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Why PhDs Should Stop Waiting For Academia To “Get Better”

I hear it all the time from PhDs:

“Academia will get better, I signed up for this.”

“Someone will retire soon, a tenure track will open up.”

“I just have to pay my dues. Things will get better.”

“I put in all this work, it’ll pay off. Something will open up in the department.”

“My PhD opens doors for me here. It won’t in the private sector.”

Nobody’s retiring. You don’t have to pay your dues. A PhD can open doors for you in many different industries. 

I’ve been there before, stuck in the expectation that academia would get better. Department gossip makes you think you’re next in line for a major grant, a promotion, tenure. And nothing comes out of it. The gossip is just gossip.

The chair of my tenure committee made it sound like tenure was a given. Their only bottom line was that I wasn’t publishing enough. The position stayed vacant, I started trying to publish more and, despite my work being in the public eye and receiving attention, it didn’t impress the tenure committee. 

They went with another candidate. 

I told myself things would improve. 

I put in the work. I put in the effort. My work would speak for itself. 

I believed, eventually, that academia would get better – that I just had to pay my dues. I had created a comfort zone.

Don’t spend years being underpaid waiting for academia to “get better” when your own instincts say it won’t. As a PhD, you have the skills to analyze the data in front of you. 

Academia relies on PhDs and postdocs getting comfortable and “waiting it out.” That mindset only further benefits the institution.

PhDs are valuable outside of academia, but we get in our own way. We develop a kind of tunnel vision that’s boosted by ego. “Yeah, it didn’t work out for them, but it’ll get better for me.”

Will it? 

The sooner you realize improvement isn’t coming, the faster you can make your career a priority. 

There Is No Security In Academia Anymore. Especially For PhDs

Waiting for academia to get better at providing you with the skills you need to network, finding job opportunities, advocating for you to have a higher salary, or helping you manage burnout is a lost cause. 

Worse than that, it’s just an excuse. An excuse you’ve come up with so you can stay in your comfort zone. 

And that comfort zone isn’t doing much for you or your resume. Academia doesn’t provide the structure or opportunities to network outside of the fishbowl

Networking outside of academia brings results and moves your career forward. When was the last time your advisor set you up to network outside of the academic milieu?

Was it never? 

Your situation won’t get better until you accept that academia won’t get better, no matter how much work you put into improvements and advocacy.

The truth as most PhDs know it is that academia as a whole isn’t going to “get better”, whatever your definition of better might be. From politics to nepotism, burnout to a lack of opportunities, staying in an academic setting that feels familiar isn’t going to get you further in your career. 

While you wait for academia to improve, you have to ask yourself what all that hard work for. You spent years honing communication skills, organization skills, project and time-management skills. 

Your PhD has value beyond the Ivory Tower. It’s common to assume there’s no support for you as a PhD outside of academia, that the hiring process will be difficult or hiring industries are dismissive of PhDs. 

That’s a lie we tell ourselves to stay comfortable. It’s the same false premise that keeps you thinking things will get better in here, because it’s bad out there.

4 Reasons PhDs Should Stop Waiting For Things To “Get Better” In Academia

1. Your Career Will Stagnate

While you’re waiting for major institutional change from the inside, your career will stagnate. 

From resume gaps to missed networking opportunities, if you wait to start focusing on your career guarantees you’ll be stuck in the lower-middle earning bracket. 

The average postdoc salary is $60,000 a year, roughly $28.85 per hour according to a 2023 Talent.com study. 

Not only are you missing out on job opportunities while you’re waiting for an improvement that isn’t coming, but you’re also losing skills and getting bored – all while being routinely overworked.

All of this is happening while you’re being drastically underpaid, an issue that also won’t “get better.”

Academia benefits from you believing you need to stay to fix it. In reality, major institutional change is trending downward. 

Your career will stagnate without a clear path forward, and you’ll remain caught in the constant workforce churn of and turnover for adjuncting.

You didn’t put in the effort to get a PhD just to “wait and see.”

While you’re waiting for things to improve in academia, you’re not putting in the attention or the effort into understanding industry trends, networking, building your resume or brushing up on your interviewing skills – all things that could lead you out of the vicious cycle of academia.

2. Job Security Is No Longer Guaranteed For PhDs In Academia

The two routes in academia are a postdoc and a tenured professorship and it’s becoming more and more obvious that those are limited paths. 

So many PhDs come to me after wasting years waiting for postdoc opportunities to improve or a spot to open up in their institution. Some waited almost a decade, and gained almost no marketable skill or experience in all that time.

The choice to make the switch to industry or not is up to you. The time will pass anyway. 

Let me tell you right now, that department chair isn’t retiring. I’ve said it before, there are more PhDs than there are academic openings. 

This community fosters a sense of unrealistic meritocracy. It’s understandable you’d think for a while things will change. But the truth is there’s a PhD crisis in academia and it’s only going to get worse. 

Job security isn’t guaranteed in academia. If anything, it’s a guarantee you’ll end up in industry anyway. 

As a PhD, you already know that adjuncting has triple the workload for half the salary. It also has a high turnover, which makes vying for positions fiercely competitive. 

Adjuncting also caps your academic freedom to research, publish, and expand on your interests.

The National Science Foundation states that currently only 30% of PhD faculty members ever receive tenure. This painfully low number is down from 42% in 1995, and down even further from 70% in 1975. The study didn’t say how long those candidates who did receive tenure had been waiting for tenure. 

How long do you think you could hold out, realistically, stuck in the churn and burn adjunct cycle, underpaid and with no academic freedom to grow your career?

