About 5 years ago, Jake VanderPlas wrote an interesting and in my opinion, crucial, piece on why many academic cultures are unsustainable in the long run, and will eventually be outcompeted industry if not totally collapse due to excessive brain drain.

His key argument is that desirable academic skills are increasing indistinguishable from desirable industry skills, the difference is that industry pays more, and produces vastly more interesting results with higher impact. Thus raising the natural question: why stay in academia? For instance, why would any post-doc earn 40k when they can earn 200k using the same skillset working at IBM, Apple, Google, Uber, Ebay, Amazon, Yahoo, Etsy, Ali Baba....this list is endless.

This brain drain has been documented in recent articles such as:

  1. "Big tech firms' AI hiring frenzy leads to brain drain at UK universities High demand at companies such as Google could leave fewer talented scientists to teach next generation, academics fear"

  2. "'We can't compete': why universities are losing their best AI scientists A handful of companies are luring away top researchers, but academics say they are killing the geese that lay the golden eggs"

  3. "AI academic warns on brain drain to tech groups"

It seems the author's prediction has by and large came to fruition.

Key excerpt from the first article:

With virtually the entire world utilizing the tools of data-intensive discovery, the same skills academia now ignores and devalues are precisely the skills which are most valued and rewarded within industry.

The result of this perfect storm is that skilled researchers feel an insidious gradient out of research and into industry jobs. While software-focused jobs do exist within academia, they tend to be lower-paid positions without the prestige and opportunity for advancement found in the tenure track. Industry is highly attractive: it is addressing interesting and pressing problems; it offers good pay and benefits; it offers a path out of the migratory rat-wheel of temporary postdoctoral positions, and often even encourages research and publication in fundamental topics. Most importantly, perhaps, industry offers positions with a real possibility for prestige and career advancement. It's really a wonder that any of us stay in the academy at all.

Couple years ago I have read similar question being asked (perhaps precisely on this StackExchange), and at the time the common consensus was one of denial. A few prominent professors predicted that no such brain drain would occur due to historical tendencies they have seen in the students, in other words, a non-issue. But now it seems that the brain drain cannot be stopped, a quick survey of my fellow graduate students quickly revealed that none of them wanted to remain in academia after graduation.

Out of this denial and leadership vacuum in academia, a very insidious academic culture has developed: students would start a PhD degree just to take enough industry-oriented courses and then quickly leave for industry. I have personally witnessed this in many fellow graduate students.

So, once again, is there anyway for academia to stop or halt the one way brain flowing from academia to industry? What can academic culture change in order to attract bright and talent students to carry on with fundamental research?

  • 4
    So, is it better to have intelligent people actually working in industry to solve real problems or keep them in academia to just discuss issues they think up? In reality we need intelligence in BOTH places...
    – Solar Mike
    Feb 8, 2018 at 8:20
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    Yeah, the doom 'n gloom stuff here's a bit confusing. That intelligent, well-educated people are finding commercial success outside of having to beg for money through grants seems like an entirely happy circumstance. Why should anyone even want for research and education to be bound up in the limited space of ivory towers?
    – Nat
    Feb 8, 2018 at 8:23
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    I'm not sure what kind of answer you are looking for. One answer is already implicit: Pay more for academics. Feb 8, 2018 at 8:25
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    Yeah, what can we do to stop this brain drain, I mean, academia isn't competitive enough nowadays! Why don't bright people just become tenured professors like in the old days! The culprit must be industry...
    – Evariste
    Feb 8, 2018 at 9:04
  • 4
    Looking at the links, this seems to be very specific to AI, not academia in general. It isn't something I've observed. Feb 8, 2018 at 15:41

2 Answers 2


You mentioned one answer (pay). There're others. I once communicated with someone who left his position as a professor at a major North American university. That surprised me since I knew the job was in high demand. I asked him why, and he responded:

Professor positions in major research university in US require generation of research funds - a process of writing your best ideas and sending them to funding agencies. The process of getting money from funding agencies is worse than the lottery. You spent a lot of creative effort in putting a proposal together and then most of the time it gets thrown into a garbage can. It is a general state of affairs, not just my experience. I just decided that I've had enough of that. When I spend time creating something I want it to see the light of day. So I switched fields and now work in a very dynamic industry, generating new knowledge or writing products that are actually used.

