Leaving Academia: It’s Okay, and Here is Why

Dejan Draschkow is the Editorial Lead of the SIU (Science Innovation Union) Frankfurt division and is a Phd student at the Goethe University, Frankfurt.

Dejan Draschkow is the Editorial Lead of the SIU (Science Innovation Union) Frankfurt division and is a Phd student at the Goethe University, Frankfurt.

Author: Dejan Draschkow Edited by: Burcu Anil Kirmizitas

The months before finishing one’s PhD thesis are not only characterised by sleepless nights and unhealthy food, but also by an increasing uncertainty about the future. I usually would refrain from reducing a strongly heterogeneous group of people – such as young scientists – to a uniform emotional state, but an undefined mixture of unrest and anxiety seem to be the status quo for myself and many other PhD students.

If we remove ourselves from the situation this, of course, seems ridiculous – well educated, well connected and on the verge of receiving a degree which still carries a bit of weight, none of us should be all too worried about what’s next. Yet, during this exhausting time we rarely have a clear perspective of what we really want after up to 20 years in the education system. For those of us who are in more basic areas of research, an academic career seems like the most obvious continuation. More or less offering a good measure of independence and freedom, as well as adhering to a system we are well acquainted with, academia promises to be the path of the least amount of resistance and maximum gratification. Moreover, since beginning our journey in higher education, we have been surrounded by professors and postdocs who have followed exactly this path.

Unfortunately, the increasing competition for academic appointments has put a lot of pressure on the job market and many of us are trying to inform ourselves about alternative career paths. The most common options are major companies in industry, consultant companies, and startups. Some brave souls might even play with the thought of starting their own company. These paths can be quite distinct, but there are some more general challenges, risks, but also advantages that I will try to shortly outline.

Getting started

First of all, the 3 to 5 years of “put your head down and power through” mentality during the PhD has not done us any favours in the “being aware of alternatives” department of thought. We often become so focused on our field or our specific research that knowledge about what is needed and relevant in industry is simply missing. Sometimes we might have a very desirable skill set, yet we either are unaware of it, or are missing the means to communicate it properly (You can play a game and ask your colleagues if they know what the difference between a resume and a CV is!). So how to get started?

1)    The first one is very trivial - try to reduce your research, skills, publications, and experience to one page on your CV. Do this even if you have no immediate intention of leaving academia – it helps you visualise what you deem most relevant. The sad truth is that nobody in the free market cares about your 6 papers on the neural mechanisms of reinforcement learning. They also most likely have never heard of the renowned senior author on that one poster you presented two years ago. What they do care about are your data analysis skills, your proven record of working well under pressure, your experience in managing interns and research assistants, and your ability to communicate information to an audience.

2)  Visit as many talks and events as you can find nearby that deal with bridging the gap between science and academia. There are many organisations (e.g. Science Innovation Union), that focus on making science more accessible. This will help you learn the language and rules of the world outside of academia. So get involved!

3)  Conduct some research – it’s what you’re good at after all – regarding how the methods you have used during your PhD are applied in industry. You will quickly find that you hold many of the skills required in industry, although they may have different names. It’s mostly about learning the specific language.

Losing (experimental) control

Coming from basic research you are entrenched with uncertainties about the applicability of your research and skills. You have spent years in disentangling details of minor to major theoretical importance at a very high level of experimental control and somehow you are still highly skeptical of your results. This is of course because scientific criticism has been bashed in your head early on. Coming from this line of work, almost any job in industry, consulting, or even startups seems very dishonest. In their core, the claims that companies make seem at best, unsubstantiated and at worst, worthless. Before you totally dismiss an opportunity that does not meet your high scientific standards, I would ask you to consider the following:

1)      You might be lacking information.

Of course, there are still quite a few industries in which a lot of things are decided by the intuition of the prototypical “old white males”. And agreeably society does not need another candy bar that consists of 1% chocolate and 99% additives or the next step counter app. But there are many companies out there providing real value, acting responsibly, and being sustainable. Understanding how and why these companies make money is a crucial step before you sign up – take your time and do what you do best, research!

2)      You might be right.

Depending on your area of research and the possible job outlets, you actually might be trapped in industries that feed off of deception and disinformation. This of course is quite demoralising, yet it also offers opportunities. One of which is to “do your own thing”. It can, but doesn’t need to be a “start-up” in its almost pop cultural sense – you can be a lone ranger. Where there is fake value, there is always room for real value. You don’t need to aim high - often the product (or service) you might come up with just needs to beat the fake ones (=randomness) and it might be enough if you convince just a handful of clients. Being a bit more stressed while always on the lookout for clients still might be better than fuelling an industry you can’t identify with.

Don’t get bored, get going

One thing I didn’t have on my radar until recently, something which I believe is easily overlooked or forgotten when you are considering a change in careers, is the monotony of big companies in all industries (or even small companies in traditional industries). After the excitement of the new venue is gone and all the new rules are learned, it can become quite repetitive. Although it will likely be better paid, with an incomparably better work-life balance when compared to academia, the job fulfilment might not be in the same league as the time of your PhD. Even in more research-related departments of a company you might see the fruits of your labour tossed in the trash because your solution wouldn’t fit the marketing strategy. If this satisfies you – good, if not – take a risk. Take many if need be. You have earned yourself a couple of years of grace period, there are no major career steps you will be missing and your PhD title will function as a safety net in case times really get rough. Here too, a good product is everything. Join an exciting new startup, or if you don’t find a convincing product, start your own company. You don’t need to be the next unicorn, a couple of dedicated clients are enough to provide you with a slightly more stressful but hopefully more fulfilled routine.

Stick to what you valued while you were still in academia

In a recent homage to a classical Abraham Flexner article, Helmut Schwarz reminded us about the importance of basic research. Specifically, he pointed out how research that was condemned useless at one time, can later finds its value.* Pure curiosity should not be replaced by cold pragmatism. This is not only true in science, but in human thought and endeavours at large. And if we as young scientists decide to leave academia, we should not give up everything we valued in a frenzy of disillusionment, but take risks and make our own path hoping that some might see the value.

[*] http://www.nature.com/articles/s41570-016-0001