Leaving academia: A touchy subject

Here’s a peek into the dark corners of my mind

A career is a linear phenomenon: we decide what we want to become when we grow up, and from that time, all we do needs to stand in light of that goal. There is a ladder, and people step off at different stages, whenever they reach their limit. We strive to stay on it, and keep on climbing, as long as we can. Wherever we get off defines our worth. Anything but reaching the top is failure.

Writing it down here brings me a combination of disgust and comic relief.

It’s almost like mental gymnastics, because I would never think this of my friends and family, of people I care about. But I would think it of myself. If you can do it, then you must do it, or you will let everyone down.

It might be this dark projection of my own mind, but I find this way of thinking to be very common when it comes to careers in academia. By now we’ve all heard how universities “produce” more PhDs than before, but the number of faculty positions is not increasing at the same pace. Not by far. So, naturally, even if all people starting a PhD would want to stay in the academic career track, that’s not gonna be possible. So you get off the ladder, and fail.


But, it doesn’t have to be like this.

Of course, this is not the opinion of every single individual. I’m sure there are people who do not have, do not encounter or do not struggle with these ridiculous ways of looking at academia. And some people do really support those who consider other career path as better fitting their ambitions, personality or needs. Shout out to KI career service.

Also at the ESOF (EuroScience Open Forum) conference in July this year, there were a lot of sessions on “PhD mobility”. I think calling it something else might be too sensitive. Anyway, here’s some of the things I took away from those sessions.

Disclaimer: this is not a sound recording, and so there may be biases in what I decided to take notes on. I’m sure official documents with better info are out there. I’m just trying to transfer the gist of the sessions, for the ones who weren’t there.

 The product of a PhD is the person, not the research output. It’s a tricky one, because, of course, your PI is particularly happy with research output, and they themselves are under a lot of pressure too. However, a PhD should be a learning experience, and given that roughly 50% leave soon after their PhD, a PhD is now just as much a training for other sectors as it is for the academic one. Interpersonal skills, project management and the ability to adapt are extremely important, no matter where you go.

Unclear communication leads to disappointment. Researcher identify with the academic environment and lab they are in. They are incredibly loyal to their supervisors, sometimes to such an extent that it prevents them from exploring other things. Many supervisors (ab)use that loyalty, even with the best intentions, because obviously they want people who they know they can rely on to stay. However, this can turn into a feeling of betrayal. Younger researchers read into some comments that, if only they are loyal and put in enough time,  they will be protected and get opportunities. In the end they often don’t, because the higher ups can’t help or didn’t mean to give that impression in the first place.

We need more people management in academia. PI’s are generally not selected based on their people and management skills, rather on their scientific output in previous career stages. Still, a big part of their job is managing people.

We are at risk to develop a culture that assesses the sacrifices people are willing to make for their careers as their input or drive. High stress levels among researchers are not taken seriously and this is a very real reason for people to move out. The idea that academia is the best is dangerous.

There are push and pull factors. People leave not just because they are pushed out, but also because there are good things to be found in other sectors, that might suit you better.

Don’t be afraid to leave if that it what you want. People find jobs after roughly 3 – 9 months, and after 6 month to 3 years they report to be in jobs that they are really satisfied by. Only 6% would consider to go back.

There are more jobs than you think. There are jobs out there that you didn’t even know existed, or needed your skills. Your analytical thinking, project management and data handling are really needed in any kind of company, organization, charity, etc.

It is not a weakness to want to have time for your friends and family. This is a totally valid influence in your career choice.

And we’re not even talking about considering what you actually want from your life. What environment do you feel good in? What kind of interactions do you enjoy? How do you like to spend your time? I’ve never really given myself the freedom to consider all these things. It never felt like an option.

If any of this resonates with you, or you would like to add to it, feel free to comment 🙂

See you around,



Some links on career development and training for researchers:

Our other blogs related to the ESOF conference:
One more time, just do it again — on reproducibility
Post ESOF: how science warmed my heart
Sharing Science: Towards New Horizons – ESOF2018

Header picture: https://pixabay.com/en/hitchhiker-thumb-hoodie-backpack-691581/


3 thoughts on “Leaving academia: A touchy subject

  1. I really can relate to the aspect that we need more management in academia – but were there any concrete ideas for this? The fact that PIs are the managers even without training or not always much interest is very linked to the academic structure as such

    1. This session of “PhD mobility” was more making the point that there are many reasons why people leave, not just because they “can’t make it”, and that management issues is one of them, and that this might be better elsewhere. Clearly, if every person who wants different management leaves, the attitude inside is not doing to change, but it might be the solution for an individual person. It was a session more for PhDs, not for the ones running groups or universities.

      Of the session I attended, the most concrete ideas came from sessions of funding agencies, who realize the current stress-culture is what results in dubious science and worse management.

      I’ll talk more about the funding agencies in another post 🙂

  2. I love your post and I totally agree that leaving academia should be seen as something natural, as a possible path for very talented people who develop numerous valuable skills during their PhD. I think this notion of academia being only one possibility among many after the PhD need to be more discussed from the beginning of the PhD programs so that is becomes less of a “failure feeling” for those who wish to explore other paths. Looking forward to the upcoming posts – you really triggered our interest by summarising some of the other topics covered in the sessions! They all seem super interesting and relevant for the current state of academic science careers. I totally agree that PIs need to be good people managers (training programs should be put in place for that) and also that we have the right to a healthy personal life apart from our jobs, which does not imply we are not 100% dedicated and passionate about our research.

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