5 Reasons To Ditch Academia Forever This Summer
Written by Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D.
I didn’t get tenure.
After 6 years of doing everything right, they said no.
My friend’s voice was surprisingly calm as he told me this.
The faculty and students and the entire University gave me great feedback year in and year out.
Everyone on my committee gave me and my research great reviews. Everyone except for one person.
That’s what my life’s work came down to—one person.
At least that’s what the University told me.
There could have been other reasons, like the lack of funding at the University too. Who knows?
I listened quietly as he told me all of this.
When he finished, I asked him what he was going to do next.
I’m not sure but I kind of feel relieved.
I’d been thinking about transitioning into an alternative career for a while and now I feel like I have a reason to do it.
The Unhappy Ivory Tower
Academia is broken. The time to transition out of it is now.
If you don’t leave, you will be poor, mistreated, and unhappy.
According to a report by the Atlantic, greater than 60% of PhDs and greater than 80% of Life Science PhDs will NOT have a paying job at graduation.
Another report by the Royal Society showed that less than 1% of PhDs will go on to be tenured professors.
There’s a myth in academia, perpetuated by other (mostly unhappy) academics that says you can only be a successful PhD if you become a tenured professor and continue to publish in academic journals.
This myth survives by encouraging young PhDs to look down on anyone who expresses a desire to leave academia.
As a result…
A negative feedback loop exists in academia.
Once you’re in the system, the system keeps you there by weakening your mind and destroying your confidence.
You’re told over and over again that nothing else but staying in academia is respected.
You’re told over and over again that you can’t do anything else—that there is nothing else.
The academic system makes you so dependent that you get used to being treated poorly.
You get used to your academic advisor yelling at you or making you feel small. You get used to believing there’s nothing else for you in the world.
You wake up one day in the middle of your seventh year as a postdoc living in a one bedroom apartment with your family hoping the government will approve you for more food stamps.
This may sound harsh but it’s reality.
There are real people facing this reality—real postdocs and graduate students who are waking up every day broke and afraid.
Ignoring these facts will not make them go away. Hiding from truth will not protect you from this future. The only way to protect yourself is to take steps to change your situation right now.
If you don’t take action, you will be one of the tens of thousands of poor, unhappy postdocs who are piling up all over the world.
Check out this figure by the National Academies of Sciences to see just how bad this pileup of poor postdocs is…
5 Reasons To Leave Academia Now
There is immense value in getting your PhD.
Learning, testing yourself, and working hard to achieve something that matters to you is important.
A PhD is a high-level achievement and it should not just be handed out to anyone.
That being said…
You should not have to endure workplace bullying and exceptionally poor conditions to get a PhD.
You should not be forced to get some magical piece of data to graduate when your lab can’t even afford a working centrifuge.
You should not live in fear and be pressured to stay in a system that does not have the means to compensate you fairly.
You do not have to accept this.
There are many reasons to transition out of academia this summer. If you looked at the above chart or dug into any of the data yourself, you know that the academic career track is now a dead end career track.
But the biggest reasons to transition out of academia are not in the numbers, they’re in the day-to-day lifestyle that PhDs have to endure.
These reasons include…
1. Academic salaries are embarrassing.
Imagine being dropped onto an unknown planet and observing how every person on that planet spends their days.
You soon notice that some people spend their days engaged in tiresome, yet intellectually stimulating work, while others spend their days barely doing anything.
You watch these different groups of people closely and notice that those who are the most intelligent and work the hardest are unhappier than the other groups of people.
You also notice that they make less money per year.
If you calculate how much the intelligent, hardworking group makes per hour, you can’t believe how ridiculously low the final value is.
Which of these groups are you in?
Which of these groups are most PhDs in?
More than any other group of people, PhDs are paid less than they are worth.
Consider this very tangible example…
$42,000 (or ~$19/hour) is the annual starting salary (before taxes) of a postdoc in the U.S.
$55,272 (or ~$26/hour) is the annual salary of a 7th year postdoc who has received 30 years or more of academic training.
$56,370 is the annual salary of the average librarian.
Academic PhDs are intelligent, driven, and exceptionally hardworking.
They’re just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
2. Academic networks are getting smaller and weaker.
It’s nearly impossible to get a PhD-level job at a PhD networking event.
This is because each academic PhD coming to these networking events has a tiny network.
Academic PhDs all know the same people. They go to the same seminars and the same “biotechnology” or “biopharmaceutical” networking events over and over again, wondering why no one is referring them for a job.
It’s because academic networks are getting smaller and weaker.
If you don’t believe this, go ask your PI or anyone else in your lab for a list of 5 industry contacts who he or she knows well enough to ask for a job.
Ask your PI or anyone in your lab to introduce you to a list of 5 recruiters or hiring managers who he or she knows personally.
Do you really think you’re going to get referred for (or even hear about) an incredible opportunity for a PhD job in your lab?
