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I felt like questions involving careers outside of academia have been received inconsistently in recent times.

To look more systematically, I went through the tag specifically over the past 9 months or so; most of these questions involve careers in industry. I've sorted those into three broad categories:


Well-received (open, net positive score, at least one positively scoring answer):

Pure Math in Industry

Industrial PhD: which doors closed?

How much CS knowledge is needed to get into cryptography from math?

What non-academic job options are there for someone with a PhD in algebraic topology?


Closed:

Career advice: Which jobs or positions are interesting for a computational physicist or data scientist? Industry, academia or something else? (shopping; community vote)

Career opportunities switching from academia to industry (needs focus; community vote)

Jobs similar to research that don't require a PhD (out-of-scope; unilateral mod action by me)

Career path/growth outside of academia (out-of-scope; my mod vote plus 3 community close votes)


Neutral/Mixed:

From Math to AI with Few Formal Accomplishments

Can a data science postdoc improve my chanced in industry as a pure science graduate?

Transitioning from academia to industry (I left a comment noting this seemed off-topic to me, as did another mod, but neither of us closed it unilaterally)

How different are the industry jobs specific to Ph.D vs jobs where both Ph.D/MS are hired?


There may be some patterns here. "Career" in the title is associated with closures, though the close reasons varied and were not necessarily specifically for asking for advice about industry. Career questions involving mathematics seem popular. Our help page is fairly explicit that non-academic career advice is off-topic here:

Please do not ask … about preparations for a non-academic career (“What graduate degree will help me get a job as X?”)

but that does not seem to accurately describe the way the community is treating these questions. Maybe people are unaware of this policy, maybe people disagree with it, maybe people agree with it but view the prohibition as having a narrower scope than my own interpretation. Especially because a couple of the closures involved my own hand, I thought it was worth polling the community on this and soliciting opinions and suggestions for how we should modify either the policy (for clarity or substance) or curation.

There are some previous related Meta discussions but they are relatively old so a new topic seemed in order:

Two similar questions about non-academic jobs/internships — one closed as off-topic, the other was not: what gives?

Expand scope of site to include academics searching for info on industry jobs

Are questions on opportunities in industry after a doctorate on-topic?

The general consensus from these old conversations seem to support being more open to these questions than our written policy in the help pages suggests.

6
  • Did some of the questions simply not get closed due to a decline in closing activity during the strike?
    – Sursula
    Sep 8, 2023 at 13:06
  • @Sursula I don't think the post dates would support that as a primary explanation.
    – Bryan Krause Mod
    Sep 8, 2023 at 13:17
  • 1
    Does this answer your question? Are questions about preparing for industry on topic? Sep 9, 2023 at 15:33
  • 2
    @AnonymousPhysicist No, it doesn't, because it's 11 years old and is inconsistent with how the community is actually responding to these posts, hence my entire point of raising the issue now
    – Bryan Krause Mod
    Sep 9, 2023 at 15:46
  • @BryanKrause The state of play in the answers seems to have grown fairly static at this point: do you feel like there is sufficient clarity for mods to make a decision on how to proceed?
    – jakebeal
    Sep 18, 2023 at 18:37
  • @jakebeal For me personally, I'll take a lighter hand on these questions and avoid unilaterally closing them unless they're clearly in the shopping category where I think there's no debate.
    – Bryan Krause Mod
    Sep 18, 2023 at 18:41

5 Answers 5

7

As a researcher outside of academia I find that this site, like many academic organizations, tends to conflate "academia" and "research" and often has a poorly-defined notion of "industry."

In the on-topic page of the help section, the first sentence includes in the scope "anyone in or interested in research-related or research-adjacent fields." That breadth has served this site well, because:

  1. The differences between "academic" research and "industrial" research are generally not methodological but organizational, meaning that answers are often relevant to both.

  2. Most research does not take place in universities. Consider, for example, that in the US in FY2020, businesses spent $112 billion on basic and applied research while universities spent only $86 billion (there are some nuances in those numbers, like the $5.2 billion spent at universities by businesses, but the basic conclusion holds).

I thus have always considered the statement "preparations for a non-academic career" to be be better interpreted as "preparations for a non-academic and non-research career".

