I’m a graduating Ph.D. in a STEM field and I have decided not to continue in academia. The prospect of a life-long low wage doesn’t appeal to me after four years living on a meager stipend.

I had two interviews so far and the questions always came: “Why not a postdoc?” or “Why not continue in academia?” Can I answer I'm leaving because academic salaries aren't high enough for my expectations? Or should I simply say that I feel my skill set would be better put to use outside academia? This is the answer I have given so far, leaving the salary bit out.

I’m afraid that I may sound greedy if I mention the salary so early in the hiring process. Or that I may come across as a hiree who expects to be fast-tracked to a high salary position. Of course, those aren’t my expectations. My expectation is to be paid what is reasonable for the job.

  • 4
    As someone who hires PhDs into a national lab, I fully understand that we pay way more, particularly at the postdoc level. But I do want some insight into what motivates you, since I can often tailor assignments to meet those motivations. (Postdocs I've hired have gone on to permanent positions at national labs, industry, and academia. Each choice benefits from choosing some projects over others for the person to work on.)
    – Jon Custer
    Nov 9, 2021 at 19:51
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    It is in your interest to discuss salary as late in the process as achievable. If you can postpone it untill you are both hovering over the contract with your pens, that is the best moment. Thus: It is perfectly OK for you to say this. However: It will give the interviewer an opportunity to turn the discussion towards salary.
    – Stian
    Nov 12, 2021 at 8:45
  • You could put things more diplomatically, saying expenses are getting high, you need to buy house, car , feed family ... whatever ... Idea is to show yourself as someone wanting a decent paying job but not greedy.
    – rs.29
    Nov 12, 2021 at 13:09
  • @StianYttervik I respectfully disagree. What if a prospective employer wants to pay less than a postdoc? Why would OP want to interview for that position? Since salary is important, I advocate discussing it early in the process. My thought process is to eliminate unviable opportunities as early as possible so I can spend more time on viable ones.
    – emory
    Nov 12, 2021 at 21:03
  • @emory the most expensive point to lose the hire is just before signing. You have likely struck out 90% of the pool, and the idea of another round of recruitment is likely more expensive than several thousand extra per year in salary. Take it from someone who is hiring someone right now. I want people to be upfront with salary. They shouldn't be.
    – Stian
    Nov 13, 2021 at 7:28

6 Answers 6


There is nothing wrong with rejecting a job, or a whole line of work, for reasons of salary.

Every reasonable hiring manager understands that salary is a factor in all job decisions, and a bit of honesty won't hurt you. However it might not be best to give it as the only reason for your choice, or imply that you will take whichever job pays highest without regard to anything else.

What might hurt you is "I really wanted to do postdoc work, but I can't afford it until my loans are paid off". This sets the expectation that you will quit your job and go back to academia as soon as you can.

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    I've been telling people for decades that the reason I got out of Genetic Engineering was because I'd have to commit to a lot more schooling for a job that pays less than I make today. Between the debt and the pay, it just doesn't make sense to me. Not a single person has ever questioned my choice, but a few have expressed their surprise that the pay for Biology research is quite low (especially for those with a B.S. degree). At the time, a MS degree would get me $6k more per year, and I would pay that back over 12 years.
    – Edwin Buck
    Nov 9, 2021 at 21:24
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    There was a story in the UK about a physicist, in a decent scientific job, who quit and became a plumber because the pay was better. If I was twenty, maybe I'd take a totally different career and become a cowboy plumber. (Breathing in sharply and "Uuuh, that will cost" kind of plumber).
    – gnasher729
    Nov 10, 2021 at 19:13
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    @gnasher729 Isn't that what experimental physicists do anyway :-) "I don't know who installed this, but it looks like you're going to need a whole new hadron collider." Nov 10, 2021 at 19:52
  • @DJClayworth even plumbers who don’t have a degree or doc or post doc are capable of pushing a “new hadron collider” or septic tank etc
    – Solar Mike
    Nov 11, 2021 at 8:26

Can I say I'm leaving because the prospect of living on an academic’s salary wasn’t appealing?

Of course you can say that, if you like.

