I am an engineering PhD student in the "academic bubble". I have no personal connections to the industry and have little to no clue as to how it operates. One of the things that appeals to me most about academia is that it is largely meritocratic (at least as far as an institution this large can be) and linear - publish enough good work and you'll eventually move your way up the "ranks" to the top job - professorship.

I've heard off-hand that this is not the case in the industry - that a glass ceiling keeps the "top jobs" virtually out of reach unless well connected (usually nepotistically) and that there is a great deal of frustration with regards to the "job ladder" in general.

This seems overly cynical to me but as aforementioned I have no experience with the industry. So my interconnected questions are as follows:

What are the practical differences between promotions in academia and promotions in the industry? Are there differences in how much of a role "luck" or "connections" make? Are the paths to the "top jobs" as clearly defined as they are in academia? Will anybody motivated and competent enough make it to the top as often as they would in an academic setting?

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    My experience is that this varies wildly with the specific industry.
    – knzhou
    Commented Aug 30, 2019 at 6:41
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    Would the military count?
    – nick012000
    Commented Aug 30, 2019 at 6:52
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    It's perhaps worth mentioning that the "top jobs" in industry often involve managing, so that the technical expertise matters much less than in the lower jobs. Hence, promoting people primarily based on merits obtained in their lower jobs makes little sense in many cases. In academic, there is this (slightly odd) idea that steering the department and scientific leadership should be done by the same people (i.e., professors), where promotion based on academic merits makes more sense.
    – DCTLib
    Commented Aug 30, 2019 at 6:55
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    A very interesting related question would be the extent to which there is meritocracy within academia. (The extreme answers of "totally" and "not at all" are almost certainly wrong.)
    – Tommi
    Commented Aug 30, 2019 at 6:55
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    I don't think academia is as meritocratic as you think. Probably about the same as industry and I've done both.
    – atom44
    Commented Aug 30, 2019 at 18:13

1 Answer 1


What is a top job?

The "top" of the profession isn't always clear outside of academia. In addition, your premise is arguable; while tenured professors are the highest ranked producers, you will often find that deans and other leadership roles have more authority within the organization and higher pay.

Promotional potential

This somewhat mirrors industry. Most firms have several levels of seniority or expertise in their engineering ranks, and many projects or departments have a chief engineer. Ultimately, however, there will be executives with authority over the engineers who are typically both non-technical and highly paid. On top of that, in my industry, it's about 50/50 between project managers with technical backgrounds vs MBAs.

Career paths

Often, there will be hints or outright questions from your managers about your career goals. You seem like you'd prefer the technical path (vs the managerial path) when opportunities arise for development or promotion.

Engineers can typically find employment in a variety of industries, but you would expect to start in a better position if you work for a company where your research is somewhat relevant.

Your industry will influence which certifications, skills, and experience are most valuable; there are no universal metrics comparable to the traditional academic metrics such as publication/citation count, H-index, or impact factor.

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