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5 Logical Fallacies That Prevent PhDs From Leaving Academia

logical fallacies in academia | Cheeky Scientist | debunking academic myths
Written by Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D.

I made up my mind.

I was dropping out of graduate school.

That’s right.

I was going to leave with my Masters degree, get a job, get paid, and leave academia behind forever.

I was so excited about the possibility of escaping the bench that I couldn’t think about anything else.

I lined up a few jobs, told a couple of close friends, and started putting my plan into motion.

But then my excitement wore off.

I wasn’t sure what to do next.

How do I drop out, exactly?

Do I just give my academic advisor two weeks notice, or what?

There was nothing in the student handbook about this.

A few minutes later, I got an email from one of the deans.

He wanted to meet.

One of my friends told him that I was planning on dropping out.

But why did he care?

I walked down to the Dean’s office and he called me in.

“Do you need money? I mean, we all need money but do you need money?”

This is what he asked.

No, I guess I don’t need money.

I mean, I was poor and unhappy and about to file for food stamps but I wasn’t living in a cardboard box or anything.

There were thousands of reasons why I wanted out of graduate school.

But I didn’t say any of them.

Instead I said that I wanted to transition into a non-academic job.

“Come here,” he said.

Then he walked over to his computer and pulled up a job website listing dozens of biotech and biopharma industry positions.

He read through the positions…

“PhD required, PhD required, PhD required, PhD required, PhD required, PhD required.”

I got the point.

Most of the postings preferred job candidates with a PhD.

I didn’t realize there were so many PhD jobs in industry.

Soon after, I was convinced that getting my PhD before transitioning into industry was the best strategy.

But then, a few years later as I entered into my fifth year of graduate school, I started to look for postdoc positions.

Without realizing it, I had let academia weaken my mind.

I had slowly been brainwashed into thinking that getting a postdoc was my only choice.

How did this happen?

How did I go from being 100% convinced that I could never stay in academia to believing that academia was my only viable option?

Have You Been Tricked Into Staying In Academia?

Think of the person you were before going to graduate school.

Were you different, or the same?

Were you happier and more confident?

Did you value yourself and your future more?

Too many PhDs lose themselves in academia.

Before entering into academia, these PhDs know exactly who they are and what they want.

Then, over time, these same PhDs start to become dependent on the academic system.

They become dependent on scant words of praise from their academic advisors.

They start to believe that they’re above other people—they don’t need things like money, recognition, or even fair treatment to be successful.

At the same time, they start to believe that they’re below other people—they don’t deserve money, recognition, or fair treatment.

They see the numbers like >60% of PhDs and >80% of Life Sciences PhDs will NOT have a paying job at graduation, >99% of PhDs will NEVER be tenured professors, and 43% of PhD students will NOT get their PhD within 10 years of starting graduate school, and they start to feel hopeless.

Then they lose their confidence.

Then they lose their optimism.

Finally, they lose their self-respect and accept whatever scraps they can find in academia, including low-paying postdoctoral positions with little-to-no health benefits.

common myths in academia | Cheeky Scientist | how to leave academia

5 Fallacies Keeping You Stuck In Academia

Academia does not take care of its PhD-level employees.

According to a report by the Royal Society, the proportion of PhDs who now manage to secure academic tenure positions is only 1-in-200.

That’s right—academia only provides a future for 1 out of every 200 PhDs.

The rest are left to fend for themselves.

But, if things are so bad in academia, why do so many PhDs choose to stay in academia after getting their degrees?

The reason so many PhDs stay in academia after getting their degrees is because they’ve been fooled into thinking they have a future in academia.

They’ve listened to fallacies and lies perpetuated by other academics.

Fallacies like, “things are getting better in academia” “PhDs in industry are sell-outs” and “you’ll never get an industry job.”

If you want to transition out of academia and into a better life and career, you need to stop believing these fallacies.

Here are the 5 most popular logical fallacies keeping you stuck in academia…

1. If you have trouble with your academic advisor, you’ll be a bad employee.

Many graduate student-academic advisor relationships go from bad to worse.

The same is true for postdoc-principal investigator relationships.

It’s easy to feel shocked and dejected when this happens.

After all, if your own mentor won’t support you, who will?

If your own mentor won’t support you, maybe you don’t deserve to be supported.

Maybe you don’t deserve success.

The truth is many graduate students and postdocs go through this, especially right before they graduate or get ready to leave a postdoc position.

It’s very common.

But even though these problems are common, you shouldn’t put up with them.

You should NOT accept them as your fault or as a sign that you wouldn’t be a good employee in industry.

Instead, you should fight back.

If your advisor is treating you badly or not supporting you, get help.

Stand up for yourself.

Ask your department head or graduate college dean to help mediate.

Most importantly, don’t be afraid.

Remember, this is common and can easily be overcome by taking proactive steps to move forward.

2. If a lot of PhDs are unemployed, you should accept whatever postdoc you can get.

The employment numbers for newly graduated PhDs don’t look good.

Over 30% of these PhDs are unemployed.

The unemployment rate jumps to almost 40% if you consider only Life Science PhDs.