That captures all of us in the "research-related or research-adjacent fields" as well as academics in non-research positions, while still appropriately excluding all the "Will a Masters in Dog Whispering help me get a job as a fire fighter?" sorts of questions.

Mind you, most of the poorly received questions above should still be closed: not because they're off topic, but because they're shopping questions, opinion-based, or poorly focused. The only one that I feel is incorrectly closed and should be reopened is "Career path/growth outside of academia", which I think deserves at least one answer from a contributor with a research career outside of academia.

Bottom line: change "preparations for a non-academic career" to "preparations for a non-academic and non-research career"

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  • 2
    I've read this several times and I'm still not clear what the recommendation is. If someone posts "what kind of jobs should I consider with an MS in dog whispering?" do we leave it open or close it?
    – cag51 Mod
    Sep 7, 2023 at 16:25
  • 3
    I completely agree. With some 30 years at a national lab, I consider myself part of academia - I've done research, gotten funding, and hired plenty of PhDs as postdocs and staff. I just haven't been associated with a university since finishing my PhD. If many professors are ill informed on options, we can and should help folks out.
    – Jon Custer
    Sep 7, 2023 at 16:25
  • 1
    @cag51: "What kind of jobs should I consider with an MS in dog whispering?" should be closed for the exact same reasons that "What sort of graduate programs should I consider with a BA in dog whispering?" should be closed. Both are terrible fits for the SE model as both shopping questions and highly dependent on personal factors.
    – jakebeal
    Sep 7, 2023 at 16:32
  • 5
    The recent question about why anyone needs a PhD outside 'academia' (where university employment was intended as the sole academia) demonstrates that there are many people who frankly do not understand post-PhD options at all, yet are in a PhD program. I find that very weird, and horrifying at the same time. We can, and should, help.
    – Jon Custer
    Sep 7, 2023 at 16:45
  • 2
    I guess I don't really see the fault lines here the same way; I would have certainly included people like Jon Custer as part of academia, as he does. I would also include people who publish in academic contexts despite having industry employers as part of academia. But, there is a lot of research that is not academic research, I think the "...and development" part of R&D is really important, and is where most of that money you refer to as research is being spent. The development part of R&D shares very little with academic research in terms of goals and organization.
    – Bryan Krause Mod
    Sep 8, 2023 at 16:06
  • Even the well-received questions I am not seeing how they are associated specifically to an "academic research" or even just "research" career in places that are not institutions of higher learning; they seem to me like they are just asking about a job: "will my choice of research topic affect my ability to get a job in this field". Isn't that outside our scope? I think I'd be more open if the question is closer to "can I do this type of research/are there people hiring people to do this type of research in an industry setting", but that doesn't look like most of the actual posts we get.
    – Bryan Krause Mod
    Sep 8, 2023 at 16:08
  • @BryanKrause While you're right that development dominates, you are still far underestimating the amount of real honest-to-goodness research that's done in industry. If you look at the NSF source that I cited, you'll see that development is another $425 billion beyond the $112 billion on the research!
    – jakebeal
    Sep 8, 2023 at 20:06
  • As for the "get a job" questions, would you say the same if it was about whether somebody could get a job as a lab tech in a university, or at a high-energy physics facility? I don't think that "industry" vs. "academia" is the real issue here. I think the question fit is more about its generality and the degree to which it engages with scientific knowledge and research skills.
    – jakebeal
    Sep 8, 2023 at 20:11
  • @jakebeal Hmm, indeed, I should have looked more carefully at your source! Thanks for enlightening me. As of now, our policy states that preparation for a non-academic career is an issue, so if that shouldn't be an issue, we should remove it from the policy, and replace it with something else. Expanding to all research careers seems quite broad to me and difficult to find the border of.
    – Bryan Krause Mod
    Sep 8, 2023 at 20:21
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    @BryanKrause The border of academia is pretty hard to find as well: do FFRDCs count, or service labs like AFRL and NRL? How about Fraunhofer Institutes or INRIA, the Mayo Clinic, Cold Spring Harbor, Schloss Dagstuhl, Lincoln Lab, or JPL? Frankly, I think that we should embrace the fuzziness of "research-related or research-adjacent", because the problems aren't coming from research careers, they're coming from bad questions or questions that are clearly outside of even the fuzzy borders of research careers. To come to the point: what do you think of my proposed wording change to the policy?
    – jakebeal
    Sep 9, 2023 at 3:06
  • @jakebeal Should it be on-topic to ask how to craft a resume for a job at a medical device company?
    – Bryan Krause Mod
    Sep 9, 2023 at 3:33
  • @BryanKrause Probably not, for the same reason it's not on-topic to ask how to craft an application for a PhD program in algebraic topology. I think it would be on topic, however, to ask questions like: "What sort of research career could an electrical engineering PhD have in the biomedical industry?" or "How hard is it to publish as a biomedical industry researcher?" or "What is likely to be different in doing biomedical device research in a company vs. at a medical school?" All of these are industry career-focused but research-centric and general enough to be interesting to many.
    – jakebeal
    Sep 9, 2023 at 11:03
  • @jakebeal We have a lot of on-topic questions about PhD applications, especially essays. Also rec letters, formatting your lists of papers and presentations, etc.
    – Bryan Krause Mod
    Sep 9, 2023 at 14:33
  • @BryanKrause I think your comment further emphasizes the parallels that I am seeing. Applying for a PI-level non-academic research position often has similar components as a faculty application, with significant differences in emphasis and process. Recommendation letters, research talks, a strong scientific CV, all are important (but subtly different) there as well. I disliked "How to craft a resume for a job at a medical device company?" because it sounds poorly formed, but I'd definitely support "What parts of my CV to emphasize applying for research lead at medical device company?"
    – jakebeal
    Sep 9, 2023 at 16:09
  • 1
    Absolutely not. Applying for a research PI position in a company or other non-university research organization often looks a lot more like applying for a faculty position than it looks like applying for a job as a software developer. Another example: when I went up for my most recent promotion, we essentially put together a tenure case (except for the teaching bits), outside references and everything. I would say it is the peculiarities of "an academic career or research-related or research-adjacent career."
    – jakebeal
    Sep 9, 2023 at 18:22
4

