Written by Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D.
“Do the experiment the way I want it, or I’ll find someone who will!”
My advisor was shouting at me in the middle of lab meeting.
But I was used to it by now.
In fact, I was slightly bored by it.
He was never in a good mood anymore.
Funding was tight.
Labs were closing all around us.
He was struggling to get his grant renewed.
It made sense.
What didn’t make sense was the “…or I’ll find someone who will” part of his tirade.
How could he find someone to replace me?
There’s no one who knows my project as well as I do.
There’s no one who can do what I can do.
Not so much.
A little later that year I watched my advisor force another graduate student out and replace her the same week.
I saw him do the same thing with a postdoc in the lab too.
That’s when I realized that I was replaceable.
I was disposable.
And the longer I stayed in academia, the more disposable I became.
Why are academic PhDs disposable?
There are far more PhD students and postdocs in academia than the academic system needs.
There’s a big supply of academic PhDs but very little demand.
As A Result, Academic PhDs Are Disposable.
They’re not needed, which is why so many are mistreated.
According to a report published by Nature, the number of science doctorates earned each year grew by nearly 40% (to over 34,000) between 1998 and 2008 in countries that are members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
The United States is second only to China in awarding science doctorates, producing an estimated 19,733 PhDs in the life sciences and physical sciences in 2009.
Guess what—production is still going up.
Why is this happening?
For two reasons…
First, many countries are building up their higher-education systems because they see educated workers as a key to economic growth.
In other words, these countries believe that pumping out PhDs will turn them into economic powerhouses.
This plan is flawed at best.
Second, academic PhDs are cheap labor.
According to a report in The Economist, universities have discovered that PhD students and postdocs are cheap, highly motivated and disposable labor.
With more PhDs in the system, these universities can do more research and in some countries, more teaching with less money.
For example, according to the report, a graduate assistant at Yale will only earn $20,000 a year for nine months of teaching.
What’s more ridiculous is that PhDs accept this kind of awful pay and unfair treatment.
Why Staying In Academia Is Career Suicide
It’s impossible to get respect in a system that doesn’t value you at all.
Yet, most PhDs latch on to academia as their one and only hope for career success.
The truth is a PhD’s best option for both success and happiness is to transition OUT of academia.
The system is completely broken.
If you’re sitting in the middle of your graduate school career or in the middle of your first or second postdoc thinking that things will get better in the next few years, you need to wake up.
The academic system is not being fixed.
It’s becoming more broken.
Even if the system started to repair itself, things move so slowly in academia that your entire career would be over before you benefited from it.
On top of this, staying in academia is devaluing your PhD.
Academia is a like a tax on your PhD.
The longer you stay in the system, the more you are taxed.
The time to leave academia is now.
If you choose to stay, you’re choosing to throw away your career. Here’s why…
1. Your PhD is rapidly losing value in academia.
Imagine getting a PhD is like getting a gold medal.
In the past, these gold medals were made of real gold and given out very rarely.
Having a medal was special and valuable.
Let’s say, at the time, each gold medal was worth $100,000 and there were only a few hundred new medals given out each year.
Now, there are over 34,000 new medals given out each year.
That’s 340,000 more medals in the last 10 years.
As a result, each gold medal is only worth about $3.00.
In a few more years, each medal will only be worth about 25 cents.
If this continues, they’ll run out of gold and have to start making medals out of gold-plated zinc instead.
This is what’s happening in academia.
PhDs are being devalued because there are so many PhDs given out each year, most of which are choosing (either by ignorance, arrogance, or laziness) to stay in academia.
At the same time, Universities are granting PhDs to whoever can stand to the stay in the system long enough.
There was a time when only the best and the brightest were given PhDs.
Now anyone who can stomach a low salary and verbal abuse from their academic advisor is granted one.
The good news is your PhD is still valuable, just not in academia.
If you take the time to develop your transferable skills and transition into industry, your value starts to soar again.
2. Your PhD is NOT earning you a much higher starting salary anymore.
“A PhD will earn you a higher starting salary.”
“Doing a postdoc will ensure you get a research scientist position.”
“The longer you stay in academia, the more valuable you are in industry.”
These and other myths have been passed down in academia for generations.
If you want to get a job in industry, you have to quit listening to these myths.
You have to stop listening to the blatant lies that many lifetime academics tell you while you’re getting your PhD.
A PhD will not earn you a significantly higher starting salary—not anymore.
In fact, The Economist reports that when it comes to a starting salary in industry, a PhD will now only get a few percentage points higher than other degree holders.
For example, over all subjects in all fields, a PhD commands only a 3% premium over a master’s degree.
Likewise, doing a 6-year postdoc versus a 1-year postdoc is not going to garner you a much higher starting salary.
The point here is that staying in academia longer does not have a significant effect on your industry salary.
Overall, the longer you stay in academia after you get your PhD, the less valuable you become in industry.
Of course, there might be a few industry job postings that list postdoc experience as a requirement.
But industry job postings are nothing more than wish lists for a position.
If you absolutely need a postdoc for the position you want, do a 1-year fellowship and then get out.
Don’t work for 3-years, do a second 3-year postdoc, and then start applying.
3. Your PhD is costing you more time, money, and experience.
Every minute you spend in academia after you get your PhD is a minute you could be gaining industry experience.
Industry experience is far more valuable than academic experience.
For example, according to NIH guidelines, a first-year postdoc makes $42,840/year and a seven-plus year postdoc makes $56,376/year.
Accounting for each annual increase during that seven-year period, a postdoc will make a total of $394,752.
According to PayScale, a first-year research scientist’s starting salary is $71,600/year and an experienced research scientist’s salary is $92,100/year.
Using the average of these two salaries over the same seven-year period, an industry professional will make a total of $572,950, or $178,198 MORE than the academic.
That’s a house.
That’s a two-year paid vacation.
Your PhD is not valuable in academia, but it is valuable in industry.
Now, consider the rapid gains in network size and transferable skills you will make once you get into industry.
Consider increased funding and higher quality equipment and resources overall that you’d have at your disposal.
In today’s world, there’s no reason any PhD should stay in academia.
Every PhD should at least move into industry to gain experience and perspective, and to be paid what they’re worth before getting on the tenure treadmill.
Remember, the walls between academia and industry are lower now. You can always come back to academia after increasing the value of your PhD in industry. Make sure you consider this before deciding if and when to transition into industry. Overall, make sure you consider the devaluation of your PhD in academia and what you’re losing by staying in the academia system after you have your PhD.
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.
Isaiah believes that if you feel stuck somewhere in your life right now, you should 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.
Latest posts by Isaiah Hankel Ph.D. (see all)
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