When I finished my PhD in 2018ish, I didn’t know the word “industry.” This is partially because I was a humanities student, and we really just didn’t use the word – my STEM friends were a little more familiar.
But it was also because I was trained in an academic climate in which industry wasn’t really an option. We were pretty much taught that it was the tenure track or bust, and I had no content that there even could be meaningful alternatives to academia.
Now, 5 years later, I’ve worked for a think tank, government, and built my own consulting company. I now mostly hang out in marketing. And in my work for Roostervane, I’ve interviewed hundreds of PhDs about their post-academic career paths.
So in this article, I want to compare academia vs industry for you. I ALSO want to be real for a minute… for many people this isn’t just about making a choice between two options. Many PhDs will NEVER get a tenure track job. It’s hard to get stable numbers, but it usually is estimated at 10-20%. (Some studies here, here, and here).
In my own field, there was a grand total of about 5 positions the year I graduated. So recognize that the decision might be made for you.
Nevertheless, let’s press on. Here’s a breakdown of how your options compare between academia and industry.
And if you want to hear my story about leaving academia… watch the video! Post continues below
- Academia vs Industry: Myths
- Differences Between Academia and Industry
- Benefits of Academia
- Benefits of Industry
- Challenges of Academia
- Challenges of Industry
Academia vs Industry: Myths
- Academia is the only place to do meaningful work: Heck no. A lot of people discover work they love in all areas, and I know from interviewing industry people that many find work they love.
- Industry is selling out: No way. Your career is your career. If you choose to head toward industry, either because you want to or because you have to, don’t feel guilty.
- Academia is where you go for the life of the mind: Nope. You can work on big, tough, important problems in industry too.
I wrote about more myths around leaving academia in this post.
Differences Between Academia and Industry
When it comes to the day-to-day differences between academia vs industry, most people might be surprised to learn that there’s not always much of a difference.
A lot of the people I’ve interviewed about non-academic careers in pharma or user research talked about doing the same types of things they did in academia. As people move up in industry careers, they can end up doing less bench work and more project management and leadership things — but that can be true in academia as well.
When I ended up running research projects as a humanities grad outside of academia, the biggest difference was that I was working with other people — instead of on my own. Obviously this changes the research dynamics a bit, but not in a huge way.
Maybe the biggest difference in work environment is culture.
I’ve seen a ton of news about the horrendous culture of academia, and had a lot of people tell me horror stories. Of course, it is possible to get a really terrible boss in industry too — so toxic workplaces can exist in both places.
But I think academia often turns toxic because of the extreme pressure, narcissistic leaders, and exploitative practices. In industry, there are often better HR standards and easier methods for dealing with a bad boss. And when you don’t have your entire future riding on one boss, it makes it way easier to get help or switch jobs.
So the day-to-day work environments are similar, but in general, most of what I’ve seen in industry is a much healthier, happier environment.
Goals and Objectives
I think this is probably the biggest difference between academia and industry. Academia usually has the goal of advancing new research or making discoveries. Industry does too, but usually there’s a capitalistic bend behind it.
This can have its ups and downs. You might be annoyed by working at a company driven by making money, for example. But I’ve also met people who love the fact that they get to see their research commercialized, instead of just being theoretical.
Obviously, the type of work outside of academia is much broader too. A PhD can be the base for a ton of different careers. Think management, sales, leadership, education, politics, or god knows what else.
I didn’t realize how much this meant to me until I got into it. Lindy Ledohowski told me the story about being an English professor and getting terrified by how limited her future was… she quit and built (and sold!) a tech company instead.
I happen to think the endless possibilities outside of academia are really exciting. In academia, you can probably map out what you’re doing for the rest of your life: research, writing, and teaching.
That’s cool too. It just depends on what you want.
I think there are pros and cons for industry vs academia when it comes to work-life balance.
To start, let’s look at the famous academic schedule. “You only teach a few hours a week, and the rest of the time you set your own schedule.”
