Choosing Academia Over Industry: Despite Lower Pay?

Here’s what makes some choose academia over industry despite the lower pay:

One of the main reasons to choose academia over industry is that you have a lot more control over what you research and/or study for your job.

Another driving motivation is the desire to contribute to educating younger generations.

You might also prefer the academic environment and the chance for tenure.

So if you want to learn all about what makes PhD holders choose academia over industry despite the lower pay, then this article is for you.

Let’s get right into it!

Choosing Academia Over Industry: Despite Lower Pay? (Perks?)

What Does Academia Over Industry Mean?

Female university professor discuss about project with her students

It’s an interesting question.

Why would someone choose academia over industry?

Wait a minute. What does that even mean?

Typically, if you go to college and complete a degree, you might look for a job at the end of your studies.

There are different places where you might find a job, and depending on the nature of the work, that job might fall under the category of industry.

This is a pretty vague and generic term.

Basically, any job that isn’t teaching or working at a university would count as an industry. That includes government positions and government contract positions.

Naturally, it also includes any job in the private sector as well.

Here’s the thing though.

If you get a bachelor’s degree, regardless of the subject of the degree, there aren’t going to be a lot of academia positions available to you.

Typically, such positions require an advanced degree.

Even more to the point, a majority of these positions require a Ph.D.

There are definitely exceptions to this generalization, but I’m going to stick with it to keep the overall conversation focused.

Today, we’re going to discuss why people would choose academia over industry after completing a Ph.D.

Some of this would apply to the completion of other advanced degrees, but we can save any deep exploration of those journeys for another conversation.

What Is Involved in Industry Work? (4 Things)

Redhead confident female scientist working in lab

With that covered, we can get started.

Why would someone choose academia?

Well, it might be because they’re not really interested in working in industry.

To contemplate why that may be the case, we can take a look at what is involved in industry work.

We’re covering a pretty huge range of different jobs here.

I’m not even breaking this down by field of expertise.

We’re rolling all of industry into a single category, and because of that, you’re going to see very broad takes on industry and what the work is like.

#1 Research

Serious female leader presenting research results to colleagues.

First up is research.

If you get a Ph.D. in a topic, there’s a good chance that any job you get (that actually uses your degree) will involve some level of research.

In industry, PhDs are often responsible for leading research projects, designing experiments, and generally pushing the boundaries of what science and engineering can do in their areas of expertise.

While that sounds exciting, there is a big catch.

Despite your Ph.D., if you work in industry, you’re largely going to direct research that is assigned to you.

In many cases, you won’t have a lot of say in what specific things you research.

You might get to design experiments and tests, but the overall topic is picked by the company, and they choose based on what is most likely to earn revenue.

#2 Development

Mobile application development

Most companies that hire PhDs have research and development (R&D) divisions.

We’ve already talked about research, but development is important too.

Research is where you will explore ideas to see how they work and what can eventually lead out of that exploration.

Development is when you take a concrete idea and try to make it marketable.

Let’s consider an example.

These days, most lights are LEDs. They’re cheap, efficient, bright, reliable lights, and they’ve taken over the world because they are a superior technology.

In order for that to become the case, someone had to research and develop LED lights.

During the research phase, experts were looking at how LEDs actually produce light and what happens when you put them in different scenarios.

During the development phase, experts looked at manufacturing methods to produce them efficiently.

They might have tested designs that are more or less durable, produce different colors, or provide different levels of brightness.

The development phase is when you refine ideas in order to improve products and/or services, and this requires high levels of expertise.

PhDs often work on the development half of R&D.

What does this have to do with job choice?

Well, development doesn’t appeal to everyone.

If you’re specifically working in development, you aren’t likely to do cutting-edge research and expand the boundaries of knowledge in your field (although that can sometimes happen in development).

It might not be as satisfying to work on these projects.

It depends on the person, but this could definitely be a reason, and we’ll get into it a little more later.

#3 Management

Team of engineers gather around in meeting room.

Somebody has to be in charge of the R&D division—as well as any individual projects within the division.

It’s not uncommon for lead researchers to end up in management when working in the industry.

Management positions often pay better, and they come with plenty of professional perks.

But, management isn’t exactly what you studied for your Ph.D. (unless you have a Ph.D. in management, in which case you don’t count).

You might manage people doing R&D in your field, but your duties will mostly consist of herding people into doing the work you need from them in the time provided. It’s a very different kind of occupation.

#4 Fiscal Responsibility

Male professional working on laptop with revenue chart on table.

Here’s the most important thing about being a Ph.D. in industry.

The fruits of your expertise have to generate income that justifies your salary.

If you’re a researcher for a private firm, then your research has to find a way to generate revenue for the company.

Otherwise, they can’t afford to pay you, and things don’t end well.

As Ray Stantz famously put it in the movie Ghostbusters, “I’ve worked in the private sector. They expect results.”

This might seem like a simple or obvious thing, but it has a huge impact on how research is done.

In industry, money is a constraint that often dictates what is studied or investigated.

It’s hard to find a way to market things that come from studying advanced string theory or Western Esotericism. 

You can see where this leads. If your interests aren’t marketable, that could push you away from working in industry.

