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With practical experience before and during my studies, after graduation, I took up the role of a junior research engineer in an international company (halfheartedly trying to develop some research ideas for a PhD aside of quite an intense job back then). Three years later, I changed occupation and spent about two years as a freelancer. After these five years, I returned to uni to focus on research and did my PhD, with the firm goal to pursue an academic career at a university. Now, after having been in the academic circus for more than a decade with a quite normal research and teaching track record, in job applications, I'm frequently encountering the argument that the candidate has published little in comparison with their peers. I to myself, well sure, I'm missing five full years of publishing, and some of you may know, you can do a hell of a lot in five years. My question complements questions about applying for studies, PhD programmes, and related decisions and is not only about the transition into an academic career.

So, how relevant is industrial experience (in my case, in the STEM/CS field) for pursuing an academic career successfully in the long-term? How likely is this time in industry getting in the way of an academic endeavor? My question should also be seen in the light of the unwritten but observable rule that only people with streamlined CVs are successful.

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I can share my experience, but it is a little different than yours. I went to grad school after college, got my PhD in CS with a decent publication record, and did two short postdocs. Then I became a research scientist at a tech company. I had a lot of freedom to do my own research and publish, so my publication record had no gaps.

Once per week, I would teach a graduate course at an Ivy League institution, which my company was happy that I did. This experience, and other matters, helped me decide that I would feel happier in an academic environment, so I applied for faculty jobs, and I got a very good job in my second round of applications. I stayed at the company 4 years in total.

Because my publication record had no gaps, and I was a research scientist (titles are important), I don't think there were issues in terms of how my research was evaluated when I applied to faculty jobs. But at the same time, in my application materials (all of them: cover letter, research statement, teaching statement, DEI statement), I tried to give a positive spin to my industry experience, explaining how it would inform my research, teaching, and DEI approach, and how it would benefit the students, the department, and the institution I was applying to.

So, if I may suggest something: try to present your industry experience as something positive, that makes you special as a candidate, and would benefit the place/people where you're applying.

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    Especially in engineering and CS fields, many of the schools I was applying to would advertise what percentage of faculty had industry experience.
    – Esther
    Commented Feb 9, 2023 at 20:54
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    Thanks, Matteo. Yes, your experience seems to significantly differ from mine. My publication record has a big gap, because the industrial environment made me unable to publish a lot. There was just far too much day-to-day work to be done even in the extra hours. And I dared to allow myself having some kind of private life back then. I am presenting the experience in a positive light in my cover letters. So, I think it has no negative effect, but it would have been better not to go to industry in the first place.
    – mfg
    Commented Feb 12, 2023 at 11:39
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    Esther, thanks for mentioning. I've never seen or heard of this. Sounds interesting. What I know is that in some countries and at certain unis, real industry experience is valued more. I believe, being in an industrial research unit with high reputation could possibly be of advantage. But rather plain practical experience might not. I don't know.
    – mfg
    Commented Feb 12, 2023 at 11:41
  • Just to add to this, I was at a university where one of the CS professor there ran a company and taught classes. He was not involved in any research (last publication in the 90s when he got his phd). What I remember from him talking to us, is that when they reached out to hire him they told him they wanted him to keep running his business and not to worry about publishing as they wanted a CS professor who was working in industry Commented Nov 14, 2023 at 21:10

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