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What are the advantages and disadvantages of doing your PhD research (in science, math, or engineering) at a non-academic lab (like a government or industrial lab) vs. the traditional academic setting? (Of course, the degree is granted by a university.)

When is one option better than the other if you have the choice between doing your research in an academic or non-academic setting?

A few potential advantages I can think of:

  • You're likely to be hired by the lab after graduation. If you don't want to enter academia and are happy with the lab, this could be your career. If you do want to enter academia, often you're in good company because leaving research labs for academia isn't uncommon.
  • You can work with more people (your school's students and professors and the lab's researchers). This'll expand your professional network and expose you to different perspectives.
  • Your affiliation with the lab could add some credibility to you and your research.

A few potential disadvantages:

  • Travel could be problematic if your school and your lab aren't close. This could be mitigated by taking care of the coursework first.
  • The research topic is often dictated by someone in the lab if you are funded by them. If you decide this topic is not worth researching or not interesting then you might have a problem. Politics in the lab could change the research topic in the future and that might also be a problem.

1 Answer 1

I am currently doing basically this in the UK. I can definitely say it is a viable option, although there are definitely some drawbacks.

The biggest disadvantage is that you lack lots of the support the being based at a academic institution has. There is no student union or similar structures to support you. While you will have access to these facilities via your academic institution they are generally much harder to access due to your physical separation.

Similarly the social life at non-academic institutions is very different. Most of your colleges will not be students and probably have a very different outlook on life, e.g. many more older people with families. Similarly there is no union, clubs or other formalised ways to meet people socially. Although this probably depends more your personality and the specific place your at.

You are also correct that travel to/from your academic institution can be very annoying. For meeting with your supervisor I strongly recommend trying to do as much by skype as possible.

Finally non-academic institutions, even government labs/NMIs tend to be less research focused and more focused on providing a service/developing a product, which might involve significant research. This isn't necessarily a problem as long as your project is well defined and your not at risk of doing several small unrelated projects.

On the plus side, you will probably be more exposed to industry and get a wider understanding of what is viewed as important by end users.

Many of the researchers at these labs are world-leading in there own right and some labs are very highly regarded which can't hurt your future prospects.

Also, they are presumably providing funding for the project. Which is always import to have :).