This, coupled with the fact that graduate students and postdocs have a 1% chance of getting tenure now, can make you feel isolated.

You’ve made a decision to work hard, to create knowledge, and to make a difference.

Yet, your future seems bleak.

As a result, you’re prepared to desperately accept any low-paying postdoc you can find.

You’re prepared to stay in your current postdoc position even though your principal investigator treats you horribly and is almost out of funding.

The only way to avoid this fate is to realize that you’re not alone.

Every PhD is worried about their future.

Yet, every PhD has a future. 

Yes, the academic landscape is changing.

Academic jobs are disappearing.

But PhDs are still in high demand.

There are over 22,500 industry researchers and over 7,000 government researchers right now.

These industries are expanding.

You may not be able to get tenure as easily as in the past, but you still have options.

You’re still highly valuable. 

You just need to transition into the industries that recognize your value.

3. If you leave academia, you’re a sell-out and can never do “real” science again.

Too many graduate students and postdocs stay stuck in academia because they’re afraid of leaving science behind.

Don’t worry if you feel this way.

It’s normal.

You’ve dedicated your life to science and it makes sense if you’re hesitant to give it up by going into industry or trying something new.

The truth is you can do more science in industry than you can in academia.

The Cheeky Scientist Association has placed many PhDs into industry R&D positions.

These Associates are always amazed by how effective the research process is in industry.

If they need a new instrument, it arrives the following week (if not the next day).

No grant cycle needed.

Working in industry today is not like it was in the 1950s.

There is a high level of collaboration, both with academic labs and labs in other industries.

This allows you to do more “real” science in industry than ever before.

At the same time, working in industry pays very well.

But this comes with its own set of problems.

Too many PhDs have been poor for so long that they honestly believe they’re not supposed to make a lot of money.

These PhDs believe that going into industry means “selling out.”

This limiting mindset can keep you stuck in a low-paying postdoc for years.

It’s entirely possible to make good money and do great science at the same time.

Not only is it possible, it’s right.

PhDs should be paid well for doing cutting edge work.

They shouldn’t be expected to be poor.

They shouldn’t be expected to accept whatever scraps academia gives them.

4. If other people find out you want to leave academia, you’ll be in trouble.

Academia can be a tough place.

The system can beat you down over and over again while everyone around you just seems to take it.

They take the beating and they tell you to take the beating.

Why does this happen?

Misery loves company.

It’s that simple.

Think about it…

Why would your advisor or anyone in academia look down at you for going into industry?

Looking down at you is the only way these kinds of academics can feel good about their decision to stay in academia.

They know that you’re going to get paid more, get to travel more, and have a higher quality of life.

The stigma of being a sell-out is all they have to use against you.

It’s all they have to feel good about themselves.

Of course, not all academics are like this.

But many are and you should guard yourself against them.

Never let other academics make you feel bad for wanting to leave academia.

You’re not a bad person for wanting to transition into an industry career.

You’re not going to get into trouble for working to secure a non-academic career.

Stop being ruled by fear and start pursuing the full spectrum of your options.

The worst thing you can do in terms of your career progress is shrink back and isolate yourself.

The time to move your career forward is now, not later.

Quit worrying about who might find out that you’re secretly pursuing an industry career.

Focus on yourself, go after what you want, and don’t worry about what anyone else thinks, says, or does.

5. If you don’t know how to get an industry job, you shouldn’t ask for help.

It’s easy to feel stupid for not knowing how to get an industry job.

It’s easy to feel completely helpless too.

But remember, it’s not all your fault.

You came into academia with the promise of doing cutting edge work that would lead to incredible career options.

You were NOT told, however, that academia would refuse to prepare you for these incredible career options if they moved outside of academia.

You should also keep in mind that a PhD is essentially a degree in knowing how to acquire knowledge.

More than anything else, your PhD has taught you how to learn.

It has taught you how to find the best resources.

It has taught you how to access the right information.

Your PhD has also taught you how to ask for help when you can’t find the right information.

When it comes to getting a job in industry, there’s a lot of misinformation.

There’s a lot of people and sites claiming to know how to help PhDs transition into industry.

As a result, many PhDs get overwhelmed.

They start to reach out and ask for help, but then, at the last moment, they pull back.

They get afraid of making a change, afraid of making a mistake, and afraid of investing time and money outside of the lab.

So they stop.

They stop and, as a result, they stay stuck in academia.

PhDs who don’t pull back, on the other hand, do change.

These PhDs get access to the high-level information they need.

These PhDs transition into high-paying industry jobs, leaving academia behind forever.

PhDs are conservative by nature.

They want a sure thing.

They do years and years of research just to publish a few data points.

But getting an industry job isn’t like publishing a piece of data.

Getting an industry job requires action.

Getting an industry job requires connection, investment, and dedication.

It’s easy to feel like no one cares about you or your career in academia. This is because most of the people around you don’t care. They can’t care. There’s just too much work to be done. There’s too little money and too few tenure positions left. Most people in academia are so intensely focused on surviving another few months that they don’t have time to help you. But there are people who care. There are people who can help you. You just have to know where to look. The first step to getting the help you need is knowing you’re not alone. Once you know this, you’ll be more likely to take action to finally move your career forward.

