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I'm wondering what impact does prior industry experience (by which I mean 2+ years in a non-trivial functional role in any established organization) lend to the profile of someone who is entering grad school for a Ph.D. (in my case, its Computer Science, but I expect the question to be applicable to other areas as well) ?

  • Do admission committees look upon it as a bonus point, seeing that the applicant has managed real-world responsibilities successfully in the past, thereby improving the chances of acquiring funding (in terms of TA/RA) ?
  • More importantly, does it help the candidate during (and post Ph.D), when he is looking for research internships/post-docs ?

In both cases, assuming the position the applicant held is in a completely different area from his/her research, what other factors become important in the both the above cases? Is it the difficulty of projects the candidate undertook (which, frankly, very few people outside the organization are equipped to judge), or the level of success (promotions, accolades acquired during the stint in industry) that matter, or are there other parameters as well ?

Also, in case it is deemed that such a profile offer limited/no advantage to the grad student, it would be nice to know why that may be the case - after all, most (if not all!) organizations are run for profit, and they would tend to have very little use for someone who is not productive or capable of learning.

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What field of research are you referring to? The answer may vary depending on the field. –  eykanal Feb 16 '12 at 0:18
    
Theoretical Computer Science in my case... –  TCSGrad Feb 16 '12 at 5:20
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5 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

As someone who sits on an admissions committee, this isn't idle speculation, but it is a personal perspective. I agree with the other responders that industrial experience probably isn't of much interest to an admissions committee, unless you get a strong letter of recommendation from a supervisor who can make a convincing case for admission to the graduate program.

The issue is that while you are in industry, unless you're in a position where your actively doing things related to your graduate school education, your knowledge of the "basics" is atrophying, so it will actually be somewhat more difficult to get back up to speed for the coursework typically required for a PhD program. The longer you're in industry, the harder it typically is to play catchup.

That said, industrial experience may be of interest to an individual professor within a department, and would certainly help with employment following the PhD program.

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I sit on graduate admissions committees (in computer science, in the US), and I spent 4 years in industry before going to grad school. I agree with others: Industry experience per se is not particularly attractive, unless it's directly related to your proposed area of study. (Industry experience may be more attractive in more applied areas of CS; I'm a theoretician.)

But it depends on what you do while you're in industry. Admissions committees are looking primarily for strong evidence of research potential — raw "wattage", intellectual maturity, independence, initiative, creativity, attention to detail, eagerness to fight with hard problems, and most importantly, real results. Recommendation letters that specifically address those qualities, whether from academia or from industry, will increase your chances of admission. If you just sit in your cubicle and competently produce the code that your manager asks for, not so much.

My industry experience was a point in my favor during my academic job hunt, but only a minor one.

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Industry experience cannot hurt. While it may not help in every case, in many it will. One of the things PhD application committees consider is their mix of students. In my experience (in Computer Science) a typical PhD program consists of students of many ages from many backgrounds. A good program has a diverse mix, including those with "real world" experience. So I bet it helps.

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I don't think that having industry experience is going to help with a PhD application unless you have actually worked on the project that you want to do your PhD in. It's certainly not going to help if you worked in a completely different area. Also note that PhD students don't usually apply for funding. I'm farily certain that the answer to your first point is "no" in almost all cases.

That said, I believe it would be more help when looking for internships or a (non-academic) job after finishing the PhD. Again it depends what exactly it is you've done and what you're applying to do.

Working at a company and doing PhD-level research are two (very) different things (unless you're doing industrial research) and being good at one doesn't imply that you're equally good at the other.

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Industry experience will often hinder you, because it is a signal (a reliable signal in most situations) that you are not up-to-date with the cutting edge of research; and that your academic skills have atrophied.

Expect to work much harder in the time up to application, and at interview, in getting up-to-date in the field, and demonstrating that you are up to date.

This will vary by subject: for maths, it's often going to be a deal-breaker, as the analytic skills tend to atrophy very very quickly, and also tend to diminish with age. For more engineering-type subjects, it might be easier, particularly if you have been doing cutting-edge industrial research. Nevertheless, your academic skills may be rusty, and the people deciding on your admissions will expect that they are.

You may also be going in without a (recent) publication record; that can impair the funding position of the institute to which you're applying, so you may have to offer something a little bit extra to compensate for this.

Your industrial experience may well bring value to your future department: but you may or may not get any recognition of that at the time of your application.

(I write as someone who entered academia after ~20 years industrial experience.)

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