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.

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.

Book a Transition Call
Get Free Job Search Content Weekly
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.

Similar Articles

Best Of Transition: Ph.D. Jobs & Job Search Strategies, October 16th 2021

Best Of Transition: Ph.D. Jobs & Job Search Strategies, October 16th 2021

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

Every week, we at Cheeky Scientist scour the Internet for the best articles on topics that help in the search for the Best of Transition: PhD Job Search in the industry. Our two consultants independently search for the most informative articles in the categories of networking, CVs/resumes, interviews, transferable skills, academic blues, industry positions, and business acumen. Our consultants vote on a top article for each category and a top overall article for the week – if it’s a recent article that can help readers find and acquire PhD jobs, then we want to include it in this weekly digest.…

3 Steps To Taking Back Control Of Your Career

3 Steps To Taking Back Control Of Your Career

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

Academia takes away all of your control. You probably started your PhD as a confident student, knowing exactly who you were and what you wanted.  But after years facing lack of support, lack of structure, and lack of clear deadlines, you have probably lost a lot of that initial motivation. You probably are not sure of what the next steps are. You feel that you lost all the control of your future career. Something similar happened to me when I was trying to get out of graduate school. I was in a very unique situation, where my PI was the…

Best Of Transition: Ph.D. Jobs & Job Search Strategies, October 9th 2021

Best Of Transition: Ph.D. Jobs & Job Search Strategies, October 9th 2021

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

Every week, we at Cheeky Scientist scour the Internet for the best articles on topics that help in the search for the Best of Transition: PhD Job Search in the industry. Our two consultants independently search for the most informative articles in the categories of networking, CVs/resumes, interviews, transferable skills, academic blues, industry positions, and business acumen. Our consultants vote on a top article for each category and a top overall article for the week – if it’s a recent article that can help readers find and acquire PhD jobs, then we want to include it in this weekly digest.…

If You're This Kind Of PhD, Cheeky Scientist Isn’t Worth It

If You're This Kind Of PhD, Cheeky Scientist Isn’t Worth It

By: Amanda Johnson

Cheeky Scientist isn’t worth it for you! Yes, you read the title of this article right. You’re probably wondering why Cheeky Scientist would publish such an article on its own website. Why would any company ever advocate for anyone to avoid its products? It seems like a poor business strategy. Am I right? And is it true that Cheeky Scientist isn’t worth it for some PhDs? For me, Cheeky Scientist was definitely worth it. I’m not sure I would have escaped academia and found the career I currently enjoy without it. I’ve recommended Cheeky Scientist to many fellow PhDs. PhDs…

Best Of Transition: Ph.D. Jobs & Job Search Strategies, October 2nd 2021

Best Of Transition: Ph.D. Jobs & Job Search Strategies, October 2nd 2021

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

Every week, we at Cheeky Scientist scour the Internet for the best articles on topics that help in the search for the Best of Transition: PhD Job Search in the industry. Our two consultants independently search for the most informative articles in the categories of networking, CVs/resumes, interviews, transferable skills, academic blues, industry positions, and business acumen. Our consultants vote on a top article for each category and a top overall article for the week – if it’s a recent article that can help readers find and acquire PhD jobs, then we want to include it in this weekly digest.…

Is The Cheeky Scientist Association Worth It?

Is The Cheeky Scientist Association Worth It?

By: Amanda Johnson

The professor I was speaking with took a full step backward.  Her eyes widened. I had just casually repeated a piece of feedback I received on one of the graphs that I had created for a lab presentation verbatim: “I hate your colors.” I had shared the comment solely to illustrate that data visualization didn’t come naturally to me.  Sure, I wouldn’t recommend critiquing someone’s work this way. But I had heard so much worse in academia.  On top of that, I had been bullied repeatedly into apologizing anytime I showed any sign that such comments had hurt my feelings.…

Best Of Transition: Ph.D. Jobs & Job Search Strategies, September 25th 2021

Best Of Transition: Ph.D. Jobs & Job Search Strategies, September 25th 2021

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

Every week, we at Cheeky Scientist scour the Internet for the best articles on topics that help in the search for the Best of Transition: PhD Job Search in the industry. Our two consultants independently search for the most informative articles in the categories of networking, CVs/resumes, interviews, transferable skills, academic blues, industry positions, and business acumen. Our consultants vote on a top article for each category and a top overall article for the week – if it’s a recent article that can help readers find and acquire PhD jobs, then we want to include it in this weekly digest.…

Have A Ph.D.? Use These 3 Scripts To Breakthrough The Silence On LinkedIn

Have A Ph.D.? Use These 3 Scripts To Breakthrough The Silence On LinkedIn

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

Robust LinkedIn network is necessary for hiring. PhDs often think that they have plenty of time to work on the next step in their career and that they can postpone setting up a job search strategy.  Sadly, many of them wait so long that they end up in a desperate position, where they need a job yesterday. They start fixating on things like “I gotta get hired. I gotta get somebody to help me get hired. I gotta really pitch myself. I gotta talk about all my skills, I gotta ask for help on my resume.” So, they start bombarding…

Best Of Transition: Ph.D. Jobs & Job Search Strategies, September 18th 2021

Best Of Transition: Ph.D. Jobs & Job Search Strategies, September 18th 2021

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

Every week, we at Cheeky Scientist scour the Internet for the best articles on topics that help in the search for the Best of Transition: PhD Job Search in the industry. Our two consultants independently search for the most informative articles in the categories of networking, CVs/resumes, interviews, transferable skills, academic blues, industry positions, and business acumen. Our consultants vote on a top article for each category and a top overall article for the week – if it’s a recent article that can help readers find and acquire PhD jobs, then we want to include it in this weekly digest.…

Top Industry Career eBooks

Complete LinkedIn Guide For PhDs

Complete LinkedIn Guide For PhDs

Isaiah Hankel

The LinkedIn tips & strategies within have helped PhDs from every background get hired into top industry careers.

20 Most Popular Industry Career Tracks For PhDs

20 Most Popular Industry Career Tracks For PhDs

Isaiah Hankel, PhD & Arunodoy Sur, PhD

Learn about the top 20 industry careers for PhDs (regardless of your academic background). In this eBook, you will gain insight into the most popular, highest-paying jobs for PhDs – all of which will allow you to do meaningful work AND get paid well for it.

Industry Resume Guide for PhDs

Industry Resume Guide for PhDs

Isaiah Hankel, PhD

Learn how to craft the perfect industry resume to attract employers. In this eBook for PhDs, you will get access to proven resume templates, learn how to structure your bullet points, and discover which keywords industry employers want to see most on PhD resumes.