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Evolving Ambitions: Shifting Career Paths for Postdocs in Industry and Academia

Feb. 13, 2024—New doctoral degree holders are the future of the research landscape in the United States and worldwide, and where they choose to build their careers has a widespread impact. Recent data suggest that Ph.D. holders increasingly choose careers in industry over academia, driven by factors such as changes in research funding, job availability, and varying career aspirations. As this change unfolds, how will it impact university-industry collaborations and the research landscape?

Employment trends and factors

According to data from the National Science Foundation on doctorate recipients from U.S. universities, a little over 48% of Ph.D. recipients in 2022 were headed to jobs in industry, with just 33% entering academia, whereas 20 years ago, over half of all Ph.D. recipients’ postgraduate employment was in academia. Across the board, academic employment for Ph.D.s has declined in all science and engineering (S&E) fields, with math and computer science, life sciences, and engineering having the largest shifts from academia to industry employment.

Many factors come into play when Ph.D.s choose a career path; not surprisingly, compensation is among the most important. The same data from NSF shows that the median salary for industry positions eclipses those in academia by $60,000 or more for in-demand fields like computer and information science, interdisciplinary sciences, and mathematics and statistics. Beyond compensation, other influencing aspects impact postgraduate employment for Ph.D. holders, like work environment, job security, and real-world impact. Industry employment also offers opportunities to work on research driven by market needs in a fast-paced environment. However, industry employment may not offer as much intellectual freedom or job security. Although many companies encourage researchers to publish their work, competitive factors may limit the ability for some to share research findings with the scientific community. Academia offers the opportunity to teach and mentor the next generation of scientists, but the pressure to publish and attain tenure is undeniable. Ultimately, choosing the sector that’s the better fit depends on the individual, available options, and career goals.

Implications for collaborations

There is an increased demand for a highly trained and well-educated workforce across STEM fields and in organizations around the globe. The diversity of career path options is attractive to potential students, drawing them not only to the field of research but also to institutions that prepare them for these opportunities. Ph.D.s working at companies post-graduation can also be a valuable future resource for their alma mater, creating a connection between the company and the university and facilitating opportunities for future collaborations.  Later in their career, these industry employees may be asked to serve as the main point of contact for their alma mater.

A postgraduate position in industry does not mean a newly-minted Ph.D. will never return to academia, and there is ample anecdotal evidence that a career in industry adds significant perspective and can sharpen a researcher’s capabilities. That’s a win for the research landscape as a whole. A career path is often dotted with positions at different organizations. Research professionals and those who facilitate cross-sector partnerships move across sectors to gain experience, engage in research they would not otherwise be able to do, and develop strong relationships with future research partners. UIDP explored the benefits of joint faculty employment in a quick guide and analyzed multifaceted career paths in the emagazine, U-I Connector Career Paths: Crossing Sectors, Creating Impact and a previous 3-Minute Read.

Why it matters

Recent trends have shown doctorate holders increasingly choosing industry over academic positions post-graduation. While both academic and industry careers have varying benefits and challenges, the “best” place for Ph.D.s depends on the individual, and their success in their career—no matter where they may land—is vital for the research landscape to grow and thrive.

We want to hear from you. What do you think of the shift of postdoctoral employment from academia to industry? Let us know on our LinkedIn profile.

The 3-Minute Read is a UIDP member information piece and does not represent the opinions of our members or representatives. We welcome your comments on our LinkedIn profile.