PhD Students of Computer Science: Stay in Academia or Go to Industry?

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During my time as a doctoral student in computer science, this was a common question. Every Ph.D. student constantly ponders this question.

But most Ph.D. students can easily answer it: they go to industry.

The reason is that after four or five years of studying computer science, and three to five years of working as doctoral researchers, they have stayed between seven and ten years in an academic environment.

They intuitively know that if they don’t go to the industry now, they will never do it. They fear that it’s easier to come back from industry to pursue an academic career than to find a good job in industry when they’ve already committed to long to an academic career.

But even if you stay in academia—as a postdoctoral researcher—your success rate of becoming a professor may be as small as 3% (source). Not a solid number to build your whole career on. Many Ph.D. students believe this to be a high-risk, low-gain game because they can easily match their professor’s salaries in the industry:

  • A full professor can expect to earn $98,000 (median salary).
  • A data scientist with a Ph.D. can expect to earn $102,000 (median salary).

And the latter job can be easily achieved by a computer science Ph.D. while the former is a low-probability bet.

Unfortunately, committing to academia is a wildly bold bet with a much lower expected value in terms of your salary outlook (and oftentimes working conditions as well).

Having said this, I found it highly satisfying to work as a computer science researcher. It’s one of the most meaningful and enjoyable jobs in the world. Ph.D. students who love research more than anything else, would not even consider asking this question. If you have to ask this question, it’s unlikely that you can compete with these highly motivated researchers.

In this case, it may be better to pursue a career in the industry.

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