Deciding whether to leave academia is a tough choice. Especially as it can be taboo subject to talk about within an academic setting, which can create a sense of guilt or confusion when you start considering leaving.
Some of it comes down to your own personal image, which I’ve discussed elsewhere. But, as a PhD student, it’s important to think about all the rationale aspects of this decision. I’m going to try and break down possibly some of the biggest factors that can hold you back when making this decision. This includes, the ‘taboo’ nature of leaving academia, the concept of ‘doing what you love’, and the ‘fear that you won’t be able to come back’.
It’s taboo to leave academia
The sense of guilt and fear that comes with leaving academia is often driven by this unspoken social pressure that working in academia is the ‘right’ choice and is the ‘norm’. Firstly, this isn’t the norm. A report by the Higher Education Policy Institute highlights that 70% of UK PhD students leave the academic sector within 3-years of finishing their PhD. If leaving academia was such a taboo, why do the vast majority do it? It also highlights that if you do leave academia for good, you’re not the odd one out, in fact the majority of those who stay are going against the norm.
Secondly, what makes a choice ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ is a dichotomy that is too simplistic to accommodate all the complex variables involved with this decision. But in this context, ‘right’ usually revolves around this idea that working for academia is the morally correct decision and is an indicator of your character. Hence the guilt. Once again this isn’t true. Certainly, academics in research are not always guided by a moral compass, some fudge their data, some alter their findings, and some ‘shill’ their products for monetary gains or to further their own personal agendas – usually to have better odds of publishing. Similarly, people outside of academia are not evil. There are literally millions of jobs, people, and companies outside of the academic world that help others, improve their quality of life, or move the human race further forward. To think that everything outside of academia is ‘wrong’, couldn’t be further from the truth.
Expanding beyond the context of morality – you might deem the right choice to work for a company that pays more, has different working hours, job security, or uses a different set of skills because that’s the right choice for your financial situation, work-life balance or your own well-being and happiness. This black and white narrative or ‘right’ vs ‘wrong’ and whether it is taboo or not really needs to die, in practice and in your own thinking.
But it’s what I love?
From personal experience, almost every single PhD student does a PhD because they love the topic area, love learning, and just thoroughly enjoy their specific niche. So, leaving academia creates another unhealthy dichotomy where you feel like you have to choose between ‘what you love’ and some other factor that is also important. It’s always framed in a way where you have to make a trade-off between your passion and something else. Once again, this isn’t accurate. Compared to academia, there are literally thousands of jobs or roles, or opportunities that will bring you the same, if not more happiness, that you can be equally passionate about – you just haven’t worked out what that is yet.
To think that there is only one thing on the entire planet that will bring you fulfilment is delusional. You can have multiple interests, be curious about different subjects, or be passionate about more than one thing. So again, you shouldn’t be making a trade-off, you should be deciding between different options that you love equally. This allows you to concentrate on the other factors that are important to you, such as salary, working hours, job-security, your career development, and anything else that you may deem important. I like to think of this as a Venn diagram that looks something like this.
You just need to find the things that intersect in the middle and how many domains (represented by the circles) you have. Obviously, the more circles you have, the more specific and piccy you will need to be. But the opportunity exists. And if it doesn’t, make it yourself.
What if I change my mind and want to come back to academia?
It can sometimes happen where people leave academia and then they realise that they actually want to return, or they find that they’re missing something in their life and career. This may be the case (although I highly recommend you re-consider looking at the Venn diagram above). However, nobody in academia actually cares if you leave and want to come back. All that matters is your competency to do the job or the role. Having a PhD will most certainly mean you can do this. And as outlined before, with the majority of PhD’s leaving academia, there will always be a high level of demand and movement in the academic world for people with relevant PhD’s. This means that there will be constantly new and different opportunities, providing you with various entry points. Similarly, just like you would have leveraged your transferable skills to get a job outside academia, you will just need to identify the transferable skills you would have acquired outside of academia and how they apply in a research or university setting. This might actually count in your favour as it gives you additional skills that someone who stayed on in academia after their PhD won’t have. Furthermore, you can just use this journey to highlight how much you actually love your topic area and working within an academic setting. Every employer appreciates and values a work force that is enthusiastic and committed to their role.
In short, by addressing or highlighting how these three key reasons are not actually obstacles or reasons for leaving academia, it allows you to focus on the other things that are important to you in your life and career. Certainly, being worried about being seen as a ‘bad’ person, held hostage because you ‘love’ your subject area, or trapped because you’re scared you might not be able to return shouldn’t enter the equation.
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