Summary

The potential of academic research is very sensitive to your degree of personal fit. If you’re an unusually good fit for a high-priority field of study, then it’s a very strong option. However, we think it’s common for people to continue with academic research when they’d be better suited elsewhere, so we encourage you to be self-skeptical and test out other options.

Pros

  • If you’re a good fit, you have the potential to have a large direct impact.
  • An academic position can give you a good public platform for advocacy.

Cons

  • Competitive ‘up or out’ progression with high drop-out rates in most fields.
  • Need to ‘publish or perish’ and teaching requirements make it harder to work on satisfying, high-impact projects, especially early in your career.

Ratings

Career capital: 

Direct impact: 

Earnings: 

Advocacy potential: 

Ease of competition: 

Job satisfaction:

Our reasoning for these ratings is explained below. You might also like to read about our approach to rating careers.

Key facts on fit  

Intelligent, high grit, autonomous, deep interest in area.

Next steps

If you’re unsure whether academic research is for you, then continue studying, while looking to try out other options in your holidays and in the years between undergraduate and graduate study. It can be hard to re-enter academia (especially after a PhD) so this better keeps your options open.

Recommended

If you are well suited to this career, it may be the best way for you to have a social impact.

Review status

Exploratory career profile 

Review author

Roman Duda

This is an old profile and may no longer fully reflect our views. If you’re interested in academia, please see our newer profiles on biomedical research, economics PhDs, AI risk research, and computer science PhDs. We hope to add profiles cover the rest of academia over the next year. Subscribe to our newsletter to be notified.

What is this career path?

‘Valuable academic research’ means a position in a university to carry out research within high-priority causes. Careers in this field start by doing a PhD, then you work your way up to tenured professor. In addition to the research itself, some academics become public intellectuals or involved in policy.

Potential for immediate impact

Direct impact potential

Research has the potential to create a huge amount of value, and progress often seems constrained by a lack of good researchers who have an outsized impact compared to the typical researcher. If you might be a good fit for research, you could therefore make a big contribution.

On the other hand, this is offset by strong incentives to publish early in your career (‘publish or perish’), which can make it difficult to focus on the most valuable issues. Early in your career, you’ll also probably need to spend substantial time teaching.

Another disadvantage is that it’s difficult to radically change your cause within an academic career, which we think is important, although this varies from field to field: social scientists and applied mathematicians seem to have a fairly large degree of flexibility, whereas labratory scientists are relatively constrained to their particular area.

How to maximise your impact within research?

Read more on our strategies page.

Advocacy potential

Academic positions have credibility, prestige, and you have a lot of flexibility in how you spend your time, especially after securing tenure, which can also be good for advocacy. In particular, you may have the opportunity to join grant committees, and influence large amounts of academic funding.

Academic positions also enable you to build connections within academia, which is generally considered an important source of new knowledge in society, and has a significant influence on policy and technology.

Potential for long-run impact

Career capital depends on the field. Quantitative scientific subjects and economics can open up opportunities in industry and entrepreneurship. Subjects with policy relevance, like development economics and public health, also open up government and non-profit positions. On the other hand, the training process takes a long time and mainly prepares you for careers within academia, rather than developing a broad network and portfolio of skills.

Personal fit

Personal traits

Intelligence seems more important in research than in the other options on the list. It’s also highly important to be able to develop strong motivation for your subject, because the field is competitive, failure is common, and it’ll mainly be down to you to choose projects and make grant applications. The lifestyle can be good, with high autonomy and interesting work, but it depends on the subject and stage of your career. Pre-tenure, hours are often very long. Lab science is notorious for needing very long hours early in your career.

Ease of competition

Our impression is that academia is highly competitive. Many subjects have a sharp pyramid – with many more PhD students than positions – and are ‘up or out’ in progression. Those who succeed are those who can develop very high motivation for their subject area.

The Economics job market seems relatively good, as are the job markets in some subjects that have positions within business schools, such as decision-making psychology.

Bias to continue

Within academia the idea of leaving is framed as failing; while continuing to the next stage is the obvious next step (for instance, see this article). Many people within academia are also unclear about their options elsewhere. This creates a bias towards continuing even when you’d be better off elsewhere.

Further reading