What is an industrial PhD? Can academics move to industry?

Welcome to our comprehensive guide that explores the concept of an industrial PhD and the path for academics seeking to transition into industry roles.

This blog provides an in-depth look at the unique characteristics of an industrial PhD, illustrating how it bridges the gap between academia and industry. We also delve into the value of PhD-acquired skills in the industrial landscape and the broad range of opportunities that await PhD graduates in various sectors.

We highlight the process of transitioning from academia to industry, discussing the pros, cons, and a range of potential career trajectories. Join us on this exploratory journey to uncover the intersections between academia and industry.

What is an industrial PhD program?

 An industrial PhD program is a type of doctoral program designed to link university research with industry needs and interests. PhD students are often jointly supervised by an academic supervisor as well as someone from industry. 

I know a load of PhD students who went into an industrial PhD and they found the balance between the pulls of faculty research and industry very rewarding. 

Also, they were able to build up a wide range of contacts during their PhD which was then a ticket to a high-paying industry job upon graduation. 

The aim of the industry PhD program is to produce highly skilled researchers who are able to apply their findings to industrial settings and solve real-world problems. Also, acting as a conduit between industry and the ivory towers – something that has been lack for a number of years. 

Industry PhD programs are designed to give students a deep understanding of the industry they will be working in and its needs.

This can include everything from lab work and prototype development to market research and product testing. Students in an industry PhD program typically spend a significant amount of time working directly with the sponsoring company, often as interns or apprentices.

The research topics are chosen based on the needs of the industry organization, and the program typically provides funding and resources for the research project – often a 50:50 income split between industry and the uni. 

Graduates of the program typically have a high level of expertise in their field and are well-equipped to take on challenging roles in both academia and industry.

The program is gaining in popularity as industry-academic collaborations continue to increase because PhD students are demanding better job outcomes at the end of a PhD, and as more organizations seek to stay competitive by investing in research and innovation. 

PhDs in Industry

PhDs in industry are becoming increasingly common as more companies seek highly qualified individuals with strong research and development skills.

It’s been a long process of getting the soft and hard skills recognized and valued in industry. Sometimes we are seen as overqualified and too specialised. But skills some are very value, like there:

SkillDescriptionWhy It’s Useful in Industry
Critical ThinkingPh.D. candidates spend years evaluating complex ideas and identifying weaknesses.In industry, critical thinking allows individuals to identify potential issues in projects, solutions, or strategies, leading to more effective decision-making.
Research SkillsPhDs are trained to conduct detailed, rigorous research and present their findings.Research skills enable professionals to gather information, analyze it, and present it in a clear, understandable manner. This is valuable in fields such as market research.
Data AnalysisMany Ph.D. programs require heavy statistical and qualitative data analysis.Data analysis skills are essential in many industries, especially those dealing with large volumes of data like tech, finance, and healthcare.
Project ManagementPhDs manage long-term research projects, often with little supervision.These skills translate directly to managing projects in an industry setting, including coordinating teams, managing resources, and keeping projects on schedule.
Problem SolvingProblem-solving is at the heart of any Ph.D. program – from developing hypotheses to interpreting results.Problem-solving abilities are critical in industry, where professionals must routinely overcome challenges and develop innovative solutions.
Writing SkillsPh.D. candidates write extensive dissertations and often publish scholarly articles.Clear, effective written communication is invaluable in virtually all industries, from writing reports to drafting emails.
Presentation SkillsPhDs regularly present their research to various audiences.Presentation skills are useful in industry for proposing projects, sharing results, or explaining complex information to non-specialist audiences.
Self-MotivationCompleting a Ph.D. requires substantial self-drive and determination.Self-motivation translates well to industry, as it enables individuals to take initiative, work autonomously, and drive projects forward.
NetworkingPhDs often collaborate with other researchers and attend conferences.Networking skills can help build beneficial relationships in the industry, open up opportunities, and foster collaborations.
Technical ExpertiseDepending on the field, PhDs can bring deep expertise in a specific technical area.This expertise can be directly applicable in industries that require such knowledge or skills, giving companies a competitive edge.

Unlike PhDs pursued in academia, doctoral programs in industry often emphasize more practical applications of research rather than purely scholarly pursuits. It’s not just about the publication of peer-reviewed documents – there are different pressures such as profitability and keeping a competitive edge in the business. 

This focus on industry-specific problem-solving and innovation attracts many PhD students who are interested in making a real-world impact with their newfound PhD skills. 

Should I pursue an industrial PhD?

 Deciding whether or not to pursue an industrial PhD can be a difficult decision. You’ll have to think about what you want to do after a PhD. 

If going into industry is part of that – it’ll be invaluable for you. 

