How To Stop Academia From Turning You Into A Weak Minded PhD
Written by Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D.
The application to get food stamps was much longer than I expected.
I was in the middle of a large brick building in the center of town.
It was the building you went to for government assistance.
There were people applying for unemployment assistance, medical assistance, and of course, food assistance.
I heard about a few graduate students and postdocs in my program applying for food stamps and decided to apply myself.
It was a Wednesday.
I set up a gel and then rushed out of the lab, hurrying down to the building to apply before my advisor noticed I was gone.
I remember being more scared of my advisor finding out I wasn’t in the lab than I was of the fact that I didn’t have enough money for food.
It was my last year of graduate school and I had developed a stress-induced kidney condition and was paying off several medical bills.
My graduate student stipend wasn’t enough to live on anymore and I had to secretly work as a janitor cleaning offices at night.
The idea of getting on food stamps as a PhD student seemed ridiculous.
My parents were on food stamps while I was growing up.
This was one of the reasons I worked so hard to get a PhD in the first place, to never be that poor again.
I went to graduate school to create a better life for myself and eventually for my own family.
It was very ironic.
Walking in to get the food stamp application was embarrassing on so many levels.
It was like the final nail in the coffin.
I came into graduate school bright-eyed, optimistic, and eager to do meaningful work.
I was full of hope and ready to change the world.
But this positive mindset was stamped out of me.
Like many PhDs and PhD students, I had let the academic system convince me that I was needy.
I had let the system brainwash me into believing that I needed the system to survive.
Likewise, I had let my academic advisor convince me that I needed him to be successful.
My training to be a highly-educated servant was almost complete.
My poor academic mindset was slowly being set in stone.
Fortunately, I was able to change my poor academic mindset and fight my way out of academia.
I was able to move into a non-academic career before being put on food stamps.
Are You Being Trained To Be Negative, Entitled, And Insecure?
How do you control a large group of highly-intelligent individuals?
By making them mentally weak.
You put them in a rigorous system with few rewards and little outside contact.
Over time, these individuals become completely dependent on the system.
They become dependent on scant words or praise and possible letters of recommendation.
They start to believe that they’re above other people—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.
They see the numbers like >60% of PhDs and >80% of Life Sciences PhDs will NOT have a paying job at graduation, >99% of PhDs will NEVER be tenured professors, and 43% of PhD students will NOT get their PhD within 10 years of starting graduate school, and they start to feel hopeless.
Then they lose their confidence.
Then they lose their optimism.
And then finally, they lose their self-respect.
The end result is a large group of faceless peons who do exactly what they’re told and are afraid to leave their laboratory prison cells for even an hour to go to a daytime networking event.
How To Keep From Becoming Mentally Weak In Academia
Too many PhDs and PhD students become mentally weak in academia.
They get caught in the vicious circle of accepting less than they’re worth and feeling entitled to something better.
Academia can either be a launching pad for your personal and professional growth, or it can be a breeding ground for negativity, isolation, and despair.
Ultimately, it’s your call.
You must decide what you will tolerate in academia and what you will not tolerate.
What will your boundaries be?
What will you accept for yourself?
What are you doing to improve your situation?
How you answer these questions will determine whether or not you become mentally weak in academia.
Here are 5 keys to staying mentally strong and using academia as a launching pad for your professional success.
1. Know that getting a PhD is not the same as getting a job.
Imagine you’re an astronaut planning to land on Mars and set up a colony.
Would you just show up on launch day and hope for the best?
Would you spend all day and night reading about how bad it is to live on Earth?
Would you act like you were entitled to live on Mars?
Would you expect the terrain and atmosphere of Mars to be the same as on Earth?
Once you landed on Mars, would you take off your space helmet and expect to breath the same way you breathed on Earth?
Would you expect any aliens you met on Mars to help you survive and thrive on the new planet?
Would you even expect them to have your best interests at heart?
Of course, this all seems ridiculous.
You might even think this is a ridiculous example. But this is exactly what most PhDs do in preparation for an industry job.
They don’t prepare. They hope for the best.
They get to their thesis defense or their fifth year of doing a postdoc and just expect a path to industry to be laid out for them.
They sit in a lab and read about how bad things are in academia without making any real plans for transitioning out of academia.
Worst of all, they expect things that are important in academia to also be important in industry.
They put all their hopes and dreams into their perfectly crafted CVs, publication records, and letters of recommendation.
Then they expect industry hiring managers, biotech and biopharmaceutical recruiters, and people who already have industry jobs to drop everything and help them get a job too.
If you ever want to get a job in industry, you’re going to have to get rid of your academic mindset.
What made you successful in academia will not make you successful in industry. It won’t help you get an industry job either.
Imagine you’re going to Mars again.
If you were smart, if you really wanted to survive the trip and thrive on the planet once you got there, you would spend days, weeks, and months simulating the launch and learning everything you could about what it would be like to live there.
