19 thoughts on “What is one thing that the graduate education community can do to change the view that non-academic jobs are less desirable than academic positions?

  1. I’ve never felt pressured to stay in academia, and frankly, I wonder why anyone would, unless they want to teach or have the ability to research whatever you like (provided you get funding). The way I see it, academia is extremely competitive, you have to fight year after year for funding, and the pay is pitiful, while it seems the opposite is usually true in industry.

    So in answer to the question, emphasize the applied nature of industry work. During your phd, or in academia, you can get lost and hopeless, wondering if what you are doing has any impact in the world. In contrast, industry must produce a commercial product. At least for me, as an engineer, that is much more motivating.

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  2. It needs to start with the faculty. They need to accept that it is not failing to not go on the tenure track. Quit calling anything but a tenure tract faculty position “Alternative.” TT positions are truly the alternative career. Highlight the success stories (and impact one can make) out of other venues: Industry (drug development), government (policy, driving science, etc.), law, non-profit work, etc.

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  3. Find one or more (paid or expenses paid) internships in the corporate world. Use the experience to compare your life goals to those in academia. And always remember you can change your mind and go back to academia later with your corporate experience.

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  4. The standard perception seems to be that there is a black-and-white choice between academia or industry. But a modern tenure-track position requires a professor to acquire most of the skills that would be required to run a self-sustaining non-profit or business. Foundations, such as the NSF, should make it both possible and widely known that small scientific non-profits can expect to fairly compete for grants.

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  5. I suspect that the tendency of academia to cultivate negative connotations of industry largely stems from its isolation from industry (industry calls academia the ‘ivory tower’ for a reason). Students are trained in disciplinary silos, and grad students aren’t even sufficiently exposed to alternative disciplines, much less alternative career paths. One cannot expect a balanced opinion of non-academic careers to come out of this system. Of course, there’s nothing wrong, per se, about training grad students to be research professors. But in today’s rapidly changing career landscape, professors cannot simply replicate themselves in good conscience (and neither can they replicate the negative affects about industry). So in addition to the professor as a career model, the industry scientist and engineer should be equally accessible models. I’m not sure if there is one thing that the graduate education community can do to accomplish this, but incentivizing industry to participate in curricula seems like it would be a step in the right direction. I talk about this in some podcasts and blogposts at GradSquare, if anyone is interested.

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    • You hit the nail on the head. The biggest problem here is the academic bubble grad students exist in. Industry needs to have a much greater role in training future PhDs. I’d go so far as to make a quarter/semester industrial internship a graduation requirement in PhD programs.

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  6. What is one thing that the graduate education community can do to change the view that non-academic jobs are less desirable than academic positions?
    non-academic jobs 20-80k
    academic 50-175k….
    Tenure jobs lead to easy income with alot of freedom and 175 k is not the cap just an example of one person I personally know. Deans and higher admins can earn much more based on the school and desirability of the position. They are fiefdoms where academics only have to please a few people to excel.
    The non academic track is alot harder to navigate, its not merely doing your job, its the politics that go along with it that can get you fired for nothing,
    Earning potential is usually capped by an industry standard unless you start your own company.

    Change the view by changing the reality, stop shipping jobs to india where its 100 times cheaper to pay them than an american.

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    • I am sure they depend strongly on the field, but I think your salary ranges are a bit off. In my field a freshly minted PhD gets about $80k/year in industry, compared to $50k as a postdoc in a university or research institute. (I know a few people in biotech that started at $100k right out of their PhDs, and then there are petroleum engineers which get that with only a BSc!) I think that is part of the reason many American scientists go to industry, and often it is hard to fill a postdoc position because of a lack of good applicants. It is also one reason why we often “import” foreign (Chinese and Indian especially) scientists. In fact, as I recall they make up over 50% of postdocs now.

      If you manage to become an associate professor you might break $100k, but by then, perhaps 6-10 years after your PhD, you are well above that in most industry positions. (I’m not so far along yet, but $130k is fairly “easy” to reach in my field after that period of time). Of course higher administration in universities will earn a lot, but in industry I think both the ceiling and number of positions is higher.

