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Academia as a career option

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This page evaluates academia as a career option. It provides information that can help you answer a question of the form Should I pursue a career in academia?
See all pages evaluating particular career options|See our main career selection pages: factors to consider, ...

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 considerations for and against academia as a career option (see our general page on career selection).

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.

You might also be interested in our page on alternatives to academia.

Key takeaways

Factor Summary of the answer for academia
Career preparation cost -- How much time, money, and effort is needed to prepare for this career? The standard route to academia is undergraduate studies, followed by graduate school, culminating in a Ph.D., then getting a post-doctoral or tenure track position. Those who cannot land a post-doctoral position may end up as adjunct faculty.
The time cost is much larger than for careers like finance, consulting, and law, but comparable to that for medicine. The assessment of financial cost is mixed: people in graduate school are generally exempt from paying tuition, and may even be able to earn enough money to meet their expenses, but have to live frugally and may not be able to save much.
Job security -- How likely is it that you will need to leave a particular job, and/or leave the career as a whole? Academia runs on a pyramid scheme: the number of positions decreases sharply at each successive stage (from undergraduate to graduate school to post-doctoral to tenure track to tenure).
This leads to low job security.
Exit flexibility -- How easy is it for you to switch away from the career? This depends on the particular academic discipline. In general, switching out is easy as long as one is willing to take a prestige and stage cut (for instance, a person may end up doing an entry-level job in industry after finishing a Ph.D., along with people who have just acquired undergraduate degrees). A few academic disciplines offer credentials and skill that can help acquire high-prestige jobs outside academia.
One important point is that it is hard to re-enter academia after leaving. Therefore, if in doubt, staying a little longer while weighing options makes more sense than leaving prematurely.
Job location options -- What options for location will you have, and how much flexibility will you have in selecting the location? The intense competitiveness of academic applications, combined with the geographic spread of places, makes it very difficult to predict where you'll end up working. In fact, it might be hard to even predict the sort of place you might end up living in (university in a vibrant city versus isolated university town).
Further, academic careers involve frequent moves.
All these can make life difficult for your spouse and also for raising children.
Job satisfaction -- How much will you enjoy your work? Academia is a good venue for intellectual curiosity. The main drawbacks are that publish or perish, high specialization, and the likelihood of not being at a top place all conspire to make it hard to rely on academia as a fertile environment for intellectual exploration.
It might still be better than the majority of other job options.
Earnings -- How much money will you earn, after adjusting for things like cost of schooling, taxes, and retirement benefits? Earnings in academia are low relative to skill levels. Moreover, the delayed start to earning makes the lifetime earnings even lower. Frequent moves can be costly.
Unlike medical or law school, there is no or minimal graduate school tuition. However, if you have to repay tuition for undergraduate school, you'd have to wait till you finish graduate school before you can start repaying it, and the debt could be significant.
Work-life balance -- How much time and flexibility will your job leave you to pursue other activities? Subject to the constraint that you are publishing enough (cf. the publish-or-perish syndrome), you have considerable flexibility and latitude in terms of what you choose to work on and how. Once you have tenure, the pressure to publish regularly is also lower. However, the pressure to publish is highest at the time when you are likely to be getting married and raising young children, and can get significantly in the way of childrearing.
Social value of work — How much will society benefit from your work? Social value from research is high either for academics who are exceptional in their field, or for academics working in fields that have considerable social value.
Generating social value through teaching does not require exceptional skill, but there are a number of reasons to believe that most university teaching does not generate as much social value as you could create in other careers.

Career preparation cost

Academic research involves extending the frontiers of human knowledge. Being prepared for this therefore requires fairly thorough mastery of a body of human knowledge to the level of the frontier. That requires several years of learning.

The measure of the time taken to prepare for academia depends on whether we include graduate school in the "preparation" time. Undergraduate studies, where one is learning and neither contributing nor earning, lasts 3-4 years. Graduate studies lasts 4-8 years in most disciplines. This time is spent learning, contributing a small amount of original research, and usually earning enough to meet one's short-run expenses but not enough to save for the future or repay student loans. Details may vary based on the subject and the university.

