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Academia as a career option

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A number of people who have a high level of intellectual curiosity and like intellectual stimulation are attracted to academia as a career option. On this page, we list a number of consideration for and against academia as a career option.

This article is written primarily based on the structure of academia in the United States. The situation differs somewhat in other countries. Specifically, the procedures related to tenure and funding are somewhat different in other countries. However, many of the general points apply.

Key takeaways

  • Entry versus exit asymmetry: Academia is easier to leave than re-enter. This argues in favor of staying within academia for the time being if you think there is a reasonable chance that you might want to stay there in the long term.
  • The funnel of academia: The number of positions available in academia decrease sharply at each stage. The number of graduate students in a discipline substantially exceeds the number of post-doctoral positions, which in turn exceeds the number of people in tenure track positions, which in turn exceeds the number of people who receive tenure. At every stage, competition is severe in the strictly numerical sense. This can have a number of repercussions.
  • Low earnings relative to skill levels: For most branches of academia, people earn substantially less than what comparably skilled people could earn outside academia. The comparison may not control for dispositional factors that make the people in academia unsuited for non-academic jobs.
  • Work-life balance: The job is fairly flexible, with minimal "turn up at the office" type requirements. On the flip side, people in academia tend to find it harder to keep a clean separation between work hours and non-work hours, so that work often intrudes on holiday time. The main difficulty with the job arises from the high pressure to publish in order to gain tenure.
  • Social value calculation: With the exception of some parts of academia, and/or people at extremely high levels of accomplishment in most parts of academia, academia does not produce high per capita social impact.

Entry versus exit asymmetry

In general, it is easy to leave academia for industry, but hard to join academia from industry. Some cases are discussed below.

Taking a gap before starting graduate studies

Some students consider applying to graduate school (for a Ph. D. program) after spending a year or more in industry. Keep the following in mind:

  • There is no specific penalty for taking years off before applying to graduate school.
  • However, preparing one's application and arranging for recommendation letters can be marginally harder, because graduate school admissions generally depend on the strength of the recommendations of teachers and advisors from one's undergraduate studies.
  • There are some subjects where achievements in a work environment can provide an asset to the application. For instance, people who work on specific projects related to machine learning or AI in companies might benefit somewhat from this experience when applying for a graduate program in machine learning. Similarly, certain types of experience with social work might be viewed as an asset in graduate schools on social work. However, as a general rule, work experience in and of itself does not constitute an advantage.

If you are a student in your final year of undergraduate studies who is unsure of whether to begin graduate school, consider the following options:

  1. Apply to graduate schools while in the final year of undergraduate studies, then, after getting an admission, defer for a year where you can work in industry. A number of graduate programs allow students to defer admission.
  2. Join a graduate program, and re-evaluate the decision to continue after finishing the equivalent of a Masters degree. Most doctoral programs, even though they admit students directly for the doctoral degree, allow students to leave with a Masters degree.
  3. Take the relevant tests (such as subject GREs) and get recommendation letters drafted from your advisors so that it is easy to apply to graduate school a year or two later.