3 Reasons Why Academia Causes Talented PhDs Stress, Anxiety, And Depression

stress, anxiety and depression in academia | Cheeky Scientist | academic research career
Written by Jackie Johnson, Ph.D.

“I’m going to be a doctor one day.”

I eagerly told my parents this while my Doctor Barbie was diagnosing my brother’s Hulk Hogan and André the Giant action figures.

“She’s going to be a doctor one day. Did you hear that? Wow, she’s so motivated at such a young age.”

There was a twinkle of pride in my parents’ eyes.

I was extremely dedicated to my studies all the way through high school.

I earned perfect grades and I skipped my senior year of high school to enter college early.

But I worked hard to be “well-rounded” too.

I was a cheerleader, softball player, trivia challenge scholar, foreign language club chair, charity board member, homecoming queen, flute player, waitress, and on and on.

I pursued a biology degree and eventually started working in a genetics lab.

I found myself surrounded by like-minded people who didn’t care about making money.

We fought to “selflessly” pursue a goal that would have a positive impact on the world.

We worked around the clock to prove our somewhat romantic dedication to academia.

I applied for scholarships and fellowships.

I was growing intellectually, but professionally I was going nowhere.

The desire to contribute and be a good scientist had blinded me to what was really happening in academia.

I wasn’t happy in academia.

As our lab’s funding continued to dry up, everyone became stressed.

Many prestigious scientists started to lash out in anger.

Over time, I lost my confidence.

I started questioning whether or not I had any value to offer the world.

To rebuild my self-esteem, I tried to reconnect with things that I enjoyed outside of the lab.

I did yoga.

I rock climbed.

I even worked freelance as a scientific and medical writer.

Slowly but surely, I got stronger, physically and mentally.

I slowly started to feel more like myself again.

That’s when I stopped feeling like an annoying loser with a PhD just begging for money.

I also realized that it was time to leave academia.

I joined the Cheeky Scientist Association and learned how to craft an industry resume.

I realized my ability to communicate complex scientific topics made me unique and that this skill is highly coveted in industry.

And, although I was a shy introvert who dreaded going to networking events, I realized that I had the transferable skills I needed to engage industry professionals at these events.

Once I changed my approach, I started getting job offers.

A lot of job offers.

At one point, I had offers from two big pharma companies, three biotech start-ups, an academic journal, and a venture capitalist, all at the same time.

I went from feeling like a loser with nothing to offer to having multiple offers on the table.

Using the strategies I learned in the Cheeky Scientist Association, I was able to leverage these offers to found a consulting

company that allowed me to work with multiple clients at once.

I found a way to remain a scientist but to leave academia and bench work behind forever.

Why Academia Is A Breeding Ground For Despair

It took me a long time to get my PhD.

But, eventually, I managed to graduate.

Now it was time to take the next step in my career.

My gut told me to leave academia immediately but instead, out of fear and ignorance, I stayed in the system.

I signed up for my first postdoc and regretted every minute of it.

I remember asking myself, “Why am I here?”

“Why am I doing this postdoc?”

“Why didn’t someone tell me that a postdoc will do NOTHING for my career?”

A report from The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited highlighted the shocking truth about doing a postdoc—a postdoc is a “lousy decision” for PhDs.

An academic postdoc will neither result in an academic job nor otherwise advance your career.

Thanks for telling me!

This is why there is a pile-up of postdocs around the world.

In fact, a report by the Boston Globe discusses data from the National Institutes of Health showing that there are between 37,000 and 68,000 postdocs in the U.S. alone.

But I didn’t know this.

And I wanted to impress others.

So, rather than leave academia, I signed up for a postdoc.

It was one of the worst decisions I ever made.

how to get out of a dead end job in academia | Cheeky Scientist | phd mental health

How Academia Causes PhDs Stress, Anxiety, And Depression

Why did I feel guilty?

No one told me that I would always feel guilty in graduate school.

But I did.

I felt guilty for having one afternoon to myself.

I felt guilty for getting to the lab 5 minutes later than my PI.

I felt guilty for eating lunch.

I knew that all the top scientists worked days, nights, and weekends.

