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Why You Need To Leave Academia

Leaving AcademiaWritten by Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D.

I felt like a complete loser. I grabbed a food stamp application and walked out of the poorly lit government assistant building.

The building was in the middle of nowhere and it took me forever to find it on my bike. I made a last minute decision to apply for the stamps in between lab experiments and hurried down to the building hoping my advisor wouldn’t notice I was gone.

One of the postdocs in my lab was on food stamps and told me that I could probably get on them too. It was my last year of graduate school and I had developed a stress-induced kidney condition and was paying off a bunch of related medical bills. My measly graduate student stipend wasn’t enough to live on anymore so I secretly started working as a janitor cleaning cell phone stores. It was a graveyard job, which was perfect because I didn’t want any of the other graduate students to see me.

The idea of getting on food stamps as a PhD student seemed completely ridiculous at first. But things kept getting worse and worse in lab. My academic advisor was treating me very badly and was refusing to let me graduate. My health was deteriorating and the medical bills kept coming. I started talking to other postdocs and found out that many of them were on food stamps, especially the postdocs with families. Then I found out that 3 other graduate students I knew went down and applied for food stamps too. That’s when I decided to go down and get an application.

It was embarrassing on so many levels. I remembered my parents being on food stamps and government assistance when I was a kid and never thought that I would be too. After all, that was the whole reason I worked so hard to become a PhD–so I could create a better life for myself and for my own family some day. I thought climbing my way to the highest echelons of academia would give me this life. I thought I would be paid well, treated well, and allowed to do meaningful work. But I was very wrong. Fortunately, I was able to fight my way out of academia and move into a non-academic career before being put on food stamps. Most PhDs and PhD students, however, have not been so lucky.

Stop Ignoring The Data

As a scientist or other high-level academic reading this, ask yourself…

If the below numbers kept showing up in every experiment you performed or in the results section of every academic paper you read, what would you do?

3X—the fold increase in the number of people with graduate degrees who have had to apply for food stamps, unemployment, or other assistance

360,000—the number of people with graduate degrees on government assistance in 2010

68,000—number of postdocs in the U.S. alone waiting for tenured professorships

8,000—number of postdocs in Boston (a single city) waiting for tenured professorships

100,000—number of PhDs granted in a four year period

16,000—number of professorships opened in the same four year period

84,000—number of PhDs left over every four years

>60%—number of PhDs who will NOT have a paying job at graduation

>80%—number of Life Sciences PhDs who will NOT have a paying job at graduation

<1%—number PhDs will go on to be tenured professors. Lessthan 1%!

43%—PhD students will NOT get their PhD within 10 years of starting graduate school

$42,000 (or ~$19/hour)—annual starting salary (before taxes) of a postdoc in the U.S.

$55,272 (or ~$26/hour)—salary of a 7th year postdoc.

$56,370—salary of an average librarian

You would acknowledge and learn from the numbers of course. Most importantly, you would change your approach in response to the data. You wouldn’t keep doing the same thing over and over again. You’d work to get new data.

You’re not above the data. You are the data. Don’t fall into the trap of ignoring the dismal numbers telling you that academia is dying and that you better leave as soon as possible. If you are in academia right now, you are one of those numbers.

The Fairy Tale Is Over

Academia is broken. The time to leave it is now. If you don’t leave, you will be poor, mistreated, and unhappy. 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—postdocs and PhD students—to look down on anyone who expresses a desire to leave academia. As a result, a kind of feedback loop is created in academia. Once you’re in the system, the system keeps you there by weakening your mind and eroding 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 advisor yelling at you or making you feel small. You get used to believing that there’s nothing else for you in the world. Then, 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 12 more months of food stamps. This may sound harsh but it’s reality. There are real people facing this reality—real postdocs and PhDs that I know and that you know too 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.

Into A Non-Academic Career

Two Biggest Reasons To Leave Academia This Year

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 harassment or workplace bullying 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 of compensate you fairly. You do not have to accept this.

There are many reasons to leave academia this year. If you read the above data, you know that the academic career track is now a dead end career track. But the biggest reasons behind the death of academia are not in the numbers, they’re in the day-to-day lifestyle that PhDs have to endure. These reasons include…

1. You can’t do meaningful work in a broken system. 

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. And 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 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.

If you want to keep doing this—fine—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. You are too smart and too talented to work in poverty you’re whole life. 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.

