Dear PhD, You Are Not Alone. Everyone Is Uncertain In Academia.
I snuck out of lab early the week after finishing my comprehensive exam to go on a job interview. I’d made up my mind—I was dropping out of graduate school. That’s right. I was going to leave with my Masters degree, get a job, get paid, and leave the academic grind behind. I was so excited about the possibility of escaping that I couldn’t hold a thought in my head.
The interview went well and I was given an offer. Wow. That was much easier than I thought. But wait—things just got real. Now, I really had to drop out. Which meant I had to tell my academic advisor. I asked for a meeting and counted down the days, hours, and minutes until I finally walked into his office. We sat down and I blurted out, “I’m sorry but I found a job and I’d like permission to leave with my Masters degree.” I’m not sure why I apologized or why I asked permission. Effective training I guess.
My advisor took the news rather well. He said it seemed like I’d made up my mind and there was nothing he could do. In some weird way I wanted him to fight for me to stay. Oh well. I went back to my bench and started working.
Do I Give 2 Weeks Notice Or…
I wasn’t sure what to do next. How do I dropout exactly? Do I give a two weeks notice or what? There was nothing in the student handbook about this. A few minutes later, I got an email from the Dean of the Medical College. He wanted to meet. The Dean and my advisor (kind of) shared a lab. We all went to the same lab meetings, shared the same lab equipment, and exchanged gifts at the same holiday parties. I guess he found out about me leaving. But why did he care?
I walked down to the Dean’s office. His assistant gave me a magazine and told me to wait in the lobby. Ten minutes later I was called into his massive office. He asked me why I was quitting. I didn’t say anything. “Do you need money? I mean, we all need money but do you need money” he asked. No, I guess I didn’t need money. I wasn’t on the street or anything (though I was considering filing for food stamps).
There were a thousand reasons that I wanted out of graduate school. But I didn’t say any of them. Instead I said that I wanted to go into industry. “Come here” he said. Then he walked over to his computer and pulled up a biotech job website and, one at a time, pointed to the different positions that came up. “PhD required, PhD required, PhD required, PhD required, MS required, PhD required.” I got the point. Most of the postings said that they preferred job candidates with a PhD. I didn’t realize there were so many PhD jobs in industry. We talked for a while and then he told me to go home and think about it. The next day I told my advisor I was staying.
You’re Not The Only One
The real reason I wanted out of graduate school is because I felt scared and alone. It’s as simple as that. I wasn’t getting along with my academic advisor. My committee stared blankly at me whenever I presented to them (because my advisor was the chair and repeatedly told them I wasn’t ready to graduate). I didn’t want to be a professor anymore but I didn’t know what else I could do or who I could talk to about it. I had no career direction whatsoever. In short, I was clueless. The hardest part was I thought I was the only one going through this. I thought something was wrong with me. I was wrong.
Being a graduate student, postdoc, or a young professor is extremely hard. Very few Universities provide any kind of career training or management training. Many programs offer you the world to get you in the door—a significant title, job security, and a big paycheck. Then they do very little to support you. Eventually you figure out that your job title means nothing, there is no security, and the big pay check…not so much.
Academic positions are disappearing fast. In fact, less than 30% of PhD faculty members receive tenure now. This is a problem because tenure is the only thing graduate school is geared to prepare students for. Now that tenure positions are drying up, students and postdocs are left empty handed. Most of the remaining people in academia have no idea how to train these students and postdocs for alternative careers—because most have never worked outside of academia themselves.
Feel Alone? Keep These 10 Things In Mind
If you’re a graduate student or postdoc, you are not alone. Everything you’re feeling is being felt by other graduate students and postdocs. Everything that’s holding you back is also holding others back. The key is to know that your’e not the only one going through a hard time. Here are 10 things you should keep in mind as you continue down your academic career path:
1. You’re not the only one having trouble with your academic advisor.
During my last few years of graduate school, my relationship with my advisor went from bad to worse. He didn’t want me to graduate and made sure my thesis committee knew that I “wasn’t ready.” I remember feeling dejected and isolated by this. Not even my own advisor would support me. I couldn’t believe it.
