Job Hunting Tips

Answering the ‘why leave academia’ question in interviews.

When it comes to career changing, it’s inevitable that you’ll be asked ‘why leave academia’. If you’re not careful, your answer could ruin the interview. It’s important to pause and use it as an opportunity to emphasise what attracts you to the current role, helping to elevate your personal brand.

No matter what your reason, when you’re in your PhD final year you’re bound to ask yourself ‘should I leave academia?’. It’s a valid question, and with some time and reflection it often leads to most of us opting to move into a different industry and pursue a different career. As you start to apply for jobs, build up your LinkedIn network, and attending interviews it’s likely that you’ll start to face a common question, that being “why have you decided to leave academia?”. The more dramatic your career change seems, such as cross discipline or field, the more prevalent this question will become. And so with that, we’re going to take a deep dive into how best to tackle this question and how to answer it in your quest for post-PhD success.  

When choosing to leave academia, it’s likely that you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about your long-term goals, your life values, and perhaps what will make you happy on a day to day and in the long term. Most of us usually reach a point where we are no longer content with the idea of research or academia as a place to work. Therefore, much of our decision to leave academia is based upon a series of negative feelings. For instance, ‘I don’t want to work long hours anymore’, ‘I don’t want to be underpaid’, ‘I don’t want to feel unappreciated in my role’, and more. Given this, when we show up for interviews or conversations with potential employers it’s quite likely that this will come up.

Thinking about this in an employability context, it will actually hinder and negatively impact your interview. A lot of interviewers use the interview as an opportunity to see if you would be a good fit for their team and integrate well. Not only is an interview an assessment of your skills and abilities, but it’s also an assessment of your personality, character, social skills and your overall ability to interact with people.

If you’re in the middle of the interview, and you’re asked about why you are choosing the job you’ve applied for, or why you’ve opted to leave academia behind, and you begin to list the negative reasons, you’re actually painting yourself in a negative light. Depending on how you phrase this, it’s very easy to give the impression that you’re a pessimistic person, potentially a bit of a moaner, and equally someone who’s’ not necessarily enthusiastic about the role they’re applying for. A lot of this aligns to that personal branding piece which you may not have thought about as much before.

As a way to spin this on its head, you really want to think about the driving factors that are pulling you towards a new opportunity – not the ones that are pushing you away from academia. These often overlap, or at least they can be the same thing but you may seek to frame them with a positive outlook. A good example might be work-life balance. It’s easy to say ‘I dislike the long hours in academia’ as a reason to leave academia. However, it would probably be better to say ‘I’m excited to invest my time and commit myself to a new challenge’. One answer feels negative and mis-aligned, whereas the others appears enthusiastic and committed to the next chapter.

As you begin to answer this question it’s really important to see it as an opportunity to emphasise your desire and interest. You can be clever here and use this to your advantage within the interview as oppose to reeling off your current negative feelings towards academia. Furthermore, focusing too much on the negatives of academia will also give the impression that you’re not genuinely interested in the current job you’ve been shortlisted for. It might seem that you’re just looking for an escape route as opposed to picking an opportunity that is purposeful and meaningful to you.

In short, when you get asked the inevitable question of ‘why do you want to leave academia’, be sure to have a positive and optimistic answer. Do your best to avoid getting caught up in the negative memories, and use it as an opportunity to emphasise a great personal brand and professional persona. By all means, you should always be honest during any interview, but it’s about cherry picking the good truths which play to your strengths and improve the chances of success.

In order to do this then, it’s important we process our experiences of our PhD, seek to de-programme ourselves from the world of academia, and adopt a growth mindset so we’re focused more on the next exciting chapter of our lives – not the unhappy ones of our past.  

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