I knew that scientists were supposed to be robots.

I also felt a deep sense of shame.

I felt like a failure.

My undergraduate friends had recently purchased beautiful homes, were having families, and were already paying off significant chunks of their student loan debts.

I hit a low point in the middle of graduate school.

I had a lot of debt and there was no PhD in sight. 

But this was normal, though I didn’t know it at the time.

In fact, according to The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS) Project on Student Debt, the average borrower in the U.S. will graduate with $26,600 in loans.

I became angry.

I became envious of anyone I knew who became successful.

In short, I became a PhD with a weak mindset.

I grappled with depression, irritation, and anxiety. 

It wasn’t until years later when I got out of academia that I realized why the academic system had hurt my career.

It wasn’t until years later that I realized exactly how academia ruins the careers of talented PhDs. 

Here are 3 reasons why academia causes PhDs stress, anxiety, and depression…

1. Academia operates on an ambiguous timeline.

Most dissertations are self-directed.

According to a report by CBS MoneyWatch, it takes the average student 8.2 years to get through a PhD program.

The same report found that the average student is 33 years old before earning their PhD.

Here’s the problem…

Academic timelines are subjective and are rarely followed by advisory committees. 

There are very few checks and balances to ensure that work is completed in a timely fashion.

The only real deadline is money.

When the money runs out, maybe you’ll be allowed to graduate.

Or maybe not.

Even without funding, many PIs ask graduate students and postdocs to work for free to complete projects.

How many times have you been asked by family and friends when you would graduate?

How do you answer?

Next year.

One day.

Soon.

You get to the age when it is no longer acceptable to ask for a student discount at the movie theater or museum, and yet, you’re still labeled (and paid) as a student.

The lack of concrete endpoints makes it difficult for PhDs to plan for the next step in their careers.

The lack of agreed upon timelines ruins many PhD careers.

Doing a PhD for 5-10 years and then a postdoc for 5-10 years afterwards is a career.

A career that goes NOWHERE.

The only way to avoid this is to start setting your own career deadlines.

Map out when you are going to leave academia and which industry jobs you’re interested in transitioning into.

Once you have a strategy and timeline in place, start executing it as your top priority.

2. You’re never allowed to feel a sense of progress or accomplishment.

Academic PhDs are harsh critics.

They constantly rip apart their own data to find alternative meanings to results or holes in their experimental designs.

This is a good thing.

The problem is that many academics turn their critical eye on other people and on themselves.

They let their harsh critiques cross over from the professional into the personal.

It’s impossible to feel a sense of growth and accomplishment when you’re constantly being attacked.

It’s impossible to know your own value when you’re constantly attacking yourself.

For most PhDs, graduate school is their first experience with failure.

Many graduate students were academic superstars at their previous universities.

Then they started doing bench work.

And that’s when the world started crashing down around them.

Failure. Failure. Failure.

Successful experiments are few and far between.

Even if an experiment is successful, it’s rarely celebrated.

The only celebration that occurs is when a paper is finally published or a grant is finally funded.

In the meantime, PhDs slog forward with nothing to look forward to.

No recognition.

No appreciation.

No decent paycheck.

Academia is where appreciation goes to die.

Without a sense of being appreciated, without a sense of growth and accomplishment, PhDs stop valuing themselves.

They start to feel as though they are unable to apply their skills to positions outside of academia.  

After all, if they can’t be successful in academia, how can they survive out in the “real world?”

This is what they think.

This mindset prevents many PhDs from finding their true calling.

It keeps them glued to the bench, hoping for a big breakthrough that never comes.

The only way to prevent yourself from sinking into a pit of despair and losing your self-esteem is to start managing your stress now, not later.

Realize that you are more successful than 98% of the world in terms of your technical skills and education, as less than 2% of the population has a PhD.

Remember your value and your worth.

Focus on your strengths and leverage them OUTSIDE of the academic system, not just in the system.

Most importantly, be gentler on yourself personally.

Be ruthless with your data, but be kind to yourself.

3. A single academic advisor will make or break your academic experience.

Unbelievably, the success of your graduate studies is in the hands of one academic advisor.