  • Directly taking a job outside academia after undergraduate studies typically means greater immediate earning than going to graduate school. The main cost of academia is therefore the substantial delay before one starts earning enough to save significantly or support a family.
  • Doctoral programs generally waive tuition costs, and they offer more opportunities to earn money (either based on one's research or through teaching duties), so they require less upfront investment of large sums of money than professional degrees such as law degrees, medical degrees, MBAs, and Masters degree in other subjects (such as the Masters in Financial Mathematics).
  • On the other hand, with the exception of medicine, most of these degrees are short and people can start earning huge sums of money almost immediately upon graduation.
  • The huge uncertainty of staying in academia (see the job security section) makes the career preparation costs even worse than they would otherwise appear.

Job security

The pyramid scheme of academia

The structure of academia has been called a pyramid scheme. The following general points are worth noting:

  1. At every stage of academia, there is a significant narrowing of positions from earlier stages. The number of undergraduate majors significantly exceeds the number of graduate student positions every year, which in turn significantly exceeds the number of new postdoctoral positions every year, which in turn exceeds the number of tenure track positions every year, which in turn exceeds the number of people awarded tenure every year.
  2. The fraction of this can be explained by the increasing size of academia is nonzero but very small. Explicitly, the number of people from the current batch of people entering graduate school this year who will eventually earn tenure exceeds the number of people who earn tenure this year, but this difference is quite small compared to the difference alluded to in point (1).
  3. While part of the contraction arises from people voluntarily leaving academia (rather than leaving because it is very difficult to continue in academia), that is unlikely to explain all the narrowing. However, whether or not people leave voluntarily, the fact that most people who initially intend to stay within academia leave eventually is a point against academia being a good long-term career choice.
  4. Despite the fact that a large fraction of the people at any given stage in academia are unlikely to proceed to the next, the discourse and incentives are generally set up in a way that gives people the superficial impression that continuing within academia is the natural option. For this reason, many people who would otherwise find it quite easy to transition out of academia harbor the mistaken impression that they are unemployable outside academia.

The narrowing of positions within academia

In any hierarchical organization, there are fewer positions at the top than at the bottom. This is for a variety of reasons -- the functioning of the hierarchy and cost considerations being dominant. Thus, the "narrowing" as we move up the academic ladder is not a priori surprising.

What makes academia different from promotion systems within organizations is its up or out system. In a non-academic setting, one can remain in a low-level job for one's whole life. In academia, it is not possible to stay at a low level for too long -- one either moves up or leaves. A student can stay a few extra years in graduate school, but not forever. Somebody may do two or three postdocs instead of one (usually at different places) but cannot keep doing postdocs for his or her whole life. Once somebody gets on the tenure track, they either get accepted for tenure or eventually have to leave academia.

The increasing size of academia does not explain this

The number of academics in most academic disciplines is increasing, but the increase is very gradual. (Put numbers here). Explicitly, the number of people from the current batch of people entering graduate school this year who will eventually earn tenure exceeds the number of people who earn tenure this year, but this difference is quite small compared to the narrowing.

Whether or not people leave voluntarily, it's still an argument against academia

While part of the contraction arises from people voluntarily leaving academia (rather than leaving because it is very difficult to continue in academia), that is unlikely to explain all the narrowing. However, whether or not people leave voluntarily, the fact that most people who initially intend to stay within academia leave eventually is a point against academia being a good long-term career choice.

Discourse within academia can obscure the fact that most people will not continue forever in academia

Academia is an insular system where the general stated convention is to assume that people are planning to continue to do research, even though many people do not end up staying in academia. Thus, somebody in the first few years of a Ph.D. program may fail to explore options outside academia and develop the contacts and skills that might help him or her transition to such a career after completion of the Ph.D., on the mistaken belief that academia is the only place for him or her. In some cases, people are led not only to overestimate the ease of staying within academia, but also underestimate the ease of moving out -- they may believe that they are unemployable outside academia. See, for instance, this article.

Exceptions: academia in developing countries and in obscure places within developed countries

Some developing countries, such as India, have a rapidly expanding academic sector. For these, the growth effect may outweigh the funnel effect. Further, since many people from these countries leave for other countries in academia, this further reduces the competition for top positions.

In addition, a number of lower-ranked universities even within the developed world can have fairly lax system for promotion and tenure.

The flip side of these is that the faculty peer group may not be sufficiently attractive to make staying in academia worthwhile. However, if you simply want to stay in academia and are not too concerned about pay or the immediate peer environment, this option is worth considering.

Exit flexibility

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.

Completing a Masters and then later returning to a Ph.D.

