5 Curses Of Staying In Academia (After Getting Your PhD)

Staying in academia is one of the worst career curses in a PhD’s life.

The sooner you realize that, the better it is for your career. 

You need to get your PhD. Since this is an incredible way to learn not only how to master a field, but also how to push it forward. PhD is a training position where you learn how to do research and analysis, how to deal with uncertainty, how to face failure, how to think creatively and how to innovate. All these skills are of incredible value in industry.
But after getting your PhD, your entire focus should be directed towards transitioning out of academia and into industry roles.

Don’t get stuck in apathy, staying in academia will bring you more harm than help. Make your job search your top priority. Academia will not help you get a job. PI recommendations don’t matter in industry. Yet, several PhDs continue working for free under their PIs even after they get their PhD: just to get a favorable recommendation, a publication.

Don’t stay imprisoned in the learning loop.

I have witnessed many PhDs who face all kinds of struggles and reach out to Cheeky Scientists in desperation. 

One of the PhDs who sought advice from Cheeky Scientists regarding their pain in academia said – “The main fear I am facing is the lack of outstanding recommendation letters. My PhD PI writes standard #Recommendation, to all of his past students including me. Thank goodness he is not allowed to be a mentor anymore. Then my past postdoc mentor was extremely amazing when I joined her in the first year until she learned I was pregnant, then basically she did everything to make me quit after 1 year, like asking me to write an entire grant within 1 week and fussing about the sick days I took when my child was ill, she strongly believes that mothers are not fit for academia. Honestly, it was hard to work 12 hrs and weekends while raising a special needs child alone with no family support in the same city. So, since January 2020 I quit and took care of my child who now has thrived under my care and now I feel comfortable leaving him with a nanny once I find a better-paying job. Has anyone been in this situation lacking good recommendation letters and how did you overcome this?

The goal of Cheeky Scientist is to show PhDs like them that you are valuable in industry and that not having a recommendation letter or a certain number of publications shouldn’t stop you from getting a job where you feel valued. 

Why PhDs Should Transition Into Industry From Academia 

Being overburdened, tolerating academic bullying, multitasking and working for free are common in academia. Most PhDs stay in academia because they don’t have a plan. They just can’t survive with the existential crisis that in spite of their PhD, no one has offered them a job.

So, instead of taking responsibility, PhDs keep themselves busy by working for their PI. 

I know a few PhDs that keep working on papers even after transitioning into industry. All because they feel indebted to their PIs. Even though their advisors were not giving them 1 cent of their salary. PIs would rather have these PhDs work for them for free

PhDs are played into thinking that they are working for a noble cause. The academic mindset prevents PhDs from exploring beyond the bubble of academia.

Understand this: academia is toxic and tenure is dying.

Professors toil hard for years on something. Then, just scrap it because that work was only to get the next grant. At the same time, everybody in industry is discovering things and translating them into long term products and services. Industry can’t and won’t afford non-reproducibility.

Burnout in academia is now considered the norm. PhDs and postdocs work unusually long hours. But the number of tenure positions are radically reducing. Tenure professorships are gone. There’s nowhere for you to go in academia anymore. PIs will not help you land a job. So, if you stay after getting your PhD, you are not doing anything for your career. You’re only advancing somebody else’s career. 

Let’s explore the curses of staying in academia after getting your PhD.

1. No reproducibility 

Academia is great for training and education but it is not employment. PhDs learn a lot from their training in academia. You can use the experience you gain as a postdoc and PhD student to create a study design, analyze its scientific feasibility, and set timelines for flawless execution. Your PhD teaches you to design and conduct research, perform analysis, and deal with uncertainty, scarcity and failures.

But beyond that, it is a breeding ground for failure when it comes to employment. As a PhD in academia, you are always busy in experiments. But what are you actually producing? Are you producing anything that’s even a reproducible?

Among the curses, the first one is no reproducibility

The reproducibility crisis is real. And it’s way more real in academia than it is in industry.  50% to 90% of the academic experiments can not be reproduced. In a study conducted by Nature 70% of 15,000 scientists who participated were unable to reproduce experiments by other scientists. While 50% couldn’t reproduce their own experiments. In 2009, 2% of scientists admitted to falsifying results while 14% admitted to personally knowing someone who did. PhDs think they are contributing to something noble. However, lack of consistent guidelines from lab to lab or from classroom to classroom breeds non-compliance.

It is not good in terms of translation, application, or development.

This is exactly why 80% plus of development is done in the industry. Most of the translational work is done in industry because they have advanced robotics. Unlike academia, industry professionals can actually reproduce their work. 

Reproducibility is extremely important in industry.

2. Damage to your career

The second curse of staying in academia is that it destroys your career. Your salary and career trajectory gets worse with every day that you spend in academia after getting your PhD.

If you have been waiting in academia or working for free instead of getting a job, you will have to explain that. It goes beyond having a gap on your resume. The longer you stay in academia post PhD, the deeper the academic mindset seeps into you. You continue to think like an academic and stay stuck in the learning loop.

I can tell you, after working with thousands of PhDs and working with so many individually, the hardest part about transitioning into industry is unlearning the academic way of doing things. 

Academia is for education, what you receive is a stipend not a salary. 

Postdocs are an undervalued workforce. A study published in Nature Biotechnology emphasizes that lower salary trajectory of those stuck in academia. The longer you learn to thrive on that meagre salary, the lesser leverage you will have to negotiate your industry salary. And the more you will be pigeonholed into an entry level position. The ranks in academia are not synonymous with those of industry. You will be considered a fresher. It will be extremely hard to advance in the ranks to a principal scientist or management level positions, VP, director positions.

