-review process every step of the way.

However, other industry roles like freelancers, consultants, or start-up companies, do need to spend time writing proposals or pitching investors, and their job can be much less stable than those working larger companies.

In many industries, the more established companies can decide to outsource innovation to smaller ones, creating a delicate balance between job stability and the chances of doing hands-on innovative work.

To close the loop, in developed nations like the US or the EU, it is not uncommon for small companies to be able to apply for research funding from the government, combining the best (or the worst) of both worlds, depending on the situation.

3. Work-life balance

Academia and industry provide different benefits.

In academia, at least before you are tenured, the pay is lower and the work hours can be longer than in a similar stage in industry. In the early stage of an academic career, it is not unusual to be forced to relocate in order to secure funding, and once tenured, you are then bound to the same place.

In industry, you can sometimes work on a startup that has no structure, change roles or companies often, and even make enough money in a short period of time to be able to retire much earlier in life. An industry career is much less predetermined and flexible than an academic career, and it is much more likely to result in a favorable work-life balance, unless you are really passionate about your academic research topic, and the intellectual freedom that comes with it compensates for the financial limitations.

4. Striving for the best of both worlds

Of course, we all want the best of both worlds. We want job security and flexibility, intellectual freedom and impact upon society, to collaborate in large teams and to be credited individually for our contributions, and so on.

Normally, after giving the trade-offs some careful consideration, we have to make some form of compromise…

Or maybe not.

Actually, there are a few more things to consider. For example, joining an industry sector in its early stages could provide unparalleled intellectual challenges and possibilities to have a great impact on society. On the other hand, once the golden age of a particular area is behind us, entire professional fields are at risk of becoming semi-automated and turned into more routine jobs.

In addition to timing, there are actually other employers for PhDs, like government laboratories or foundations, which strive to find a compromise between freedom to innovate and a goal-driven agenda. However, it’s never guaranteed that a given organization will succeed at finding this kind of balance because it’s written in their mission statement.

Being on the frontier of research and innovation is, in essence, much more difficult than choosing between being employed in industry or in academia. It’s a matter of having a deep understanding of the dynamics of our field, being able to think strategically, and of course, having a bit of luck.