64

In the computer science field, an entry-level software engineer in top-tier tech companies (e.g. Google, Facebook, etc.) could earn as much as a 20-year experience professor. And the workload in academia is way heavier.

For example, my friends in Google work 8 hours a day and have the weekend while my Ph.D. friends have to work at least 60 hours a week if they want to have a good publication record. They almost stay in the lab all day long and don't have the weekend.

And also, given my observation, getting a position at an even mediocre university is even much harder than getting a position at Google level companies, let alone a Ph.D. would take more time on their education.

Why do so many PhDs still choose to be a professor while they have the choice to go to the industry?

closed as primarily opinion-based by David Richerby, Fábio Dias, corey979, Scott Seidman, E.P. Feb 4 at 17:50

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • 85
    Note that many PhD students don't work more than 60 hours per week, but have a reasonable workload. On the contrary, many people in industry work much more than 8 hours per day. – Massimo Ortolano Jan 31 at 6:41
  • 102
    Because value can't be measured in money? If wealth is the ultimate motivation for you, then this won't make sense. But for many people it is not. – Szabolcs Jan 31 at 12:23
  • 4
    What do you actually want to achieve in life? To answer your question, different people choose different directions because they have different goals. Personally, I have never regretted going into industry after getting my CS PhD, not because of the money but because I am much happier with the work (and in 40 years I've NEVER been able to go home after 8 hours work!) – Michael Kay Jan 31 at 17:10
  • 18
    Considering that PhD is degree primarily designed for an academic career, it is not that surprising that at least some of the degree holders end up in academia. – Greg Jan 31 at 17:54
  • 9
    In my experience workloads in Academia tend to be a lot lighter than in industry once you get passed the initial postdoc and early faculty phase. – Alex Kinman Jan 31 at 19:10

12 Answers 12

90

In CS field, an entry-level software engineer in top-tier tech companies (e.g. Google, Facebook, etc.) could earn as much as a 20-year experience professor....Why do so many PhDs still choose to be a professor while they have the choice to go to the industry?

First, your assumption is wrong. Most PhDs end up in industry. I don't have any source but I think this is from 90 - 99%.

If you limit your question to the 1% - 10% that become professors, they are all very successful, i.e. they have plenty of papers, promising research direction, strong network etc etc. And there is a reason for their success: they have passion, and when you have passion, money is likely not the most important thing in life.

Except for machine learning, in most areas in CS, you need to stay in academia to do research. And there are many benefits that you can only have when working in academia.

  • You take credit for what you have done. Products in industry are developed by a large team, and nobody can take full credit for it. But researchers can take full credit for what they do in their papers.
  • Reputation: you are invited to give talk, become program committee members, etc etc, and everybody will know you. I would be excited to meet an author whose paper I have read. I'm not excited at all to meet a Google employee. (I'm living in Mountain View, a small city with 80,000 residents, but more than 20,000 Google employees)
  • Do interesting jobs. You always work on new things in research, while the majority of tasks of a software engineer are maintenance, fix bugs etc.

(I'm a software engineer if you are curious)

  • Stand-alone answers and digressing discussions have been moved to chat. Please only post a comment if you have a specific suggestion how to improve the question. Otherwise post an answer or take it to chat. Also see this FAQ. – Wrzlprmft Feb 2 at 13:37
  • 4
    Sure, but a large chunk of the 90% have passion too. In my field, pure math, nearly everyone goes into the program with the intention of going into academia. There are far fewer jobs available than PhDs; and at the highest levels, success is a crap shoot: it depends on what contacts you make, how successful your unpredictable research projects wind up being, etc. – anomaly Feb 2 at 17:22
  • I'd also add that plenty of researchers & professor end up doing consultant jobs too. When a company needs know how in advanced stuff they will want to have someone that knows well the field to consult during the design&testing phases at least. Consultants are usually pretty expensive so a good professor doing just a couple of things like this per year will earn more than an engineer (yes engineers could do this to, except for their contract that probably forbids them from doing so and the lack of time) – Bakuriu Feb 3 at 17:18
  • 1
    Not exactly what you're looking for, but this science article says that whole over 50% of postdocs think they'll stay in academia, only ~20% do. The vast majority go to either industry to "other", which I suspect includes what many of us would consider industry. – eykanal Feb 4 at 0:11
  • I would like though to meet some google employees like Rob Pike or Ken_Thompson. Not to mention IBM employees or other companies. Academia and industry are closely related, wouldn't survive without each other. – mchar Feb 4 at 15:17
81

I've worked in industry science, and in academic science (as a PhD for both - I'm back in academia now).