To learn more about transitioning into industry, 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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Isaiah Hankel Ph.D.

Isaiah Hankel Ph.D.

Isaiah is a Ph.D. in Anatomy & Cell Biology and internationally recognized Fortune 500 consultant. He is an expert in the biotechnology industry and specializes in helping people transition into cutting-edge career tracks.

Isaiah believes that if you feel stuck somewhere in your life right now, you should make a change. Don’t sit still and wait for the world to tell you what to do. Start a new project. Build your own business. Take action. Experimentation is the best teacher.
Isaiah Hankel Ph.D.
  • Andrea Robinson

    I don’t know which is more horrifying: the abysmal stats or the notion that PhD candidates actually start feeling bad about themselves! They obviously have no idea how those of us in the “outside world” respect them so much for everything they’ve done to get such a prestigious understanding of how the world works – no matter what the major. It’s even worse to think that those in the biological sciences don’t always do well or think they matter. These people are incredibly important. When I read these kinds of things, it makes me incredibly sad. Appreciate yourselves! You’re better than all of this.

  • Carlie Stevenson, PhD

    Yeah, it can be a little tough putting up with all the mind games. Fortunately, I seemed to make it through okay. The only thing I can tell people who haven’t graduated yet is that you can do it. You can find a way to a better lifestyle and you don’t need to listen to the people who put you down. Dr. Hankel is correct — they just don’t have any other way to justify their existence and decisions. Get some help from people who can help you transfer into good-paying positions that offer some self-respect, and keep the faith.

  • Harvey Delano

    It can be pretty rough. I tend to keep a level head, but it does kind of beat down some of the other students and I see them getting discouraged. Besides the workload at school, it’s definitely discouraging to find out that very few will be able to get paid anything to work in academia.

    • Dr. Isaiah Hankel

      Kudos for keeping a level head, Harvey. It’s not easy. Approach this problem logically, like you would any other problem, and the solutions become clear.

  • Kathy Azalea

    This is disgusting! I was never told that the chances of getting employed were so bad! I have a few other choice words that I’m not going to put here…

    • Dr. Isaiah Hankel

      I know it can sound disheartening, Kathy, but I hope ultimately your takeaway is that you have options – really great ones, in fact – in industry. So while things might not pan out the way you thought they would, stay open to different opportunities.

      • Kathy Azalea

        Thanks. I’m sorry I sounded so frustrated. At least I know now what I didn’t know at the time, and you’re right. I want to look forward to making a life for myself and not waste it getting mad at certain people and promises they made. Anyway, you’re also right that we’re intelligent people and we can figure this stuff out! Thanks so much for all your guidance. 🙂

        • Dr. Isaiah Hankel

          You’re very welcome, Kathy. Now go get ’em! 🙂

  • Winona Petit

    You’ve hit on something I’ve seen before, and it doesn’t just happen in academia. It’s a shame, but the “corporate culture” took a fact that the dean was trying to show you about the value of finishing your PhD, and blew it all out of whack and turned it into a false belief that you need to stay in academia. I’ve seen this same phenomenon many times, and it never ceases to amaze me how intelligent people can get so brainwashed over time.

  • Marvin D’Esprit

    Actually, I’d always rather get the hard truth than get baby-spooned a lot of nonsense. So we know that the chances of getting a job in academia are pretty slim, no matter what we had planned.

    It’s just time to focus on the road ahead. It’s good to become aware of these stats before graduation instead of after!

    • Dr. Isaiah Hankel

      Couldn’t agree with you more, Marvin. Always better to know what you are up against so you can prepare. Thanks for your comment.

  • Matthew Smithson PhD

    I did a post-doc but fortunately was able to transition to an industry job pretty quickly. I can see how it can turn into a trap to stay in that position too long, though. It’s good experience, but it’s really more of the same, if you ask me. I was just too bored to stick with it too long.

    Thanks for helping others by bringing out this info, though. It’ll make a difference to anyone who’s currently in graduate school.

  • Madeline Rosemary

    Well, at least there’s someone to tell us these things. I’ve never had a hard time in academia, but I can see that you can’t pin all your hopes on getting good work there. I love going to school, but when it’s all said and done, I want a good return on the investment, too.

    • Dr. Isaiah Hankel

      A good return on investment is very important, Madeline. AND your skills and expertise can have significant impact if you apply them to industry.

  • Henry Fatoyinbo

    a very well written article!

    • Dr. Isaiah Hankel

      Thanks, Henry! Hope it helps with your plans.

  • Henry Fatoyinbo

    8 years in a post doc, then quit with nothing to go to, but plans formulated,

  • Awanti

    Thank you for this article, Dr. Isaiah. I’ve experienced everything you’ve listed here, and one of the good things to come out of this situation is that PhD students are now actively exploring different career options, which were considered as ‘backups’ or ‘failures’ earlier. Academia is saturated, and that may not be as bad as it sounds.