I'll be starting as a tenure-track professor in a few months where I'll be doing research on software developer tools. I have seen that it is extremely difficult to recruit good PhD students in this topic area (even at elite schools), since most of them are heavily recruited by industry. Understandably, it is hard to say no to 120k+ USD salary straight out of undergrad.

How should I go about attracting talented grad students in a topic area that has to compete with such high-paying companies? I do have funding for these students but it isn't anything like industry.

  • Please read my similar question here: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/103171/… Commented Jun 28, 2018 at 10:59
  • Are you sure you are competing against industry and not other schools or research groups? I ask because there seem to be plenty of grad students pursuing PhD programs in top 50 schools (esp in CS).
    – hojusaram
    Commented Jun 29, 2018 at 16:11
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    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Jun 30, 2018 at 10:04
  • I love the amount of indignation attached to this simple, true observation and related, relevant question. I wonder at the ratio below of fields to which this challenge applies vs fields to which it does not... also, I am curious, @Austin Henley, why didn't you take the 120k? Commented Jul 2, 2018 at 13:27
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    We agree on this, and it may be the core of a useful answer. I considered not going to grad school, and again considered quitting with my masters degree. Freedom to pursue my own interests kept me in both times. Getting the grad student is only one step: you must keep them. Freedom, and the love of it, seem like the most likely argument that spans both decisions... Commented Jul 2, 2018 at 21:41

10 Answers 10


The person who wants to go into industry is a different sort of person than one who wants a PhD. That isn't a universal, as some people want to do one to enable or enhance the other, but it is pretty generally true. You are likely a pretty good example yourself, so look at how you differ from those among your peers who chose as you did or otherwise.

Therefore, think of the possible pool of candidates as bifurcated and try to appeal to those characteristics that are more likely to appeal to those in the desired half (well, less than half, probably).

Future professors are likely more interested in ideas and personal growth and less interested in money. Both may want to do something to improve the world, of course, but in different ways. The potential PhD is more interested in deeper issues and longer term results than the general public. Future professors, especially, are obsessed with ideas and their development.

Another positive aspect of the professorate and the desire for a PhD is the ability, in the large, to control your own schedule. You work all the time, of course, but you get to decide when to work and (mostly) what to work on.

The people you probably are not going to attract are those with heavy life responsibilities already, and who really need that paycheck. On a more positive note, they are also more likely to want to do something now, rather than to work toward more distant goals.

If you actually have access to some of the people you want to attract, then introduce them to interesting parts of your research and those of colleagues. Take them to an advanced class that you teach in some esoteric subject - maybe even one for which you are the premier source in the world. That is very cool. If you have research labs and advise advanced students, take them to a lab and ask them to contribute - ideas if nothing else. Introduce them to your advisees and assistants. Show them how wonderful it is to work with other smart people on important problems.

When you speak to groups, emphasize the excitement of developing new ideas and how a new PhD is, at that moment, the world's foremost authority on some (perhaps small) thing.

Finally, convince them that they will never be bored and that if they work with you, you will never waste their time. Then live up to that promise yourself, of course.

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    This is a nice answer (upvoted). I do have one objection- in the third paragraph, you seem to be equating PhD candidates with future professors. This is a false equivalence, and it may be prevalent, but it is still wrong. One doesn't do a PhD to become a professor, neither is one entitled to go down that path because of a PhD. Many PhD holders will go on to do research but not become professors. Commented Jun 26, 2018 at 17:34
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    @user153812 That may be country-dependent, but I would say the career path PhD - Professor is the rule in Europe or, if you want, that a PhD is useless outside academia.
    – Miguel
    Commented Jun 26, 2018 at 17:40
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    I kind of disagree with the sentiment of "Well just give up on the pay, try to focus on the other parts." Your incentives are probably selecting for the worst candidates (those who couldn't get the $120k+ salaries). I'm skeptical that there exist that many people who are so attached to the perks of acedemia, that they would take what, a $50,000/year hit? Possibly more?
    – Alexander
    Commented Jun 27, 2018 at 1:08
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    @Miguel No, it’s not “the rule” by any objective measure. Most PhDs don’t become professors, by a large margin (nor is a PhD useless outside of academia, even if you just count it as a qualification rather than the — rather unique — experience gained). Commented Jun 27, 2018 at 8:38
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    @Miguel I seriously doubt that: the numbers simply don’t add up. Anyway, in the UK 56% of PhDs leave academia. Of the remaining 44%, only a small fraction completes the tenure track. I couldn’t find any more detailed numbers but a back of the envelope calculation suggests that less than 10% of PhD graduates end up as professors. Commented Jun 27, 2018 at 12:38

Remember that a PhD is intended to be a training position, not a job. Unfortunately, too many supervisors see PhD students as workers rather than as trainees in education. To get excellent PhD students, you need to convince undergrads that they personally will benefit from the training you will provide (rather than just that they will have the 'opportunity' to do lots of work for you). You cannot compete on money, and it is unlikely you can compete on non-monetary benefits either (what university offers free food, free transport, free gym, high-quality office space...?). But perhaps you can compete on the training you can offer.

