5 Miscalculations That Are Holding You Hostage In Academia

As a PhD student, I felt more and more lost the closer I came to graduation.

That’s because I had started to doubt that I knew what I wanted anymore.

You could say I was torn, but that would be an understatement.

I was absolutely wracked with indecision.

My original plan had been to continue on in academia. 

I was going to apply for a postdoc. 

Then on to Assistant Professor. 

And so on.

However, I was starting to see a real pattern emerge among the PhD graduates I knew.

I liked to check in periodically with those colleagues and friends. 

The ones that I talked to that had stayed in academia – unintentionally – painted a grim picture of academic life.

I say unintentionally because, even though they didn’t directly complain about academia, they all reported the same symptoms: tired, overwhelmed, underpaid, depressed.

Some were 5 years into their career and had made little headway. 

Positions weren’t becoming available. 

Postdocs weren’t opening any doors for them.

The politics and constantly fighting to prove their worth, it was enough to make at least some of them throw in the towel. 

The rest seemed to be almost stubbornly sticking around – even the ones that seemed to know their career was making them unhappy. It was almost like they didn’t know what else to do. 

That won’t be me, I thought. After all, professorship had always been the plan for me.

Maybe those other PhDs just didn’t want it enough.

But then again, I wondered, did I have it in me to “eventually” reach my career goals? Or would I burn out along the way too?

Maybe it was time to formally reevaluate the goals I had set for myself in high school.

The Choice To Leave Academia Is An Emotional One – And Emotions Are Easily Manipulated

Too many PhDs lose themselves in academia.

Before they started their program, they were different people

They looked into the risks and researched the rewards of pursuing a PhD, and they committed.

They knew who they were and they knew what they wanted.

But, over time, those confident and intelligent students become shaped by academia. 

They bent to those words of praise, few and far between, from academic advisors.

They learned to perform and even thrive in an economy of scarcity…

… a lack of funding, inconsistent support and insufficient opportunities.

And, as is often the phenomenon of those who operate with less than they need, they cope. 

They begin to believe that they are above other people — that 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.

Then they lose their confidence.

Then they lose their optimism.

Finally, they lose their self-respect.

And here, in this low emotional place, is where they accept whatever scraps they can find in academia. 

That’s exactly how many PhDs fall into accepting low-paying postdoctoral positions with no clear-cut path to a career once their contract ends.

Are These 5 Miscalculations Keeping You Trapped In Academia?

Sometimes being in a low, emotional place influences our decision-making and we don’t even realize it. 

Sometimes we explain away our emotions with rationale. 

And, in the case of most PhDs who are struggling with their path forward in (or away from) academia, the explanations always errs in defense of academia – in spite of its faults. 

Other people have done it. If they can, so can I.

There must be something wrong with me, because this is a respected program and my research partners are thriving. 

If I had only X then Y and Z wouldn’t be happening now.

This self-flagellation is something that you become accustomed to in academia. 

But here’s an appeal to reason.

More than 60% of all PhDs don’t have a paying job upon graduating.

Only 1% of PhDs will ever ascend to the rank of tenured professor.

Forty-three percent of PhD students will not have even finished their degree 10 years after they started graduate school. 

You are not the only person who has struggled. 

Even if you try your absolute best, you may still fail. 

You don’t owe academia anything, despite these five common misconceptions I hear PhDs cite when they’re trying to justify why they can’t just cut the cord.

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 made calculations about their plans based on biased, flawed intel from fellow academics.

Baseless excuses like “things are getting better in academia,” “PhDs in industry are sellouts” 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.

1. Applying For Jobs Is Easy, And You Can Do It Without Any Guidance

Just because applying for jobs is something everyone has to do doesn’t mean that every job search is created equal. 

Not every industry has caught up to best practices and current tech tactics that the Global 500 use to find candidates.

But, for PhD job seekers especially, this job market is unlike any that has come before.

Technology has been refined to help hiring managers eliminate candidates based on keyword markers, for instance. 

Psychology plays a much more important role in the interview process. 

And employers are adapting to a workforce in flux. 

They lost so many employees during the Great Resignation and, amid shrinking profit margins, they’re truly investing in their future by trying to find the actual best employee for each and every single role.

If it sounds challenging, that’s because it is.

You might be thinking, “Well, you don’t exactly need a college degree to know how to apply for a job. I can figure this out on my own.”

And there’s definitely a chance you can. But, remember, more than 60% don’t. 

They can spend 18 months – and often longer – searching for work.

The truth is that finding a job is much harder today than it was two decades ago…

… and it isn’t all that uncommon to ask for help.

But before you go blaming yourself, as PhDs are won’t to do, consider that this is not all your fault. 

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

What you were NOT told was that academia would never prepare you for these incredible career options if you moved outside of academia.

It didn’t show you where to look for resources.

That’s because, if it did, no one would be compelled to stay in academia.

2. Leaving Academia Makes You A Sellout

Just because someone is intelligent doesn’t mean that they’re smart. 

Or an inherently good person, either.

Even if they started out as altruistic and kind, most PhDs have changed in academia. 

That includes you.

Because 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 sellout is all they have to use against you.

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.