It depends on the interpretation of academia:

  • Academia could include only those with permanent positions in universities, involved in research, teaching, etc. - a somewhat restricted category in the US, although it could imply a much broader range of people in other places - e.g., in Europe, where non-senior university positions are also often permanent.
  • Academia could include anyone conducting research or other scientific activities in academia - this would include postdocs and PhD students. I am not aware of the exact statistics here, but I suspect many (if not most) of these eventually find employment outside of the academia. Finding an employment and perspectives of professional development outside of the academia are of interest to this category, which sometimes turn out to be very poorly informed about their options.
  • Finally, academia could apply to anyone who has ever done studies (or is currently doing studies) in a university, which then include pretty much anyone with a job requiring college education. Their future career path is a part of the reasons for undertaking the studies, and of great interest throughout.

As already mentioned above, the attitudes may also vary depending on the country and culture. In my experience, in the US both professors and graduate students tend to be poorly informed about the options outside of academia, and the graduate studies are usually undertaken under the assumption that aims at a career in academia (although for good students such studies might be the path of least resistance - these students are typically invited to do research by one of their professors in undergraduate courses, while looking for a job elsewhere requires extra effort.) On the other hand, in Europe graduate studies are often undertaken with the explicit goal of securing a job in a prestigious company (which may also imply doing high-end industrial research) - this also affects the teaching approach, which focuses more on teaching a greatest possible range of skills, rather than an independent research in a specialized area. This choice of pedagogical approach, as well as appropriately informing and helping students in their career choice, should be then of interest even to those included in the narrowest definition of academia.

To summarize: I am a low-rep user here - I don't know who are the majority of the community in terms of their employment (academia or not), career level (students, postdocs, profs) or geographical origin, although all these should be taken into account. Thus, my following recommendation is based only on my interpretation of term academia: questions on out-of-academia matters should be allowed as long as academic background, experience, etc. have direct influence on the matter.