2. Professors have too much power over you and often abuse this power.

There’s nothing better than a positive professor who inspires you and trains you, sometimes toughly, to be a better scientist. At the same time, there’s nothing worse than a negative professor who tears you down, makes you feel stupid, and doesn’t support your career. In today’s world, the latter is all too common. I can’t tell you how many emails we get with subject lines that read “mentor abusing me please help” or “afraid mentor will ruin my career please help” or similar.

PIs, professors, and academic advisors simply have too much unregulated power nowadays. Seriously, is there any other job on the planet where one person is given control over the fate of several employees (technicians, graduate students, postdocs, etc.) without ever receiving a single hour of management training. Unlike other teachers, most PhD-level PIs and professors are not trained in teaching. Most are not tested once in their ability to communicate or train other people. Yet, they’re given full control over other people’s careers. These same people are also given thousands (and sometimes millions) of dollars in public funding without ever receiving a single iota of financial training. It’s madness.

No wonder there are so many cases of PIs and professors harassing and bullying their employees and students. My own PI used to scream at me in the middle of lab when he was angry. He would scream. Right in front of other postdocs, graduate students, and even professors from neighboring labs who were walking by. And everyone ignored him. They acted like it didn’t happen. I remember walking past my PIs office on more than one occasion and seeing whichever technician or graduate student he was yelling at crying in the seat across from him. One time he was yelling so loud that you could hear him through the door—“I’m the boss now, get it!? I’m the boss!” Where else would this kind of behavior be tolerated by anyone let alone from someone in charge?

Imagine a random person coming up to you on the street and screaming in your face like that. You would never allow it. Yet, it happens so often in academia that some consider it normal. If you’re sitting there thinking that this is a very extreme example, you’re wrong. While I was in graduate school, two professors killed themselves after being charged with harassing students. A third professor abused a student for years while the University’s lawyers protected him until he was finally convicted. This happens at even the most prestigious institutions.

Listen, you deserve to be excited about your career, not afraid of what might happen if you don’t do exactly what your PI says. You deserve a safe and supportive place to work. Unfortunately, it’s getting harder and harder to find a place like this in academia.

Are You Another Disposable Academic? 

Lifelong academics are now disposable. It’s the hard truth. The system is too broken and outdated to fix. If you’re a postdoc, get out of academia right now. Wrap up whatever you’re doing as soon as possible and start networking and applying to industry jobs today. If you’re worried about your PI finding out and treating you poorly, then conduct your job search privately. If you don’t have a network and don’t know how to do a proper job search, get on this list. If your PI is already treating you poorly and you’re worried he or she will try to kick you out of the lab (or country), then talk to a counselor at your University or contact us privately here and we will help you.

If you’re a PhD student, work hard to pass your comprehensive exam and do whatever else you need to do at your University to get to the point where you either have (or technically have) your Masters degree. Once you reach this point, you have leverage. Now you can start fighting to get out with your PhD. From this point on, spend the majority of your time building your network and preparing to transition into industry. Don’t fall into the trap of obsessing over publications. Authoring papers does not matter in industry.

Once you have passed your exams, review your department’s student handbook and figure out exactly what you have to do to graduate. Then sit down with your PI and committee and write out timeline and hold them to it. Take detailed notes during every meeting with your PI and every meeting with your thesis committee and then email your notes openly to the other parties. This is the best way to keep a transparent record of your progress, their suggestions, and your current timeline. Taking notes and sending email  might sound over the top but you’ll be glad you did when the going gets tough. And it will get tough. Every week we have dozens of PhDs who contact us with stories of how their PIs and committee members will not let them graduate and will not give them a detailed plan for graduating. If you get confused, lost, stuck or feel alone at any time, contact us here and we will help.

Move Your Career Forward 

If you want to move your career ahead, you have to have a vision for your future and you have to face reality at the same time. The key is to set specific goals for your career while also looking very closely at the problems you’re up against. Don’t ignore the obstacles in front of you. Acknowledge them and make a plan to overcome them.

You don’t have to do this on your own. You are not alone. There are people out there like you who want to leave academia just as urgently. There are people out there who have been exactly where you are now and have left academia and transitioned into a non-academic career that has fulfilled them completely and given them a better life. This is possible for you too. Anything is possible with the right network and the right training. Stop waiting. Make a decision to leave academia and get the industry position of your choice in 2015.

To learn more about transitioning into a non-academic career, including instant access to our exclusive training videos, case studies, industry insider documents, transition plan, and private online network, join the Cheeky Scientist Association. 

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