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I have a friend who's doing a STEM PhD at one of the top programs - think e.g. Harvard / Princeton / MIT - and they are getting ready to drop out after the faculty there have told them that they don't have a real chance at academia since their published papers have been "too applied", and that strong work in theory was crucial. (They're trying to see whether the papers can somehow form a thesis, but they have mentally checked out and are looking forward to having a nice payday in industry.)

I wanted to know whether that is sort of the norm in STEM academia, that to have a real chance at becoming a professor, one should stay away from work that's "too applied", during their PhD years, and try to work on theory.

Is this generally true?

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    What part of STEM? This is clearly true in some parts, clearly false in others. – knzhou Oct 6 '18 at 11:43
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    The opposite of applied is pure, not theoretical. Details depend on field, but it is generally true that academia favors academic research, and not industrial research. – Greg Oct 6 '18 at 17:32
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    As I have observed in the biological sciences, academics are interested in what the system/organism/protein actually does and how that aligns with your model. If you propose a protein folding mechanism, an academic will ask you to name a family of proteins that folds into such a state you propose. If you claim that you can simulate the fluidity of a cellular membrane, someone will probably ask you to prove that by experiment in the lab. So in the biological sciences, I would say that applied research has the potential to be convincing and you use theory and model systems to make proposals. – xyz123 Oct 11 '18 at 1:50
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I agree with Buffy's answer, but also want to expand on what knzhou alludes to in a comment: STEM has many sub-fields, some of which are more theoretical or applied than others. As it turns out, the walls separating these different fields are far from impermeable. Perhaps your friend's PhD really is too applied for his current department, making a tenure case difficult in that field? Perhaps their research would be a more natural fit for another department, or a national laboratory? For example, there are plenty of people with physics PhDs that have ended up as tenured professors in various engineering departments.

Now, if the research best fits departments with the current name, then your friend might just have to go down the status ladder a little bit to have a realistic chance of tenure. For example, an expert in a field-specific numerical method can be seen as too much of a one-trick pony for the absolute top institutions.

The bottom line is this: if your friend enjoys their research there are a lot of possibilities to explore before giving up on it completely. They really should talk to their mentor(s) to get personal career advice.

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At the level of the institutions you name it may be at least partly true. Theory is valued and research is pretty much all. But there are a lot of other institutions, not quite so high in the stratosphere, for which it would be much less true. If you go down "closer to earth" a bit there are a lot of fine institutions for which research is a bit less important and teaching is very important. It is a big world with a lot of variables.

Of course your friend has to complete the doctorate and for that needs a valid thesis.

But the only way to know if you can get an academic job is to apply for one (or preferably more). Only the hiring committee will get to decide whether a person is "theoretical enough."

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The answer is complex, because the job market values both theory and application and generally speaking, you should be as strong as possible in both. Focusing too little or too much on one component is a headache and perhaps not the best approach. Consultation of your adviser and committee, attending job talks to assess how much job candidates talked about theory vs. application, and asking specific universities their stance is your best option to finding the answer you are looking for. Most will likely tell you that they want a balance, rather than one or the other because both are necessary within STEM fields.

Finding the balance between theory and application/praxis is very dependent upon the discipline. I have colleagues that have been told they are "too theoretical" and others who need to grow in application so that their "theory meets praxis." In either scenario, it is highly contingent upon the discipline as well as specific research skills and interests. Also, your thesis talk and job talk are very different and figuring out the extent to which theory and application should be deployed is a discussion that those within your department should be able to answer honestly; this means that the extent to which theory and application "matters" could be very different in your PhD years that you are inquiring about and when it's time to hit the job market.

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