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  • Given these thoughts, what's your recommendation of policy for the site?
    – jakebeal
    Sep 7, 2023 at 14:13
  • 2
    @jakebeal I am a low-rep user here - I don't know who are the majority of the community in terms of their employment (academia or not), career level (students, postdocs, profs) or geographical origin. Thus, my recommendation is based only on my interpretation of term academia: questions on out-of-academia matters should be allowed as long as academic background, experience, etc. have direct influence on the matter. In this sense my own question is on topic only to the extent that my ignorance about careers out of academia is a consequence of the many years that I spent in academia :D
    – Roger V.
    Sep 7, 2023 at 14:28
  • 1
    Thanks! It might be helpful if you add the judgement in your comment explicitly into your answer.
    – jakebeal
    Sep 7, 2023 at 15:45
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    I strongly disagree with this approach. If you changed it to "questions on out-of-academia matters should be allowed as long as academic background, experience, etc. have direct influence on the answer" then it would be much better. If the question is best answered by a non-academic, it does not belong here. Sep 9, 2023 at 15:32
  • @AnonymousPhysicist why non-academics should be prohibited from talking about their academic experience? Note that this includes people who might have spent decades in academia. I have seen successful academics to quit at the end of their career, in order to devote themselves fully to applying their discoveries/expertise in real world, via a company. Also, in some countries there's obligatory retirement age from government/university jobs, but people may want to remain active.
    – Roger V.
    Sep 10, 2023 at 6:06
  • @RogerVadim That is not what I said. I said "If the question is best answered by a non-academic" which has nothing to do with limiting who is asking or answering. Sep 10, 2023 at 8:22
  • @AnonymousPhysicist firstly, it still seems to me as a minor remark. Secondly, the most qualified to answer such questions are obviously those who habe experience inside and outside of academia. Finally, it is not clear what you mean by academics - the first part of my post specifically addresses this question.
    – Roger V.
    Sep 10, 2023 at 10:06
  • Again, who is answering is irrelevant - it the content of the correct answer that determines if a question should be closed. Sep 10, 2023 at 13:20
  • 1
    @AnonymousPhysicist it is you who raised the matter of who is answering: If the question is best answered by a non-academic, it does not belong here. Furthermore, the point of closing the question is that no one can answer it - if there's an answer(s), especially a "correct" one, it is too late to close.
    – Roger V.
    Sep 10, 2023 at 15:27
  • @RogerVadim As I said before, that's not what those words mean. "Best" indicates the sentence refers to a hypothetical ideal answer, not the actual people answering. Sep 10, 2023 at 20:49
2

This site describes itself as:

Academia is a question and answer site for academics

Academics do not have non-research careers in industry. Questions about non-research careers in industry should be closed as "not within the scope of this community."

4
  • By my reading, this looks to be coherent with my own answer. Would you agree, or is your interpretation different?
    – jakebeal
    Sep 9, 2023 at 18:24
  • @jakebeal Your answer seems unfocused to me, so I am not sure. Sep 9, 2023 at 20:06
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    Key recommendation: change "preparations for a non-academic career" to "preparations for a non-academic and non-research career."
    – jakebeal
    Sep 9, 2023 at 20:19
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    I think it merely kicks the can from defining academic to defining research. Or it might imply a circular definition: research - research is what academics, we exclude as non-academic anything that is not research.
    – Roger V.
    Sep 10, 2023 at 15:32
1

(added for completeness)

We should close such questions as off topic. If my other suggestion (for a canonical question) fails, I do not see how we can take such questions at all. Having a ton of individual posts for different sub field, countries, and personal interests, each with (at most) a few answers giving anecdotal suggestions, does not seem like what we do here.

-5

Thanks for raising this, I’ve been wondering the same.

I know we generally frown on making giant lists, but to me this seems like a case for a giant canonical question of the form “I have a PhD in X, what non-university jobs should I consider?” Then we’ll have an answer for each field, as we do for the countries in that canonical post.

The trouble with all the individual questions is that only two or three people are likely to reply (at most), and a few data points are hardly representative. But a single list that people can add to over many years may be more helpful.

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    I don't like this idea because I think the list will not be about to be canonical due to being poorly bounded. Academia is just such a small portion of the research universe, and the rest of it is far more diverse and difficult to categorize.
    – jakebeal
    Sep 7, 2023 at 9:37

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