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Academia Gave Up On PhDs. Industry Is Saving Them (5 Proofs)

For most PhDs, pursuing their degree is more than just a career choice. It’s the fulfillment of a lifelong goal. 

Pursuing a goal like that, for so long and with such great focus, can sometimes come at a cost. 

The emotional momentum it takes to earn a PhD can keep bright, talented researchers from seeing a problem brewing.

They miss the signs of stress, anxiety, and exhaustion. They’re so singularly focused on making it to the finish line that they don’t realize they might not arrive there in one piece.

That’s what happened to me. 

I think I set a world record for caffeine consumption to stay awake, but I couldn’t sleep either. Every day, all day, was spent at the lab. I missed holidays, forgot about wedding invites, and skipped birthdays. 

Staying in touch with friends and family became exhausting. Any time that I tried to set aside time to recharge I was somehow redirected to my dissertation, research, a trip to the library. 

I was fixated on my research, and I wasn’t taking care of myself. 

What’s strange about academia is that, even though we see the signs in others, we don’t speak up. Why?

Maybe because it feels like all this quiet suffering is for a noble cause. Or it could be that there’s some comfort in knowing you’re part of a whole community that’s ambitious and determined. It might even be your competitive spirit – that feeling that if so-and-so can push through this, then I definitely can. 

But the truth is that, however you justify it, academia is a breeding ground for these unhealthy habits. 

You May Care About Academia, But It Doesn’t Care About You

Universities know that PhD students are prone to overwork, stress, anxiety, and depression. They are quick to point out the resources they provide to help them deal with such stress.

There are centers on some campuses for students to decompress or learn about mindfulness. Other universities may host yoga classes or rock painting or a quiet place to drink hot chocolate. Still others have invested in virtual portals that host guided meditation or talks about managing stress.

More and more, advisors are being trained to look for signs and symptoms of an overburdened PhD candidate. The problem with this? It can be hard to open up to the person that also happens to be in control of your progress and success as a PhD.

These efforts are well-intentioned – there’s no doubt about that. But they are too little and too late for PhDs who need more than just a few new stress management skills or a little extra human connection. 

Survey after survey and study after study has demonstrated that PhDs are a high-risk community for mental health disorders. Academia knows this. Have they tried to make a change? Maybe. But they have put far less effort and far fewer resources into changing for the better as they’ve invested in keeping things the same.

The response to PhDs is less than they deserve, and it is not proportionate to the need. PhDs provide a valuable service to their universities. They play a quantitative role in funding and a qualitative role in supporting their departments. 

The limited resources you have access to as a PhD candidate only get worse as a postdoc. Funding is tenuous. Stress levels remain high, and so do your working hours.

5 Ways Academia Gave Up On You

Academia is broken. It is a system that is supposed to support PhDs, but instead has let them down. The system PhDs have spent a lifetime putting on a pedestal has set them up for hardship and failure.

PhDs are often misled from the start. Their programs are advertised as a path to a secure and well-paying career in academia. However, the reality is that there are very few tenure-track positions available, and even those who do get tenure may find themselves facing increasing pressure to publish and secure grant funding. 

Working long hours with little guidance from their supervisors, PhDs are often deprived of access to the resources they need to succeed. Here are five of the major ways that academia has –and will continue to – fail its PhDs.

1. Feeling Out Of Control

PhD students often feel like they have little control over their own research. They may be working on a project that is not of their own choosing, and they may have to follow the directions of their advisor closely. This can be frustrating and demoralizing.

Not only that, but research is often uncertain and unpredictable. There is no guarantee that their research will be successful, and PhDs may face setbacks and challenges along the way. This can be a major source of stress and anxiety.

For some students, a lack of regular feedback can make it difficult to know what they’re doing. This can contribute to self-doubt, and for many leads to feelings of isolation and loneliness.

2. Long Hours

Research can be incredibly time-consuming. It requires careful planning, execution, and analysis. It can also be frustrating and unpredictable at times. PhD students often need to put in long hours to make progress on their research. When you combine hours of research with studying and writing time, you have the equivalent of a full-time job on your hands. 

To make matters worse, the lack of structure in the average PhDs day can make effective time management problematic. A negative correlation exists between people who are dealing with stress, sleep deprivation, and anxiety – i.e., every PhD I’ve ever met – and those who manage their time effectively. In other words, the more stressed you become, studies show you are less likely to make productive use of your time.

This is all a recipe for burnout and fatigue. As a PhD, you have no doubt accepted this as a part of the process. But understanding it’s inevitable and coping with it are two different things.

3. Low Self-Esteem/Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome is all too common among PhDs. It is characterized by feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, and the fear of being exposed as a fraud. 

PhDs may experience imposter syndrome for a number of reasons. Research in and of itself involves a frustrating amount of failure. Knowing and accepting that failure is part of the process is a given for any PhD, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t aggravating.

Frustration over failure, high expectations, and a high level of competition naturally leads to feelings of inadequacy. Many PhDs feel like they aren’t really smart enough to be in a PhD program. They worry that they aren’t cut out for research. This can lead to anxiety and depression.