If you finished a Masters, then took some time off to work (or raise children, or travel the world), it would still be possible to apply for doctoral programs. However, most doctoral programs will not recognize your Masters coursework and you will either need to redo the coursework or take the qualifying examinations again. The Masters is unlikely to give you an edge in admissions.

An exception is worth noting: people who do three-year undergraduate programs (such as those in Europe, based on the Bologna process) may be considered either ineligible or at a significant disadvantage directly applying to graduate programs after that. It might be advisable for them to complete a masters program in their home countries and then apply. Details vary.

Taking time off after the Ph.D.

In a number of disciplines, particularly the "pure" ones where experience outside academia rarely helps with making academic progress, it is very difficult to re-enter academia if you take time off after your Ph.D. For this reason, students who want to experience life outside academia generally take a leave of absence for up to a year within graduate school. While it's also possible to take leaves of absence later in academia, the tenure clock starts ticking once one has completed graduate school, so people with their sights set on tenure generally avoid this.

Moving out of academia

Further information: Leaving academia after graduate school

It is relatively easy to move out of academia, but the following points should be noted:

  • For a number of jobs, people may find that they do not get much of a premium for graduate work or later work. So, they may find themselves assigned to similar jobs and earning similar incomes as people who have just completed undergraduate degrees. This can be somewhat disconcerting.
  • There do exist some jobs that pay a premium for Ph.Ds but this is mostly because of the signal of intellectual sophistication conferred by a Ph.D. At the object level, people may find that they are using very little of the skills and knowledge base they painstakingly developed in the course of acquiring a Ph.D.
  • There are a few rare jobs in industry that draw on skills honed while doing a Ph.D. An example is jobs at Google and Facebook for people who have done their graduate work in machine learning, artificial intelligence, or some forms of graph theory that are directly used at these companies. The same may be true of some forms of engineering and biomedical research that are directly relevant to factories or industry labs. This is more the exception than the rule, and people who want to have such options in the future should choose their subject of graduate work as one of the rare few that have applications outside academia.

This article offers some useful information on the subject, and advises people to quit academia after the Ph.D. unless they are sufficiently interested and are able to land a post-doctoral job.

Job location options

The convention of moving to a different place at each academic stage

In general, academic departments discriminate against people who have finished the previous stage of their academic life in the same place:

  • Graduate schools generally discriminate against undergraduates from the same university in admissions. The idea is to encourage these people to move elsewhere and obtain students from other universities, to facilitate greater circulation. Effectively, this means that people are required to relocate after their undergraduate studies.
  • Departments generally discriminate against hiring Ph.D.'s from the department for post-doctoral fellowships.
  • There is generally less explicit discrimination against hiring post-doctoral fellows to continue for tenure track positions. But the number of people who get to that stage is small in any case. It is still generally the case that a significant fraction of people relocate after completing their post-doctoral fellowship in order to start a tenure track job.

The huge geographic spread of academic universities and the lack of certainty of where one might get admission or a job offer

There are not too many top universities in any particularly geographic location. The top universities are geographically spread. Some of them are in isolated university towns. Even in cities, there are usually not more than 2 or 3 top universities. For instance, the Bay Area, a center of intellectual innovation, has only two top universities (Stanford and Berkeley) which are quite a distance from one another.

Even people who are highly academically talented and accomplished can rarely guarantee getting admission or a job offer at a specific university. So, they can rarely make future plans around where they'll be.

Some ways this can be a challenge:

  • If you have a spouse or cohabiting partner, then the frequent move can be difficult. If the spouse works in academia, then at every move, you both need to find jobs at the same or nearby universities. If you're working in different departments, then the departments may not coordinate hiring. If the spouse works in a profession where jobs are only available in big cities, then you need to restrict your job search to universities in or near big cities. For more, see the two-body problem page on Wikipedia.
  • If you have children, frequent moves can be difficult for the children. Anticipating this, you may delay childbearing until it is much later. This could particularly be an issue if you're interested in having a large number of children.

Job satisfaction

Further information: Culture of academia

There are many different reasons people enter academia, but the most striking ones are deep interest in a particular subject, intellectual curiosity, and a desire for intellectual stimulation. In terms of providing these, academia is a mixed bag. It is arguably preferable to other professions in these terms, but may not be as good as choosing to do a high-paying day job and seeking intellectual stimulation in one's free time.

