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3 Things PhDs Can Do Right Now To Get Their Careers Back On Track

One of my earliest grad school memories was at a wine and cheese event. There were grad school, postdocs, and professors at this event.

I was talking to someone who had been a postdoc for a few years. Initially, we were talking about their research, but at some point, I remember them telling me “I really love wine.”

The comment started as a kind of joke, but it got serious as they started talking about how, with all of the challenges they’d faced in their postdoc and not getting into a professorship, they had really become a wine connoisseur. That the wine helped them take the edge off.

This was an awkward experience for me because I felt really bad for this person.

At the same time, I remember feeling concerned, wanting to understand what was so painful about being a postdoc that this person needed a crutch such as wine.

At the time, I was at the beginning of grad school. I was thinking that I was going to be a doctor, that I had made such an intelligent decision…

But clearly at the time I didn’t understand how dark the academic path can be. How much it can damage your career and damage you personally.

Now, after having seen so many other PhDs go through that pain, after having experienced a lot of this pain myself, this story makes much more sense to me.

At some point, most PhDs realize that the academic system is broken and become disillusioned.

But most PhDs at this point don’t know any other path. They don’t know what life out of academia looks like. So they stay and go deeper into the dissolution.

That’s why academia causes mental disorders. I’m not talking about clinically diagnosed disorders. I’m talking about the mental challenges that way too many PhDs have to face everyday.

So, today I want to remind you why the system is broken and what you can do to set up a plan to leave academia as soon as possible and avoid those mental disorders.

Why You Are Wasting Your Career By Staying In Academia

The academic system is broken.

Academia is no longer what it used to be in the 1950s or 1970s. At that time, getting a PhD meant that you would become a tenured professor at some point.

Doing research in academia ment you’d be working at the forefront of your field, making insightful contributions to humanity.

Today, tenured professorships are all but extinct and the impact that the majority of PhDs will ever have in academia is almost nil.

My PI and most of the professors that I met with during grad school worked for years on something and then just scrap it because they were just spinning out research to get the next grant.

On top of that, there is a reproducibility crisis in academia that further jeopardizes your chances of having an impact.

And this trend will only get worse because academia lacks the management structures that ensure productivity.

The management capabilities of most lifetime academics are awful because there is no management or financial training in academia. 

This is a deadly combination because universities are businesses at the end of the day, and those in charge of the funds don’t know what they’re doing.
If you stay in academia, you will lose your sense of purpose, which in time will take its toll on you and affect your mental health.

3 Things You Can Do Right Now To Get Your Career Back On Track

If you are a PhD or a PhD student and are wondering when is the right time to leave academia to avoid feeling purposeless, the answer is now.

You should at least start seriously planning your transition right now to ensure you have an industry career lined out by the time you graduate. You have nothing to gain from doing a postdoc.

As PhDs, we have very active minds, we’re very intelligent, we have more energy than the average professional, we can do more volume of work than other people. 

Don’t let this go to waste in academia. Instead, take the following steps right now to ensure you get a successful industry career sooner rather than later.

1. See moderate pain as your worst enemy

As PhDs, we thrive in challenging environments. We think that if something is hard and painful, we might be on the right track. It motivates us to keep going.

This perseverance can be a great asset in your career, but it can also put you at a high risk of pursuing dead end paths, like academia.

PhDs can endure moderate pain or even moderate-to-high-level pain for a long time.

And it’s not until this pain becomes so severe that it causes a breakdown that we finally accept we need a change. 

This breakdown can be physical or mental, but I’m sure you’ve already seen it in people around you or have experienced it yourself. 

The stress you endure while you sit in moderate pain is not the good stress that comes with a discovery that excites you. 

It is chronic distress and it’s bad, it’s really bad. Don’t be complacent with it!

The goal for me personally and for Cheeky Scientist as a company is to expose this as early as possible: moderate pain is the worst enemy. 

Make a change before the pain gets severe, before you have a breakdown of any kind, before you have to drink bottles of wine every night, before you go through a phase where you’re playing video games or just doing something else to distract you.

