How To Leave Academia (6 Tips From A PhD Who Made The Switch)

When I started the road towards my doctorate, leaving academia was the last thing on my mind.

Academia was my daily life for so long already.

University positions seemed secure if I kept at it long enough.

Plus, I enjoyed the research. 

And if I decided to leave academia, I’d have industry roles clamoring to hire me, right?

It wasn’t until I finally earned my PhD that I realized my life in academia had only started.

Like so many other PhDs, I was in my late 30s, facing an indefinite $30k academia salary, and staring down more than I wanted to acknowledge in student loans. 

Wait, what if I wanted to start a family? Buy a home? Travel?

Everything I’d hoped the PhD label would help me achieve suddenly vanished. 

But the idea to leave academia seemed just as absurd back then. 

Again, I was in my late 30s with no industry experience, yet every position required at least 10 years of it. Um, how?

I suddenly understood why all the tenured professors around me seemed so miserable and resentful of anyone who tried to leave. 

That’s when I decided I would make the switch – no matter what it took – and never look back. I knew it wouldn’t be easy (and I didn’t even really want to leave academia) but I had to do it.

How To Leave Academia: 6 Tips From A PhD Who Made The Switch

I’ll be the first to admit that transitioning out of academia is intimidating. I had serious imposter syndrome after a few dead-end interviews.

In our academic circles, PhDs are respected and praised – obviously, it goes to our head more than we realize. 

Applying for industry roles (unprepared) is a rude awakening: No one in industry cares about your doctorate or research. They only care about your ability to do the work they need from you. 

1. Don’t Get Caught Up In The “What Ifs” About Leaving Academia

You will wonder if you’re making the wrong decision. You will look back every so often and wonder about the way things could have been if you didn’t leave academia. 

These thoughts are totally normal – don’t let them consume you. Take a minute to mourn what could have been and move on, realizing the dream you built never really existed.

The average PhD salary is less than $50k per year – and most university positions are much lower. You deserve better and you’re making the right choice.

2. Rethink Your Resume From An Industry Perspective

We can be honest here. PhDs have a reputation for being too independent. Well, independence can come across as egotistical in a workplace where teamwork is top priority. 

Start with your resume. 

No one wants nor has time to read hundreds (or thousands) of words about your research. They need to look at your resume and know whether you’re worth the risk – and every hire is a costly risk. 

Keep it concise. Focus on the results and solutions you achieved. Talk about your transferable skills like communication and task delegation. 

Show the industry manager why you’re worth hiring over another applicant with similar industry experience.

3. Learn How To Network Properly Before You Leave Academia

No one likes networking but PhDs especially despise it. Networking feels so fake. Who likes small talk anyways? 

I know you don’t want to hear this, but networking is essential to landing meaningful work in industry. Referrals are 4x more likely to get hired and 82% of employers prefer hiring employee referrals.

In fact, many of the best industry roles aren’t even posted to public job boards – companies only hire through referrals for the best PhD-level roles. 

Expand your network. Attend events you normally wouldn’t consider. Talk to everyone no matter their status or role. Just make some friends. 

4. Don’t Take Advice From Career Academics

The longer you put off leaving academia, the more resentful you’ll get – and we all know misery loves company. Career academics won’t have anything encouraging or useful to say. 

The reality is that other career academics don’t want you to leave. Many of them have already tried and gave up at the first roadblock.

Instead, connect with other PhDs in your field who know what it’s like to leave academia. They’ll understand the modern industry landscape and have genuinely helpful advice – not just pessimism. 

5. Understand Industry Organizational Structure And Roles

Industry roles are all about teamwork. I know it sounds kind of cringe but it’s the reality. 

Each department has its own team that must collaborate and communicate daily. At a higher level, each department must coordinate with each other to keep the company humming along. 

On top of all this, you have levels of management and logistics both within departments and generally to keep everything together. 

Take some time getting to know the unique structure of companies in your field. It’ll help you figure out where you fit in and show managers that you’re not totally oblivious. 

6. Be Kind To Yourself And Don’t Rush The Process

It’s called a transition for a reason. You can’t leave academia overnight after you’ve lived in it for years. 

Go easy on yourself. Keep your spirit in it and take things one step at a time. 

Yes, You Can Leave Academia And Find Meaningful Work

I get it. You really don’t even want to leave academia. Sure, it might not pay great, but you enjoy the work and it’s rewarding. 

Just imagine yourself 10 years from now: the same salary, chipping away at student loans, telling yourself now it’s too late to leave academia. 

What would the 10-year-older version of yourself want you to do today? 

You can still find rewarding work in industry. In fact, you might even find it more rewarding because you can be part of a team, complete research for the greater good, and receive fair compensation for your expertise.

Don’t wait for your university to start with layoffs and cutbacks. Take your future into your own hands today.

We’ve been there. We know transitioning out of academia is uncomfortable. Start with the Cheeky Scientist eBook, Top 20 Industry Positions for PhDs, to see some of the possibilities. 

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

Isaiah Hankel holds a PhD in Anatomy and Cell Biology. An expert in the biotechnology industry, he specializes in helping other PhDs transition into cutting-edge industry career tracks.

Isaiah believes--from personal experience--that if you feel stuck somewhere in your life, it’s a clear sign that you need to 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 is an internationally recognized Fortune 500 consultant, CEO of Cheeky Scientist, and author of the straight-talk bestsellers Black Hole Focus and The Science of Intelligent Achievement.

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