In your context, this either means:

  • Find bright students who are not computer scientists and offer to train them to be computer scientists. For example, take on a talented biologist, sociologist or physicist who is motivated to learn your field.
  • Design a cutting edge project that will push the limits of the field. Such a project will put the student in a position to apply for competitive faculty positions, a higher level entry to a company or to start their own company perhaps.

Of course, this all depends on the amount of effort you are willing to put in yourself. If you just want an assistant or someone who wont get in the way whilst you work on your own things, then you will need to accept a lower standard of student.

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    To add to this... My personal recommendation would be to grab engineers and mathematicians since they already have a lot of the relevant skills Commented Jun 28, 2018 at 15:12
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    On the contrary, in most cases - being a PhD candidate is very much a job, in which you carry out work, there are goals (although they're flexible), there's a salary (even if it's not called that), you're required to show up and contribute to group or PI efforts et cetera. True, there's more of a training aspect to it than many positions outside academia, but it does not lose its character as employment. This issue is the focus of intense collective-action and labor-law battles in several countries in recent decades; see this story for example.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Jun 29, 2018 at 18:19
  • @einpoklum is right, but I know no position in industry where you can get even near the amount of time to specialize your knowledge as you can when a PhD student. Commented Jul 2, 2018 at 7:17
  • @mathreadler: That's true; but I would compare the junior, pre-PhD researcher to his/her senior colleague, the post-PhD researcher. They are similar to each other much like any junior or apprentice craftsman and his/her senior.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Jul 2, 2018 at 14:24
  • In what aspects are they similar? All crafts publish papers? All crafts apply for grants? Commented Jul 2, 2018 at 19:51

I am in the process of getting postdoc job in bioengineering field. Industry jobs are definitely an option here, so I have to consider why exactly I want to work in academia. I can share few reasons, hopefully it will help you understand the process from PhD student's perspective.

Why PhDs in engineering are willing to work for 5ish years at about 50% of industry wage rate?

  1. Lucrative project that will get them a faculty position. You can't get a "University Professor" title and your own lab in industry (vanity+independence)
  2. Good project that will build diverse skillset. In the industry job you will be pigeonholed into limited skillset. In academia you can learn hardware, software, wetware (molecular bio) all on the same project. Some people like that flexibility of learning
  3. Interesting project. My postdoc project will be either unique and advanced method (2x-10x current popular method) or another unique bio/translational project. Even if I don't make it in academia and quit, I will be able to say "I worked on this craaazy project" at parties. In software industry you are either prohibited from talking about work or work on some silly boring stuff like new billing system.
  4. You can potentially negotiate more independence. In academia work is abundant and good people are rare, hence good student will be able to ask for more independent project.
  5. Big name university that will potentially land you higher-paying industry job. Imagine working as software postdoc at Stanford versus NoName Uni. In Palo Alto the density of people is incredible, hence more potential to land very good software job (Google), especially if you as as PI know right people.
  6. Some medium-skilled people would probably appreciate laziness of academic job and lack of competition. I am not sure if that is good or bad for you.
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    #3 is possible in the industry too. A bright fresh out of undergrad doesn't have to work on a billing system if they don't want to, they could work on a self-driving car instead. Commented Jun 27, 2018 at 11:27
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    @DmitryGrigoryev I see your point. I don't have enough knowledge of industry, but can imagine that "working on self-driving car" will mean to some extent writing billing system for the self-driving car company. My point is more stem from my experience with academia, compared to industry jobs that I've seen Commented Jun 27, 2018 at 15:35
  • @DmitryGrigoryev as someone who works on self-driving cars, i can assure you it is not as flashy as it sounds. 99% of it is good old software engineering and compatibility wrangling, like any other decently-sized industry project. Commented Jul 2, 2018 at 7:09
  • @taylorswift And as someone who stayed in a research lab for some time I can assure you that it's not as flashy either. Unless you have students or assistants to do the ground work for you, you'll spend a lot of time preparing experiments, collecting data and writing reviews of existing work. Have you ever tried to repair your own car? Test instrumentation task is just as tedious and dirty, plus the parts you have to install don't quite fit. Commented Jul 2, 2018 at 7:40

As you note, industry pays more, so you just have to focus on the non-monetary benefits of the academic life: time flexibility, the freedom to choose your own research projects, being around bright young people all the time, etc. A PhD could also possibly help their industry career in the long run, but I don't know as much about that as you, not being in CS/software.