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      • At my university the total cost of getting a PhD is over $200k for a student who completes it in an average length of time and lives in a below average cost studio apartment in this city while doing it. If any mishap along the way should cause the student to need to take a little longer than average to finish, it could easily cost $300k. (Actually, given how rapidly both tuition and housing costs have been trending upwards in recent years, a PhD student entering their program this year would be realistic to expect it to cost around $300k to complete their PhD even if they do finish in the average length of time, and more if it takes them longer than average to finish, which can very easily happen.)

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      • I’m not sure which fields we’re discussing, but in many scientific fields one’s PhD costs are covered and the individual is often given a stipend for living expenses. This is true of geosciences (my field), planetary sciences, chemistry, atmospheric sciences, most disciplines in biology (PhD only, not MD), many disciplines of physics, and even speech pathology (in some cases), to name a few. So, for those interested in pursuing a PhD in science, there is a good chance it could be paid for. As far as salaries in academia versus industry, I would agree that the initial numbers given are quite off. A geologist with a PhD starts at an oil company for $125K a year (around $90-$100K for an MS); mining companies are similar, albeit slightly lower. Whereas academic positions never start that high ($30-$60K per year for a postdoc; $60-$100K per year for faculty position).

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      • It is very rare that one actually pays for their PhD studies, certainly in STEM fields. You are literally working full time doing research and/or teaching, perhaps while taking an odd course here or there. So an average, and even slightly below average student is paid during their PhD, in addition to having their tuition and fees covered.

        Of course, there is the opportunity cost: doing a PhD and earning ~$25k per annum (x5 years) versus working after your BSc and earning ~$60k per annum plus raises/bonuses (x5 years). So a PhD holder does not surpass a BSc in total lifetime earnings until 10-15 years later. There is also the non-monetary, personal cost of being unable (without much difficulty) to start a family, purchase a new home/car, and otherwise “settle down” and be a “real” adult until you are ~30 years old. The bottom line is that you do not do a PhD for money! That brings me again to the original question of this post: working in academia (including doing a PhD) basically retards your development as an adult, and keeps one in a phase of young adulthood until they are 30 or so years old, and that is a real shame for the people who are literally pushing the limits and expanding the realm human knowledge.

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      • When discussing the cost of a STEM PhD it is important to keep in mind the diversity of ways that STEM PhD programs handle funding mechanisms for their students. I am at an R-1 university where it is a common experience for students to find after entering a PhD program, that the information they were given during the admissions process about the available funding opportunities to pay for PhD study, although well intentioned, was more optimistic than realistic. The average pay rate for PhD students here (after tuition has been covered) is around $15k per year, which is not enough to be able to afford to live in a cheap studio apartment in this location, and there is great variability in the funding levels and degrees of security of different students’ situations. Many students do not know from one term to the next whether there will be funding for them to continue their PhD. Funded positions for PhD students here are allocated through decentralized processes, so that getting a position each term partly depends on knowing the right person, “being in the right place at the right time”, or just plain luck. Although there is some relationship between the caliber of the student and their success at staying funded, it seems that the main correlate with secure funding is making oneself maximally useful to a professor (which can be hard for the most brilliant students, since having ideas of one’s own can conflict with devoting 110% of one’s attention to a professor’s ideas). Within this context, professors who are eager to get a good deal on some research assistance by mentoring a student who is supported by a different funding source, sometimes inadvertently make it harder for their students to stay continuously funded (such as in cases when a professor recruits a student with a promise of flexibility to allow the student to support himself/herself by working as a teaching assistant or competing for fellowships, but ends up imposing heavy demands at the time when the student needs this flexibility the most). I have known many smart and hard working students who had to pay for some terms of their PhD program with personal funds or student loans, including some whose GRE scores placed them in the top few percent among GRE test takers and who clearly had a lot to contribute to the advancement of science. Some of them eventually had no choice but to drop out or “master out”, and not complete their PhD, due to lack of adequate funding. (The only reason why it is not common here for students to pay for the majority of their PhD costs is because most of those for whom staying funded does not work out pretty well, cannot afford to complete their degree, so they leave. One could make a strong case that it would have been more ethical for them not to have been recruited in the first place, or at least to have been given a realistic understanding of this risk.) At this university, the idea that “if you are good, you can be pretty sure of being able to get paid enough to live on while completing a STEM PhD” is more of a recruiting tool than a reality.