What Is Involved in Academic Work? (3 Things)

Beautiful female university professor smiling, standing in the aisle of a large classroom.

Still, the nature of industry work is only half of the picture.

We also need to consider what it is like to work in academia.

If you remember that we’re focused on Ph.D. holders right now, then we can assume that the most likely position to hold is that of a professor.

Professor jobs come in different varieties, from assistant professors to department heads, but regardless of that, there are some things every position has in common.

#1 Research

Junior male researcher at the Office

This is the big thing.

If you have a Ph.D., and you’re hired by an academic institution, there’s a good chance that they want you to do academic research.

They want you to expand your expertise, carry out research, and contribute to the body of understanding of your field.

That’s one of the primary jobs of most college professors.

The interesting thing is that this research doesn’t have to yield any marketable products or services.

It is often research for the sake of research, and if that’s what you’re all about, then academia is going to tempt you.

#2 Teaching

Young students listening to professor in the classroom in college.

Teaching is another important part of the job. Professors teach classes, after all.

This is a make-it-or-break-it part of the industry vs academia argument.

If you hate the idea of teaching, academia isn’t for you.

If you really want to be a college professor, then why would you consider industry?

It’s easy to break down and understand, but it’s important to point it out.

Teaching is a huge part of academia, and people have differing opinions on how much they do or don’t want to teach.

#3 Revenue Generation

Female scientist working on a research in lab

In industry, researchers have to produce things that generate revenue.

In academia, researchers still have to find ways to pay for their research, but it’s a little different.

For the most part, academic research runs on grants and sponsors. 

If you’re trying to research new formulas for concrete that can withstand seawater, then you can probably find some private investors who would very much like to benefit from your research.

They might even give you money to help you along the way, and such “gifts” usually don’t require specific results.

Basically, the investors are providing you with grant money to research something that might benefit their industry.

But, that’s a minority situation.

The majority of research is paid for by grants from governments, research institutions, and foundations.

The thing is, you don’t just get grants for being a Ph.D.

You actually have to write proposals that are reviewed by people in charge of the grants.

You have to put time and energy into selling the idea of your research so that someone will pay for it.

It doesn’t mean that all academic research works on a profit model, but it does mean that grant proposals are an important part of the job.

Why Would Someone Choose Academia Over Industry? (4 Perks)

Students in university engaged in education.

Everything you’ve read so far can already shed light on why someone might choose academia over industry.

If they would rather write grants than have to produce marketable results, there’s your answer.

But, those differences don’t cover everything.

There are specific perks to working in academia that merit a little more scrutiny.

Keep in mind that as we go through this, we’re assuming that industry jobs pay better.

That isn’t always the case, but even with that assumption in place, there are times when it might be worth it to take the pay cut and get a job as a professor.

#1 Tenure

Language teacher standing at board, explaining lesson to students

Tenure is a big one.

If you’re not familiar with the idea, it represents a special kind of job security.

The idea behind tenure is that if an academic expert is given enough freedom and protection, they will study things as they see fit.

Since they’re the leading expert in their field, they should have a good idea of what should be studied, and giving them freedom is the best way to advance knowledge.

In practice, tenure is something of a job title.

When you have tenure with an academic institution, it is very difficult for the institution to fire you.

More specifically, it’s very difficult for them to fire you on the grounds of your research. You don’t have a contract that will run out.

You don’t have quotas that you have to meet.

Tenure is a level of job security that is rare in the world, and it also provides a level of freedom.

For a researcher, the prospect of tenure is very promising.

Now, not all academics are given tenure. You have to spend time with an institution and earn tenure. But the mere fact that it is a possible aspiration is appealing to many PhDs.

#2 Education

Professor and students in a robotics class

I’ve already covered that teaching is part of the gig in academia, but for some PhDs, that’s the point.

They pursued the advanced degree specifically because they wanted to teach college courses.

With working in industry, the opportunity to teach actual classes is limited.

You might give a guest lecture now and then, but you won’t be working as an educator day in and out. 

If molding the young minds of the next generation is the most important thing to you, then academia is really the only option.

#3 Side Gigs

A male professor mentoring his student.

There’s another thing that’s easy to overlook.

Even if the academic job pays less, you’re a Ph.D. in your field.

You’re a high-level expert, and there are very likely people willing to pay a premium for access to your thoughts and advice.

Many academic professionals have part-time work as consultants, advisors, and industry experts.

You can make pretty good cash on the side if you play your cards right.

Add to that the fact that professors typically earn a living wage or better, and the opportunity for money as an academic is more than enough.

#4 Types of Research

Female scientist and researcher conducting an experiment in a laboratory.

This is often the deciding factor.

By the time you get a Ph.D., you’ve done a lot of research, and you really are an expert in your own field.

It takes a ridiculous amount of time and effort to reach this point.

People who earn PhDs clearly have a ton of passion for their area of expertise.

Because of that, you might not want to study the things offered by industry jobs.

Especially if you want to get into research for the sake of knowledge, academia stands alone as the place to do that.

If your research doesn’t fit into industry boxes, your only viable choice to study what you love is academia.