Industry Science

  • The problems you're working on are tangible and usually very interesting
  • You have resources available
  • There are good things about a real HR department (never had a missed paycheck in industry science; never really worked more than 40 hours a week)
  • Most of your coworkers, even the dumb ones, are pleasant enough at work.
  • You will spend at least half your work week in meetings. Most of which will be valueless
  • Corporate middle management is usually staffed by people who are arrogant and self-serving enough to escape actual work, but too dumb to really do anything important. These people will usually supervise you. Daily.

Academic Science

  • The problems you're working on may be interesting or they might not be. Academic freedom is a misnomer - if you want to be successful, you're still as constrained in what you can do as industry science (IMO)

  • You are more resource limited, but usually have free or cheap labor available

  • There are good things about a fake HR department (you can finish all your annual trainings in 20 minutes on a computer)

  • You may spend a lot of time on administration, depending on your role

  • You may spend a lot of time teaching, but it's generally somewhat rewarding unless you're teaching intro stats to 600 people who would rather be high

  • Most of your coworkers, even the unpleasant ones, are smart and provide an intellectual environment that's usually positive

  • You usually don't report day-to-day to a idiot chimpanzee

  • You can make fun of corporate-speak without having a meeting about being a team player.

So I mean... there's good and bad on both sides. The pay gap exists but isn't as big as people think in most fields (when I left my last industry job for this academic job, the salary was pretty much the same). Just do what makes you not want to stab people every morning.

  • 9
    These are three separate schools; one's a giant public school, one's a giant private school, and one's a medium-sized private school. All R1s. I don't think my experience is unique. Academic HR is awful (but their incompetence is freeing - there's zero oversight from them). – user101106 Jan 31 at 17:11
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – ff524 Feb 4 at 15:02
  • Seems related to academia.stackexchange.com/questions/127433/… – Olórin Apr 6 at 11:23
20

As far as I see it, the main advantage that academia has over industry is freedom. In industry, you generally work on what your employer tells you to work on. As a professor, even at the entry level (assistant professor), you have quite a bit of leeway to work on what interests you, with the constraint that you have to find an agency that will give you money for at least some of it. Many postdocs and even some graduate students have the ability to come up with their own project ideas and pursue them, as long as they are somewhat consistent with their mentors' funding streams. The constraint of being able to find funding is a big one, but I still think that I have much more freedom than my friends in industry. As a professor, I only talk to my boss about what I'm doing once or twice per year. In academia, usually your boss is happy as long as you bring in grants.

Another reason to stay in academia is inertia. Once you've spent 5 years getting a PhD, you know a lot about what a career in academia looks like and have resources to help you move forward. Finding how your skills might fit in industry is less obvious and you might not know how to start.

  • 3
    I agree that freedom to pursue own research interests is grater in academia. But there is also quite some path dependcy. Within political science, for example, I can't work on political theory during my postdoc and then decide to apply for TT positions in international relations. -- And then there are also trends, fads, and potentially interesting problems and methods that unfortunately fell out of fashion. – henning Jan 31 at 20:19
  • 2
    With the constraint that you have to find someone to pay you to do it or it keeps your boss happy, is really the same side thing both sides of the fence. Plenty of non-academic roles that academics take up have a degree of freedom to direct what they entail. Plenty of academics are 'stuck' doing the thing they can get funding for. – drjpizzle Feb 1 at 13:22
16

(I had a much longer answer, but realized that it could be condensed. I also noticed your specific field of interest, Computer Science, which allowed further compression.)

