Ponders of a PhD Student: Academia or Industry?



What are you going to do after your PhD? It is a much dreaded question for every PhD student, whether you’re near the end or not. But ultimately, besides leading to an existential crisis of medium proportions, this question triggers another question: am I going to continue in academia (vote: remain) or am I going to move into industry (vote: leave). Now we know the outcome for voting leave vs. remain (it’s a Brexit joke, I’m trying to make that circus relevant again, because it’s damn sure not over yet!). But when it comes to figuring out whether it’s going to be academia or industry, the votes are out. Should I stay or should I go?



I’m about to head into my final year of the PhD. The British academic year starts in October. I wouldn’t be surprised if the start of the academic year coincided with my birthday again. This happened when I turned 21, it was the day that I also started my MSc. This year I’ll enter my last year of the PhD on the 5th of October (I just checked), I will have just turned 25 (on the 3rd). I wish I could say I’d become wiser, but the only thing I can state is an empirical validation of the Dunning-Krueger effect. Yes, I know more, yet less, now. I have conducted interviews, both here on this blog and for the Questioning Behaviour Podcast with Sarah, and genuinely, the more stories, career paths, advice and biographies I consume, the less sure I am myself. There’s positives and negatives to either.


In academia you can go pretty hard on your own research, that is in fact literally your job. You can do research that wouldn’t be economically viable for business (read: no one would you pay you to do it). Academia is freer in that regard, but you won’t escape writing grants either, so that’s another dead-end. Then again, some industry sectors have a lot of money to spend, and we’re talking amounts that are a lot higher than those in academia. It’s also businesses who can collect a lot of data on their users and consumers, and there’s a tendency to keep this in-house, and not just hand it over the academics who are eager to write a journal paper. Things to consider… There’s also the angle of competition. Which sector is less competitive, and how so? Or maybe better put: in which sector do I stand the best chance to compete? I don’t think my background or topic helps a lot. PhDs are sometimes discouraged to enter industry if their background is too theoretical, too non-applied. In other words: too academic. But I’ve studied spending, money and payment methods. Me working for a bank, a fintech company or a financial regulator is really not that farfetched. I’m not saying they’re calling me on the daily to hire me, but I don’t think it’d be odd or superbly difficult to make “the switch.” Also, if you wish to hire me as a well-to-do-banker, I’m open to it. Hit me up! When it comes to which sector to choose because of doing pure research, your gut says academia, but is that still the case? I have my doubts. Several industry titans (I currently have Greg Davies in mind, but there are plenty others) have shown that their work is commercial, yet rigorous as hell. An academic can’t fault their work. Practically applied, easy to sell and academically sound. Everyone’s wet dream. So it is possible. But in that case, is that an argument for going to industry and leaning back into academia, or the other way round? Confusion galore!



Another piece of advice I have gotten from a quick call I had earlier today (28th of June, I write with a backlog) is this: “pick based on which people you want to surround yourself with, and which community you want to help grow and expand.” And although that is kick-ass advice, it doesn’t give me the answer I need. It’s not like I’ve met every practitioner and academic on the planet. From both sectors I’ve met bad and good. I’ve complained and raved about both. I need to sit down with myself and figure out what work needs to be done where, and where I’d prefer to do it. Something tells me there is work to be done with regards to rigour in industry. Industry relies on marketing, and marketing can lead to misrepresentation and a whole bunch of charlatans out there. But there’s so much good there too. So much ground that can still be covered. So much that can also be taught. Academic rigour can be taught outside of academia. Don’t make mistakes about that. But being a kickass female academic with loads of data, research money and eager collaborators from both academia and industry available sounds pretty dope too. But the structure of academia is effectively rigged against the young, and the female. I’m blind as a bat, I’m not sure I can see the glass ceiling coming before I hit it. But industry isn’t immune to that either, despite looking more diverse (to me). Another structural issue within academia: publish or perish. A rat-race which shows an absolute disregard for any academic work that doesn’t directly lead to published work. Goodbye supervision, tutoring and teaching, you’re just too last century. #whocares.


The joke here is that I don’t know the industry equivalent. I lack experience with industry. So not only am I comparing two sectors that sometimes are twins and sometimes are acquaintances-twice-removed, I’m comparing something I know directly to something I only know indirectly. I need help.


What it boils down is this: I think academia has structural issues when it comes to progression and I'm not here to sit still. Progression and growth are the name of the game. Another issue there is that the fast-track seems to be in the States, a country that I don’t think suits me very well (we have ideological differences). But is that just bias on my behalf? Then again, if it’s fast-track we’re looking for, progress has shown to be quicker in industry. It seems more diverse, deviating from the white-old-male norm, a norm that academia is still struggling with. And it doesn't have journal editors that determine what is worthy, and what isn't worthy of seeing the light of day, driving a WEIRD perspective. Driving an almost exclusively American perspective.

But can I fully commit myself to the agenda of a company, rather than my own research agenda? Can I commit to less flexible working hours (you don’t want to see my weekly planner, there’s no pattern or routine)? Can I be commercial? Am I thick skinned enough for industry? And when it comes to being tough, can I face the amount of rejection that academia is known for? No grants, no publications, trying 10 times to get a single study approved, funded, published. That's going to have an effect, and not a pretty one. And then when the results are finally published, we’re three years later (I'm not an economist), and it might have lost all relevance and is no longer helpful to anyone. Is being in the ivory tower enough, given that I’m from a generation that seems to burn out as soon as we feel we’re not making an impact? Can that impact be found in industry, or is that simply a marketing slogan we’ve fed into for too long?


There’s so many questions to ask, and not many that I've been able to satisfyingly answer. I change my mind to often. In the end it depends on who you are as a person, what you stand for, but also what phase you’re in. I’ve claimed for a long time I’d want to continue in academia, but that just almost seems the default as I’m in that trajectory. To be honest I’m not too sure anymore. Is it too late to say I don’t know?

I don’t know.


Do you?

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