Industry vs Academia: Why Choose One Path?

industry vs academia

The choice between industry vs academia is top-of-mind for many researchers, teachers, scientists and  other university experts throughout their careers. Skill and talent go a long way in different work settings, making industry positions an appealing option. Academics also have numerous transferable skills that can streamline career advancement in business.

As someone who has seen this choice from both sides, I like to argue that industry vs academia isn’t the clear dichotomy everyone tries to make it out to be. Some may regret leaving academia for industry, but it doesn’t have to be a definitive choice.

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Why So Many Switch From Academia to Industry

For most researchers and career scientists, the pull of academia is a strong one. A university-associated career is a respectable, age-old position that allows you to pursue your unique research interests. Your goals can also change over time as you learn and grow throughout your career.

Industry doesn’t offer this luxury. Your pursuits are bound by the company goals of whoever pays your salary. An industry career doesn’t offer the same possibilities to grow and change that academic research provides.

Yet despite all this, PhDs, post-doc researchers, graduate students, and even tenured professors are leaving academia in droves. There are some great career changes for teachers in edtech and industry, but some strong factors are also pushing many to business.

Pay Gap in Academia and Industry

This is the elephant in the room — the number one reason people choose business over life in the Ivory Tower. Research scientists that work in industry earn about 30% more than those in academia. The pay gap can get even worse for academics in liberal arts or humanities disciplines, who could earn 50-100% more money working an industry job (or even doing academic writing jobs from home). Industry options include more job opportunities, making pay more competitive for industry researchers. Salary increases also make income growth a greater reality in the industry environment.

Job Security with a Career in Industry

On the surface, university positions seem like the more secure career path. Your academic advisor can tell you as much with their cushy job as a tenured professor. But tenure is not only difficult to obtain, it simply doesn’t offer the job security it used to. The number of institutions even offering tenure track positions has reduced drastically in recent decades.

Industry career tracks might not offer much inherent job security either, but at least you have options. Academic budget cuts aren’t a worry, and if you do get laid off, there are plenty of other roles in industry you can apply for.

Industry vs Academia Work-Life Balance

Often the biggest factor that drives people to a career in industry is work-life balance. Graduate school teaches us all early on that hard work doesn’t necessarily pay off in dividends. Advancing in academia requires constant reassessment of your priorities, sacrificing your time, relationships and health for the greater goals of your academic position. Pursuing work-life balance means sacrificing or slowing opportunities like achieving tenure.
Doing science in an industry lab or another popular industry career is nothing like this. Your hard work and leadership skills are worth real money here. And if you want to take time for family and your health, that’s also possible with better work-life balance.

Opportunities For Advancement

academic research career

Careers in industry are simply more numerous and varied than in academic life. It’s much easier to reach your goals using transferable skills to advance your career in industry. Working for a big company means you can climb a diverse ladder of job positions, advancing your career and salary. Academic positions offer very few opportunities for advancement, and those that are available come at a high price.

Post-pandemic Realities for Academics

If academic life wasn’t difficult enough, the impact of the pandemic makes the draw of working for a company much more urgent. Shutting down university campuses and making online teaching the standard has had a compounding impact on nearly all of the factors mentioned above.

A survey from the American Association of University professors found that the average salaries for full-time US college and university faculty members fell by nearly 0.5% in 2020-21. Cost cuts and job losses are also causing additional financial stress that can make career advancement in academia even more challenging for years to come. For many, academia versus industry is less of a choice, and more of an imperative to survive given the current academic landscape.

Tackling the Academia vs Business Dichotomy

academia vs industry work life balance

As a student of anthropology, I never had a question about what career path I would take when I finished grad school. Life in academia would allow me to pursue my research interests for decades to come and my association with a university would enable me to get the funding I needed to do the international fieldwork I loved so much.

Then when the pressure of earning a PhD started doing a number on my health and happiness, I, like many, felt like I had no choice but to leave academia. What makes my story a little different though, is that I didn’t replace my academic career with an industry job. I started doing contract work as a freelancer in several different areas: writing, freelance editing, and research. I was able to reap the benefits of working in industry while still always remaining an anthropologist.

This reality is a possibility for anyone who wants to say no to the industry vs academia dichotomy. It’s also the best path to take if you’re interested in remote work, travel, and digital nomad jobs in 2021.

You don’t need a university to be an academic

When I first left my PhD program, I had a BA and MA that I thought were now more or less useless. I had “given up” on my dream of being an anthropologist and would need to start over from zero in a new career.

Luckily, I was wrong about all of this.