Computer science != programming.

Thinking otherwise is an overwhelmingly common error, especially in industry. If you study computer science and that is actually what you want to do, it is very difficult to find a position in industry. If you study computer science and want to write programs, that is a very easy position to find in industry, mostly because of the error I mentioned above.

  • 2
    And to further this, programming != software development – ivanivan Feb 4 at 15:56
13

I wish I could just "chose to be a professor". But you are correct in your assessment that, for people who chose to stay in academia, money could not be the motivation.

But, doing a PhD is not just obtaining another diploma, just another step in one's education. The knowledge (i.e. collection of facts related to your field of study) obtained during a PhD is so specific that it is not easily transferable. The transferable skills a PhD candidate trains for have to do with understanding scientific literature, being able to make connections, conclusions and get new ideas from it. After obtaining their PhD, one should be able to do that reasonably well with literature from any (sub)field related to theirs, after a short period of time needed to come up-to-speed with a new topic.

On the other hand, skills required for a software engineer are a different set of skills entirely. A masters education will sometimes familiarize you with the basic tools (programming languages) and concepts needed, but you eventually need to develop skills related to writing legible, repeatable, reusable code, which you mostly obtain by a lot of practice. Judging by some of the industry interviews I had after my PhD (in parallel with the postdoc interviews), I would've probably done much better in them before my PhD, or even before finishing my masters.

So, they're jobs requiring different skillsets. I chose Computer Science because it fulfilled me, unlike e.g. medicine or law. Taking this further, I want a research job because it gives me a sense of fulfilment I wouldn't get from a software engineering position. Pure research positions in top-tier companies are quite competitive, so there's a slim chance somebody who can't succeed obtaining a permanent faculty positions will be able to secure a research position in industry.

Some of the following points are what is important to me, rather what might be important to everybody, but I heard most of them echoed back to me from my colleagues in academia. Comparing research positions in industry and academia (though my experience in industry is limited to what I got from a few interviews, and then a few months where I was forced to take an industry job while waiting for my immigration documents):

  • Most research positions are much more flexible with working hours. People understand that, doing creative work, some days you just can't get anywhere, and some days you're on a streak and don't want to stop after 10 hours. People that are really not morning people can occasionally arrive late for lunch, and nobody says a word.

    In industry, I've heard arriving to work at 9:30AM is considered as having "flexible work hours".

  • Even in case of very strong research ties to industry, holding an academic position allows you to chose the problems you want to work on (possibly amongst several industry collaborations, but the choice is still made according to your research interests and research group).

    In industry, you need to work on the problems as dictated by the market, interesting be damned in favour of profitable.

  • In my academic interviews, people were interested in the problems I was tackling.

    In industry, people were interested in my problem solving skills. Nobody cared about what I applied them to, just whether I can apply it to the problems they would present me with.

  • Academic jobs are some of the most travelled jobs out there. During my PhD, I wouldn't be surprised if the amount the University covered for my travels would have easily closed the wage gap to industry. Conferences and professional visits are an integral part of academic research.

    Travelling with industry always has a promotional purpose.

  • I feel free to discuss my ideas with anybody, anywhere. I reach best conclusions through discussion. The thought of chatting about a topic, having an idea and having to bite my tongue is a bit terrifying to me. The worst that could happen is somebody poaching an undeveloped an untested idea and researching it themselves - not a terrible loss since I don't get to develop all of my ideas anyway.

    In industry, one needs to constantly think of confidentiality, and which details of their work they are allowed to disclose.

  • The goal of publications, as the "tangible products" of academic research, is to share your ideas, results and findings with the world. I enjoy the idea that my work is public and adding to the collective of human knowledge (let's not discuss paywalls right now...).

    In industry, all the ideas have to be intellectually protected before publishing: patented or whatever. The goal of publishing is not, precisely, to share your approach with the public. It is again promotional; to boast about the results you obtained with your new method; the details of which you might (need to) try and keep vague.