Do you think you’re going to hear about a PhD-level job in a crowd of desperate academic PhDs who are all looking for that same job?
Of course not.
Academia used to be a powerful network. But now it’s dying. And like all dying entities it’s only concerned with saving itself.
Academia and the people devoted to it have no time or resources to help you.
They’re too busy fighting to stay alive.
3. There’s more personal freedom in industry.
There’s nothing better than a positive academic advisor who inspires and trains you, sometimes toughly, to be a better scientist.
There’s nothing worse than a negative professor who makes you feel stupid, bullies you, and takes away your personal freedom.
Unfortunately, the latter is all too common in today’s world.
There are far too many cases of PIs and professors harassing and bullying their employees and students.
In fact, it happens so often in academia, even in the most prestigious institutions, that some consider it normal.
One reason this bullying occurs so often in academia is because there are no strict guidelines for how PIs are to train and manage graduate students and postdocs.
Think about this…
Most PIs are not required to receive one single hour of management training.
The good news is that many companies in industry promote a much safer and supportive working environment than academia.
At most companies, the people in charge of your career are required to receive extensive management training and are held accountable for their team members through systems that simply don’t exist in academia.
These companies have entire human resource departments dedicated to preventing things like bullying, harassment, and mismanagement from taking place.
You deserve a safe and supportive place to work. Unfortunately, it’s getting harder and harder to find a place like this in academia.
You deserve to be excited about your career, not afraid of what might happen if you don’t do exactly what your PI says.
4. Industry experiences are more positive and valuable.
Academia has a way of turning you into a perpetual cynic.
Many happy and energetic souls have been lost in the dark chambers of the ivory tower.
After a few years at the bench, it’s easy to lose your confidence in anything, especially yourself.
It’s easy to start focusing only on problems and not on solutions.
You start thinking…
I want a high-paying industry job where I can do meaningful work but that will never happen because money and meaning can’t really coexist together.
I can’t get an industry job because I don’t have any industry experience and my academic advisor doesn’t like me.
If you want an industry job, you have to get rid of this cynical mindset.
Industry work thrives on an optimistic, can-do mindset—the kind of mindset that got you into graduate school in the first place.
Things like confidence, ambition, and taking ownership of your work are rewarded in industry.
Working in industry will reignite the joy of discovery within you. You’ll remember how to experience the thrill of trying new things and taking on challenges.
5. Industry work is more meaningful.
Most PhDs started graduate school because they wanted to do meaningful work, not just get a big paycheck.
Sure, money is nice and PhDs deserve to be paid well, but it’s not all that matters. PhDs want to make a difference.
They want to help cure cancer and other diseases. They want to help make the world a better place to live in.
The problem is that it’s becoming harder and harder to do meaningful work in academia because the system is broken.
There’s no funding from the government.
According to a report in Reader’s Digest, whatever funding comes in through tuition is being used to improve amenities for undergrads as part of a new amenities race to keep Universities from closing.
This leaves you working in a lab that doesn’t have the reagents or instrumentation you need to get published against the one or two biggest labs in your field.
Instead, you’re left running Western blots the old-fashioned way and doing other outdated experiments that people in industry stopped doing 10 years ago.
It’s your choice if you want to keep working this way.
Just don’t act surprised the next time you get scooped right before publishing or when you’re reduced to publishing in a very low-tier journal.
Imagine what you could do if you had all of the reagents you needed and all of the top-level instrumentation you needed.
This is what it’s like in industry.
There are thousands and thousands of non-academic jobs in the world right now that allow you to do meaningful work while also being paid well.
Imagine doing work that you love while getting paid a six-figure salary with great health benefits and possibly even getting stock options, a company car, and a starting bonus.
It’s possible and it can be yours. But first, you have to make a decision to leave academia.
Then, you have to get trained to work in industry.
An Unleveraged PhD Is Useless In Industry
If you’re a lifetime academic like most newly minted PhDs and postdocs, you’re useless in industry.
You’ve never sold anything.
You’ve never developed or marketed a product for the purpose of selling it.
You have no real business experience whatsoever.
This is how industry hiring managers and recruiters see you. But don’t worry. Not all hope is lost.
PhDs do have enormous advantages over other job candidates.
PhDs know how to find answers better than most professionals. They’re know how to deal with failure and negative bosses better too. They’re innovative, collaborative, and more comfortable with uncertainty than the average job candidate.
The problem is that very few PhDs fully develop or leverage these advantages.
Most PhDs fail to identify or make use of their transferable skills. Instead, they sit back and wait for success to fall in their laps. Most PhDs fail to surround themselves with positive and like-minded people who will help them nurture these skills while developing new skills, like advanced communication, networking, and interviewing skills. This is what most PhDs do and this is why most PhDs stay unhappy and poor in academia. Will you be different?
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