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I am applying for a PhD position, and am wondering about the differences between a PhD and someone with work experience (or research experience in industry).

What I love about doing research is that I can devote myself to solving an actual problem. I decided to study for my PhD from my childhood, but now it seems to have become an obsession. It feels like I can only fulfill myself after finishing the doctoral study. But what can PhD experience bring me? These days I've been thinking about what would be different if I had chosen to work instead of pursuing a PhD. I could also do experiments and conduct some research projects in a company. Are there any skills I can only learn during my doctoral studies?

I have read some websites that gave me very general ideas, like communication skills, self-starter and project management, but I think I can also develop these skills in a job, even in my Bachelor's or Master's.

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    Different people do it for different reasons: some, because they like research, some, because they like teaching, some like a (relative) independence, some want to be administrators, some because they do not know what else to do.... Oct 31, 2023 at 4:00
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    This will be field (and possibly country) specific. Is it possible to specify the field? Oct 31, 2023 at 10:21
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    "But what can PhD experience bring me?" The possibility of having an academic career. Most academic positions require a PhD. You can acquire whatever skills you like in any way you like, but if you don't have a PhD, it's going to be orders of magnitude more difficult for you to have a career in academia (at least in the Western academia). Oct 31, 2023 at 10:57
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    @RichardErickson Yes, it can answer my question.
    – xuehua an
    Nov 1, 2023 at 2:24

2 Answers 2

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First note that industrial research is, with some exceptions, generally very applied and usually product focused. Academic research, also with exceptions, is generally focused on expanding the known in new directions and fields. That is quite different.

Some large companies have general research groups, but even there, most of the research is focused on the needs of the company, not the needs of scholarship and of society.

So, if your research goals are very applied and of use to some industrial sector, then a PhD might not offer many skills over what you could obtain in some large and profitable company (or a focused startup, perhaps).

Another major issue is the field. If you want to do high-energy physics then the opportunities lie almost entirely in academia, just because of the equipment needed. At the other end of the scale, pure mathematics doesn't fit well with most company's goals.

Another possible issue is that much industry research is proprietary and so contact outside the company may be enjoined and publication might be impossible. Most academics are encouraged to build wide circles of contact leading to collaboration, which is an effective way to explore (and even to find) ideas for research.

So, while there are possibilities for doing meaningful research in companies it is quite different than that typically done in universities and some (not all) government sponsored labs.

There are some industry situations that are quite similar to academia, but they are rare, meaning that you aren't especially likely to be able to find a suitable position there. I know some such folks in the CS field and they are very happy, productive and, well known, but, again, the exception, not the rule.

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  • Thank you for your answer! I am applying for PhD in biomedicine/molecular biology, very fundamental but is my passion. I get it now that working in a company can never bring the same satisfaction comparing to doctoral work. And I love collaborating and communicating with other researchers, and all the academic conferences!
    – xuehua an
    Oct 31, 2023 at 13:24
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In the life sciences, more or less, a PhD is required for most industry jobs above the most junior, so there isn't the oppotunity to learn research skills in industry.

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  • As an aside and for my own information, is the split between pure and applied (product focused) as strong in the life sciences as it is in some other fields? My suspicion is that it might not be the same.
    – Buffy
    Oct 31, 2023 at 16:34
  • @Buffy Yes and No. I once had a top ecologist tell me (as an undergrad) that one could complete the same PhD project with the same scientific questions (e.g., soil microbial communities, community ecology) in a h many different department (e.g., applied forestry, theoretical ecology). However, the grad experience would be very different. I think the technical and methods tools cross-over easier, but context and soft skills differ. So, no to science, yes to people and cliques, and probably to technology transfer. Oct 31, 2023 at 18:27
  • Ian, +1. I had a friend in grad school who hit a glass ceiling and needed a PhD to get promoted in a Pharma company so back to school she went. Oct 31, 2023 at 18:28
  • @buffy in the more molecular side of things I'd say there is less of a divide. Many of us do both applied (to bring in the money) and pure (because that's what we enjoy) in the same research group. Although there are purely applied groups. Oct 31, 2023 at 23:05

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