Undergraduate and graduate enrollment is declining across institutions and demographics according to a recent Forbes article.  It doesn’t take a PhD to figure out: no students, no teachers. Decreasing enrollment is one of the primary reasons tenure is dying out

But what about the environment for postdocs? That has to be improving over time, right? 

No. It’s not. You have the data you need to make this decision.

Postdocs are facing their own challenges. Inside Higher Ed shared that in a survey of 366 postdocs, 90% of participants reported a lack of clarity in regard to their career path or plans post-program. Study participants also reported low mentorship, overwork, and lack of transparency regarding program expectations and deliverables. 

Sticking around for a successful postdoc or tenure is a waiting game with bad prizes: no benefits, no upward mobility, no promotion prospects, and drastically low wages. 

Is that what you worked hard for? In ten years, do you think things will improve or are you hoping for something you know won’t happen?

3. Academia Is Fighting Against Progress

Not only is academia refusing to change; it’s counting on PhDs to fix its problems.

An institution won’t change if it’s still benefiting from the presence of burnt-out postdocs and PhD students eager for what small scraps are handed out.

By keeping you standing in line, waiting for things like salary and working conditions to get better, you’re feeding into their refusal to change. By waiting for institutional improvement and fulfillment, you’re actually part of the problem.

You didn’t become a PhD to be part of the problem.

This is an institution that already benefits way too much from your finely honed skills and work ethic. It benefits from your inaction. Why use your hard-earned skills and talent to change an institution that rejects your years of loyalty and contribution?

You shouldn’t. As a PhD, you are a thought leader with valuable skills. And those skills translate into industry easily, despite what you’ve been told by that advisor who blocked your proposal or that department chair who refused to write your recommendation letter. 

As a PhD, you have transferable skills that are needed across many different fields and industries. Getting a PhD isn’t a decision you made lightly. You made that decision every day through rebuffed grant proposals and internship rejections, every late night and weekend.

You made that decision as your friends got great jobs, better houses, and went on vacations. You made that decision thinking that things would improve as you leveled up – after your thesis was complete. But there was always one more hill. Things will be better, you were sure, after this last hill you’re climbing now.

But it’s not better. Academia hasn’t changed.

You’ve also been told the change has to come from inside academia, and that you’re responsible for it. 

It’s easy to get tunnel vision and not see your value outside of the lab or classroom. That’s because you’re not being validated by the institution where you’re actively putting in so much effort.

There are so many other opportunities available in industry. There are positions that pay well, provide professional balance and offer room for growth in an environment where you feel heard. 

So why wait for something that has empirically shown, through data and personal experience, that it’s not going to improve?

4. Academia Will Burn You Out

What is it about academia that crushes mental health? 

The lack of funding? The long hours? Probably not…

I think it’s the loss of purpose a PhD feels when none of their knowledge is translated into anything impactful. 

I also think it’s the lack of respect PhDs get in academia now.   

Just putting your head down and ignoring this is not strength. 

The toxicity, the bullying, and the gatekeeping can cause huge negative impacts on your mental and physical health. The pandemic showed us we don’t have the privilege of ignoring those things any longer. 

Academia has always been, in some ways, an echo chamber driven by ego. If this is hard to hear, start putting that effort into getting your resume up to spec.

Burnout can make you think you’re the problem, that you just need to think positively and try a little harder. But how much do you have left to give in this situation?

Academia has become an environment where we accept toxicity as just part of the landscape, something to navigate through instead of something that any reasonable person wouldn’t and shouldn’t tolerate.

While rife with harassment, academia also subjects you to repeated rejection which is demoralizing. From constantly losing grants to tenure positions, it’s easy for that constant rejection to begin to take a toll on your mental health and impact your sense of security.

Your mental health is also impacted by gatekeeping and playing games, trying to figure out what it takes to be included as part of the in-group. According to Promarket, academic gatekeeping is negatively impacting the credibility of some areas of academia.

Ask yourself, would you wait for a burning house to “get better” before calling the fire department or try to put the fire out with a cup of water? Would you stay in the burning building because you spent years building it? No, you wouldn’t. You’d leave the burning building with haste. 

Academia is a burning building. You’re not responsible for putting out that fire, especially with no support. 

There’s an alarming increase in depression and anxiety in PhD students and postdocs. The extended hours with low pay and uncertainty has caused a spike in depression in postdocs, indicating a 41% increase from previous years. 

Concluding Remarks

It was a hard truth for me to learn that academia wasn’t going to get better; I had waited, and I had paid my dues multiple times over. I tried to fix the system from the inside. When I accepted there wasn’t a path forward that got better, I realized my academic achievements had weight outside of academia. Not only did it have weight, but it was also the tool I needed to move forward. The sooner you accept that it’s not going to improve and that you’re not accountable for fixing it, leaving academia will be the easiest decision you ever make. 

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.

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ABOUT ISAIAH HANKEL, PHD

CEO, CHEEKY SCIENTIST & SUCCESS MENTOR TO PHDS

Dr. Isaiah Hankel is the Founder and CEO of Cheeky Scientist. His articles, podcasts and trainings are consumed annually by 3 million PhDs in 152 different countries. He has helped PhDs transition into top companies like Amazon, Google, Apple, Intel, Dow Chemical, BASF, Merck, Genentech, Home Depot, Nestle, Hilton, SpaceX, Tesla, Syngenta, the CDC, UN and Ford Foundation.

Dr. Hankel has published two bestselling books with Wiley and his methods for getting PhDs hired have been featured in the Harvard Business Review, Nature, Forbes, The Guardian, Fast Company, Entrepreneur Magazine and Success Magazine.

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