Are there any good examples of people successfully switching between industry and academe after their PhD?

If so, what were factors contributing to their success?

What are things, that close that door for good?

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    $\begingroup$ Industry and research are not mutually exclusive. Is an industrial research lab "industry"? Is it "research"? You should clarify your question. $\endgroup$ Sep 7, 2020 at 11:45

2 Answers 2


If by "research" you mean "academe", then yes, people have switched in both directions. I can't name anybody you would necessarily know. A bit of advise I got (from an academic) when I was finishing my PhD (and had two industry offers and one academic offer) was that the switch from academe to industry might be easier than the switch from industry to academe. The reason is that schools hiring into a tenure track position tend to be looking for published papers while industry usually does not value publishing and may in fact discourage or forbid it (less you leak proprietary information).

I met a few industry people (in fields outside OR) who migrated to academe, but they tended to be in adjunct (non-tenure stream) positions, where their business experience informed their teaching (and they were given a heavy teaching load with no research expectations). I've met one or two people who went the other direction (started in a tenure track slot, decided academic research was not their jam or failed to produce enough papers, and moved to industry).

I don't think anything (other than being close to retirement age or failing to keep up with pertinent trends in your discipline) necessarily close the door to going into industry, nor can I think of anything that closes the door to an adjunct faculty position. Lack of publications, though, may close the door to a tenure stream slot at a research-oriented university.


Becoming a career academic (or a career anything for that matter) is a long process that requires focus, persistence, luck, and a plan. I have witnessed many disaster stories, so I will attempt to dispel a few common myths that seem to doom people into suffering consequences they did not expect.

I will preface this by saying that if the goal is to just do interesting stuff, then winging it until retirement is a perfectly legitimate strategy. Just be mindful that in this case the higher echelons of a career's progression will most likely be closed off to you. Those are for the people who have worked for 30+ years with the specific goal of getting there.

There are always exceptions to everything of course, but I'll stick to what's true in the vast majority of cases.

Myth #1: field/skill diversity is valued

This is only true for professional coders. Otherwise, if the goal is to maximise where people end up at the end of their professional life (and of course money), switching between things can set people back considerably unless done with a very specific plan.

Think about it. If I'm willing to pay someone a lot of money to do X, and their value proposition is that "I know a bit of X, but I also know Y and Z (which are not useful to me who's doing the hiring). Because I'm very smart, I'll quickly combine my skills to become stellar in X".

That doesn't work. I'd rather hire someone who already knows X deeply and can start producing value from day #1. The only reason to hire this other person for a high salary would be if I actually need that intersection of skills. Assuming I'm hiring someone who used to be a professor, it's highly likely that many of the core skills that they have developed over the years are useless in an industrial setting (e.g., supervising, teaching, grant writing).

Myth #2: Age doesn't matter

Switching from industry to academia is very possible in many cases. However, when it comes to building a career, it should be done within a couple of years of completing a PhD, because not publishing resets the academic clock. The truth of the matter is that universities prefer hiring young people for junior positions, so, e.g., a 40-year old who worked for 10 years in the industry and is now doing post-docs and seeking a lecturer position is just very unlikely to get it. This is even truer of more senior positions, because, as far as the committees are concerned, people with industrial experience don't have the skills a career professor needs, such as grant writing, teaching, supervising students, and a good academic network.

I personally think this is short-sighted and discriminatory, but it is what it is - I even know career post-docs who were always runner-ups when applying for academic positions, and eventually became too old for committees to even consider, even though they had 50+ papers. They then had to go the industry.

Myth #3: A senior academic switching to the industry will be rich

This way around is much easier, but also not the way people think. An academic of 20 years switching to the industry will only get a fraction of the salary that a person who has been doing this job for 20 years would. There are many reasons why, but the most intuitive one is that the latter has a 20-year track record of delivering things that work. An academic seldom does. In fact, academia has a bad rep of only doing the work required for a publication, and never actually finishing things.

There's always this myth of X professor being poached from MIT to work for Y company for a $gazillion, but those are far and few between. For most, switching to something they have never done before reduces their ability to get better/good salaries.

The one exception to this myth is if one happens to be one of few academics with a track record of delivering things that are usable (e.g., world-class open source projects). Even in that case, it would typically be the person who actually wrote the code, not the person who supervised.

Remember, this is not about who someone is as a person, it is about how they can leverage their track record to get a high salary in a highly competitive market.

Myth #4: Academic training positively affects one's earning potential

Studies have consistently shown that, on average, people with PhDs suffer from slower career progression and lower salaries that other people in their field who never did a PhD and went straight to the industry. According to the data, the less time people spend in academia, the better their earning potential becomes.

The bottomline

This might sound a bit bleak, but I need to stress that all of this only really applies to people whose primary drive is ambition, and risk not becoming what they wanted to be because of bad choices (and thus are not happy). As far as I'm concerned, the main driver behind building a career should be passion. This might ring true if you have ever discussed career prospects with an artist. Many know that the odds of making it big by pursuing their passion are tiny, but they do it anyway because they love it, and that's how it should be. The ones who do make it big are either very lucky, or, most likely, have spent their entire life working tirelessly, following a well laid-out plan of how to get there.


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