At the same time, I felt like it was my fault. Because I didn’t know any better. The truth is many graduate students and postdocs go through this, especially right before they graduate or get ready to leave a postdoc position. Hundreds of graduate students and postdocs who are having problems have reached out to us here.
But, even though these problems are common, you shouldn’t put up with them. You should fight back. If your advisor is treating you badly or not supporting you, get help. I had to go to the head of my department and eventually the Dean of the Graduate College to get support. The worst thing you can do is isolate yourself or think it’s your fault. It’s not. You’re the student or postdoc, they’re the mentor. It’s their job to support your growth, not to keep you down and walk all over you.
2. You’re not the only one having trouble with your thesis committee.
My last three thesis committee meetings were all the same—I’d finish presenting, we’d have a brief discussion about my research, then I’d try to get some sense of my graduation timeline while everyone sat back and stared blankly at me. Seriously, they just sat there. I knew it was because my advisor, who was also my committee chair, had told them during their pre-meeting that I shouldn’t be allowed to graduate yet.
Eventually someone would say “You don’t need our permission to graduate, it will just happen when the time is right.” Huh? What does that even mean? It was a really frustrating experience. But I didn’t know any better. I just thought that this was how things worked.
Unfortunately, this is how a lot of thesis committees operate. Overworked PIs are put into a room together so they can pretend to care about your work for a few hours. Some, if not most, don’t want to be there. And it shows. I know this because of all the students and postdocs who are constantly reaching out telling us that there committees aren’t doing anything for them, especially in terms of career planning.
If your committee is not supporting you, don’t accept it. Ask to change one or two of the members. This is what I did. I swapped out the most apathetic PI on my committee for someone who actually cared. This new member really went to bat for me and is one of the biggest reasons I was finally able to graduate.
3. You’re not the only one concerned about your future.
The employment numbers for newly graduated PhDs don’t look good. Over 30% of these PhDs are unemployed. No job. No postdoc. The unemployment rate jumps to almost 40% if you consider only Life Science PhDs. This, coupled with the fact that graduate students and postdocs have a 1% chance of getting tenure now, can make you feel isolated.
You’ve made a decision to work hard, to create knowledge, and to make a difference. Yet, your future seems bleak. Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Every other graduate student and postdoc feels this way. Every one of them has worked too hard and been poor too long. The key is knowing that you still have a future. Yes, the academic landscape is changing. But PhDs are still in high demand. There are over 22,500 industry researchers and over 7,000 government researchers right now. These industries are expanding. You may not be able to get tenure as easily as in the past, but you still have options. You’re still valuable.
4. You’re not the only one who doesn’t want to leave science behind.
Too many graduate students and postdocs stall their career progress because they’re afraid of leaving science behind. Don’t worry if you feel this way. It’s normal. You’ve dedicated your life to science and it makes sense if you’re hesitant to give it up by going into industry or trying something new.
The truth is you can do more science in industry than you can in academia. The PhDs we help get placed in industry R&D positions are always amazed by how quickly they can get what they want. If they need a new instrument, it arrives the following week–if not the next day. No grant cycle needed. Sometimes 2-3 instruments will arrive just in case the first one breaks down or has some bugs to work out.
Working in industry today is not like it was in the 1950s. There is a high level of collaboration, both with academic labs and labs in other industries. This allows you to do more real science in industry than ever before.
5. You’re not the only one who doesn’t want to be labeled a sell out.
This is the real reason that most graduate students and postdocs don’t want to leave academia. They stall their career progress because they’re afraid of being labeled a sell out. They’re afraid to tell their advisors and committee members that they want to go into industry because they know they’ll be treated differently. And they will be treated differently. But why?