It can provide the opportunity to gain valuable industry experience while also achieving an academic degree.

Additionally, it is important to research potential programs and advisors to ensure they align with your interests and goals.

Check out my video that highlights the types of new PhDs that you may want to consider:

It’s important to do as much research as possible before deciding on a PhD – no matter what type you want to do. 

There’s no perfect decision, and you can always change supervisors, projects, and research groups if the going gets too tough!

Why Transition from Academia to Industry

The transition from academia to industry is a significant step that many graduate and doctoral students contemplate after completing their education.

There are various reasons why individuals prefer to make the switch from academia to industry. Working in industry provides a more stable job, with more resources than in academia. 

I worked in industry for one year after my PhD and found that the focus on profitability and spending meant that projects would often get pulled from me – even if they looked promising. Your experience may vary depending on the field and job that you have. 

Industry offers compensation packages that can be more substantial than academic salaries, especially for highly skilled PhD graduates.

Industries also provide more flexibility for candidates to apply their discipline in different areas and may have broader research applications.

The publishing process in academia may distract from conducting new research and even hinder tenure cases in academics, while qualifications and more tangible experience working in industry may carry more weight in the job search process.

Making the leap into industry can be challenging, but it can be a rewarding step for candidates seeking a fulfilling full-time career. 

List of Industry Jobs after PhD

Here is a list of a number of potential pathways that I have seen people take after their PhD in engineering, science and others. It’s important to find an employer that appreciates what you have learned during your PhD.  

  1. Research Scientist: This role is especially applicable for those with science-based Ph.D.s. Companies in sectors like biotech, pharmaceuticals, and technology often hire Ph.D. graduates for their expertise and research capabilities.
  2. Patent Examiner/Patent Attorney: These roles require a deep understanding of technical concepts and intellectual property, which makes them a good fit for Ph.D. graduates. Patent attorneys also require legal training, which can often be acquired after the Ph.D.
  3. Data Scientist: Ph.D. graduates, particularly from fields like statistics, computer science, or physics, are often sought after in this role due to their proficiency in handling and interpreting complex data.
  4. Quantitative Analyst: Commonly found in finance and insurance companies, a “quant” applies mathematical and statistical methods to understand and predict market behaviors.
  5. R&D Project Manager: Here, Ph.D. holders can apply their research skills and subject-matter expertise to manage and lead important research projects.
  6. Professor/Lecturer: While academia is often seen as the traditional pathway for Ph.D. holders, it’s still a viable and fulfilling option for those who enjoy teaching and research.
  7. Consultant: Consulting firms, particularly those in fields such as biotech, IT, and management, value the problem-solving skills and expertise of Ph.D. graduates.
  8. Medical Science Liaison: For those with a medical or life sciences Ph.D., this role involves building relationships with academic leaders and facilitating scientific discussions in the pharmaceutical industry.
  9. Policy Analyst: For Ph.D.s in social sciences, working as a policy analyst for government or non-profit organizations could be a great fit.
  10. Science Writer/Technical Writer: This job allows Ph.D. graduates to leverage their deep knowledge of a subject and their writing skills to communicate complex ideas to different audiences.

Wrapping up

The transition from academia to industry, or embarking on an industrial PhD, is not a decision to be taken lightly. It involves careful consideration of your career goals, interests, and the skills you want to develop further.

If you’re passionate about applying academic research to solve real-world problems, if you’re keen on innovating within a specific industry, or if you’re looking to acquire industry-specific skills while pursuing a doctorate, an industrial PhD might just be the perfect choice for you.

However, it’s essential to understand that industry roles demand different skills and focus areas than academia.

While the former emphasizes practical problem-solving and innovation, the latter values scholarly pursuits and theoretical knowledge. As such, being aware of your skill set and how it matches the needs of industry or academia is crucial in making a successful transition.

In the end, whether you decide to pursue a traditional academic path or delve into the industry-oriented realm, the skills and expertise gained during a PhD can open doors to an array of opportunities.

The choice between academia and industry is not an easy one, but it is definitely a choice worth considering for those dedicated to their field and eager to make a meaningful impact. 

Whether you choose academia or industry, remember that the end goal is to contribute to your field in a way that is fulfilling and beneficial to you. And remember, your PhD is not just a credential, but a testament to your resilience, curiosity, and dedication to knowledge.

The Author

Dr Andrew Stapleton has a Masters and PhD in Chemistry from the UK and Australia. He has many years of research experience and has worked as a Postdoctoral Fellow and Associate at a number of Universities. Although having secured funding for his own research, he left academia to help others with his YouTube channel all about the inner workings of academia and how to make it work for you.