Academia or Industry: Which After PhD?

Here’s everything about getting into academia or the industry after your PhD:

Academia is appealing because it often provides better job security, and the range of research opportunities is much wider.

Industry is often much better funded, paying researchers more and giving them better resources for their research. In most cases, the decision really boils down to the job offers you get.

So if you want to learn all about choosing between academia or the industry after your PhD, then you’re in the right place.

Keep reading!

Academia or Industry: Which After PhD? (All the Info)

What Are Some Reasons to Choose Academia? (3 Advantages)

Female university professor preparing for class

Working in academia means working at some kind of school.

For the most part, that means universities and colleges, but arguably, you could have a Ph.D. in culinary science and work at a culinary art school.

There are some interesting ways this can play out.

The real point is that academia is centered around schools.

With that in mind, what are some of the leading reasons for a Ph.D. to work in academia?

#1 Broader Research Opportunities

Happy female at work

Research at a university is about advancing knowledge.

While many applications, technologies, and good things can come out of academic research, the fact that you can do research for its own sake is a big deal.

If you’re looking to explore the edges of your field just for the sake of intellectual discovery, academia is the place for that.

We’ll talk more about marketable research later, but academia definitely entertains a much broader range of research opportunities than industry.

#2 Tenure

Female professor looking at students' work

Another very compelling reason to get into academia is to pursue tenure. 

Getting tenure is not easy, but when you do, it’s a big deal.

Tenure is about the best job security you can find for any position, and it’s an ideal achievement for a PhD.

Basically, when you’re tenured, it’s extremely hard to be fired.

You’re a major decision-maker within your corner of your learning institution, and you have more freedom than anyone else in how you approach research and doing your job.

Getting tenure is one of those “you’ve made it” moments.

#3 Directing Your Own Research

Female writing down a formula

Even without tenure, a PhD at a learning institution is going to have more freedom in how they direct their own research as compared to the average researcher in industry.

Basically, when you work in industry, the company dictates your research.

When you work at a university, they want you to pursue research, but they often don’t directly pay for it (more on that in a bit), so they’re not as heavily invested in the details.

As long as you’re publishing good papers, the institution is usually happy with your research.

That freedom can be invaluable for how a lot of people go about conducting research.

What Are Some Major Drawbacks to Working in Academia? (3 Disadvantages)

man experiencing burnout in career

We’ve covered the appeals of academia, but working at schools comes with some drawbacks too.

Now, we’ll cover the cons of being an academic researcher.

#1 Limited Funding

Young tired stressed woman because of limited funds for reasearch

Remember a moment ago when I said that the university doesn’t fund your research?

That’s mostly true.

Learning institutions do put some money into research, but for the most part, PhDs have to pursue grants and third-party funding to take care of their research.

This limited funding means that you’re in steep competition with other PhDs to get the grants.

It also means that you might have to tweak your research in order to be more appealing to people offering funding, and that’s only the beginning.

Grant writing can take up a lot of time, and any gaps in funding can absolutely destroy a research project.

Perhaps worst of all is that a lot of funding can get political.

Securing money for your research often has more to do with how you play political games and who you schmooze than the actual value of your studies.

It can be a hard pill to swallow.

#2 Teaching

Teacher giving computer science lecture

For some, teaching is the primary reason to go the academic route.

If that’s the case, then choosing academia is easy, and it’s not a con at all.

But, this whole article is about choosing between academia and industry, which suggests that research is your primary goal.

In that case, teaching takes up a ton of time, and it really cuts into your ability to conduct research.

Even if teaching can be rewarding, teaching responsibilities are not light, and it’s one of the primary responsibilities of a Ph.D. in academia.

#3 Work-Life Balance

Stressed woman working overtime at night

This is not a universal problem, but finding a healthy work-life balance is notoriously difficult for PhDs in academia.

You want to do research, but your time is split with university functions, grant writing, department meetings, teaching, advising, and about a dozen other responsibilities.

If you want to pursue the research that ignites your passion, it’s going to be alongside these other commitments, and it doesn’t leave a ton of time for a home life.

If you do find a good balance, then you’re in a great spot, but a lot of PhDs struggle in this area.

Why Do Some People Choose Industry? (2 Benefits)

group of programmers cooperating at an IT company

When it comes to working in industry, the phrase really applies to all jobs that aren’t academic.

Even if you work directly for the government, that’s considered an industry job.

So, these are the positive benefits of working in industry (or in other words, working outside of academia).

#1 Money

Young employee looking at invoice while doing online banking

Generally speaking, there’s a lot more money in industry.

This isn’t universally true.

If you get into a small startup business that doesn’t have a strong goal and clear direction, you might end up short-changed in the money department. 

But if you work with a well-established company, then you’re probably going to have access to more funds than the majority of academic researchers.

In industry, your primary job is to conduct research that solves problems and produces marketable results.

There’s a ton of money in that.

You can expect better pay, better benefits, better equipment, and more resources in general at your disposal when you work in industry.

If research is your passion, and you have research goals that align with an industry, this is a very compelling reason to get out of academia.

#2 Reproducibility

Developers or web designers developing mobile application in the office

People have different motivations when it comes to research.

Some just want to explore ideas and advance the field.

Others want to use their research to help people.

Both of those outcomes are possible with academia and industry, but when it comes to producing measurable results from your research, industry has the edge.

Industry research is trying to make money.

In order to do that, the research has to lead to things that can go to market.

That requires a high level of reproducibility, and the focus on reproducibility means that you will often see the direct impact of your research on the world.

In industry, you’re more likely to own a patent, and you’re more likely to have statistical measures of how your research is making the world a better place (or a worse place if you’re more of a mad scientist).

What Are Some Reasons to Avoid Working in Industry? (3 Drawbacks)

Database admin feeling tired and drained at office job

While industry comes with some major perks, there are still drawbacks.

These are the reasons that industry might not be right for you, even if the perks look good.

#1 Narrower Research Opportunities

Blonde woman desperate in front of a computer

I mentioned this from the other perspective when talking about academia, but it really is a big deal.

If you want to expand on string theory, there are not very many industry jobs out there for you.

Your research has to be able to pay for itself, and because of that, the range of research topics and opportunities in industry is much narrower than in academia.

It doesn’t mean that the research is cookie-cutter or unsatisfying.

It just means that some of your research ideas might not have a place in industry right now.

In that case, you would either need to shift your research focus or stick to academia.

#2 Job Security

man sitting on a flight of stairs, looking dejected

There’s not really an equivalent to tenure in industry. 

Now, industry jobs for PhDs aren’t at particularly high risk for layoffs or getting outright fired.

That’s not the point here.

Instead, the point is that academia provides abnormally high levels of job security for PhDs.

Even if you aren’t tenured, learning institutions don’t frequently cut the number of research staff positions—especially because those are often also teaching positions.

In industry, your company could go out of business.

Your research could hit a dead end.

A discovery elsewhere could make everything you are working on obsolete.

None of these things really create job loss in academia.

When was the last time a state school closed up shop?

You can find reasonable job security in industry, but it’s never going to match academia.

#3 Fields of Opportunity

Hopeful African American woman in a job interview

This is related to the narrower range of research opportunities.

Basically, not all fields are equal in industry.

If your expertise is related to computer science or medicine, then you have ample opportunities.

If you’re a theoretical physicist, there aren’t a lot of industry jobs out there.

The point is that the focus of your PhD is going to help determine whether or not industry really is a viable option for you.

If you’re in a field that has low industrial representation, then academia might end up being the only choice.