Mustafa F. Kaddoura, PhD Candidate and Graduate Research Assistant, Department of Mechanical Engineering, University of Minnesota

Mustafa Kaddoura is a PhD candidate in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Minnesota. He earned his master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from the American University of Beirut (AUB) and his Bachelor of Engineering from Beirut Arab University. His research is focused on the modelling and design optimization of renewable energy and water desalination systems. He is aspired to work at the intersection of fluid mechanics, energy & water systems, and numerical simulations.


The world nowadays is indeed needing more PhDs. The goal of the PhD programs is to train students at an advanced level in a specific field of study to prepare future researchers. While the stereotype is that all PhD holders end up teaching in academia, this is not always the case. A PhD prepares students to pursue leadership positions either in academia or industry. From here, there are basically two types of Doctoral degrees (PhD) in STEM domains, the Academic PhD and the Industrial PhD.  The core of both PhD programs is to write a doctoral dissertation that includes original research conducted by the student and a contribution to the scientific literature. However, the road for achieving the doctoral dissertation differs in the two types of programs. The differences lie in six main areas: coursework load, duties, research topic selection, degree duration, potential jobs after graduation, and application process.

The first major difference between the academic and industrial PhDs is the coursework load. The Academic PhD program usually consists of approximately 18 credits of coursework in addition to the doctoral dissertation. This includes regular lectures, weekly assignments, projects, and exams. Coursework allows PhD students to learn and practice advanced topics, which expand their knowledge and expertise significantly; however, it also consumes a significant amount of the students’ time during the first couple of years in the PhD program. On the other hand, an industrial PhD has almost no coursework which gives the students more time to focus on their doctoral dissertation research and allows them to progress faster towards earning their degrees.

The second substantial difference between academic and industrial PhDs are the duties required from the students. In an academic PhD, the duties include dissertation research, coursework in addition to teaching duties in several cases. Several departments involve their PhD students in the teaching process as teaching assistants (TA). Teaching assistants are required to lead laboratory courses, lead solving and recitation sessions, hold office hours to answer undergraduate students’ questions, and grade assignments and exams. This enhances the students teaching and communication skills, but again it consumes their time. On the other hand, an industrial PhD includes only research duties in most cases.

A third considerable difference between academic and industrial PhDs is the research topics selection. In industrial PhD, the student works on a research topic that benefits the funding company and contributes to its industrial development in a direct or indirect way. This is an advantage in which the student is engaged in real industrial problems, which expose the student to the real challenges in manufacturing, marketing, etc. On the other hand, an academic PhD may give the student more flexibility in selecting the research topic ranging from theoretical, fundamental, academic topics to real industrial projects. This, in turns, could be an advantage for ambitious students who are interested in pursuing new and creative topics.

The fourth critical difference lies in the career goals and potential jobs after graduation. Academic PhD usually gives the student a wider range of job options, including faculty positions in academia (professorship), research scientist jobs in national research laboratories, and research and development (R&D) engineers/scientists positions in the industry. In addition, it is not limited to this; some students who succeed to initiate innovative research could patent their inventions and push their research towards commercialization and start their own companies. On the other hand, students in industrial PhD programs have a higher probability of getting a job in the industry, mainly as research and development engineers/scientists, as they graduate with substantial knowledge about the industry and the market. However, academic position and other options are still possible for them.

The fifth notable difference between the two programs is the time duration. This could be a disadvantage for the academic PhD program. Because the academic PhD puts more duties on the student, it has a longer duration and requires the students to spend more time in the program ending up by an average of 5 years, with potential extension for a longer period. However, the time duration for the industrial PhD is 3 to 4 years, and this duration is usually inextensible due to funding limitation.

Last but not least, even the application process to an academic PhD differs from that of an industrial PhD. For an academic PhD, a student usually contacts an academic professor ahead of time to inquire about a research position in a professor’s research group, then he/she applies to the PhD program in the department that the professor is affiliated to. While in industrial PhD, the research projects and their description are usually published online as job vacancies on the university website, and the student applies directly to a specific project that fits his/her background and expertise. In addition, academic PhDs are mainly offered by the universities in the USA and Canada, while industrial PhDs are mainly offered in Europe and Australia.

Finally, it is important to emphasize that both types of degrees, academic and industrial PhDs, are equally good depending on the student’s long-term goals. Nowadays, there are some new emerging PhD programs like the ‘PDEng program’ offered by TU Delft and some other universities in Netherland and Europe. PDEng program is a two-year practical oriented professional doctorate in engineering that is better suited to the direct needs of industry which differs from a regular PhD that is focused on scientific research. In conclusion, careful program selection is required from the student to match his/her skills, abilities, and career dreams.


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