Then, if you do a postdoc, your success is in the hands of your PI who controls the lab.

This would never be allowed in any other industry.

It wasn’t allowed in your undergrad program—you had a variety of professors to rely on, as well as university counselors, and an entire infrastructure to prevent you from being harassed and abused.

It won’t be allowed in your first industry job either—you’ll have a clear management chain, human resource departments, and many business laws protecting you from abuse.

So, why is this allowed in graduate school?

Academic advisors are well-known to exploit graduate students.

The terminology of being treated “like a slave” or “like an indentured servant” in academia is common for a reason.

PhDs perform the grunt work their advisors and PIs are unwilling to do, like teaching undergraduates, mentoring new members of the lab, grading papers, and performing meaningless experiments just to keep a grant going.

PhDs do this because they are afraid of not being successful. 

They’re afraid that their mentors will turn on them and ruin their careers.

They’re afraid of not getting a letter of recommendation.

They’re afraid of being looked down upon too.

For many PhDs, the desire to leave academia is a source of shame created by professors, academic advisors, and PIs.

This is why most PhDs hide their desires to leave academia from their advisors.

These PhDs know that their advisors will not only make them feel stupid for wanting to transition into industry, but they will become resentful.

Many advisors become so resentful that they actively try to hold back the careers of talented graduate students and postdocs.

If this happens to you, don’t stay silent about it.

Reach out to others at your institution for help.

Most importantly, don’t be afraid of a professor, an advisor, or a PI.

The truth is, these lifetime academics are powerless.

They have no power and no connections outside of academia.

Stay true to yourself and your desires and don’t be afraid to plan a life and career for yourself outside of academia.

Now is the time to find your true calling outside of academia.  Don’t wait until you get your PhD or until you are 5 years into a postdoc.  Recognize the technical skills you have developed and set yourself apart by also developing the transferable skills you need to transition into an industry job of your choice. Start researching alternative careers and build your network outside of graduate school by attending non-scientific events. Reach out to employees in companies that interest you and set up informal conversations to discuss their career path and how to best prepare yourself for the successful career you deserve.

To learn more about transitioning into industry, including instant access to our exclusive training videos, case studies, industry insider documents, transition plan, and private online network, get on the wait list for the Cheeky Scientist Association.

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Jackie L. Johnson, Ph.D

Jackie L. Johnson, Ph.D

Jackie has a PhD in Oncology and is the founder of JLJ consultancy, a management-consulting firm based in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Jackie specializes in medical communication platforms for international pharmaceutical clients, academic institutes, and biotech companies. She has extensive training in medical & scientific writing from AMWA, EMWA, and Stanford University. She is passionate about communicating scientific advances to the public to address important medical questions.
Jackie L. Johnson, Ph.D
  • http://morganbye.com/ Morgan Bye, PhD

    I think the reason that so many of us take a post-doc is quite a simple one. Those of us that manage to get to the end of the PhD have spent the best part of 2 decades (or more) in an education that has told us we are special. We were the top of almost every class we ever took. We went to university. We went to grad school. We are the exception.

    And that’s where we fail. The academic world is a world in which everyone feels like the exception, and nobody feels like the rule.

    We feel like we’ll be the exception and we’ll be the ones who make it to tenure. But post-docing is often a hard dose of reality.

    Great piece Jackie.

    • https://www.jljconsultancy.com jackie johnson

      You are spot on, Morgan. It is such a fine line between confidence, which stems from rarely ever coming in second place, and just plain arrogance.

  • Sissy MacDougall

    This is very inspiring and hard-hitting, as many of us can identify with the insane, unspoken rules of academia. Thank you so much for the links as well – really good information to have.

    • https://www.jljconsultancy.com jackie johnson

      Thanks for the praise, @sissymacdougall:disqus. I am glad you found them useful!

  • Kathy Azalea

    Jackie, thank you so much for this down-to-earth explanation of exactly how the academic world has a weird way of turning those of us who are considered top of the line into feeling less than everyone else. I’m really more determined than ever to transition out of academia and into an industry job ASAP.

