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Why Leaving Academia Will Accelerate Your Career Trajectory

Leaving academia to improve your career trajectory

Written by: Morgan Bye, Ph.D.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

Every day you wake up, and you go to work.

You don’t just pour your soul into your work, but you give it a little piece of you too.

Somedays it feels like a bit TOO much of your life.

But in reality, it has become your whole life.

Your waking — and sometimes sleeping — existence revolves around science.

Whether it’s life science, physical science, engineering, social sciences, or whatever PhD-level work you do.

Your work is one thing you can’t stop talking about.

It’s not just a day job… there are more times than you want to admit that you lost track of time and worked late into the night.

The tunnel vision of academia keeps you over-invested.

Everyone that knows you tells you that you work too much, are too stressed out, and are wasting your life.

Even when they try and be supportive or understanding, they just don’t get it.

The pay is lousy, the hours are worse, but you’ve justified it as being about significance, or progress, or contributing to something great, to rationalize why you’re still there.

You didn’t get into science for the money anyway, and you knew it wouldn’t be glamorous or revolutionary, but you still felt your contributions would be part of changing the world.

Didn’t you?

And when you do look up, in those briefest moments of pause, you look at the people around you.

You see yourself surrounded by people that are equally talented.

Equally committed.

Equally driven.

But nobody’s happy or satisfied.

That was me, before I found an exit out of academia and into industry.

Now, instead of sitting in a lab alone at night, I’m sitting in an office of about 40 people.

All from different walks of life.

Biologists, engineers, statisticians, computer scientists, and at last count we had about 20 different passports in the room.

And guess what happens if someone doesn’t understand something?

They stick their hand up.

With no shame, no judgment, and they announce it — almost with a sort of pride.

Then something really weird happens.

Because of the mixed backgrounds in the room, someone knows the answer.

Not only do they know it, but there’s no competition around it — they’re happy to share it because everyone is fighting towards the same goal of making something great.

Helping each other understand and work better together is not the exception, it’s the rule.

After being exposed to this environment for a while, you even start to lose the ego.

You come to trust the fact that someone else in the room will know more than you about most things and at the same time, you become the “go-to” for your own area of expertise.

Industry brings out the best in PhDs by having them all work towards the same goals and offering an environment conducive to the same end goals.

Companies with happy employees

Why Transitioning From Academia To Industry Fosters A More Positive Culture

The only difference between the lab you sit in right now and the startup company of your dreams is a little imagination and enlightenment.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that happiness in the workplace will equate to productivity.

And yet, this is something academia, and academic supervisors in particular, have yet to grasp.

The proof is in your academic experience and the despair and frustration that came with it.

Industry corporations have a different perspective.

Companies invest heavily on employee satisfaction because it literally pays off.

A study in the Journal of Financial Economics showed that companies with happy employees outperform the competition by 20%, earn 1.2% to 1.7% more, and are 2.1% above industry benchmarks.

Happier employees are more productive, and companies with happier employees make more money.

Industry corporations recognize this as part of their bottom line.

A study in the Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes found that employees reported higher job satisfaction, higher engagement at work, less stress, and fewer negative outcomes (i.e. job turnover and absenteeism) when the corporate culture was congruent with the orientation of individual personnel hired.

Cultivating congruence makes the business thrive, keeps productivity high, and employee accountability strong.

Industry jobs look for employees that resonate with their overall climate and are proactive in giving back by cultivating an environment that promotes the inclusion, engagement, and happiness of their employees.

Time to leave when academia has let you down

Why Now Is The Best Time For PhDs To Leave Academia

In industry, co-workers aren’t the competition.

They’re your teammates, fighting the same fight.

Companies that build an effective organizational culture on the constant iteration and sharing of ideas can save years of needless research, can save lives, and can even save the company.

This clarity of purpose allows you as an employee to truly make a difference in the lives of others — something which academia often preaches, but rarely accomplishes.

The reason that you got into science in the first place was to make a difference… and academia has let you down.

Here are 3 reasons why now is the time to leave academia…

Resenting the success of others

1. Academic science is no longer a team sport.

PhDs should not feel alone when doing science.

Yet, this is often the case.

In industry, however, teamwork remains a priority.

In industry, you are supported by systems that bring people together in a much more collaborative nature.

Of course, no company or team is going to be flawless.

Big or small, every company will have its grievances.

Start-ups may be agile, but they’ll never have the big budget, long-term approach of big pharma.

Both options are still better than sitting at your bench, alone.

If you’re here reading this… you already have the itch.

You already have the awareness that you’re not satisfied where you are.

And yet, there you sit… resenting the success of labmates when they get an article in a big journal.

(You know… that one postdoc that ran unintelligent experiments every day for the past three years… but today, ran some magic sample and now they’re published in Nature, getting major accolades.)

Eventually, you realize working harder isn’t going to help you.

You realize that your technical skills are not going to help you either.

Being stuck in academia will make you question your natural ability and talent, as you struggle to find a good PI, while waiting for blind luck to get you assigned to some unicorn project.

In industry, your natural ability and talents are noticed and capitalized upon.

