A recent PNAS article tracked the careers of scientists in three different fields based on research paper authorship. They found that, over a 50-year span, there was a dramatic reduction in how long scientists remained in each field, which they termed “survivability.” More than half of the scientists that started out in the 1960s published in their field for an average of 35 years, while about half of scientists starting in the 2010s published in their field for an average of 5 years1. Tracked academic researchers were classified into three categories: transients (authors who had only one publication during their career), dropouts (authors who stopped publishing at various career levels), and full-career scientists (authors who continue to publish in the field). Overall, the data showed that there are an increasing number of transients that contribute to scientific papers. Thus, the authors of the PNAS article concluded that the demographics in those academic fields are shifting toward scientists who leave the field quickly. The observed increase in the number of scientists who are temporarily in academia makes sense, given the number of PhDs relative to the limited number of faculty positions and permanent staff scientist roles. However, the terms “survivability,” “transients,” and “dropouts” give the impression that leaving academia means that these scientists have ended their career or failed.
Does leaving academia really mean that a scientist has failed? Does it signify that their career as a scientist is over? As a scientist who left academia just over three years ago, I strongly believe that the answer to both questions is no.
Traditional graduate school training is designed to prepare students for successful academic research careers. Many students starting grad school, despite the grim prospects of landing a tenure-track faculty position, have their sights set on that dream job. It’s understandable that one might feel some disappointment when changing plans after the long years of training that come with grad student and postdoc roles.
Other pressures might come from the graduate school advisor or postdoc advisor. Several colleagues have had their former advisor tell them that they were wasting their career by leaving academia, or they completely lost their advisor’s support after telling them about wanting to apply for an industry job.
For me, the most difficult part of leaving academia was not having the exhilaration of doing academic research. I remember getting my first exciting experimental result in grad school. It’s an intoxicating feeling that makes you want to continue doing experiments (whether or not they happen to be working) to get the next big result. The allure of getting that awesome result or having a paper accepted really kept me going in my academic career, despite knowing that there were many aspects of that career path that were truly not what I wanted for my life. For example, the highs of getting that great result were balanced by the ever-present possibility of being scooped and the constant competition in the field. Getting that grant proposal funded was hard enough but then you start looking ahead to the next grant applications. Even though these were challenges that I didn’t prefer, I knew that, with hard work, they were attainable.
As I continued in my academic career, I started to notice that many of my colleagues (myself included) were so engrossed in their work that their research was beginning to define their happiness and self-worth. I was constantly looking to the next big experiment, the next piece of data that would round out my next paper or the presentation for that upcoming conference. I kept pushing myself to each new goal, and there was no end to this. I loved my work, but I knew that I couldn’t let it define how I saw myself as a person. I chose to focus on aspects of my career that I enjoyed and realized that I didn’t need to stay in academia to feel fulfilled.
Practically speaking, if you’re considering leaving academia, then you should first write down features of your current career that you enjoy. This will help you to focus on skills that you developed over the years as a researcher that can contribute to successful non-academic careers. For example, I enjoy designing experiments, analyzing data, and thinking about a variety of scientific topics. I use those skills on a regular basis in my current job as an Applications Scientist because our projects span a broad range of disciplines and involve testing new uses for existing Promega products in order to facilitate scientists’ work. Then the next steps are to network and to be open to opportunities that come your way.
Each person has their reasons for leaving academia—reasonable pay, career stability, a new challenge, evolving interests outside research, etc. Focusing on your goals is critical when discussing your career plans with your advisor or a colleague that you trust. Perhaps some PIs have a negative reaction to a student or postdoc choosing non-academic careers if they think that the person is leaving academia because they are giving up. If your PI can see that you are just following what you truly want to do with your life, then it’s harder for them to tell you that you are making a mistake.
If you do decide to move to non-academic careers, then be proud of your decision! Reach out to others that might be going through what you’ve gone through. Reducing the stigma associated with leaving academia might inspire PIs to broaden their perspective of career opportunities. This will allow them to more practically train and mentor students and postdocs and create opportunities for honest dialogue about what career is in the best interest of the trainee.
It might take some trial and error to identify the right career that fulfills you. But stick with it, and you’ll find a new level of motivation!
“It’s a funny thing, how much time we spend planning our lives. We so convince ourselves of what we want to do, that sometimes we don’t see what we’re meant to do.” ― Susan Gregg Gilmore
1 Milojević S, Radicchi F, and Walsh JP. 2018. Changing demographics of scientific careers: The rise of the temporary workforce. PNAS 115: 12616–12623. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1800478115