Or should I say that I feel my skill set would be better put to use outside academia?

That's the route I would suggest.

Talk about your fit for the specific company. Talk about how your skills match their needs.

Avoid leading with "I just want more money". That isn't usually what hiring managers want to hear, and should be left unstated.

  • 1
    I'm not sure it's as cut and dried as this. Some hiring managers love the idea of someone motivated solely by money, because they know if they pay the person enough they can always keep them. Even without that, realistically virtually everybody has rejected a job because it didn't pay enough. Nov 9, 2021 at 17:15
  • I wasn't saying you can't reject an offered job for low salary. I meant that it's OK to say "I didn't want those academic jobs because the salaries were all too low." Nov 9, 2021 at 18:39
  • Instead of "I just want more money" say "My wife doesn't want to buy all clothes second hand anymore".
    – gnasher729
    Nov 15, 2021 at 11:13

I’m afraid that I may sound like I overshooting my chances if I mention the salary so early in the hiring process. Or that I may come across as a potential hiree who expects to be fast-tracked to a high salary position. Of course, those aren’t my expectations. My expectation is to be paid what is reasonable for the position.

I recommend keeping the Salary part out of it until they ask. Then state only what your expectation is of your salary.

I would leave out the entire conversation on not pursuing a career in academia. I doubt they would even ask but if they do, you bring up a good conversation about just feeling like you are better out in the field.

I think the big no's of hiring is that you should a) never talk bad about your previous job no matter what, even if the boss came in and shot everyone and you are the only survivor. Just say you're switching jobs for health reasons. b) never talk about money or where you can get more money or less money.


"“Why not a postdoc?” or “Why not continuing in academia?” have a simple answer:

"I love this field, I spent many years in academia and now I would like to experience industry"

If you come from a PhD, they will know that you are underpaid. If you are close to your thirties, maybe with a partner, they already know that your finances need improvement. You don't need to discuss money at all.

And when they ask for your salary expectations, you can just mention "I am new to this industry (which is true), I expect my salary to be in line with similar roles for the domain I am specialised in".

As a PhD, you are a specialist by definition. It might take some attempts to identify how much of your expertise is transferable. Other jobs might pay you more if your specialist background provides additional value to their specific business.

Your best alternative to an industry job is indeed a postdoc salary, e.g. $50k in the US. So, it's fair to negotiate any amount exceeding a postdoc salary - and note that a company would bring you benefits, more stability and generally more opportunities than a 24 months postdoc contract, that needs to be taken into account.


There are academics who choose to style themselves as martyrs upon the flame of higher education, and it's okay that you're choosing not to be one of them.

You could use the term 'lifestyle incompatibilities" or similar without specifically mentioning salary. Got a family to feed? "The academic lifestyle isn't compatible with raising a family." Other real-world, money-is-a-necessity type things on your plate? "The academic lifestyle isn't compatible with my several responsibilities right now." Be brief. Do NOT volunteer an explanation of what you mean. I believe most people will understand what you mean and move on to other interview topics, but we both know that there are jerks everywhere.

There are all types of organizations that have a cult-like quality of capitalizing (I'll even say preying) on people who don't stand up for who they really are and what they believe in, and you don't have to fall for it. You have your suspicions, obviously. If the interviewer presses about what you say, accept that you might just be in the wrong place, tip your hat, and look elsewhere. Leave with your self-respect still intact!

Good luck.


Going for places with higher pay is a good thing, they are after all paying more in order to attract people. Thus they manage to get some of the smart people. No shame in it! Let me share a reason for why I did not do a PhD after a STEM masters:

I wanted to do something real. Accademia is full of toy projects and novel ideas, I wanted to work on something that people actually use. Building something that is worth something, that solves real problems. I was very tired of the "this may have some use some day some how, I dunno, it sure was interesting tho!".

Sure, I have less "highminded" reasons for not going accademia (extra stress, less pay, little motivation, no field I really burn to get into, masters project going OK to meh, and so on).

The "highminded" reasons sound better to an employer. And it helps me mentally as well, no reason to be sour towards something when you don't have to.

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