If any postdoc ask me for advice now - whether or not to go into academia - I would answer why would you torture yourself? There are so many fun jobs and are even better paying.

There's more. If a fresh PhD graduate stays in academia:

  1. You live a nomadic lifestyle, hopping from one postdoc to another. This is not only bad for any significant others and children, but also a great hassle. Each time one moves, one needs new visas, needs to find accommodation, and so on. To add to that, postdocs offer no job security, and one is virtually always looking for a new job.
  2. After that, if you're smart / lucky enough to get a permanent position, you have to generate research funds, which is unreliable (above).
  3. After that, there's no guarantee you'll actually get tenure. If you are denied tenure, what are you going to do next? One is probably already >40 years old at that point.

Taken together, only the extremely passionate (or extremely masochistic) choose an academic career. For further reading I suggest these two articles which strongly shaped my view on this: Women in Science by Philip Greenspun, and Don't Become a Scientist! by Jonathan Katz.

Having said the above - why would a brain drain from academia to industry be a bad thing. It's simply market forces of supply and demand at play. If more people took the option to shift, there would be less competition for permanent positions. Less competition makes the academic path more attractive. Eventually things balance out. It's further possible for society to reverse the brain drain whenever it wishes, simply by providing more funding. If society doesn't want to do that, I don't see why academics should try to force it.

  • "why would a brain drain from academia to industry be a bad thing. (...) Eventually things balance out." - if the primary goal is to achieve an optimal integration into the general job market without changing anything, just waiting till things balance out may be fine. If the goal is to ensure the academic environment is equipped optimally for producing good research results, the same cannot necessarily be said. Feb 8, 2018 at 21:39
  • "If society doesn't want to do that, I don't see why academics should try to force it." - I am not convinced that level of intentional and directed decision-making can be ascribed to "society". Very often, things just happen to evolve into a certain direction without anyone specifically targetting that outcome. In fact, I would argue that the only way to specifically target any particular outcome is often for interested parts of "society" to try and fight for that development. Feb 8, 2018 at 21:56
  • Thank you for your answer, I agree with many points, but to your question "why would a brain drain from academia to industry be a bad thing" - how about professors literally cannot sustain their research group when all the students are fleeing towards industry and no students are coming in? This is glaring in some departments that traditionally performed theoretical work, which are increasingly under/de-valued. These departments are increasingly unable to retain or attract students, and hence attract funding, and no new hiring has taken place for many many years.
    – Coco Jambo
    Feb 9, 2018 at 10:20
  • @RoyAyers well if the students are fleeing towards industry, it's a sign that they're in high demand right? There should be people willing to study if it enables a high-demand job. If there's a discipline which cannot attract students at all, I'd interpret that as a sign that the discipline is not useful.
    – Allure
    Feb 9, 2018 at 20:37
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    @O.R.Mapper I agree, but I think the way to proceed is to make the job more attractive, not to figure out how to keep good people in not-so-good jobs.
    – Allure
    Feb 9, 2018 at 20:38

I wish your assumption was correct!

The typical cases you mentioned cannot be extended to academia as a whole. It is true that industry can pay higher salaries, but still, faculty jobs are competitive as hell.

On the other hand, in many countries (e.g., in Europe), the number of students is strongly declining. This means that even the current faculty will be out of the job soon. This is the reason for high pressure on faculty members for doing various tasks including attracting funds. Many universities rely on international students to survive.

With all the problems and pressure on academics, faculty positions are still among the most competitive jobs. Still, headhunting is a common practice in the industry for attracting talented people. If there was such a one-way migration, headhunters would not need to persuade academics with attractive job offers.

In my practice, for any faculty position, there are at least 10 qualified candidates, but one will get the job. Some try again somewhere else, and some get frustrated with the competition and give up to get a job in the industry. This is how the migration occurs in general.


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