As the demand for electric vehicles (EVs) and autonomous vehicles (AVs) rapidly grows, lower-cost, lighter, and stronger carbon fibers (CFs) are urgently needed to respond to consumers’ call for greater EV traveling range and stronger safety structures for AVs. Converting polymeric precursors to CFs requires a complex set of thermochemical processes; a systematic understanding of each parameter in fiber conversion is still, to a large extent, lacking. Here we demonstrate the effect of carbonization temperature on carbon ring structure formation by combining atomistic/microscale simulations and experimental validation. Experimental testing, as predicted by simulations, exhibited that the strength and ductility of PAN CFs decreased whereas the Young’s modulus increased with increasing carbonization temperature. Our simulations unveiled that high carbonization temperature accelerated the kinetics of graphitic phase nucleation and growth, leading to the decrease in strength and ductility but increase in modulus. The methodology presented herein using combined atomistic/microscale simulations and experimental validation lays a firm foundation for further innovation in CF manufacturing and low-cost alternative precursor development.