You would learn the names of every element on your new planet. You would talk to everyone who has ever been to Mars and you would listen intently.
In short, you would expect things to be totally different there compared to where you are now and you would prepare completely.
2. Work to progress your career, not to impress others.
Academia trains you to not care about money.
The academic system works to convince you that being paid well and treated well are luxuries that you don’t need or deserve.
Instead, academia trains you to seek approval. The system trains you to obsess over impressing others.
As a result, you spend all of your time trying to appear important.
You spend all of your time trying to be significant.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this in moderation. Everyone should want their work and lives to be significant.
The problem is when academics sacrifice their career goals to appearing important, or to keeping certain people, like their advisors and committee members, happy.
Getting published might be cool in academia, but it doesn’t mean anything in industry.
Receiving a perfectly crafted letter of recommendation from your advisor might be a big deal where you are now, but it counts for nothing in industry.
Publications, author order, and letters of recommendation can seem like the world in academia, but they mean nothing in industry.
If you want to get an industry job, you’re going to have to change your priorities.
You’re going to have to start valuing your industry network over your publication record.
You’re going to have to start valuing interpersonal skills and translating knowledge into products and profits over the pursuit of knowledge alone.
You’re going to have to start valuing action over words.
No one is going to just give you a great industry job.
No one is going to personally sift through a thousand industry resumes just to find the one you uploaded to their job posting online and say “Yes! This is the person I’ve been waiting my whole life for.”
No, it doesn’t work like that.
You’re going to have to fight for a good industry job. You’re going to have to try very, very hard.
You’re going to have to start preparing to transition into industry right now.
If you don’t know where to start, find people who do. Don’t be afraid to ask. If you don’t ask, you will stay stuck.
3. Learn to think critically, not cynically.
Academia works to turn you into a perpetual cynic.
As a PhD, you’re trained to not only analyze mountains of data, but to scrutinize it.
You’re trained to find and correct logical errors. The better you are at finding these errors, the more successful you are as a scientist.
The problem is that this kind critical thinking can become cynical thinking. Over time, you can start seeing errors in everything, even yourself.
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. It’s easy to start questioning everything.
You want a high-paying industry job where you can do meaningful work, but can money and meaning really coexist?
You want a high-paying industry job, but can anyone really get an industry job without industry experience?
If you want to move your career forward, you have to get rid of your cynical mindset.
You have to reignite the optimistic, can-do mindset that got you into graduate school in the first place.
You have to remember the joy of discovery and the thrill of trying new things and taking on challenges.
If you’re a PhD, you have these things inside of you. You also have more intelligence and tenacity than most other professionals.
It’s time for you to reawaken these traits and start using them to get the industry job of your choice.
4. Accept that a PhD entitles you to exactly nothing.
You’re not valuable to industry employers right now.
It sounds harsh but it’s true.
If you’re a lifetime academic like most newly minted PhDs and postdocs, you’re currently useless in industry.
You’re like an infant that has to be weaned off of a bottle and taught how to eat solid foods.
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.
Now that you know this, the fact that no one will read your resume or respond to your LinkedIn messages should no longer be a big surprise.
But don’t worry. Not all hope is lost.
PhDs do have enormous advantages over other job candidates.
The problem is that very few PhDs fully develop or leverage these advantages.
Very few identify or make use of their transferable skills.
Instead, they sit back and wait for success to fall in their laps.
5. See your PhD as an advantage and learn to leverage it.
PhDs are highly-intelligent and highly-trained professionals who are qualified for any industry position.
The only thing holding these PhDs back is the weak mindset they developed in academia.
While a PhD entitles you to nothing, it is a significant advantage. But only if you leverage your PhD correctly.
First, you must realize that every job is a PhD job.
You can never be too qualified for a job.
An employer telling you that you’re overqualified for a position is like someone breaking up with you and saying it’s not you it’s me.
The truth is it is you.
They’re turning you down politely to spare your feelings.
The real reason they didn’t want you is because of your lack of interpersonal skills and your inability to present yourself for the position in question.
Once you realize that you are qualified for any industry position, you can start identifying your transferable skills and using them to get the industry position that’s right for you.
As a PhD, you’re not only trained in benchwork.
You’re trained in identifying problems, finding solutions to those problems, and deciding on the right solution for the right problem.
You’re trained in dealing with failure and dealing with negative colleagues and negative bosses.
You’re trained in innovation, collaboration, competition, and much more. Start acting like it.
Start protecting your mindset. Realize that the only thing holding you back from the career and lifestyle you want is you.
The most important thing you can do to keep academia from making you mentally weak is by acknowledging the fact that your PhD entitles you to nothing. At the same time, you must commit yourself to identifying and leveraging the transferable skills you learned while getting your PhD. You must realize that getting your PhD is not the same as getting an industry job and make a decision to put in the necessary work to progress your career. Stop thinking cynically in every area of your life and forget about impressing others. Instead, look forward to the great opportunities in front of you and start preparing to seize them.
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