That can often be true. Sometimes industry jobs look like a 9-5 job, although my life as a consultant looks identical to an academic.
This means that people often think academia gives you a lot more freedom of your time… which it can in some cases.
But industry jobs can be flexible too. AND even if you do work 9-5, many industry jobs let you go home at the end of the day or week and not think about your work. That’s something that’s rare in academia.
Benefits of Academia
Okay, so let’s talk about some of the benefits of academia.
One of the main benefits of academia is obviously that there are opportunities for research. There is research in industry as well — in this post I made a list of 11 places you can do non-academic research.
But I’ll still grant you that in academia you can find opportunities to do research for its own sake, which can be hard to find outside.
One of the oft-cited reasons that people give for staying in academia is because of the so-called intellectual freedom they can have there. The logic goes – in academia you can research anything you want, while in industry you’re driven by external concerns like being profitable or building products.
And this one has a ring of truth to it as well.
BUT there are a lot of cool things you can do in industry research. And even academic research isn’t just a choose-your-own adventure. You still need to land funding and grants, and whether your research gets supported could depend on a bunch of different things beyond your control (like if the granting body decided to spin their funding this year toward something more sexy).
However, I do think there is a certain level of intellectual freedom in academia. And some things that get studied in academia would be very unlikely to get funded outside.
Job Security (for tenured profs)
I say this with caution too. Academia has been notoriously bad for adjunct faculty. Many institutions survive on a revolving door of casual, itinerate workers that get paid less than the average teen makes at McDonald’s.
But if you can get tenure, the logic goes, you have job security. And there is something to this as well. In the past decades, tenured profs have had a reputation of being untouchable (even if they were terrible as people).
This is changing, fast. I’ve seen several departments get shut down this year and tenured profs lose their jobs. So tenure isn’t the golden goose it once was. But I still think it means something and tenured profs do, indeed, have quiet a bit of security.
Benefits of Industry
I think you’ll probably see where my loyalties lie here. Especially since I started this blog to talk about what it was like to leave academia. So let’s talk about some of the advantages of industry.
One of the first obvious benefits of industry is the money.
Now you’re probably saying, “Chris, my supervisor says that we shouldn’t chase money… we should chase knowledge.”
First of all, your supervisor probably makes bank… so it’s a bit hypocritical for them to tell you this.
But also, there’s nothing wrong with earning great money.
According to Indeed, the average base salary for a prof in the U.S. is $96,538.
I’m a humanities grad, so my earnings at first were better than the average starting assistant professor job – I think my first job paid about $70,000. Within two years I’d broken $100,000 and I’ve since doubled that. About 5 years after finishing my PhD.
Obviously, there are a lot of highs and lows, but I’ve met a lot of PhDs doing high six figures in industry. Although I feel like I should say, I also know many PhDs struggling to break $50k in non-academic work. The difference is primarily the fields (higher paying work in tech, pharma, government), and occasionally the research area (a lot of humanities, social sciences, and even natural science folks seem to struggle more to find a market fit).
There’s no doubt in my mind that industry offers WAY more career advancement possibilities than academia does. The thing is, academia has a very narrow definition of what a career should look like.
You’ll start with some adjunct and postdoc positions. If you win the lottery, you end up as an assistant prof. Tenure. A few sabbaticals to write books. Festschrifts. Then emeritus — which is the academic way of saying “you’re done.”
That’s pretty much it.
A career in industry can be pretty much anything. I’ve been at this five years, and I’ve already worked running projects for a think tank, working doing diplomatic projects for the Canadian government, and working in Silicon Valley. I see people doing the coolest stuff, jumping around industries, using their skills in any way they see fit.
Look at Condoleezza Rice or Mayim Bialik, and stretch your mind around the possibility that almost anything is possible outside of academia. But not inside.
The thing that academics talk about as the Achilles heel of industry might actually be its greatest strength.
“You’re being driven by market needs or corporate interests.”
