Choosing Between Academic and Non Academic Careers Header

How do you choose?

Graduate degree holders generally experience more positive employment outcomes and higher earnings compared to the rest of the population. They may, however, face difficult initial career transitions upon the completion of their degrees. Doctoral candidates often are trained for careers in academia, meaning they sometimes have difficulties initially breaking into industry, and those who want to break into academia may face a long period of employment uncertainty. Knowing how to identify, develop, and present your skillsets can help with an easier transition to both career pathways.

Academic and non-academic career pathways are both excellent options for graduate students, but you want to ensure that you make a choice that makes sense for you and considers all of the information available. Explore this page to learn information about both academic and non-academic careers, the differences between them, and what to consider in your choices.

  • Between 2002 and 2011, the number of students enrolled in doctorate programs increased by approximately 73%.
  • 60% of students pursuing advanced degrees in all studies initially planned to become professors.
  • 40% of employed PhDs work in post-secondary, and 18% become full-time professors.
  • Most advanced degree holders end up in occupations outside of academia and are satisfied in their careers. 

Source: Edge, J., Munro, D. (2015). Inside and outside the academy: Valuing and preparing PHDs for careers. Ottawa: The Conference Board of Canada.

Academic careers are careers that are within academia (meaning they are typically within the post-secondary education sector) and are generally involved in teaching, teaching/learning support, and/or research.   

The pros

  • A career in academia can be incredibly rewarding. 
  • If you manage to land a tenure-track position, the pay is high, the hours are flexible, and you have relative job stability.
  • You get to immerse yourself in your field and pursue your research interests.  
  • You don’t have a boss in the traditional sense, and you get autonomy in much of your work.
  • You get to help students.
  • The occupations are prestigious and coveted.  

The cons

  • Opportunities. As mentioned before, about 40% of employed PhDs in Canada are employed in the post-secondary education sector (such as research and teaching assistants, sessionals, support staff, postdocs, and administration) and 18.6% are full-time professors.  
  • It can take years to land a tenure-track position, and those years are typically filled with:
    • hard work
    • large amounts of work and demands on your time
    • lower pay
    • unstable, contract positions that result in employment uncertainty
    • high stress
    • high competition 
  • It is common to have to move around before finally settling down, as your employers are limited to hiring universities.

Learn more about academic careers and how to prepare for them on our Academic Careers page.

Non-academic careers are careers that are outside of academia and often in industry, government, non-profit, and entrepreneurship.

The pros

  • A career in industry can be exciting, fun, fulfilling, and lucrative. 
  • You can use your skills in a non-traditional environment and you get to experience the real world application of your great knowledge. 
  • Graduate degree holders are more likely to get a job in industry than a job in academia, meaning your opportunities for employment are greater. 
  • Employers who hire advanced degree holders report very positive experiences!
  • It is generally faster-pace than academia (depending on your work preferences, however, this may be a con for you).

The cons

  • It may be difficult at first to find a career in industry where you can make good use of your skills and knowledge, meaning you may have a lower salary at first. 
  • Many employers may not recognize your work at the university as being equivalent to work in industry, meaning they may see you as lacking experience. Research shows that many employers do not recognize the full value of your graduate degree. For this reason, you may need to gain experience by working jobs for which you are overqualified and may have to learn to “sell” your degree, skills, and knowledge to employers.
  • Sometimes students feel like they “failed” because they decided to leave the academy and pursue a career in industry. They may feel pressure from their peers and supervisors to continue into academic work. This can disadvantage students because they may be more reluctant to pursue an industry career even when they want to and they may get a late start on preparing. This can result in a lack of awareness of the many non-academic careers there are and a lack of a non-academic network.

Learn more about non-academic careers and how to prepare for them on our Non-Academic Careers page.

When considering your academic and non-academic career options, ask yourself the following questions to help clarify your goals:

  • What tasks do I truly enjoy doing? What specific things do I enjoy about those tasks?
  • What has given me a sense of accomplishment or satisfaction in the past? What careers could provide me with this?
  • How would I like to use my skills?
  • What challenges would I enjoy tackling?
  • How long am I willing to wait for a permanent position?
  • Am I tied to a specific location? Am I willing to move?
  • Do I enjoy my research? What exactly do I enjoy about my research? Is this something that I can achieve outside of academia?
  • How do I want to contribute to my field? Do I want to use my knowledge and skills in a more practical, "real world" environment? Do I want to contribute research? Do I want to help develop the researchers and professionals of the future?
  • How much does money mean to me? Can I live on little? For how long?
  • What jobs can I do with my transferable skills? Would I enjoy them?

For further career planning and reflection resources, ask to see our Career Planning tip sheet or speak to a career advisor.