In the USA alone, 55,006 people received their PhD in 2015, according to the National Science Foundation. Job opportunities are dwindling and many end up in multiple post-docs before either giving up on their research career, or finally securing an academic position. Tenure track positions are decreasing as well, so many academic positions these days are temporary or sessional. It is entirely understandable that the idea of spending a decade moving between labs as a post-doc, relying on external funding and having no job security is wearing you down. One of the reasons I left my academic career, was that I wanted to be able to put down some roots (at some point). I love travel and I am already a serial expat, but the nomadic life of the post-doc didn’t appeal to me. If my career progressed reasonably well I would be looking at getting a (tenure track) academic job in my mid/late thirties or even forties. Forget the prospect of having kids unless you find a very understanding partner willing to move with you. You are not alone if you are not sure you want to gamble 4-10 years of being a post-doc, and accept there is only so much a post-doc can earn. With no guarantee of a permanent academic career. Post-docs not only have capped earning potential, but they are more often than not under extreme pressure to deliver results. Results you have no real control over either. Leading to working insane hours, and many burn out eventually. Many of us, me included, decided to cut our losses, and leave our academic career before starting a post-doc. Even if you are already in your 1st or 5th post-doc, if you are thinking about a change, it is never too late. Here are some signs you are ready for a career change.
1. You are chronically burned out
Even if you take time off you are still tired. You just don’t feel excited about the work anymore or the downsides are outweighing the good sides of your research. You’re not seeing a light at the end of a tunnel and your experiments are either not working, or they are producing great results but you are not getting them published in the ‘right’ journals. And even when or if it all aligns and you are a publishing genius, you’re just not loving the academic life that much anymore and it is not bringing you joy.
2. You do not want to become your boss (or have his/her job)
If you look at your academic advisor/PI/boss (they go by different names in academia it seems), and you don’t like what you see then it is also time to get out. I loved research, and I loved teaching, but I didn’t like the grant writing and administrative part of the job I saw my boss do. I admired his career, but didn’t think it was the right one for me. I also like to write, but I never fell in love with grant writing the way you should if you are spending most of your day doing it. We fall in love with research when we go into the academic career track, but if you succeed to climb the academic career ladder you might be disappointed with how little actual research you end up doing.
3. You dread work every single day
You spend most of your day at work. I was very lucky in my research career, in the sense that I was able to keep flexible hours and work from home when I wanted to (and when I didn’t need to run experiments). It goes without saying not everyone is that lucky with their PI/boss/lab head. But let’s be honest, flexible hours can be great if you can get them, they don’t guarantee you love your job. If you are not excited about the work anymore, and you haven’t been in a very long time, it is important to take those feelings seriously. Let me also make it very clear that there isn’t one single job that provides 100% of joy all the time, there are always some downsides to everything. The right balance to look for is something only you know for yourself, but it has to be at least more than 50% positive. Once the negatives outweigh the positives, you won’t enjoy your job anymore and you’ll recognize that feeling when it hits you. Make sure it is not a temporary low associated with something that will pass (for example, a research project not working very well, or a temporary collaboration turning out to be problematic, or being annoyed with a colleague about something that is not fundamentally affecting your ongoing work relationship). Once you’re sure it is not something that will easily pass, you know you’re ready for a change.
4. You can imagine enjoying another job as much or more as your current job
Even if all the above is true, you might just still love your job and you might not be able to think of ever doing anything but research. If that is the case, tweaking your academic career to work better for you might be better for you than changing your career altogether. This is an entire article on its own, and I’ll address this in a future post. However, if you are looking for some personal and practical advice on this feel free to get in touch.
However, if you have more than just one interest and you are excited about other things in life then you might find alternate career options bring you as much or more joy than your current one. Often we find these career options in things we never imagined to find them. You might be volunteering, and enjoy helping others. Could this inform a direction for your career? Or you might be an Instagram expert, and love being creative with pictures and video. Dig deep and be very honest with yourself. Most of us, but not all, could imagine doing something different and love it as much or more. Usually what holds us back is fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of failure and also feelings of shame for “giving up”.
If most of the points above sound familiar, you are ready for a career change. This doesn’t have to mean ‘giving up’, and it does not mean you are failing at your current career. It is OK to change, especially when your current career is not bringing you the joy you are looking for. Having said that, it can be very difficult to make the change once you realize it is time to do so. I will write more about making the decision, and then next steps to take in a future blog post. In the mean time, this Amazon Kindle book might give you a few useful pointers (and it’s free!): Career Change: How To Conquer The Fear Of Failing
Do any of the point above sound familiar? I look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments!
Gosh I really feel like this article was written for me and my current dilemma. Thank you for empowering me to realise I’m making the right decision, and although it will be a long extraction and I’ll face much criticism, it is absolutely the right one. I tick all four of these boxes.
Hi Frances! I am so glad it was so helpful! I am going to write an article on how to address the criticism next! so keep an eye on this space. All the best in your career and stay in touch! I’ve been where you are now, and it does get better, I promise.
number 2 really resonates with me. I love the research, but I don’t like that my boss spends 90% of his time in committee meetings and writing grant proposals. all part of the job, but not something we think of when starting a PhD
Right on, Nick! I felt very similar to you and it also influenced my decision at the time to make a shift.
Change time to time is very much needed and it’s healthy. I could not imagine myself being in one organisation forever since my 20s.
Absolutely Iga! The thing with academia is that often people do get stuck in an endless marathon of trying to get that coveted tenure track job. which only really comes in your late thirties or forties, and then feel it is too late for a career change. Which is really doesn’t have to be. Key thing is to know the signs sooner. The same is true for work in any other organisation, know the signs it is time to leave and try to leave a bit before that even. Leaving on a high note for a new challenge is the best thing you can do for yourself.
Number 2 also resonates with me, but what advice do you have if you still really love research and want that to be your career, except outside of academia? Short of starting my own research institute, I don’t see alot of opportunity upon leaving academia. Though I keep hearing that governments and NGOs and policy organizations are conducting research and need more research to factor into their decision-making. I work in an environmental/forestry domain and want to believe this!
Hi Joleen, thanks so much for commenting. Yes, you are right there are plenty of people who are in a similar position and love research but would rather conduct research outside of the context of academia. This sounds like a great topic for a follow up blog post, so I will add it to my list. However, in the mean time I can say that it is a worthwhile exercise to check with yourself what about research you love. Is it specifically research in your domain, or are there aspects of the domain you love, or aspects of the research process you love? Clarifying this exactly can help inform what businesses/institutions you might love working for. There is a lot of research that goes on in the private sector. The type, and associated job titles, can vary. More on this topic to come!
all these are probably good signs that you might need a change even if you don’t work in academia! Your comment on 12 Jan above is a helpful one – being reflective about the processes that you carry out, the kinds of activities that you are doing – and breaking down specific roles to understand them better – is so important.
Yes, you are absolutely right! This is indeed valid for anyone in any career. I find it always a bit surprising, yet also understandable, that people in academia struggle to see the parallels of their world with those in the private sector. Largely, we have more in common than not. Understandably, that is hard to see sometimes when we are used to one thing, and particularly having worked so hard to achieve it.