It’s been a while since I’ve had a look at my Google search console, and since I’ve really dug into the different queries that bring people here. This also means I’ve fallen off the wagon with doing regular “funny Google searches” posts, like this one. Actually, just looking up that link made me realize I haven’t done one of these posts in over a year! I think I may have outgrown them a bit or they will be done once in a while when there is an exceptional lineup of funny content to share.
Having said all that, I was having a quick scan through today and noticed a variety of searches that relate to leaving academia. The good thing about seeing what people search for – and what brings them to my articles – is that I can use some of these questions to inspire new content, knowing it is actually information you might want to read.
For this post, I am taking that quite literally and will list the four most popular searches on this topic in the last month, and some thoughts on each of them. These topics are deserving of their own, more complete, posts so this just scratches the surface. Stay tuned for more coming soon!
How to leave academia
This search phrase is by far the most popular one according to our Google search analytics.
If you have decided you want to move on and explore other career options outside of academia, the question of how to approach this can be stifling. Often it is easier to stay in a job you don’t quite love anymore, than to move to the unknown. I think another point people get very stuck on is a fear of finality, not being able to come back if they don’t like the move they’ve made.
Discovering what you love (or hate less)
This might also feed into why so many former academics become entrepreneurs. I’ve spoken to many who have turned a hobby or interest into a paying career. For example, I recently chatted with a humanities PhD who realized she loved reading and editing more than writing. She now works as a freelance editor and proofreader and is slowly building her business. She is now reaching a sustainable level of business and is busy enough that she set to transition to being self employed fulltime only 5 months after defending her PhD.
Translating your experience
You know more than you think you do. Most PhD candidates have project management, and line management experience. We wouldn’t be likely to call it that in the lab, but it is not any less true or applicable. You may have done some purchasing for your lab or research group, and in the process honed some contract negotiating skills. Public speaking should be high on the list, and advocacy probably also. If you’ve ever translated complicated topics to a more general audience (lectures, conference talks, etc), you have some of these in the bag and you are probably also quite good at outreach. If you’ve applied for grants, you have had to sell yourself and your project (there is some marketing and market research in there), and you’ve had to convince stakeholders of your project’s merit.
Sure, your experiences won’t be 100% identical to what these terms would mean on a day to day basis in a corporate setting. But having said that, no two companies are the same either. What is most important is that you do have transferable and translatable skills. Now you just need to start making a list of what they are.
Funny story, I started my career as a product manager far before I ever thought I had. It recently occurred to me that I never even mentioned a critical experience I’ve had on a CV or in an interview, so I wrote a blog post about it:
There is a lot more to changing careers than what we can cover here in this post. I am planning more on this topic, coming soon! Knowing where you want to go, or might not want to go is a great start. A next good step is to see which of your skills best translates to the ones needed for the career move you are interested in making.
Reasons to leave academia
Not surprising that this leads to the article I wrote some time ago on this topic. It really just scratched the surface and I plan to share a lot more about careers in industry vs academia. It is actually a massive topic and the reasons for people to change careers are intensely diverse and personal. This already sums up that the top motivations for career change can’t be put into a list you can just check off. Broadly speaking, everyone is different and while the niche topic you worked on during your PhD was exciting, you have also grown as a person and as a professional and now something else might appeal more. On the flip side, you may love your research and your work, but feel discouraged that a long job search has surfaced nothing to pop a bottle of champagne about. Your partner may get a great opportunity in another place in the country/world, and you want to move with your family but it means a career change. All valid reasons to leave academia.
The thing I see most people struggle with the most is a feeling of finality. When people change careers, there is usually a cost (retraining, time to work back up the ladder) and risk (you may not like it), but the thing that seems to bother academics more than it would many in the private sector. Probably because it feels so final, once you go you cannot return. At least that’s what they say. I’d like to play devil’s advocate on that topic. Yes, it can be hard or nearly impossible to come back to an academic career after leaving. But that depends on your field of study, your current career status (PhD candidate vs post-doc, vs second post-doc, vs early career researcher vs tenured professor, etc), and your persistence and network. I’ve seen both junior and established researchers move to other jobs, and eventually move back to academia. I’ve also situations where this is so difficult it could be pretty much impossible. Think highly competitive fields where there are many PhD grads and very few jobs. If you give up a tenured job in a field where it is nearly impossible to get one, then yes it will be rather hard to come back. However, having said that you can also make an argument for having a leg up on other candidates thanks to the experience you already have under your belt if that is the situation you are in. Nevertheless, regret is a crappy thing to live with so if you are worried you are making a move where there is no return, do it with much consideration.
Should I leave academia
The million dollar question… and the question only you can answer yourself. What about your current academic job makes you happy? Is it the great working environment? Nice colleagues? Flexible schedule? You can find each of these in industry as well. Yes, it is hard to find a perfect combo of fantastic colleagues and flexible working, but it is not as hard as you might think. Startups are notorious for being more forward thinking and remote work as well as flexible hours are not uncommon.
There are nice people in the private sector as well, and we also attend and present at conferences. There may be more about your job in academia that you would be able to find in the private sector than you think. The key is finding the right role that brings you that similar mix of ‘likes’ that you currently have. With hopefully fewer dislikes.
I want to leave academia
Fantastic, you’ve made the decision to use your experiences in your academic career in a different field. Now it is time to explore what areas you are going to thrive in, and are most likely to love as well. This takes work and time. Consider what the reasons where you even got started in your current career. For many of us it is a deep interest in the subject matter you specialized in, but you likely have other interests as well. There may be other aspects to the job you’ve grown fond of too that you didn’t anticipate before. Do you currently work in a team, or mostly alone, and do you love or hate that? That is just one of many questions you will need to ask yourself to start carving out your next career move. I will cover a selection of these questions in a future post.