That’s why I want you to get out of academia right after you get your PhD. Get into industry and find something that’s worthy of all of that mental energy that you have.

2. Stop buying into academic career myths

You have probably heard a lot of myths warning you against leaving academia. Accept them for what they are: lies told by elitist academics who have no idea how things work in industry.

Industry is the dark side and people who leave to work in industry sell out and get away from science. Work in academia is noble. That is all a lie. 

Your PhD is not valuable in industry, you should put your master’s degree on your resume instead. That’s nonsense. 

You won’t be able to work on projects that you’re excited about in industry. That’s not only a lie, it’s also very often true of academia.

You should also be aware of the reality of academia.

Academia is the land of the small. There’s such limited funding that it becomes a highly competitive environment.

Everybody is trying to position themselves as the smarter person in the room. All the time you meet people who are willing to eviscerate your logic.

And this is good in one sense, it helps you avoid confirmation bias, but it often turns into something more. The lines get blurred and you become overly critical of yourself.

Say no to fight for scraps in academia, to spend the best years of life working to advance your PI’s career and not yours.

And do your own research, so you can see for yourself how the future in industry is way brighter.

3. Get obsessed about moving your career forward

Things in academia are bad and they can only get worse. This might cause your moderate pain to progress into severe until you have a breakdown.

So, how do you fight this? How do you get out of this bleak scenario? The answer is not doing less. 

This is where your friends and family who are not PhDs might not understand you. They’re going to think “Oh, you’re stressed. You need to do less. You need to take a break.” 

But as a PhD, you are wired differently. You don’t need to do less. You need to get obsessed over something that’s productive. Something that’s going to move your career forward.

You need to get obsessed over something that gives you back your purpose. That kind of obsessiveness is good. 

You need to be able to pour your energy freely into something that’s going to help your own career. 

Working on your transition will give you the same level of excitement  you get when you make a discovery during your research or when you get a result that shows you’re on the right track.

You don’t need to do less, you need a larger, more worthy challenge, something that’s not just learning for knowledge’s sake, but that will have a tangible impact on your life.

So, prioritize your transition. Follow the Cheeky Scientist strategy that has gotten thousands of PhDs hired in industry. Put your career first. 

Even if this is your first day in graduate school, get obsessed with your job search, get obsessed with your career, the options, the possibilities for you in industry.

Concluding Remarks

You probably started your PhD with lots of hopes of having an impact in the world, but have now realized that the academic system is broken and that you are mostly working to advance your PI’s career, and have now fallen into apathy. Staying in this purporless state leads many PhDs to mental disorders. To avoid this, you should follow these three steps. First, accept that moderate pain is your worst enemy and make a change before it becomes severe pain. Second, stop buying into the myths of academia and realize that you have way better prospects in industry. Third, prioritize your transition and get obsessed about something that will move your career forward. No matter if you have been in your postdoc for some years now, or if you are just starting your PhD studies, the right time to take these steps is now.

If you’re ready to start your transition into industry, you can apply to book a free Transition Call with our founder Isaiah Hankel, PhD or one of our Transition Specialists. Apply to book a Transition Call here.

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Dr. Isaiah Hankel is the Founder and CEO of Cheeky Scientist. His articles, podcasts and trainings are consumed annually by millions of PhDs and other professionals in hundreds of different countries. He has helped PhDs transition into top companies like Amazon, Google, Apple, Intel, Dow Chemical, BASF, Merck, Genentech, Home Depot, Nestle, Hilton, SpaceX, Tesla, Syngenta, the CDC, UN and Ford Foundation.

Dr. Hankel has published 3X bestselling books and his latest book, The Power of a PhD, debuted on the Barnes & Noble bestseller list. His methods for getting PhDs hired have been featured in the Harvard Business Review, Nature, Forbes, The Guardian, Fast Company, Entrepreneur Magazine and Success Magazine.

Isaiah Hankel, PhD

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