In my head, the list of contrasts goes on. It's little things and big things, but all in all, all the freedoms that staying in academic research allows me are worth more than the difference in monetary compensation industry could offer. If somebody wanted me to work a 9-5 job (or generously allowed me to work 9:30 till 5:30), working on their problems which I find marginally interesting, and not discuss my work with anybody not on their payroll (and sometimes not even that if employees are too competitive for promotions), they would have to offer me much more than the industry standards. Since I'm not a research rock star and nobody is going to offer me that, I guess I'll stay in adacemia if I can, and leave an industry engineering job as a fall-back option.

  • I wanted to write my own response but I realized it had too much in common with this one, so I'd rather comment. These are pretty much my reasons. I'd also add that scientific output tends to have a much larger shelf-life than whatever one is producing (if at all!) in the industry (including code). – darij grinberg Feb 3 at 1:21
10

A few other points.

  • Not everyone has an enormous industry to fall back on. The body of your post mentions CS, but your title doesn't limit to science fields. There is no high-paying industry for most people in the humanities, subfields of linguistics, psychology, imaging.

  • Personally, I'm glad I don't work for a private company and "produce value for shareholders."

  • Many universities are still good places to work in terms of benefits; good retirement, medical, and other perks, especially in public schools that can offer government benefits. My university has a pretty generous vacation schedule, even if a lot of people don't take their days.

  • And it's doubly funny, because I feel like it's rare in CS for "many" PhDs to join academia instead of industry. CS is one of the fields where colleges struggle to hire because there are no applicants. – Morgan Rodgers Feb 2 at 22:52
  • I'm not in CS, but that sounds reasonable – Azor Ahai Feb 4 at 14:33
8

Because all our role models are in academia, and academia is what we know.

A Bachelor student, Master student, or PhD student will be working in a university environment. He or she will be exposed to successful researchers, internally within their university, externally when they are visiting, or when he or she is visiting a conference or even reading papers. The power of role models is very large. This reinforces the selection bias. When all the role models are within academia, academia becomes the known option. Industry? I don't know anybody in industry, they don't go to conferences and they don't even have employee websites, only vague and general LinkedIn profiles. They probably never come and give guest lectures. They might visit a careers fair at my uni, but hey, I'm a postdoc and already have a job, why should I go to a careers fair, those are for undergrads, right? In addition to what WaterMolecule and James Fennell have pointed out, this inertia is not only a matter of sticking with what we have: it is a matter of sticking with what we know: to remain in the protective cocoon of Academia.

PhD comics cocoon
Source: PhD Comics

5

I think that most of the existing answers have a flaw: they list out some rational pros of academia versus industry, assume that PhD graduates act completely rationally, and then conclude that many stay in academia for the reasons listed.

From my experience at least (mathematics PhD, now software engineer) this is not how it works. I think a huge factor in PhDs staying in academia is simply inertia. At every stage in the career process of an academic, staying in academia is the short term easiest option. When I was graduating from my PhD, it would have taken me two or three weeks to prepare post-doc applications and submit them; applying for industry jobs took three to four months of full time re-training and the significant risk that it actually wouldn't work. In the long term, for me, it was the much better option - but at the point where I had to choose, I was tempted to take the short term easy way out.

In mathematics nowadays, most PhD graduates can expect to have two or more post-docs. During this time they will have very little financial and geographic security (you have to move to where the one post-doc you were accepted for is). Foreigners in the United States, like me, also have very little immigration security during this time, whereas good private sector employers will have green cards for their foreign PhD-graduate employees within 2-3 years. Post-doc salaries are about half those in industry for recently graduated PhDs.

The fact that, despite this chronic situation in the jobs market, many PhDs continue in academia is a strong indicator in my opinion that rationality is not the main determinant.

4

Socially acceptable answers:

  • Becoming a professor is unlikely to be the goal of the majority of Ph.D. students.

  • Can demand higher salary upon joining company

  • To pursue their own interests and passion without pressure from company

  • To teach others and continue to learn.