4. Financial Hardship

PhDs are no strangers to financial hardship. In fact, a recent study by the American Association of University Professors found that nearly half of all PhD students in the United States live below the poverty line.

Tight budgets are obvious source of stress, especially for PhDs who have to support themselves or their families. The cost of living has been rising rapidly in the past year, and it has outpaced PhD salaries by a long shot. This means that it is becoming increasingly difficult for PhDs to make ends meet.

Students who have had to relocate for their programs may experience an even greater financial burden. And, for students whose residence relies on a work visa, the tenuous nature of funding can be an added source of anxiety.

5. Personal Relationships

It’s no secret that PhD students have less time for their partners, friends, and family. Pursuing a PhD can absolutely put a strain on personal relationships.

Many experiments in graduate school involve long hours. PhDs spend hours in these dimly lit rooms where a whole day can pass without any sunlight or social interaction.

This isolation is a breeding ground for negative, self-limiting beliefs. It’s easy to feel helpless when you’re alone. At the same time, feeling helpless makes you want to be alone. It’s a vicious cycle that leads to more and more stress and eventually depression.

Industry Knows The Value Of You And Your PhD

Academia is synonymous with tradition and scarcity: meager funding, lean budgets, out-of-reach opportunities, and a lack of appreciation from those you work with and for. Industry, on the other hand, is about progress and abundance. 

According to a recent MassBio report, there has been a 143% growth in industry jobs that require a PhD in less than 10 years. To keep in step with machine learning, data-driven business strategy, and evolving technology, PhDs are becoming more and more sought after by industry leaders.

STEM scientists are in particularly high demand. Industry leaders recognize that PhDs can analyze data and make smart decisions more quickly and confidently than anyone else. And acting quickly can have a dramatic impact on the bottom line.

PhDs are supported in industry. Their continued growth is encouraged. Their talent is valued, too; companies take pride in ensuring their employees are satisfied. In stark contrast to academia, employee satisfaction and employee promotion are so important in industry that these are standard metrics of success.

5 Ways Industry Is Taking Care Of PhDs

1. Better Salaries And Benefits

Industry jobs typically pay more than academic jobs. A lot more. For a PhD who has been scraping by for nearly a decade, this is life-changing. 

The average salary of a postdoc in academia is roughly $50,000. The average salary of a PhD in industry, on the other hand, is $90,000.

Just as important as competitive pay are the benefits packages that companies in industry offer. Benefits like health insurance, retirement plans, and paid time off cost employers thousands of dollars a year per employee. 

2. Opportunity To Grow

In industry, there are more opportunities for advancement than in academia. Promoting from within is important to industry employers. It’s a metric of success that demonstrates their efficiency, interest in upskilling their workforce, and ability to retain employees

You can move into management positions, specialize in a particular area of research, or explore an entirely different field. In industry, change means progress and growth. 

Companies in industry also reward employees who take initiative. If you invest in your own development, some industry companies will reimburse you for adding to their institutional knowledge. 

3. Meaningful Work

Don’t think that, by leaving academia, you’re losing out on the opportunity to make a difference. In fact, if making a difference is important to you, industry is a better fit in many ways. Industry professionals have the opportunity to do research and development projects that can have a direct impact on people’s lives in the real world. 

In industry, you can see the direct impact of your work, and you’ll see it much more quickly than in academia. You can develop new products, improve existing products, or find new ways to use existing ones. Companies are highly motivated to bring new products to market. This means it could take months instead of years to see the fruits of your labor.

4. Work/Life Balance

In academia, there is often a lot of pressure to publish and secure grant funding. This can lead to long hours and burnout. In industry, there is more focus on developing products and services to bring to market. This can lead to a more balanced work-life, with more time for personal and family commitments.

It is not uncommon for PhD students and postdocs to work long hours, 60-80 hours per week or more. In industry, the standard workweek is typically 40-45 hours per week. There is often some flexibility to work from home, too, and taking time off is a benefit most employers provide. 

Industry careers are a great option for people who want to balance their work and personal lives.

5. More Career Options

PhDs leaving academia are thrilled to discover all the different careers they are qualified for in industry. From biotechnology to pharmaceuticals and technology to consulting, there are hundreds of positions that PhDs are qualified for. This wide range of options allows them to find a career that is a good fit for their interests and skills.

In academia, much of your time will be spent conducting research and writing papers. While this is important, it can also be limited in terms of how much you get to actually apply what you’re learning. 

In industry, you’ll have the chance to work on real-world projects and see the impact of your work firsthand. This can be a great way to gain valuable skills and experience that will make you more marketable in the future. 

Concluding Remarks

Academia does not have to change. Its problems are systemic and solved even more slowly than they are addressed. Schools are counting on offsetting their budget with the research, discovery, and support of PhDs and postdocs. As enrollment declines, funding becomes more and more limited. They won’t give up on their cheap labor easily, and they don’t have to – there’s an exponentially growing supply of PhD labor every year. Industry, however, understands your value. Why? Because PhDs – their drive, their ambition, their expertise – are scarcer there. PhDs are able to communicate complex ideas in a clear and concise way, which is one of the most important skills employers are looking for. In addition, PhDs have a strong foundation in technical skills, and these are essential for success in industry. 

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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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