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I will be finishing my PhD soon, and I have a just managed to a get job lined up in industry. I previously received an offer for a postdoc position but for various reasons had to turn it down.

Longer term I would love to be able to return to academia, maybe even build a career straddling the two in some way. But I'm concerned that the door will close on academia if I'm out of it for too long.

While I am working in industry in the next few coming years, what can I do to put myself in the best position to make a return to academia? Obviously things like keeping up to speed with my field is a given, but publishing papers is something that would have to happen outside of a full time job, and that could be a struggle. The job I'm taking has some indirect relevance to my field and obviously some transferable skills. There is also a small (10%) research component.

I'd love to hear from people who have successfully switched between the two

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  • Publish in your industrial position, publish work that you never finished, attend conferences (getting your employer to pay), maintain networks, ....
    – user2768
    Apr 12 at 8:34
  • I agree with the already posted advice about maintaining contacts, teaching a bit on the side if you can, and continue to research/publish. I know that last one can be especially difficult to make time for when it's not already part of your job description. That said, I would suggest trying to do collaborative work with your academic contacts. You'd maintain connections, and working collaboratively would (theoretically) lighten the research load and make it a bit easier for you to pursue as a side gig.
    – Ace
    Apr 13 at 1:52
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Aside from becoming famous for your published work there are a couple of things, both of them a bit difficult.

First, stay in contact with the academic world. Maintain contacts with professors. Work informally with students if you can find the opportunity to do so. Offer to teach some advanced course in your specialty as an adjunct. Attend a research conference occasionally where both academics and industry researchers congregate and share interests.

Second, and this sounds a bit strange, I know, don't get yourself into a financial situation where you absolutely can't live on a much smaller salary. If your life-style demands every dollar of your industrial salary, then you won't be able to make a transition. Make sensible investments that leave you secure enough to move and make sure long term financial planning leaves you flexible.

I have a friend, whom I've mentioned elsewhere. We both went to good universities (PhD) with good advisors. We are close to the same age and now both retired. His salary was always about twice what mine was. He worked in industry. I was in academia. Both of us were well paid for our respective positions.

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  • This is fantastic advice, especially the financial part, I never even considered that. Some of the points you make actually reminded of a lecturer I once had who was still working in industry, but lecturing at uni. Makes me wonder if he was attempting to keep one foot in academia as well...
    – Phill
    Apr 13 at 2:15
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In Germany there are actually quite a lot of such positions at the so-called Fachhochschulen. To be a professor there, it is actually expected to have worked in Industry for at least 3 years (or so, depending on the state) and share your industry experience for a more applied education of students. Of course, an excellent PhD is also necessary. And usually one needs to have some form of achievements while being in industry; e.g. papers, presentations, patents, rise to leadership positions, cooperations with academia, or similar; such that continued applied reseach can be expected.

This is in addition to the comments of @user2768 and @A rural reader.

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  • Excellent to know this @MarkusLangeHegermann. I ought to have qualified my answer as one person's experience in the US. It sounds like a very promising system in Germany! Apr 12 at 17:09
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    It's worth mentioning that professorships at a Fachhochschule (FH) usually come with a much higher teaching load than their university counterparts. Due to having substantially less time for research, FH professors are often not internationally visible with their research. Apr 12 at 19:46
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At least one version of this was pretty common in some fields many years ago: Work for a number of years, say a decade or two, then return to academia with your experience to share. That experience was valued and welcomed. I have to say I haven't seen that in a very long time, though I'm sure it happens now and again. The change seems to have resulted naturally from a combination of financial realities in academia, changes in institutional priorities, overproduction of PhDs, and maybe somehow the law of diminishing returns.

I think your best bet is to follow the advice of @user2768 above and hope for the best, but enjoy what you do and reflect every now and then on how you see life vis a vis your career. If it feels like a crossroads, a difficult decision, yes it is.

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