The Industry Mindset

The mindset for leaving academia.

Before leaving academia, career changing and entering industry, it’s vital to get your head in the right frame of mind. Re-defining your identity and working through any shame for leaving academia is needed in order to move forward.

Before we discuss whether you should or the process of leaving academia after your PhD, it’s vital to think about your mindset and what it means to be leaving academia in the context of your self-identity.

Often, myself included, we create a sense of identity around what we do for work and that makes us feel good about ourselves. You might see yourself as a ‘scientist’, a ‘researcher’ or an ‘expert’ in your respective field. This is a good thing as it gives you confidence, fuelling your ambition to succeed and continue doing what you’ve been doing. I saw myself as a PhD student gaining a qualification that would allow me to continue on and become a clinical psychologist or therapist. 

So when we then decide to not continue using your PhD as we initially planned, you find yourself asking ‘who am I now?’, ‘what did I do my PhD for?’, and ‘s***, now I have to stay in academia forever’. This is daunting, stressful, knocks your self-confidence and essentially makes it impossible to think about what to do next and how to go about it.

Instead, try to think about why you want to leave and focus on the negatives of academia and the life after your PhD if you stay. This could be the work hours, the lack of guaranteed employment, the relatively low pay for your skill set or maybe now you just hate your field of study. For me, I thought long and hard about this, and the decision to leave psychology, the dreams of giving therapy, and the study of mental health was a difficult one. But essentially it came down to the fact that if I was honest with myself – I didn’t want the awful work hours, poor work life balance, capped pay and to be brutally honest, I didn’t want to have the possibility of going to work – having a bad day – and someone’s life be at stake for my inability to give 110%.

After identifying why you want to leave, understand that it’s okay to feel this way. I think a lot of PhD students feel ‘guilty’ or ‘ashamed’ from leaving science or academia in general. A lot of this comes from this strange dichotomy of academia being ‘good’ and industry (aka anything else) being ‘evil’. This is also why talking about leaving academia is such a taboo subject. It’s literally insane to see things this way – there are good and bad people in every single industry.

We all know that there are people in academia and science whose moral compass has gone astray. Maybe you aren’t doing a PhD in science or STEM, but professional academics still plagiarise, lie about their results, or even manipulate their data – a term that is more commonly known as ‘p-hacking’ (see Head et al., 2015 for more detail). This all stems from this intense pressure to publish results that are significant, otherwise you could ‘perish’. Equally, there are people in industry, including pharmaceuticals, that are set out on making the world a better place. So, when thinking about who you are as person – you can still be ‘good’ and ‘do good’ outside of academia. So now what?

Start thinking about who you are now as a person. You’re no longer that ‘scientist’ or ‘researcher’ or ‘expert in archaeology’ or whatever your PhD means to you. Instead, you’re an individual with a PhD. You are not the PhD. It’s really easy for me to type this and explain this after the fact, but in reality, it can take weeks or even months to fully digest this and integrate into your new understanding of who you are and sense of self.

Be kind to yourself and give yourself space to accept that you made the career decisions based on a specific goal. It just happens that the goal you once set out to achieve has changed and looks different now. Besides, on a personal level this is way better for your development as a person, as it gives you more layers and makes you more interesting. Nobody likes talking to that person at a party who’s been working in insurance for 20-35 years. The same is true for working at a university in a specific niche field that majority of the world haven’t got a clue what you’re talking about. When you think about achieving goals and being successful in any career it often looks like this anyway:

In simple terms, success, including your career is not linear. Sometimes you have to take one step backwards (although I don’t actually believe doing a PhD/changing career is a step backwards) in order to move two steps forwards.

In short, deciding to leave academia, finish your PhD, and move on is not easy and can lead to a loss in sense of self and create strong internal conflict. Take time to digest and internalise this – even if you stay in academia, I think there are a lot of psychological benefits to see yourself as someone who does research, as opposed to someone who is a researcher. Once doing so, you can think about your next move objectively, without guilt, or any other negative thoughts that might be holding you back.

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