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I am about to submit my application to a PhD in Statistics and I was wondering whether writing in the SoP about being willing to work in the industry to make a tangible impact would downgrade my application with respect to writing that I would enjoy being a professor in the future.

They already make clear that they prefer recommendations from academics rather than practitioners but I do not know what figures they expect to train (professors vs. practitioners).

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    Who can predict how individuals make such judgements. I doubt that it is much of a factor. Every judgement will be different in the absence of some stated institutional preference or rule. But it is better to be honest in your SoP than otherwise. – Buffy Jan 23 at 11:59
  • For anyone reading this with a general-sounding title, it's important to note that the answer will vary widely by what field you're in. – Jeff Jan 23 at 14:01
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    I doubt it, as probably 1% of PhD students will go on to be professors. – Tom Jan 23 at 22:37
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    The idea that people should commit to Academia before the PhD (where they learn how research, academia are and how the general "academic spirit" is) sounds wrong to me. However, I talked to many profs (in and outside my department) who would never give a chance to someone who openly prefers Industry over Academia (my experience is the more famous a prof is, the more of this biases they have). – user111388 Jan 24 at 7:18
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    "willing" is an odd word to use - it makes it sound like you're saying that industry is the compromise you're happy to make, which in turn makes it sound like you're expecting to settle for second best. If you want to work in industry and have it as your preferred outcome, then you might want to consider a different phrasing. – Andrew Jan 24 at 21:56
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Yes (but it's usually an unconscious bias, and not openly stated).

Many academics consider failing to become a professor actual "failure". An academic career is supposed to be a vocation. PhD students are supposed to be passionate about the topic, so much so that they'll want to continue to work on it after graduating. The best graduate students go on to become professors; the not-so-good ones are eliminated and "get a job" (because being an academic isn't actually a job!). The belief is pervasive enough that many academics who quit felt compelled to write blogs about why they're quitting and why they don't consider themselves to have failed.

Viewed this way, a prospective PhD student openly states they want to work in industry is a red flag. They've already ruled themselves out of being the best, they're likely to fail. Admission committees might not think this crassly, but they'll come up with the closely-related reasons "not passionate enough" or "applicant is not motivated by the subject, therefore when things inevitably go badly in the PhD they might drop out", both of which stem from the idea that the only way to be sure the applicant is passionate/motivated enough is for them to want to be a professor.

Granted not all academics think like this, but unless you are certain otherwise (e.g., you are applying to work under Phillip Greenspun, or the program description explicitly says they have an eye on preparing students for industry jobs), I think you should err on the side of caution and say you will consider an academic career even if you are almost certain you will join industry, or at least be non-committal about your future plans.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal Jan 24 at 15:00
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Nearly all PhD students will never be professors. Some PhD programs might prefer to recruit PhD students who intend to become professors, but sensible PhD programs will realize that students who wish to work in industry are students capable of making a realistic plan. That is a good thing.

Stating your intent to work in industry is unlikely to hurt your application. If it does, then you probably applied to a program that will not help you reach your goals.

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PhD admission committees are made up of people, and people are notorious for having individual opinions that vary greatly from one person to the next. So: some people may care; others won’t care; and some people will care, but in the opposite direction from what you think. (For example, if I were to read your SOP and got a sense that you want a PhD because you have a passion for changing the world through groundbreaking industry applications of statistics, I would regard that as a wonderful motivation to have, and one that is much better than the generic “I’ve always dreamed of becoming a professor” line I see in every other grad school application I look at. Disclaimer: I’m in pure math, not statistics.)

For that reason, personally I feel it’s a fool’s errand to try to game the admissions system by trying to guess what the admissions committee “really” wants to hear and then give it to them.

Of course, I am confident that now that I have publicly posted this bit of wisdom, grad school applicants everywhere will stop these silly guessing games and just write the honest truth about who they are and why they want to do a PhD.

Anyway, best of luck with your applications, and my apologies for this non-answer.

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    +1, especially the second paragraph. – Buffy Jan 24 at 12:38
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I am faculty in a Biostats department. In my experience, there is a small premium placed on students who are likely to remain in academia (doesn't matter what fashion) in that they are more likely to publish components of their dissertation. As these papers often include substantial contributions from their advisors, this means more senior-authored papers for the advisor. However, a PhD is such a winding road, students who claim to be dead-set on acquiring a faculty position will not seem so credible in a personal statement.

My advice: do be honest with what sort of problems excite you, and why they motivate you to pursue a PhD. But perhaps do not spend much time describing your eagerness to enter industry per se. After all, a PhD is a poor time and money investment for an industry career in statistics / data science right now.

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this generally seems to be the case in econ. not sure how it is in stats. my advice is to say that you want to be in academia and don't hint that you'd rather do something else even if that's the case. i agree with others that it's very hard to get a job in academia and that you should have a backup plan as a result, but for the sake of maximizing your chances of getting in, please keep those non-academic plans secret.

phd programs are for producing academic researchers. the thing about getting recommendations from academics instead of practitioners for this purpose is that academics will generally be far better judges of your ability to survive a phd program and become a successful researcher than someone who has never taught in one or even been through one.

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  • The researchers I know who are or have been at IBM, Google, Sun Microsystems Bell Labs, Oracle, Honeywell, etc. all have PhDs. Are they all just failed "academics". Oh, and they all earned about twice or so what I did. The summers were mine, of course. – Buffy Jan 23 at 22:52
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    @Buffy i wouldn't call anyone who goes into industry instead of academia a failure. the job market is how it is and we all have to make a living. phd admissions committees should be more realistic about what their students can do given the scarce supply of academic jobs across fields. – qwerty Jan 23 at 23:01
  • All of them chose industry. It wasn't forced on them. If you were in CS you would recognize many of the names. And the OP here suggest a preference for industry. – Buffy Jan 23 at 23:03
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    well, if that's what they really wanted, then i'm happy for them. nevertheless phd admissions committees generally have this narrow way of thinking. – qwerty Jan 23 at 23:21
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    "phd programs are for producing academic researchers" This does not reflect the reality of what PhDs do after their degree, so I consider it false. In reality PhD programs mostly train students to be nonacademics who are capable of research. – Anonymous Physicist Jan 24 at 9:30
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I think it's difficult to answer this question universally. However, you can look at the placement record of the institution of which you are applying. If many previous graduates go on to academia, then you might be hurting your chances at that particular school in stating a desire for industry. If it's 50/50 or even more-so weighted on industry, then it probably doesn't matter. Of course, applying to grad school is always a crapshoot, but this is a way to get some 'data'.

Generally speaking, however, I would be honest with yourself and your application. I'm currently a PhD student in a statistics department, and a good department and good faculty/adviser (both of which can be hard to find) will help you reach your goals. It's going to be a long 4-5 years if you're working towards a goal you don't really want.

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  • This is a great answer because it points to the fact that this is rather department (read rankings) dependent. – Dawn Feb 4 at 15:50
  • Actually, if I were teaching at a department with a high industry placement percentage, I would want applicants to say they wanted to do research in industry to make sure I was admitting people who were a good match. – Dawn Feb 4 at 15:53

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