And you are not going to be less of a person if you consider that academia isn’t right for you anymore. 

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.

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

3. All PhDs Struggle At First. You Should Be Happy With A Postdoc For Now

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

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

So why aren’t you getting job offers? Unemployment statistics suggest that PhDs aren’t any worse off than the rest of the workforce.

I’ll tell you a secret: those statistics are skewed.

They don’t include data from the actual army of postdoc students working for little – and sometimes no – pay for years on end.

And what’s not reflected is that “among PhDs” means 2% of the job market at most. 

So the thousands of PhDs slaving away in a postdoc aren’t counted among the number of unemployed OR working PhDs, statistically.

If you were to count those PhDs as “unemployed,” that number would reflect a much more accurate picture snapshot of your situation.

One that wasn’t painted to cast academia in a positive light.

As a result, you and so many PhDs graduate and are prepared to 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.

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, in industry, your value is growing with every passing year. 

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

4. You Don’t Get Along With Your PI Or Advisor – You Clearly Have Trouble With Authority

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

The same is true for postdoc-principal investigator relationships.

And, when this happens, it’s easy to feel shocked and dejected. 

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

The truth is many graduate students and postdocs go through this.

You need to know two things if this is a situation you find yourself in:

First, attempt to resolve this situation. 

It could be your advisor, it could be you, or it could be a combination of the two.

What you need to consider is that your mentors, like you, may be overextended and are overpromising, but always assume it comes from a good place

Assuming that those around you have the best intent is the easiest way you can avoid letting your emotions cloud your judgment. 

This doesn’t mean you need to make excuses for them.

But consider their perspective first, and then share your concerns with them. 

After all, people don’t know what they don’t know. 

That’s why it’s up to you to communicate how you’re feeling and what you need.

Second, if your advisor is treating you badly or not supporting you, get help. Stand up for yourself.

I know this does not come naturally to many PhDs, but it has to be done. 

It’s crucial to your success in academia, industry and, really, in life.

Ask your department head or graduate college dean to help mediate. Don’t fear their reaction.

This is a common situation and can easily be overcome.

It doesn’t mean that you are inherently uncoachable or that you would be a bad employee.

The only thing you can do wrong in this situation is assume that it can’t be fixed. 

5. You’ll Never Do Real Research Outside Of Academia

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 at how effective the industry research process is.

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 don’t deserve to make good 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 well-paid for doing cutting edge work.

They should expect more than living just above the poverty line.

They should expect more than whatever scraps academia gives them.

Academia Is Exploitative, And The System Isn’t Designed To Be Easy To Leave

When it comes to academia, a lifelong academic is going to have deeply biased opinions. They’re like victims of Stockholm syndrome. 

It’s as if they believe their ability to survive in a broken system means they are superior to anyone that doesn’t want to.

That not everyone can do what they did.

And that’s the argument they’ll present you with when you consider making your exit.

Why wouldn’t they?

After all, it worked for them. 

But the truth is that every person is different. 

Different financial situations, different family dynamics, different needs.

Your mentors in academia may know a lot. But what do they know about you and your situation?

You can take their advice. 

You can apply for a postdoc position. 

But postdocs are temporary positions. If you take one, begin looking for your “real” job before your contract ends.

Too many PhDs find themselves hopscotching from “temporary” contract to contract for as many as 10 years. 

And, since a postdoc a stepping stone job, you’ll earn an entry-level wage. 

If any. 

And live with the knowledge that your six-or-more years of training as a PhD is worth minimum wage to the companies that offer these positions.

Know that faculty is complicit in this cycle. 

Why wouldn’t they be

PhDs are hard-working, flexible, young and come equipped with ambition and an expiration date – the end of their contract.

If a postdoc becomes problematic, there’s no job security in these roles. Just replace them in a few months.

The hard truth is that academia is exploitative. The system takes advantage of people with a passion for STEM science…

… people who are getting their education for all the right reasons…

… and it uses them. Plain and simple. 

There is absolutely no reason not to convince you to do the same.

After all, it worked for your predecessors…

… didn’t it?

Conclusion 

Doing nothing – or staying the course – is always going to be easier than changing directions. Especially when the people you are counting on for support – your advisor, for instance, or your fellow researchers – have tunnel vision. It’s not just other academics – your friends and family are unwittingly part of the problem. They know how hard you’ve worked to get where you are, and they know that they can’t speak to PhD troubles. There is a 90% chance that their advice will always be to do “whatever your advisor thinks is best.” That’s why it’s so easy to feel like no one cares about you or your career in academia. But there are people who care. There are people who can help you. You just have to know where to look. You have to want to change. And you have to want to shed the misconceptions that are making you stand still.

It is okay to look outside of academia for your PhD career. When you do, you may have to play catch-up with seasoned job seekers. But you can, as long as you have patience and faith that there is still plenty of opportunity to do meaningful research in industry.

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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ABOUT ISAIAH HANKEL, PHD

CEO, CHEEKY SCIENTIST & SUCCESS MENTOR TO PHDS

Isaiah Hankel, PhD 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. Isaiah Hankel received his doctorate in Anatomy & Cell Biology with a focus in immunology and is an expert on biotechnology recruitment and career development.

Isaiah 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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