How hard you work does matter, and there’s no blind luck about it.

Your progress is accurately measured based on your performance.

And you’re rewarded for it.

With a salary commensurate with your ability and efforts.

What a novel idea.

Being a research scientist in industry is far more rewarding than in academia.

You’re not in it alone — you’re part of a team that works together to collaborate and advance toward the same goals and outcomes.

Reach your goals

2. Many postdocs are filled with regret.

Every PhD has been there.

Walking into your PI’s office with no answers, feeling like a failure, usually with their help.

Realizing the path you’ve chosen isn’t leading to what you want and have worked so hard for.

You might have spent a decade in universities, diving into debt along the way, to have reached a place where you know you just can’t keep running the same old academic treadmill anymore.

And yet — you (like others) feel locked in, paralyzed by fear, lack of confidence, and lack of knowledge.

It’s not an easy place to be, particularly if you had your heart set on being a tenured professor.

Admitting defeat and feeling like you’re giving up on a dream can be depressing.

But you’re not a failure.

The reality is that the system failed you.

And the longer you hesitate to make decisions and actions to change your life, the more it will continue to fail you.

Academia is not changing.

It’s just getting worse.

Regret will only multiply the longer you sit still.

Realize that you aren’t defeated.

Realize that the game is rigged and start planning an exit strategy to get out.

Fast forward 10 years — if you don’t transition into industry — 10 years of doing the same thing you’re doing now.

That’s where real regret will take hold.

That’s where many postdocs are now.

They thought they’d be doing a postdoc for just one year.

Maybe three years.

But now they’re in the middle of their sixth year, or like one postdoc I know, their 14th year.

14 years plus 5 years of getting a PhD.

That’s 19 years — that’s an entire career.

Don’t let this be you.

Start looking forward, making plans, and taking actionable steps toward goals in industry now to minimize the regret of complacency later.

You’re the only one that can change your life, and this is one decision that you’ll regret the longer you hold back on it.

3. There’s nothing to lose by leaving academia.

Once you take action and transition into your industry job, you’ll never look back.

You’ll never regret it.

You’ll just wish you had exited sooner.

This is the hope you hold onto when you feel unconfident or unsure of yourself.

And you won’t miss the lab or your PI for a second.

Even if you still have the love for research, you’ll be able to do it full-time without worrying about the next grant, the next paper, or whether you’ll even have a job in a few years.

With a good paycheck, with benefits and a pension along with it.

Equally important — you’ll feel valued.

You’ll hear the same stories from many colleagues you leave behind… and have constant reinforcement that you made the right choice.

You’ll be grateful for being home in time for dinner, being able to have work/life balance, and enjoying weekends when you work at an industry job.

You’ll remember how you’re not a hostage to that prison system anymore.

They’ll tell you that once you leave academia, you can’t come back.

Not allowed!

They’ll tell you that you won’t be up-to-date on the latest research and question your commitment to real science.

But consider the source.

What does a lifetime academic really know about going into industry and back anyway?

They’re still in prison and your enlightenment, so to speak, is a threat to every rationalization that they have adopted to cope with their choice to remain in academia.

Don’t let these opinions make you question your decision to transition into industry.

You can successfully transition out of academia into a job that is fulfilling, gives you a sense of purpose and community, and makes a difference in the real world.

With a salary and benefits and an entire lifestyle to match.

And, if by some oddball chance, things don’t work out in industry, you can always go back to a postdoc position, making a meager salary with no benefits.

Breaking away from the Ivory Tower may seem difficult.

You may worry about disappointing your peers, your family, or even yourself.

But it’s time to stop thinking of industry as an ‘alternative career path’ and instead as THE career path that will allow you to achieve your goals and make a difference.

You have the skills, both technical and transferable, to follow multiple career avenues — all that is stopping you is you.

Transitioning out of academia into industry can be an intimidating journey. As a PhD in academia, you already know the bleak future that staying in academia holds for you. You already have a sense that there must be something better out there. You know that there should be a way for you to do meaningful work and get paid well for it. The answer for many PhDs is transitioning into industry. This is because many industry jobs offer a chance to do real science while being supported within a corporate culture designed to foster progress, purpose, and job satisfaction. Here is why now is the time to leave academia.

To learn more about leaving academia to improve your career trajectory, including instant access to our exclusive training videos, case studies, industry insider documents, transition plan, and private online network, get on the wait list for the Cheeky Scientist Association.

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Morgan Bye, Ph.D.

Morgan Bye, Ph.D.

Morgan is a Computational Biologist at the BC Cancer Agency, Genome Sciences Centre. Morgan believes that the future of health-care and finding new medical breakthroughs now lies at the intersection between computational and life sciences. He received his PhD from the University of East Anglia and is a member of the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Biochemical Society.
Morgan Bye, Ph.D.

Latest posts by Morgan Bye, Ph.D. (see all)

  • Shawn Lyons

    Wow, your office sounds like a dream come true. I can’t imagine being around all those scientists from different backgrounds with different fields of expertise. What a difference. Something to look forward to. Thanks!