Why would your advisor or anyone in academia look down at you for going into industry? It’s simple. Looking down at you is the only way these kinds of academics can feel good about their decision to stay in academia. They know that you’re going to get paid more, get to travel more, and have a higher quality of life. The stigma of being a sell out is all they have to use against you. It’s all they have to feel good about themselves. Of course, most academics are not like this. But some are. And you shouldn’t put up with it.
6. You’re not the only one who doesn’t want other people to find out.
I’ve lost track of how many graduate students and postdocs have contacted us for advice and ended their messages with “please don’t tell anyone.” I’ll be reading through an email and at the very end the writer asks, “Please keep this confidential as I really don’t want my advisor or anyone here to find out that I’m pursuing industry positions.” It’s amazing. And awful.
Academia can be a tough place. The system can beat you down over and over again while, seemingly, everyone around you is telling you to just take it. You’re told to work harder and harder for less and less money. On top of it all, you’re threatened to be labeled an outcast for expressing a desire to do anything else than be a professor. Again, you’re not alone and you don’t have to take it. Stop being ruled by fear and start pursuing your options. The worst thing you can do is shrink back and isolate yourself further and further. Life is short. The time to move your career forward is now, not later.
7. You’re not the only one who is tired of being poor.
Everyone in academia is sick of being poor. It’s like an unspoken rule that you have to accept less in the academic world. But you don’t. You can move to a better lab. You can apply for more funding (or get better at applying for it). You can take a side job without telling anyone. You can pursue industry collaborations. You can even start your own business. We’ve worked with graduate students and postdocs who have done all of the above. It’s all possible. At the very least, you can start preparing yourself for a job in industry right now. The question is, do you want it?
8. You’re not the only one who has no idea how to get an industry job.
After my mid-graduate school crisis, I had another crisis. I was about to graduate (finally) but had no idea how to get a PhD job in industry. I thought that I could just send a couple of resumes out and get the job of my dreams. I thought that Pfizer or Baxter would just show up in my lab one day, point to me and say, “You’re hired!” Yeah…that never happened.
I felt stupid for not knowing how to get a job. So stupid that I didn’t ask anyone for help. To be fair, I didn’t even know who I could ask for help. The truth is most graduate students and postdocs don’t know how to get their first industry job. This is because most graduate programs provide absolutely no career training. It’s unbelievable. But, in the end, it’s not their job to get you trained. It’s your job.
9. You’re not the only one scared to invest your time and resources in getting help.
A lot of PhDs and PhD candidates know they want to transition into industry. At the same time, they know they don’t know how to transition into industry. So, they do their research and find credible people who can train them. They reach out, ask for help, and then—at the last moment—they pull back. They get afraid of making a change or they get afraid of someone else finding out or they get afraid of investing time and money.
The ones who don’t pull back—the ones who aren’t afraid to invest in themselves—change. These PhDs get high-paying jobs, leave academia, and don’t look back.
Let’s face it, graduate students and postdocs are somewhat conservative by nature. They want a sure thing. They do years and years of research just to publish a single piece of data. But getting an industry job isn’t like publishing a piece of data. Getting an industry job requires action, not years of research.
10. You’re not the only one who feels like nobody cares.
It’s easy to feel like no one cares about you or your career in academia. This is because most of the people around you don’t care. They can’t care. They’re just too much work to be done. There’s too little money and too few tenure positions left. As a result, most people in academia are so intensely focused on surviving another few months that they don’t have time to help you. But there are people who care. There are people who can help you. You just have to know where to look.
The first step to getting the help you need is knowing you are not alone. Once you know this, you’ll be more likely to take action. You’ll know that the problem isn’t you.
There’s nothing wrong with you. Your situation is more normal than you think. It’s wrong and it’s tough at times but it’s normal. Now that you know this, you can find a new normal. You can get your confidence back and start to pursue new options.
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