Out of Academia (and everything’s fine)

Transitioning from academia isn’t easy, but it’s not so bad, after all


September 23, 2021

“I’m out of academia.” That’s how lots of these articles start (and now mine does too!).

I have read my fair share of “leaving academia” articles, many while I was finishing my PhD and feeling unsure about my future. There are more recent ones I have found worth reading, too (here and here). There’s also lots of stuff on Twitter.

A few tweets I liked. The Michele Meyer thread is worth reading. Also note that Jessie Sun stayed in academia and just got a killer Assistant Prof position woo!

I have noticed a few trends in “leaving academia” articles. They are usually written very soon after a person has left academia. As a result, their writings can be justifiably emotional, filled with equal parts happiness, frustration, relief and uncertainty. They also tend to mention some of the negative aspects of academia that may have pushed them away, like an incentive structure that favours speed over robustness (which is true in other industries too), a toxic environment that does little to prevent those with power from taking advantage of those without (which isn’t uncommon in other professions—have you seen any political news lately?) and a working environment that demands unsustainably long hours (again, pretty common everywhere).

Unintentionally, my “leaving academia” article is different. It has been nearly 1.5 years since my last academic position, and I have passed the stage of emotional turmoil that accompanies any major career change – you know, the one that readers (like you) secretly love to read about (well u aren’t getting it sorry). There are many issues with academia, but these are true of other professions as well, and so I will try to avoid the complaints.

What I am here to report after a change in career paths: everything is fine.

Leaving the academic bubble can be tough. Change is scary enough as it is. Add a fear of failure, a do-or-die motivation to earn professorship, and unending stress about your beloved research progress (and your h-index), and very soon changing career paths becomes completely overwhelming.

I was someone who prided myself at being aware of these pressures. I tried to keep myself at a distance from them to avoid the emotional drain that “failing” academia might bring. I was convinced that I wouldn’t be phased even if I couldn’t land a postdoc. Nevertheless, I was optimistic that getting that perfect new position in a place I wanted to live surely wasn’t as impossible as others had said. But after ~12 unsuccessful applications to various postdocs or scholarships, a pandemic drying up an already sparse academic market, and a partner who was unhappy with her job but forced to keep us financially afloat, I needed to be realistic with my chances of finding an academic job (and earning an income) soon.

So, I ventured out of the academic bubble, if only temporarily (or, that’s what I told myself at the time). My first non-academic job was in the public service supporting suicide prevention initiatives for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people(s). What a cool opportunity! I felt lucky to try working on something important and new to me. But I was immediately confronted with a massive identity crisis. I couldn’t help but think:

“What about my research?”

“I need to stay up-to-date on the literature because, you never know, I might have a chance for something else.”

“My friends in academia are still moving forward and I can’t be left behind.”

These thoughts aren’t cool for my brain to make me think, but it couldn’t help it (still, though, what a jerk).

My brain doesn’t even listen when I’m doing my best Arnie impersonation

It also became clear how much my social media reflected my academic career interests and little else. Twitter became incredibly draining as I simultaneously identified with and felt distant from the people I had once followed so closely. I expected something like this, but not to this extent. But why was I surprised? The last few years of my life were completely wrapped up in my research topic, yet when I finally started to feel minor confidence in my research ability, I had to move on to completely unknown territory.

And that’s my first lesson for anyone else who might consider transitioning from academia: If you choose this path, expect an emotional identity crisis to hit you HARD…but also expect it to subside. As much as you should expect to feel stressed about change, you should expect to feel rejuvenated from new career incentives and new free time for hobbies, friends, partners and family. Over time, you do feel better.

The thing is, feeling rejuvenated didn’t happen immediately for me. It might not for you either. No matter its importance, my first public service job just wasn’t for me (for a number of reasons unrelated to the topic). I wasn’t happy with my new career trajectory even if my work-life balance was suddenly very good.

What I did realise, however, is that the skills acquired over a PhD—critical thinking, writing, argument building, evaluation of statistical results, communication of complex ideas, project organisation, multitasking, giving and receiving feedback—are incredibly valuable but surprisingly rare in combination outside of academia. If there is one bad thing I’ll say about academia, it’s that there is an issue of undervaluing the expertise of early career employees like PhD students and postdocs. Some of my most hard-working and intellectually gifted friends still manage to undervalue themselves, in part because the job market implicitly teaches them to. From start to finish, getting a paper published (unknowingly and perhaps unwillingly) teaches a level of independence, communication and project management that any employer would love to have in an employee.

In fact, I think it would be beneficial for more academic researchers to bring their skill(z) and critical thinking ability to other non-academic roles. I mean, imagine if more people in higher positions were trained to make decisions using evidence-based reasoning, and consider the limitations of their conclusions when results are ambiguous. What a dream!

I like that dream because usually my dreams are more like this

And that’s lesson number two: anyone in academia feeling imposter syndrome or inadequacy compared to their academic peers should realise the incredible number of other skills they can bring to a team. Sometimes it doesn’t feel that way when so much of research is about ensuring you have enough publications and grants to reach the next short-term opportunity. If anything, the research environment can be kinda…lonely. I just want to remind those lonely people: you can have a positive impact outside of research—and outside of publication metrics—if you so choose.

After around 7 months, I found myself searching for a new opportunity yet again. My search landed me at my current job as a data analyst at the Atlas of Living Australia, a data infrastructure that holds all of Australia’s biodiversity data from museums, government agencies and citizen science initiatives. In my role, I spend a lot of time in R making data visualizations, maintaining R packages and occasionally running statistical models. I’m very happy about this. I am also asked to apply what I know about research methods and open science to implement transparency into my team’s workflow (which is pretty friggin’ cool).

I am lucky. I am surrounded by others who are excited by science (and aware of its faults). Many are previous academics themselves. In this environment, although I am just a data analyst with “computer skills,” I am encouraged to pursue initiatives that support transparent and robust science. Rather than the feeling I often had in academia of personal success and failure (“I won a grant” or “I was rejected from a journal”), I now feel team success and failure (“the team reached a milestone” or “the team failed to meet a deadline”). This is a wonderfully welcome change in mindset.

A real team huddle I once had

I may not be doing research, but I am continuing to learn about things that I am excited to know more about with others working for a common goal. And that is my final lesson for those considering leaving academia: Even outside of the professor “dream job” you will find new opportunities that will make you excited. Will you find the job you do for the rest of your career? Who knows? But there are many careers other than research that value good science and provide moral benefit to the planet (or they try to). To make it even better, your friends from academia will still be your friends, and your work-life balance will bring happiness to many other aspects of your life.

If you can believe it, there is more to life than a high h-index (or whatever other metric your university uses—my university used a metric called Boris lol). Publishing in Nature or Science doesn’t define you as a person (though it’s still very badass…and expensive). It doesn’t really matter what Reviewer 2 thinks about your paper (but srsly why do you hate me and my discussion section Reviewer 2). At the most stressful times in the academic bubble (and this is true of all jobs) it can feel easy to forget that a career is just one aspect of your life. Try not to let it take too much of a hold on you. If you feel that it is, although it may seem scary, life outside of the academic bubble can be pretty alright, too.

If Paul says it you know it’s true