    • Morgan Bye, PhD

      I can assure you, it’s even better than it sounds. And yet, it so very quickly blends into the background when you’re working on a problem. You don’t care about someone’s background, school or last PI when you’ve got a problem to solve together.

  • Matthew Smithson PhD

    Couldn’t agree more, Morgan. It’s a waste of time to sit around at the bench all day dreaming of getting out of prison. Placed well, PhD’s can live an excellent life with plenty of money and stimulating contacts – even hobbies! It’s why we all went to school and worked so hard for this. Time to enjoy it.

    • Morgan Bye, PhD

      Just think of what could be achieved if all of that energy was applied to something more than complaining about a broken system…

  • Carlie Stevenson, PhD

    I couldn’t have said it better myself, Morgan. It’s awesome to have a life, have a position you love in a company that’s doing great things for people, and enjoy your co-workers because you’re all professionals and want truth to prevail. I’ve never been happier to have gone into science – quite a change from being stuck in the lab after class!

    • Morgan Bye, PhD

      Who knew, that one day you might actually be able to enjoy science again?

  • Marvin D’Esprit

    Really encouraging, Morgan. Thank you.

    • Morgan Bye, PhD

      Glad that you enjoyed it!

  • Kathy Azalea

    Well, I sure don’t want to waste my life! When I complete my PhD, I’ll be so happy to get out of school and start living. It’s an uphill battle. It’s good to have some help from people who have gone through this before.

    • Morgan Bye, PhD

      There’s an old saying that goes “if you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room”. Despite what some PIs might have you believe, there’s no shame in asking for help from someone with more experience. That’s why we’re here.

  • Madeline Rosemary

    I don’t think there’s any way I would go back to academia. First of all, there is more opportunity in industry than there is in academia. That’s a proven fact. Second of all, even though there are going to be issues wherever you are, the pay is better in industry and so is the upward mobility.

    • Morgan Bye, PhD

      Not to mention the fact that you actually have laws, and a HR department whose job it is to protect your freedoms. The chances of you getting stuck in a abusive PI dead-end, with no way out are significantly reduced.

  • Sonja Luther

    19 years stuck in the postdoc circle – wow, that’s enough to demoralize anyone!

    • Morgan Bye, PhD

      Yeah, and think about how they felt trying to start a new life after being timed out of the post-doc game for being too expensive to keep employed

  • Theo

    Staying in academia too long is just bad karma, and something I’m not prepared to do. Since visiting these blogs, I’ve been getting my act together much better and I’ve gotten a ton of good info.

    • Morgan Bye, PhD

      It’s great to hear that your educating yourself now, whilst you still have time. Make a plan, and commit to executing it. You’ll only thank yourself later.

  • Julian Holst

    You have a way of cutting to the chase and speaking for a lot of us PhD candidates. Yes, we’d love to make a difference in the world. But yes, we want to have a decent life, too! That’s why I look forward to the time when I get out of academia and start putting my abilities to the test.

    I’ve been introduced to bloggers on this website who work all over the world. Sometimes I think it must be daunting to try to work in a different country or work with highly educated and prestigious scientists in very detailed and exacting companies. Or I wonder if I can meet up to the corporate culture and standards when I get that first position. But I can tell you that I don’t want to feel isolated on the bench wondering if the next grant is going to be canceled halfway through or competing with people who should be my teammates. I can’t imagine not going for something better, and articles like this help me keep my eyes on the prize.

    • Morgan Bye, PhD

      I’ve done the academic thing across Northern Europe, the Middle East and North America, and there is some ego massaging that goes on to know that you’re rubbing shoulders with some of the greatest minds on the planet. But at the same time, it doesn’t matter how many fancy letters you have after your name, if you can’t break through the imposter syndrome.

      The difference is, when you join a company, there’s an actual onboarding procedure to make sure that you’re up to speed and have got everything you need to do the job. Heck, a lot of places heavily invest in corporate culture – they want you to fit in – because a good team gets good results.

      (… and let me tell you, I don’t loose one wink of sleep now worrying about funding grants)

  • Harvey Delano

    I think that out of all the people in the world who should be paid well, the people who worked hard and got their PhD should be the ones considered first for it. The only trouble I see is that people don’t realize what an accomplishment it is, and when they leave grad school, they’re probably not expecting as much as they could command if they knew how to position themselves. I’m no exception. I wonder if I’m going to be low-balled into accepting way too little in terms of benefits and salary. But I’m hoping that keeping on top of the learning curve when it comes to negotiations, how to network, etc., will pay off. Thanks for your contribution and I think you’ve made some really great points.

    • Morgan Bye, PhD

      The truth is far too many fall into an experience trap.

      It’s all too easy, for those on the other side of the table, to say that you don’t have any “real world” experience. As a scientist, you don’t feel like you can argue with facts and that results in you getting lumped in with all of the other recent (under-)graduates and you taking an entry level position.

      But you’re not entry level. With a masters, doctorate and maybe more behind you, you might have a decade of experience. But due to a politeness, not wanting to argue the point, and sometimes (let’s face it) desperation, all too many PhDs settle for less.