Choosing between Academia and Industry: Five Strategies to Get Started

 May 18, 2022

Signpost reading "one way or another"

In our recent survey about your summer professional development goals, respondents’ most frequent comments centered on choosing between academia and industry. If addressing this question is on your list of goals, too, here are some strategies to make headway as you explore your options.


1. See the full spectrum.

Sometimes the choice between “academia and industry” is framed as a decision between only two options, but this phrasing can hide some possibilities. Many people use academia as a shorthand for tenure-track professor, but of course there are many other kinds of jobs within higher education. Similarly, careers beyond academia might be lumped into the term industry, but that can include work in businesses (sometimes called the private sector) as well as government (sometimes called the public sector) or nonprofit employment. In addition, some master’s and Ph.D. holders work in K-12 education.

The Graduate School publishes career outcomes for our master’s and Ph.D. alumni. There you can see the sectors where recent graduates work, and, if you use the Top Employers tab, you can even see which organizations have hired them. On the Alumni Profiles page, you can find the professional stories of some of these alums—and maybe even learn about a new career opportunity of interest.

2. Put your research skills to work.

One great place to start learning more about these different options is the VersatilePhD’s Career Finder tool (be sure to login as a Duke user on your first visit to access The Graduate School’s subscription). Choose a career that looks interesting to you, and begin with the “General Information” tab to get a quick overview. To read longer narratives from successful professionals working in this field, click on “Real-Life Examples.”

In addition, you can explore options specific to your degree program through The Graduate School's subscription to the career exploration platform Beyond Graduate School for master's students and Beyond the Professoriate for Ph.D. students. Here you'll find video interviews with professionals in a wide range of careers so you can get first-hand information about the experience of working in these professions. Be sure to log in through Duke's subscription to access all the materials for free.

You can also learn more about your options through free online tools such as myIDP (for the sciences) and ImaginePhD (for humanities and social sciences), which will guide you through assessments of your skills and interests to suggest employment sectors that might be a good match for you. You can also find readings in both tools to help you better understand what jobs in those sectors entail.

3. Connect with Duke communications.

Now that you have a better idea of the kinds of job sectors where you might like to work, you can join a Career Community through the Duke Career Center to access information about professional development events, employer presentations, and volunteer experiences specific to your interests. You can join as many communities as you’d like, and there’s even a group for students who are still deciding called “Discovery and Exploration.”

You can also subscribe to listservs and newsletters to help you learn more about employment sectors of interest. Here are just a few examples:

4. Talk with professionals in careers of interest.

No website can give you full insight into what it’s like to work in a particular job at a specific employer. For that information, you need to talk with the professionals who work in those positions. Believe it or not, many professionals are happy to talk with students for 20 minutes about their jobs and the paths they took to get to them. These conversations, commonly known as informational interviews, are great ways for you to assess whether you might enjoy a job or working at an organization of interest. You can learn more about conducting informational interviews from this video and guide courtesy of Duke Career Center. If you need support in formulating a strategy for your outreach, Duke Career Center staff are available for advice, whether that’s a drop-in appointment during the academic year or a 45-minute advising appointment anytime.

Of course, when you reach out to ask for an informational interview, you’re more likely to get a positive response if you have something in common, whether that’s a mutual friend who can make a virtual introduction for you or your shared Duke connection. You can use tools like the Duke Alumni Network to find alums who work in a particular sector using Industry Groups, or if you have a specific question such as “Do I need a Ph.D. to work in science diplomacy?” you can pose it on Ask A Blue Devil—the tool will use machine learning to match you with an alum who can help answer it. Sometimes the alum who answers will offer the chance for conversation to follow up, too—that’s a terrific opportunity to learn more. (You can find even more ways to connect with alumni in another blog post.)

For the chance to learn about faculty careers at many different types of colleges and universities, I highly recommend the Preparing Future Faculty (PFF) program. As you can imagine, being a faculty member at the private all-women’s Meredith College or at the land-grant public institution NC State is vastly different from being a faculty member at Durham Tech community college or at our neighboring HBCU, NC Central. Over the course of the year-long program, PFF gives you the chance to meet faculty at six area partner institutions that are all quite different from Duke and to develop a mentoring relationship with a faculty member at one of them. Applications are due in early June every year.

5. Try out common career tasks.

As you narrow down your areas of interest, you can see what it’s like to work in a particular job by trying out a common task for that kind of role. Intersect Job Simulations provide the chance to see what skills you’ll need to be successful in those jobs—and to see whether you like using them. Whether you’re in the humanities and social sciences or STEM disciplines, you’ll find simulation tasks such as user experience (UX) research, developing a change management plan, coordinating clinical trial schedules, composing a policy fact sheet, drafting a grant proposal, or creating a pitch deck. And, after completing one of these simulations, you have an excellent reason to follow up with your informational interview contact and let them know how their advice helped you succeed.



Melissa Bostrom, Ph.D.
Melissa Bostrom, Ph.D.

Assistant Dean, Graduate Student Professional Development

Melissa ensures that all Graduate School students can identify and develop transferable skills to prepare them for the full range of career opportunities open to master's- and Ph.D.-prepared professionals. She is Managing Editor of the blog.