Are PhDs better suited to work in academia or in the industry?

Published on LinkedIn by Irena Lovrenčič Držanič Technical Associate (Institute of Media Communications - UM).

Are PhDs better suited to work in academia or in the industry?

The number of PhDs has been increasing steadily in the last decades. In some countries only a small percentage of them find a permanent position in academia, meaning they need to find employment in the industry.

Those who stay in academia, often get employed on short-term contracts or decide to work outside of their expertise. Others decide to take positions that require lower educational levels. This is especially true for STEM graduates (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

In order to combat the lack of academic positions for all PhD graduates, China has decided to invest more in professional PhDs and move to industry-located research. Both decisions have led to better employability of PhDs in the industry as companies can recognize the value these highly skilled employees have.

PhDs need to be trained in more transferable skills as part of the doctoral programmes.

Main issues in academia

Academia spheres currently face three main issues:

  • Lack of permanent academic positions: PhDs must work on short-term contracts that do not guarantee them a safe future. According to a study, only 5% of PhD graduates find a permanent position in academia and the numbers are still decreasing.
    • Increasing numbers of PhD graduates: The increased numbers of graduates of all educational levels have led to more PhDs searching for a job outside of academia which lowered their
    • Employees go to the industry or other non-academic environments: Academic institutions need skilled and innovative professionals, but those employees often decide to switch academia for the industry due to various reasons. Amongst the main causes are work conditions and salary, which are higher in the majority of industries.

Main concerns in the industry

On the other hand, the industry often voices concerns that the skills PhDs develop during studies will not be transferred to the non-academic jobs due to major differences, such as less administrative work and less or no publication of research papers.

Differences between work environments

Academic and industry positions differ greatly due to different purposes and goals. While academic institutions are focused on research and teaching, the companies in the industry rely more on their relations with customers and/or business partners. In some industries, research also accounts for a large portion of the company activities.

  • Work hours: The industry standard is to work for 8 hours in the office without much flexibility. Contrary, in academia research staff can modify their work plan according to the teaching activities, but otherwise, have more flexible vacation time.
  • Salary: Salaries in academia are regulated by the funder, most often the Ministry of Education. In the majority of industries, salaries are higher than in academia since the companies use salaries to compete for the best employees.
  • Dissemination of research results: Research papers are the main form of disseminating research findings in academia. In the industry, innovations and research findings are presented to the public with press releases, product presentations and interviews. Some industries still actively participate in academia by submitting scientific papers for publication, but the employees can spend less time on these papers in comparison to those working in academia.
  • Networking events: Both PhDs who work in academia and in the industry can network with other researchers and private companies at fairs, conferences and similar events.
  • Application of findings: In academia, the main purpose of the research is to present them to the public as research papers. Contrary, in some industries research leads to innovation of new products or patents.
  • Independence in the research process: In academia, independence is greater as researchers can choose their own projects, conferences they want to attend. In the industry, research is led by company interest, such as research on new products the company could trade.

The decision which work environment better fits your style of work is difficult, so take time to weight benefits and obstacles of both. No matter which one you choose, do not forget to update your CV.

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