Some of the plus points of academia are:

  • A dense concentration of smart and intellectually curious people with whom one can discuss issues, both within one's discipline, and in general.
  • A large number of events and venues for such discussion.
  • Teaching can also be a venue for feeling satisfied at helping people understand intellectually difficult but beautiful material.

However, the following need to be kept in mind:

  • The publish or perish incentive system in academia means that people are often focused more on delivering publishables than intellectual exploration. Even if you personally resist this, people around you may not, and therefore you may not find much of a peer group for intellectual exploration.
  • There is a huge degree of specialization within academia, making it difficult to communicate insights to colleagues outside your specialty.
  • For any given university, the undergraduate student body is less strongly selected than the graduate student body, which in turn is less strongly selected than the faculty. If you like teaching mainly because you expect students who are similar in ability and curiosity as you are, you're likely to be disappointed.

Earnings

Academics have higher earnings than the median residents of their countries. However, becoming an academic requires a number of qualities not found in median residents. People in a position to consider academia as a serious option are therefore likely to have many of these qualities. The relevant comparison is between academia and other options available to people with these qualities. The rough takeaways are:

  • Academia requires a high level of intelligence (general cognitive ability) as well as conscientiousness (dedication, perseverance, organization, willingness to work hard). People outside academia with similar levels of intelligence and conscientiousness significantly out-earn academics.
  • There may be other qualities that are harder to measure that academics possess and non-academics lack, or conversely, that non-academics possess and academics lack. For instance, academics probably have higher intellectual curiosity and intrinsic motivation to learn, since academia offers somewhat greater rewards for these. They are also likely to have lower ability to get through material that is tedious but not intellectually stimulating, though this is not universally true (academia often involves a lot of gruntwork, albeit within a context that is more intellectually stimulating overall).
  • For the most part, the subject matter knowledge acquired in academia beyond undergraduate studies does not lead to greater earning power (see the discussion at the section of this page on moving out of academia).

In particular, if earnings matters to you a lot, academia is at a significant disadvantage.

Work-life balance

There are mutually contradictory stories about work-life balance in academia. On the one hand, the small number of hours that one has to spend "reporting for duty" leaves considerable flexibility. On the other hand, the workload can be very demanding. The following are some considerations:

  • Low absolute number of hours where one's physical presence at a place at a particular time is necessitated by a job, and many months with no such constraints: Academics may have teaching loads ranging from 3 to 15 hours a week, and a few departmental meetings that rarely take more than 2-3 hours a week. This leaves a large amount of flexible time. Moreover, there are no reporting requirements during summer break.
  • Absence of a clean separation between work and non-work: Academics often maintain more odd hours than non-academics, carrying work through the evening and even late at night. This may be a simple result of having a flexible schedule, a hangover from their days as students, a result of the high absolute workload, or a consequence of the fact that academia relies on creative insight that often comes at unexpected moments. It is possible for people to maintain a clean separation, but this needs to be enforced through deliberate self-discipline. The absence of clean separation can be both a positive and a negative depending on the sort of life one is leading.
  • Opportunities and expectations of significant amounts of travel: Although the job description does not explicitly require travel, and it is possible to travel very little, advancement within many disciplines relies on frequent travel for conferences and workshops. People may also be expected to organize seminars, conferences, and workshops. The travel expectations are maybe around the 80th percentile of jobs with similar intelligence/conscientiousness benchmarks.
  • Publish or perish: People who are interested in getting tenure are judged on a combination of measures that is heavily weighted on publication record. This creates an incentive for people to try to publish as many papers as possible after the Ph.D. completion until the point of receiving tenure. This can contribute both to a heavy workload. It can also lead to academic compromises (discussed in the job satisfaction).
  • Tenure clock: The "tenure clock" -- the time period relative to which one's publication record is judged -- starts ticking after the completion of the Ph.D. This tenure clock means that taking time off to have children or do other activities can significantly affect one's tenure chances. There have been proposals to pause the tenure clock for people who want to take some time off to raise children, but the status of these proposals is unclear.

Social value of work

Further information: social value of academia

Research

Our general conclusion is that research academia passes the social value test only in one of these two cases:

  • You are really good at it, so that you can change the paradigm of thinking.
  • The discipline you are picking has high social value, so that every minor contribution there counts for a lot. Some disciplines that might pass the second test are AI-related disciplines (particularly machine learning) and biomedical research.

Teaching

Low student interest, curriculum rigidity, low relevance of curriculum content to students' later lives, and other factors conspire to make the social value of teaching low in general.