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  7. I personally don’t think the academic market is more desirable as I worked for several years for a large consulting firm before pursuing graduate education. Most students spend 10 years in college, so that’s all they know. Requiring at least a 1 semeseter or 1 academic year co-op, and not just a summer internship, where the university partners with local firms to help place the students, would help them decide for themselves if they really want to do research or produce projects for a client/community. Who cares if your professor thinks it is “less desirable”? That doesn’t really matter. People tell themselves what they want to ensure, personally, they made the right choice – it shouldn’t dictate the students’ decisions, and allowing them to actually work long enough to get their hands dirty will help enable them to make their own choices.

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  8. Perhaps things should remain as they are. Placing academic careers on an uncritically appreciated pedestal isn’t unhealthy if the result is a competitive environment that produces excellent science. Let the students naively pursue academic careers – a fight that will force them to improve themselves – and 90% will eventually resign to industry jobs. Only then they will discover that either outcome is satisfying.

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  9. If I were to poll the students in my graduate program I don’t think I’d see a huge negative opinion of going into industry. Few of my fellow students are truly gearing themselves for academia – or at least, most are also considering other options. I have heard consistent negative opinions stemming from faculty regarding non-academic or non-national laboratory jobs. If there is one thing to change, it would be the way faculty encourage (or discourage) students regarding their future career options.

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  10. I agree with other posters that it often comes down to advisors. There are two reasons: advisors often place a lot of pressure on students to pursue academic careers (making it difficult for students to gain experience with non-academic careers/skills), and they don’t know how to advise their students who aren’t interested in academia. Maybe they need to see even more data on how many PhD students end up in positions similar to their own, to be convinced that it’s not helpful to advise all their students to be carbon copies of themselves; and maybe they need to be made more aware of resources at universities to help students who don’t want to be academics.

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  11. Among my peers, many of whom are still finishing their PhD’s, the understanding is that academic jobs may command more respect from others, but industry jobs have the potential to make you happier. Many people place real value on not only the extra income but the flexibility, creativity, and diversity of coworker perspectives that industry offers. Those who end up in academia in this system are not, as suggested above, necessarily the best. Sometimes they are those who truly love and excel at pure research and would be less happy doing anything else, which is great. Unfortunately they also include those who really want to compete, who want or need that external validation in place of work-life balance, which is less great.

    As far as improving the standing of industry jobs in students’ eyes, a few things can be done. Personal contact with successful and happy PhD’s in industry is the most effective way to change a student’s perspective. The only event I’ve been invited to was a panel during working hours, so I couldn’t go. A happy hour that was more accessible for industry people and offered one-on-one interactions would have been better. Industry jobs are much more network-based than academic, and many students have no industry network and no idea how to build one. Supporting the creation of that network is probably the role of the graduate education community. An alumni network or volunteer industry advisors who can take a few meetings a year with current students to discuss their experience and make suggestions or connections in industry for students could help. Advisors are selected as people who think academia is a better choice than industry-that’s why they made it! As a whole, they should be more open in discussing future plans that include industry, but will never be the best place for students to get advice about industry opportunities. By giving students more perspectives on post-graduation choices, the influence of the advisor’s opinion over their choice might be reduced.

    On the numbers, nearing $100k is pretty typical in my market for a first job offer for an engineering PhD. I would have rejected $80k immediately as an indicator that the job would not be a challenge and wouldn’t offer the professional development I expect.

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  12. The opinions of and pressure on the faculty have to change. Faculty success is not only judged on the quality of publications and funding, but also the number of trainees still in academia. For example, for certain fellowships, a trainee has very little chance of success if the faculty mentor does not have a track record of training people still in academia. This and other pressures create an incentive for faculty to push their trainees towards academia or train only those who want to stay in academia. Until faculty start treating tenure track jobs as one of many good options, I don’t see how things can change. What is the point of extra internships or programs if a faculty member is unwilling to let their trainees participate in them?

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