Socially unacceptable answers:

  • Pathway to immigration into wealthy, Western societies. Count the number of Chinese, Indian and Iranian Ph.D. students in your research field and their overwhelming white, Anglo research advisors and calculate this ratio.

  • Pathway into high paying companies, especially by people who did not study a lucrative major. I cannot tell you how many people I know from civil engineering or chemical engineering have used their Ph.D. as a way to learn advanced software courses and join Google or a bank afterward.

  • They cannot cut it in the competitive industry world. Industry routinely does their own research but they usually hire the really big names: inventors, people who have written books, etc.

  • 1
    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Also, please stay nice. – Wrzlprmft Jan 31 at 20:25
  • 1
    How does one use a PhD "to learn advanced software courses"? – Martin F Feb 2 at 0:22
  • 4
    @MartinF A lot of universities offer courses in scientific computing, AI/ML, modeling, etc. at the graduate level and you don't have to be part of the major to take them. Contrast with undergraduate programs where you might have pre-reqs to take the same classes. – anonymous Feb 4 at 3:34
  • 1
    @MartinF What do you mean, you just take a course. That's it. Again, I cannot tell you how many people who are studying biochem or doing some stuff like finite-element modeling are taking algorithms, software engineering, machine learning and other computing courses on the side, with the firm intention of joining a software firm afterwards and never looking back – The man of your dream Feb 4 at 4:24
2

The two main reasons I can think of (thought of at the time this was relevant to me):

  • Momentum:

    • You've stamped your name a bit of the world.
    • You've got to grips with a lot of things unique to this world. Things that might not be valued elsewhere.
    • You know you are good at what you doing.

    You don't necessarily want to give that up and jump to something that's realistically a very different skill set.

  • There are some roads industry doesn't go down:

    Unless there is a perceived short-term, competitive, advantage in knowing the answer to a question, it's hard to get industry to take the question seriously. This won't affect everyone. Lot's of interesting questions do have answers that are competitive advantages. But there is a reason academics are often considered not to be 'down-to-earth": if it's a down to earth question you want to answer, you can normally get someone to pay you answer it better elsewhere than in academia, so you do tend to leave. If not... you have your answer.

2

As far as I know in the majority of the cases (not all, of course) people stay in academia without being so deep in reasoning about comparisons between academia and industry.

They studied there, they had many friend around them, perceived professors as bosses and, when they find a way to begin that career, they do it.

Moreover very often families are proud of them for being “university researcher” and money is no a major problem in the initial period.

So they stay there and are very happy of this.

A part this category, few people really make a choice and have precise targets in minds; another few people come back to academia after some years of industry; another few people begin to teach back to academia after many years of industry having in mind the idea to boost the preparation of student in a way that industry need, and so on.

As a rule the percentage of “stay in academia” is about 1-2%, the percentage of target minded less than 0.1%, that of “back in academia” again 1% or less, that of “teach back” something around 0.01% or less. These figures depend on your country as well.

(Btw: I’ve been part of “teach back” people, even if, at the moment, I’m mainly deeply involved in industry projects again and do not teach or research for university anymore).

  • Actually, my family might be "proud to the outside" for me being a "university researcher", but privately keep asking me when am I finally going to get out of school, and why don't I go work where they pay me what I deserve (mind you, I'm fine financially). Also, there actually used to be quite a bit of chatter about academia vs. industry where I was doing my PhD, so while they might not have gone "deep in reasoning", I know a lot of my peers from my PhD at least considered it. – penelope Feb 4 at 15:33
-1

The pay ain't that much lower in academia as compared to industry in all countries. In several places you can earn say 70-90% of what you would as a junior "newly baked" M.Sc.

And then spend perhaps 4 paid hours per day doing what you love most in the world instead of hmm what do I know..., fix someone elses bug (who quit for a long time ago) or writing soul-numbing requirements.

  • Where in the world do you think academics work four hours a day?!? – Morgan Rodgers Feb 3 at 15:17
  • 1
    @MorganRodgers that's not what I wrote. I wrote get the time do do the funny part (aka research) of the job 4 hours a day. – mathreadler Feb 3 at 18:26

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.