Exactly. Research outside of academia is driven by real needs, or searching for solutions to real problems. I really don’t see why that’s something to be upset about.
Industry research often deals with real-world issues, and your work can go towards things like developing new inventions in biotech or new cures in pharma or new social policy with the government. These all seem pretty worthwhile to me.
Challenges of Academia
Archaic work culture
In my opinion, one of the biggest challenges of academia is that it has an absolutely archaic work culture. Other workplaces have their problems. Oh heck yes they do. But I’d be hard-pressed to find a workplace where you’re competing so viciously against your peers or where bullies are protected and celebrated as victims are hustled out.
Academia is just structurally arcane. As more and more modern workplaces are flat and HR departments everywhere try to fix things, academia still consists of the same miserable people at the top who are bent on preserving their own power (and often go unchecked).
It’s just a culture of work that’s uniquely bad. I don’t think you’ll find it anywhere else.
And if you’re trying to start a career as an adjunct or postdoc, you’re especially screwed as you keep fighting to stay on the ladder. You can’t fight for your well-being or rock the boat when they’ll just decide to hire someone else next year.
Funding and Grant Applications
Funding and grant applications are also a challenge in academia. For the most part, they exist totally out of your control. Yet your career rides on them in many ways. If you want to land great academic jobs, to some extent you’ll need to land grants too. Grants let you have the time to research. Grants tell institutions your work is sexy enough to warrant offers.
I’m seeing more and more job offers (I’m looking at you UK) where the preference is for the candidate to have some huge external grant. The implications are pretty simple. “If you have a grant, you can bring that money to our starving university.”
No matter which way you look at it, grants are a fact of academic life. And they can be a pain.
Publish or Perish Culture
“Publish or perish” is a famous academic maxim, and it’s not wrong. Your career depends on publications. And a lot of academics are tortured by the stress this places on them — especially those with existing mental illness. In fact, there’s some evidence that mental illness is higher in academia than outside.
I’ve seen a lot of people break under the pressure. OR they’re so afraid of rejection and failure that they just do nothing. I knew someone still in the PhD who hadn’t written anything in years.
The pressure just gets to people. AND you feel like everything is on your shoulders. Even in industry, when you lose and fail it’s often as a team.
Limited Career Opportunities
This is probably the biggest limitation to a career in academia, and I’ve talked about it above already. There just really aren’t the jobs to justify the millions of PhDs we’re producing. The data I cited above suggests that somewhere around 10% of PhDs will ever land a tenure track jobs.
So it’s all well and good to compare a career in academic vs industry, but if there aren’t jobs to apply for you might not have a choice.
Challenges of Industry
Pressure to Meet Deadlines
In academia, many deadlines are considered suggestions. In industry, usually a deadline needs to be met. This can take some getting used to if you’re used to going at your own pace. I remember once an employer told me his biggest frustrations with PhDs were their inability to meet deadlines.
Not sure if this would hold up as an academic study, but it’s one of the oft-cited concerns around hiring PhDs.
Lack of Autonomy and Creative Control
Another issue many people cite with moving into industry is a lack of control over their work. Of all the concerns, this one probably holds up the most. It’s rare to get an industry job where you work totally autonomously, so if this is something you value you’ll probably have to search for it.
Working as a team has lots of advantages — but it does mean you can’t just free solo your research.
I mentioned above that a career in industry looks very different. Unlike academia, it’s unlikely you’ll be in the same role for life. You can have a much more diverse career. But that can also mean getting used to applying for jobs, networking, and learning to be successful at growing your career.
Career searching is a specific skillset in itself, so you’ll need to get used to it. (And it works differently from career searching in academia).
When it comes to considering a career in academia vs industry, I hope this article helps you make the decision. As I talked about in the intro, it’s not always a choice you get to make. Many people are pushed out of academia by poor job prospects.
But if you happen to get a chance to do either, go you!
Now Read: 8 Reasons to Leave Academia