“Turning to the Dark Side”: Questions about Industry Options for PhD Graduates


Last semester I Ubered home every night. Often times I got into interesting talks with the drivers. Whenever my PhD study came up in conversations, two of the most typical responses were, “Oh so do you want to teach afterwards” and “are you going to be a professor?”

I am always baffled there.

To be sure, many consider pursuing industry after PhD an unusual choice. Those who make such career moves are often semi-jokingly called “turning to the Dark Side.” Indeed, a doctoral degree is traditionally a preparation for a teaching and research career. A PhD candidate would presumably spend five years or so learning how to do research, before pursuing postdoctoral positions, assistant professorships, and eventually tenures.

Things have changed. My other blog post will point to the grim reality of hyper-competitiveness of the academic market. Even more so, according to the MIT 2017 Doctoral Exit Survey, oclose to 60 percent of PhD graduates do NOT pursue postdoctoral positions. The same survey also reveals that close to 50% of the graduate students work outside research institutes or universities immediately after graduation.

Either MIT producing is too many “Darth Vaders” and “Kylo Rens” or industry has become the “Light Side” for PhD graduates?

Jokes aside, this changing trend in post-PhD career choice invites us to examine the aspects of working in industry that PhDs may find pleasing or surprising.

1. Stability and High Salary: What Pleases PhDs about Industry

Immediate job security and higher salaries are perhaps the most distinguishing factors of working in industry after a PhD. Once hired by a company, you can in theory work there until retirement. This is in direct juxtaposition to working in academia after graduation, a PhD would typically spend at least nine years in postdocs and assistant professorship (AP) before getting a stable tenured job.

“Nine years to tenure after PhD would be rare in my field,” said Clubs (alias), a PhD candidate at Harvard Medical School. “In life science, a postdoc position alone typically lasts for five to six years. It feels like doing another PhD, and even after that, there is no job guarantee for AP.”

Clubs is right. An NYTimes article cites a staggering number of 400 applications received for every open AP position at MIT. That is one in 400, 30 times more competitive than getting into the MIT undergraduate program through Early Action.   

When asked whether she had any intention to stay in academia, “I wasn’t sure about academia when I started my study in Harvard,” said Clubs, “but as I got more informed of what academia can and cannot offer, I grew to becoming more open to things outside academia.”

In the past two years, Clubs has been exploring industry options. She spent the last summer working at a life science venture capital firm in Boston. Recently, Clubs received an internship offer from the Shanghai office of Boston Consulting Group (BCG), one of the largest global professional consultancy firms.

“In a long run, I will probably get into healthcare and life science consulting,” Clubs continued, “but what’s nice about BCG is that it allows you to rotate through strategy-based projects in a variety of industries, from life science and private equity to mining and fashion. This way, you can really get a sense of what’s out there before deciding what to specialize.”

“And of course,” she added, “it pays well.”

Top consulting firms such as McKinsey, BCG, and Bain are actively seeking PhDs of all fields, who often receive the same salary as MBA recruits. According to Glassdoor, a BCG consultant fresh out of PhD gets paid around 130K a year.

In contrast, a typical MIT postdoc receives around 50K per year.

2. Less Freedom and More Profit-Driven: What Surprises PhDs about Industry

The great stability and high salary of industry come with fixed schedules and job performance expectations and a profit-driven mentality that many PhDs experience as a great cultural shock. The job expectation is especially true when you work in a corporate setting: you often times work on a small part of a large team project, and your boss can have a rather rigid expectation on what the final work should be in order to streamline your work with others'. As a result, upon first starting, PhDs may find the lack of freedom and creativity quite different from what they were used to in graduate school.

More importantly, however, the biggest shock for a PhD working in industry comes from the profit-driven mentality of the firm. This is true even for those pursuing research careers in industry.

“In business, everything begins with the profit motive,” said Rutgers professor Michael A. Santoro in a Science Magazine article, “The most critical factor in determining whether a scientist is going to be successful in making the transition from the university to the private sector is the ability to buy into [the] point of view [that research is geared towards a product rather than knowledge itself]."

3. Industry or Academia: That is the Question

The debate of academia vs. industry may go on forever, and there doesn’t seem to be a  best choice for everyone. Perhaps the most important thing is to be open to new directions, said MIT math professor Gilbert Strang. 

I guess it’s ok to be ambiguous the next time Uber drivers ask about my career path after PhD.