    • https://www.jljconsultancy.com jackie johnson

      Thanks for the comment and reading my story here. It was a very difficult period in my life and I am happy to report that there really is a whole new world outside of academia…and it is waiting for you !

      • pikake

        Jackie, thank you for your article. I am thinking that as difficult and depressing as it can get (spot on that you’re never allowed to feel a sense of accomplishment), it still is useful to have the PhD. For example, it’s probably because you have a PhD that you received all these job offers. Also, I have been fully funded and have worked so I have never had to go into debt for my degrees. However, I do feel like you said–most of my friends have careers, houses, families–and all I have is almost my PhD with no idea where to go or what to do afterwards. It’s as if we’ve sacrificed life for this dream that could never become a reality.

        If you don’t mind me asking–what is your income range having left academia? If don’t want to divulge specific information like that, how much more are you making outside of academia than you were inside? I found that I am lacking some technical skills I could have gained much more quickly that would have perhaps been more marketable (e.g. computer programming).

        • https://www.jljconsultancy.com jackie johnson

          Thanks for reading the post. Income range depends on your role. You can find specific salary ranges on glassdoor and payscale.com, depending on your position. That being said, it is not uncommon for a PhD level scientist in industry to start with a six-figure income. As for lacking technical skills, I reccommend seeking online trainings. Think: Coursera, thinkful, edX, etc.

  • Marvin D’Esprit

    I’ve been reading a lot lately about the pathetic results you can get from doing a postdoc, and I’m so glad to say I’ll be dodging that bullet when the time comes. I have to admit that this blog has a ton of great information on transitioning out of academia into a real job that pays money and commands respect.

    • https://www.jljconsultancy.com jackie johnson

      Hi @marvindesprit:disqus, thanks for the comment. I am glad that CSA is a source of information for you!

  • Madeline Rosemary

    Well, it’s certainly looking like the word is getting out there about postdocs. I’m glad to see it. The whole system probably needs some revamping, and I’m wondering if many of the lab experiments done during postdocs would be picked up by industry if there weren’t as many postdocs available to handle it?

  • Harvey Delano

    No way do I want to start out my career on the wrong foot. We just work too hard and study too hard to let that happen. Thanks so much, Jackie. I really appreciate the input.

  • Matthew Smithson PhD

    Clearly, the time for going the regular old route is over. I’ve already been in industry for a few years, and it’s great. It still requires hard work, of course, but there is a different mindset outside of academia. I love the fact that you’re pointing out the lack of hard deadlines in school. It’s ridiculous to spend that many years in school because you think it’s going to help you and then you find out that the last five years of it made no difference at all. Kudos.

  • Sonja Luther

    This is one of the best articles I’ve seen for a long time. It’s straight and to the point. Thank goodness we have people who have already been through it and know how to navigate the system. 🙂

    • https://www.jljconsultancy.com jackie johnson

      Thank you so much for the kind words @sonjaluther:disqus

  • Maggie Sue Smith

    It sounds like going through a postdoc is one big experiment that failed! You’re somewhat of a whistle blower by coming out and revealing what you went through. I’m hoping that this article helps a lot of PhD’s avoid so much extra time and work for nothing. And good for you for breaking free and doing what you had to do!

    • https://www.jljconsultancy.com jackie johnson

      Me too, @disqus_3pN2LGtUfB:disqus. I actually enjoyed the people and camaraderie in the postdoc, but it was certainly not a step forward for my career.

  • Carlie Stevenson, PhD

    You really achieved a lot during your life, even before attaining the PhD. No wonder you were horrified to learn the big secret about academia — trying to stay in it so long is wasted time for your career. I was able to move on fairly rapidly but I didn’t have much keeping me there, and I’m really grateful for a smooth transition. But I see lots of young PhD candidates about to “go for the gold ring” and planning long stints in bench work and subservience to the system. I’m so glad you wrote this article. It gives me hope and I’ll pass it along.

  • Theo

    I’m glad I read this article. I knew not to commit to a postdoc, but this just confirms it. I also think you’re saying something real important about our ability to tear apart and criticize our own findings in the desire for scientific truthfulness and transparency. But I can see that mentality eking out to self-criticism, and that can be crippling.