There's a sentiment out there that academia is some kind of higher calling, compared to working in industry. I wouldn't bring anything like that up to your students. The pursuit of truth and ideas are not the sole domain of academia, and you risk coming across as smug and out of touch. Keep it about the practical pros and cons.

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    I think it is unlikely that the OP would be able to compete on non-monetary benefits. In my experience in the life-sciences, non-monetary benefits (flexible working hours, enthusiastic colleagues, inspiring management, ability to work on own projects/interests) are not very common in academia and can be found quite easily in elite private companies or startups. Much depends on the institute/department. The opportunities to network or launch your startup will be much greater at Stanford or Harvard than a middle-tier university. Commented Jun 27, 2018 at 10:06
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    @DGreenwood Life sciences are among the worst fields in this respect. In many other fields, advanced PhD students can already be independent researchers. When I was doing PhD in computer science, students often tried to publish a single-author paper before graduating. Commented Jun 27, 2018 at 22:09
  • @DGreenwood you don't have to better than "elite" company, you have to be better than student's first choice Commented Jul 2, 2018 at 17:30

Other answers are somehow good, but I think they might miss a practical approach. I try to elaborate a bit.

In most cases, your question has a simple answer: hiring PhD students from overseas, specially third-world countries.

Why? Because most of them have visa limitations and they can't think of a job for the moment. Their options are limited and they have to be good to survive. This gives the professors a vantage point to easily take advantage of.

Please don't get me wrong. I am not saying that this a common practice and the only reason for hiring foreign PhD student and I hope nobody gets offended. But as a resident of a third-world country who has seen that many of his highly talented friends are so eager to get an overseas PhD, even from a low-rank university, I think I have some valid points here.

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    Actually plenty of students even from nice-to-live countries wouldn't mind coming to US to for a PhD. The key is to make the PhD offer visible to such students. Commented Jun 27, 2018 at 11:23
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    @DmitryGrigoryev yes, and note that the term overseas in my answer has a broader meaning than the US only.
    – polfosol
    Commented Jun 27, 2018 at 12:43

A true investigator is moved by knowledge and curiosity. This is what you ought to focus on. Unfortunately there are too many PhD candidates facing research as a job, under the wings of professors who see themselves as some kind of entrepreneurs running a start-up venture.

Consider yourself blessed as in your field you are more likely to attract those who are interested in learning and investigation, the true PhD-seekers. Now, if you're truly invested in your field of research surely you can attract other hungry brains to your cause. Never try to buy a student, for you will sell yourself in the process.

UPDATE: A note to all commenters emphasising on the fact that a PhD student needs money to survive -- this question is not about not paying salaries, nor does it imply that the OP is offering a meagre salary. I assume his students are perfectly able to pay for their bills and grab a beer.

It directly discusses the quality of students seeking for the highest possible salaries.

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    are you a professor, PhD student, PhD grad in academia, or PhD grad in industry? Commented Jun 26, 2018 at 18:16
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    @aaaaaa Perhaps. I bought it then, and did I pay for it...
    – Scientist
    Commented Jun 26, 2018 at 21:35
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    "PhD candidates facing research as a job, under the wings of professors..." or maybe trying to pay the bills. dunno. as an idea.
    – CptEric
    Commented Jun 27, 2018 at 13:08
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    there are also people who are "true investigators" AND need money. Please don't disregard that not everyone in academia is a single 21 years old. Also, everything is a factor when choosing path in life. Following this logic, working for jerk face Nobel laureate should be considered privileged not abuse Commented Jun 28, 2018 at 16:27
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    @Scientist: I finished my Ph.D. in 2012... but I was very involved in graduate union activities during that time and for a while later, so I'm still fired up about it :-)
    – einpoklum
    Commented Jun 29, 2018 at 19:15

To extend the previous answers, which have already given good points:

Grant your students full Open Source rights, offer similar license rights for the data they collect and produce. That is what kept me a while in science. If they have a well distributed software product in the end, this is good for the CV and gives more job opportunities as well.

A collaborative project with international partners in attractive countries where your students can stay for a few month will be an attractive plus as well.

Promote the freedom and life experience in science. That is the only advance over well paid industry jobs. If you trust your students you can also offer more freedom in form of regular home office opportunities.