It turns out freeing myself from the rules and responsibilities of university life also allowed me way more opportunities to actually do anthropology. I started out searching for academic writing jobs for beginners, and in my first few years as a freelance writer and editor, I was able to conduct and participate in more academic research than I ever did when associated with a university.

Contrary to popular belief, you do not need a university association to be an academic. You don’t need it to conduct research, publish an article in scientific journals, attend conferences, etc. I know of plenty of ‘independent academics’ who publish book manuscripts with major university publications without holding a university job at all.

The idea that you need a university job to pursue your research interests is a complete myth. And doing contract work for businesses gives you the freedom and flexibility to earn good money and pursue your passions.

You don’t need to leave academia to work in industry

academia vs business

Here’s another thing. I may have made a clean cut by leaving academia and not looking back, but that doesn’t mean everyone has to make that choice. Industry versus academia is an unnecessary dichotomy — you can do both at the same time if you want.

Many businesses are looking to hire contract researchers for short-term projects. There are entire freelance platforms and categories dedicated to this service and need. Freelance work is something university-associated academics can and should do. Contract work doesn’t only supplement your income, it can also grow your experience and provide new accolades for your CV.

Contract work addresses the challenges of both industry and academia

Whether your plan is to supplement a university career or make this switch to business entirely, contract work offers benefits to address the challenges of both industry and academia.

Job security is an issue no matter where you work. Just as you could lose your university job, you’re also at risk for layoffs with industry employers. Both scenarios mean your income goes from 100% to 0% all at once. But this isn’t the case when you engage in contract work. You build a portfolio of clients that will come and go individually, offering you some income stability that can never be guaranteed when you work a single job.

Contract work can also smooth your transition from academia to industry. Instead of quitting one job and putting all bets on another (a drastic change), contract work is something you can gradually get into. You can keep your university job, and as your client base grows, slowly transition into business full time when you’re ready.

It’s also important to understand that the business landscape is changing significantly. ‘Switching to industry’ no longer offers all the security, benefits, and opportunities that academics think it does. There’s no guarantee you can even land an industry job when you start the search. Businesses are increasingly hiring contractors over full-time employees, a trend that’s been in the works for decades. This means those of us looking for work in the business world should start adapting our strategy to cater to this demand.

It’s a two-way door

Contract work offers a “best of both worlds” solution for those of us who are on the fence. But even if you do decide to make the leap into industry, it’s important to remember that it’s a two-way door. You can always go back to academia in 2 or 5 years, or after a decade. In fact, working in industry, particularly as a contractor, gives you significant soft skills and experience that you wouldn’t get when you’re stuck up in the Ivory Tower. Experience in industry can boost your CV and give you a cutting edge when applying for academic positions in the future.

3 Ways to Become a Contract Academic

I tried to make a strong argument that academia vs industry isn’t the dichotomy everyone thinks it is. You can work in industry and academia at the same time, either by keeping your university job and doing contract work on the side, or becoming an independent contractor with skill.

There are 3 main ways to become a contract academic: (1) By doing independent research, (2) Through consulting, and (3) Through freelancing. But remember there’s no decision to be made here. I do all 3 of them when the right opportunities arise. Here are the options:

Independent Research

You can be an academic research scientist without ever having a university association. There are plenty of industry career opportunities for PhD graduates. The same goes for graduate students, MAs, or any other academics with expert knowledge in their field. It’s also possible to get paid to participate in academic research projects without ever working in an academic environment.

You can find an industry position or independent research opportunity on job sites like Indeed, SimplyHired, or ZipRecruiter. But I’m partial to one freelance platform that caters specifically to scientists in industry. Rather than waiting around for your dream industry postings to appear, you can find all sorts of contract work that can further your career goals.

It’s called Kolabtree, and it’s a place that connects clients with freelance scientists and industry experts.


Jobs posted related to academic writing, product development, scientific research, consulting, data science & analysis, and more. If you have experience in scientific writing and editing, food science, medical writing, statistical analysis, economics, chemistry, or other academic fields, you can create a profile and search for contract freelance gigs as an independent researcher.

Freelance Consulting

There are lots of differences between academia and industry, but one thing they both appreciate is specialization. Businesses want to hire top scientists and subject matter experts to consult on their products, business, and strategy. This is almost always done through a contract agreement instead of full-time hiring. Freelance consulting is a smart choice to maximize the value of your skills and demand the rates you deserve as an expert.

Freelance Services

Academics harness numerous transferable skills beyond simple soft skills to adapt to a workplace environment. PhDs, MAs, and even graduate school dropouts have lots of experience and talent they can package into freelance services. Examples include writing, editing, data analysis, translation, project management, and more.
For someone with an academic background to succeed as a freelancer, they need to isolate their most valuable skills, research the market demand, and package them into valuable services.