Why leaving academia isn’t turning to the dark side

Ever felt guilty about contemplating a life outside academia? Guest blogger Bryony Graham discusses why leaving research shouldn't feel like a taboo topic.

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It’s 10.30am. The cafeteria is filling with bleary-eyed scientists who’ve reached the it’s-been-too-long-since-coffee point. There’s a gentle buzz of conversation around the room, people bemoaning their latest experimental failures and looming grant applications, and then someone mentions quietly to their colleague that they’re considering applying for a job that’s just come up at a small biotech company nearby.

The room falls silent.

Slowly, heads turn to face the offending individual, who shrinks back from their disapproving gaze, cowering into their coffee mug.

OK so it’s not quite that dramatic, but that’s how it can sometimes feel if you so much as dare to mention that maybe, just maybe, a career in academia might not be for you.

I’ve never quite understood why this appears to be such a taboo topic, when the stats speak for themselves – around 50% of PhD students leave academia after their studies, and the pyramid continues to narrow rapidly for postdocs transitioning to group leaders too. There are countless commentaries on this issue, but that still doesn’t seem to change the notion that contemplating any job outside academia is essentially considered to be ‘selling out’ or turning to ‘the dark side’.

I think many people feel as though considering a career outside the lab is admitting defeat; as though it’s shameful to not actually want to work weekends; to be able to leave the lab at 5pm and not think about the countless papers saved in the ‘To Read’ folder on your desktop.

But these things aren’t specific to science – there are many jobs where the work is perpetual (medical doctors, policemen and women, farmers…) and there is never an easy point to call it a day, even if your shift ends at 5pm.

I think the problem in science is that we’re not trained to think that our skill set can be applied to anything other than the tiny, highly specialized field of research that we’ve devoted years of our lives to.

It doesn’t necessarily occur to many highly-trained scientists that their years of supervising students makes them excellent candidates for teaching positions; or that writing and reviewing countless grants and papers makes them brilliant editors. These things are part and parcel of the job as a whole, necessary evils along the long and winding path to the sacred goal of one day leading a lab.

I am genuinely baffled by how ashamed people seem to be to ‘admit’ that they can’t see themselves in academia forever; in other workplaces, if you were to announce that despite being a secretary for 15 years you’d decided to become a bungee-jumping instructor, you’d probably be praised for your bravery and initiative. Why is a similar announcement in the scientific community met with such disapproval and disdain?

Academia shouldn’t be some kind of elitist system whereby if you don’t make it to the top then you’ve failed outright; changing direction should be celebrated and encouraged. Scientists are highly trained to think outside the box, process huge amounts of information quickly, manage multiple tasks simultaneously, and communicate all of the above accurately and efficiently as and when required. Now if that isn’t a pretty useful skillset, I don’t know what is.

I’d like to feel that I can consider a change of direction at any point in my career without facing disapproving looks and a sense of failure as a result. I’d like to be able to keep my mind open, knowing that despite my current commitment to a specialist field of research, I’m building a set of skills that will lead me wherever I want to go.

And I’ve always wanted to try my hand at bungee jumping…

This post is the third of Bryony’s series‘Trials, tribulations, triumphs, and test tubes: life as an early career researcher’.

View the latest posts on the BioMed Central blog homepage

4 Comments

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Gavin

Are the blinkered attitudes of your colleagues really that important? Academic life is one career route for a scientist, and one which is necessarily competitive and elitist.

Industry, the “dark side” you refer to, offers different challenges for your skills & experiences, but still potentially “in the lab”. The focus & rewards are different, working as a multi-disciplinary team, with better resources & the potential to have more significant impact on lives & diseases, but potentially less individual autonomy & more subject to external (commercial) forces. On the other hand, don’t kid yourself that work is 9-5. Small biotechs have to be nimble, flexible & self-reliant so you do what’s needed to get the work done. Large pharma may offer more traditional working practices, but they do precious little R&D work these days anyway, preferring to buy it in from the little guys.

As a scientist you learn highly specialized skills, and the ability to plan & set these into context. These are hugely valuable skills, which are applicable to a wide range of specialisms, each giving a range of different rewards (both psychological & financial).

The key is to understand what you can do well, what motivates you (being the expert, progressing a project, fixing disease x) and find the career path that best suits that. It may be academia, but be sure you’ve opened your eyes to all the possibilities before you decide that it is.

If you’ve never looked outside a narrow career path, it’s easy to look down your nose at those who do step outside of the norm. Better to have “disapproving looks” at an informed choice you believe in, than disappointment & disillusionment from carrying on the same old route to avoid disapproval.

An ex-academic, ex-big pharma, ex-consultant & current small biotech veteran (who wouldn’t have it any other way).

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Bryony Graham

‘Better to have “disapproving looks” at an informed choice you believe in, than disappointment & disillusionment from carrying on the same old route to avoid disapproval.’

I could not agree more, although I think that level of disapproval often means it requires a disproportionate amount of courage to make the decision to change direction. I think more openness in academia about how your skill set can be effectively applied to so many other roles should be encouraged from the outset, so that you don’t feel like you’re on a one-track hiding to nothing if you don’t get three Nature papers and a fellowship by the time you’re 30.

I also don’t necessarily refer to the ‘dark side’ as industry only; I mean any job outside of pure academia, and I am fully aware that many alternative careers are equally if not more stressful and demanding. People may choose to leave academia for many reasons; but as one of my colleagues pointed out yesterday, it’s also about feeling as though you made the choice to leave, rather than feeling as though you were forced out.

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Diego5

I am a Principal Investigator in Academia, going through all the ladder (PhD 4 years, postdoc 6 years..). There is another aspect about becoming a group leader, the “dream” to avoid the dark side. There are two categories of Principal Investigators: the ones who win ERC, HHMI, HFSP and all sort of millionaire young career research schemes; then there are other ones (like me) who live on small project grants, fellows visiting from other labs, no postdocs etc. This is risky, it makes you less visible, less prestigious.. Even “making it” up the ladder is relative….. however, the independence and freedom of the group leader job is not comparable to being an Editor, working in the Industry or teaching.

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Jen

I think the competitive elitist attitude in academia comes through in this article in the way the author describes all the wonderful ways your academic research skills are directly applicable to industry. It’s just not that simple to get an industry job. People in academia who look down their noses at industry ALSO ascribe to the myth that getting a job in industry is a piece of cake (everything is a piece of cake compared to academic research, right?!). Even within academia, often it’s difficult to dispel others’ assumptions about the sort of career person X from institution Y would consider. So, you taught a lot of undergraduate courses and won awards for research mentoring of undergraduates as a graduate student? Should translate into job offers if you deign to grace the world with your instructor chops, right? If you take a research postdoc and someone else takes an adjunct lecturer or visiting instructor position somewhere, guess who looks like the better candidate for a full-time instructor position? Academic research gives you a decent skill set, but don’t for a second think it buys you entry into anything other than academic research without a good deal of luck and/or work.

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