  • Definitely a good idea, so +1, but remember universities sometimes have their own restrictions on open-sourcing/free-licensing research findings and try to commercialize and patent things.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Jun 29, 2018 at 18:24
  • @einpoklum This pressure is a bit known to me. If the university prohibits free licensing, the responsible chair leader could only fight with limits to change those politics. The topic creator seems to be US citizen and at least the bigger university names are known to be also suporitve of free licensing. MIT might be the biggest name in the field of informatics world wide. And MIT shares. If private unis dont allow, they simply have to pay more. Or live with the fact that the named problem of the topic creator will even further increase. Not enough phds. Commented Jun 30, 2018 at 20:36

This question is a bit like asking "How can I get a brand new car for $5,000 when they all sell for $20,000?" You can't, unless you get lucky with some special situation with unique circumstances. The market has decided that the sort of qualifications you want are worth far more than the sort of money you're willing to pay. There's nothing you can realistically do to change that.

This simple premise implies that you must do one of the following:

  • Pay more
  • Let the students work very part time (thus paying more per hour)
  • Settle for less qualified students

Obviously one is not an option for PhD students because you couldn't offer a meaningfully higher stipend. Second might actually be feasible if you can arrange for some sort of industry partnership where the bulk of the student's work is actual work for a company (perhaps one that develops the tools you research) and the PhD related duties become a secondary priority. But it's probably hard to get away with this in practice.

Third option is the more sensible one. Either you have to reduce your research goals, or take in bright but unqualified students and train them. Of course, at some point after being trained, the student will realize that they now are qualified and could quit anytime for a much better job. So you have to be very nice to your students and make sure their frustration does not exceed their intellectual satisfaction.

I did say the first option is not realistic, because PhD stipends don't really vary that much and are often outside your control, and even if you could somehow arrange to pay even double the usual salary to your students, it would probably trigger riots on campus when other students hear about it. But you do have more flexibility with postdoc. If you really need to hire the sort of person that could get six figure salaries in the industry, the obvious answer is to hire such a person as a postdoc, and compensate competitively.

Also, I think the "$120k+ straight out of undergrad" is a myth. Computer science pays well, but not that well. Undergrads will easily work for half that, even the median salary (for experienced workers) is far below it. The only grain of truth in it might be the Bay Area, but cost of living is also very high there.

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    As i wrote in my answer, there are some unique qualities in academic job that can help with salary difference Commented Jun 26, 2018 at 21:26
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    The standard offer for fresh-minted bright (but not exceptional) CS undergrads for SWE positions ranges, today, between 100 and 120 in Seattle, WA. Commented Jun 26, 2018 at 23:20
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    More standard than academics like to admit. ;) Spend some time on Glassdoor. 50th percentile of salary for software engineering jobs, readily obtainable, I'd argue, for someone in the top 20% of a top 50 CS program in Philly is 132k. In Houston is 192k, and of course in SFO is 224k. Even in Dayton, OH it's 96k. It's shocking. Commented Jun 27, 2018 at 0:17
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    This is completely and demonstrably wrong. Many people do go for a PhD (despite getting offers at companies), so it is definitely possible. Many of my students have received offers from top companies (such as Google) and decided to go for a PhD anyway, so it's also simply untrue that you can only get the less-qualified people.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Jun 27, 2018 at 10:10
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    -1 for the implicit assumption that all value can be measured in money ...
    – Szabolcs
    Commented Jun 27, 2018 at 10:58

My long term goal is to lecture for software engineering, but since it's a practical skill, I am gaining practical experience in the industry (having been a QA, engineer, team lead, contractor), so that I can teach based on real world experience, rather than just having had read the texts before my students.

As a team lead, one of the things I learnt was what motivates people, including myself.

People have their own definition of success, whether they know it or not, and you'll never motivate someone whose motivation is cash to put in the enormous amount of effort required for a PhD where the reward is sating curiosity and building some new knowledge for the future.

@jamesqf's comment:

One option is to recruit people who have already spent some time in industry, have enough money, and are now interested in more challenging work than they might find in industry.

is pretty on the money. The best way to attracting talented grad students in a topic area isn't to compete with high-paying companies with pay, but with more interesting, rewarding work.

  • Disclaimer, this is my first answer the site and my experience of academia is a BA in Philosophy and Computing for 11 years ago, but hopefully my massively rambling subjective answer is of some use!
    – StuperUser
    Commented Jun 27, 2018 at 11:49

What should you do is to focus on two possible streams from where you can recruit students

a) to do what IT companies already do, outsourcing. But in your case, you should attract people from abroad, focus on international students from Eastern Europe and offer collaboration to universities and departments of interest.

b) to look outside of CS field, and to offer the possibility of career development for people who want to switch fields to IT(CS, software development). Other fields like linguistics, computational sciences, logic etc

There is a big problem with your personality that would need to change in order to adapt with these people from other fields that are coming to software development field. You should not look at them as less talented or prepared, and rather try to offer good condition for development. Unfortunately, if someone wants to become good software developments, that means he/she tried hard to achieve these position and would like to repay their student debt. Think maybe of taking talents from high schools? recruiting them and offering free education with clause of staying 8 years? This is done in my country for Military and Police University.

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