You have to have confirmation bias. You have to transform your CV into a marketing document. Pitching yourself, talking confidently about what you’ve done. Put your experience before education, accomplishments before publications. You have to speak a whole different language to succeed in industry. 

The longer you stay in academia, the harder it is for you to learn that language. This is why so many PhDs are failing to get hired right now, because they can not get out of that academic mindset. They think what’s valuable in academia is valuable in industry.

Industry needs PhDs to focus on developing new business opportunities, managing existing products, mapping the market strategy and building new business ties. 

Ditch the academic mindset, to be hired in industry.

3. Academia is divided against itself 

When it comes to postdoc salaries and job trajectories, academia is divided against itself. A house divided against itself cannot stand. I can tell you after talking to many of them, that academic administrators don’t really like PhDs. They certainly don’t have your best interest at heart. Administrators have worked with the government, lobbied with the government to not allow postdocs make overtime pay, to prevent an increase in pay for postdocs and graduate students and split in terms of fellowship, stipends, and beyond so that they can pay them less.

Overtime is the new norm in academia. PhD researchers and postdocs have often not seen the sun in a day. Work-life balance is difficult to strike in academia where weekends are expected to be the busiest workdays. Postdocs are asked to work harder than ever taking up multiple responsibilities in the lab for insignificant stipends

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the median pay of a Librarian is $55,370 per year, that of mail men and women is $57,200. For a postdoc per the National Institutes of Health and the National Postdoctoral Association, it must be $52,116 in the 5th year. However, the majority of them get paid $48,000 even in their 5th year. 

Administrators care about budget and expense reduction. They can use that cheap labor to stay in business a little bit longer. I have come across several stories from PhDs on the Cheeky Scientist platform who have faced similar struggles. When it comes to most academic administrators, you must understand that you are cheap labor at best. There was no way to argue around that.

In industry, PhDs can leverage their experience and skills for higher salaries which guarantees a better life.

4. Poor, poor, poor 

Research needs facilitation and funding. In academia, sharing decade old instruments and stretching reagents past the point of effectiveness makes it impossible to create reproducible work, let alone have a positive impact on humanity. There’s no funding in universities, huge fund losses, money losses have been incurred by the universities. Universities have been pushed to close departments and terminate programs due to financial losses.

Research warrants dedicated funding in order to complete the requisite experiment in due time. In academia, you are asked to use reagents and instruments that are years old – decades old. You also have to share reagents with other labs. Sometimes PhDs need to wait halfway through the experiment just for a reagent. Why are you having to invent a project out of nothing? This is sadly true for many of you. Your work has no real value in the world, but it’s something that can be done for cheap. You should rather be doing bigger things. 

Often, experimental results in academia have human errors on the scientific method. That is because the environment is incredibly poor, it relies on really manual labor for the most part of graduate students and postdocs. Like I said, you’re going to have so much variation. It’s a great learning environment, again, to get your PhD, right. But that’s where its usefulness ends. Now, as a PhD you want to produce something, develop a treatment, or a drug, you need to translate ideas into tangible products. Humanity needs you to do bigger things, and that’s not going to happen if you are stuck in academia after getting your PhD.

Academia will not prepare you for an industry career. You need to leverage your skills as a PhD, your research and analytical skills, your understanding of innovation, to get hired into the industry.

5. A limited perspective

The mindset of an academic is easily infected with confirmation bias, self-justification, ego, and learned helplessness. You may hear from several people that staying in academia is wise over transitioning into industry. This creates a cocktail of confirmation bias. PhDs might feel it would be best if they stayed in academia. In turn, they attempt to convince several others to stay in academia after their PhD.  

Ego is also a part of the cocktail. PhDs have to self justify that staying in academia is a great decision. That ego comes into when PhDs have to compensate for a lack of money and a lack of actual success or contribution to humanity. Upon facing obstacles, academia has learned to be helpless. 

You can’t keep doing the same thing over and over again. Nobody’s coming to save you or to show you the way. You have to take the first step by saying there is a possibility out there for me outside of academia. Admit that there is a path, but it’s not academia. Then, make a decision to value something different than what academia has taught you to value.

 Act and execute your transition plan. PhDs are incredible thinkers. 

You can live in your mind. You can play out different scenarios, but until it’s tested in the real world, it doesn’t matter. Everybody has a plan, but when that plan meets the real world, problems arise. The plan has to be modified. Be inspired by the possibilities that await you. Look forward. Not backward. The time to transition out of academia is now. 

Concluding Remarks

You need to start executing, have a bias for execution, especially when it comes to your job search, because you’re not going to find a way out of these curses without taking action. Realize that there’s no value in staying in academia. That’s why I called it a curse, because the longer you stay, the harder things get, and the more difficult it is. Therefore, strategize your job search process, make a plan, and  execute it. There are more defined deliverables and the positions tend to be associated with the individual’s specific responsibilities. There are big things ahead for you, but you have to take the first step, remember your value as a PhD, and start thinking and acting like a successful industry professional.

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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Isaiah Hankel, PhD
Isaiah Hankel, PhD Chief Executive Officer at Cheeky Scientist

Dr. Isaiah Hankel is the Founder and CEO of the largest career training platform for PhDs in the world - Cheeky Scientist. His articles, podcasts and trainings are consumed annually by 3 million PhDs in 152 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 two bestselling books with Wiley and 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.

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