Leaving academia: what to look for in a new career

Guest blogger Victoria Schulman aims to help academics looking for a change in career as part of her career exploration series.

The pressure to publish, the current funding crisis, and meager salaries can wear on academic researchers very quickly, driving us to seek alternative careers.

While these are valid reasons to leave academia, these struggles can leave us misguided in our career searches.

For example, publications give us prestige and notoriety. As academics, we are trained to strive for these abstract work goals, but these things won’t pay the monthly bills, and, in fact, incredibly successful students and postdocs get the same paycheck as unsuccessful trainees!

Additionally, feeling trapped in position with long hours and little pay may drive us to seek higher salaries. Larger paychecks will certainly make paying the bills easier, but does that mean we give up something important in exchange for the paycheck? Possibly. Probably.

For the average researcher looking to leave academia, the innate tendency is to look for a prestigious non-academic position with a high salary.

Most scientists leave academia because they are unhappy, but seeking prestige and money in your next position often lands you in an equally unsatisfying position.

So, how do we ensure that our alternative career searches yield fulfilling jobs?

We look for Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose.


Most people don’t like to be micromanaged, and scientists take this to the extreme.

Most people don’t like to be micromanaged, and scientists take this to the extreme.

Researchers generally manage their own days – they plan and conduct experiments on their own time, decide when they arrive and leave each day, take breaks when they want, etc. There isn’t anyone hovering over them telling them exactly what to do and when. As long as they meet their deadlines, they are free to accomplish those goals however they can.

Because scientists are very independent, transitioning to a job that doesn’t provide autonomy will be just as frustrating as your current position but for different reasons.

So, in your non-academic job search, look for autonomy. Of course, a little teamwork is always expected, but for the most part, your new job shouldn’t deviate too far from the independence you’ve grown accustomed to.


People thrive when they feel important and needed.

People thrive when they feel important and needed. One way to ensure that you will be an important and necessary addition to your team is to seek a position for which you can use skills that you have mastered. If you are the resident expert, the team undoubtedly needs your expertise.

Furthermore, when you can use skills that you’ve mastered, you generally perform well, and, as with any positive feedback loop, you thrive when you’re already doing a good job.

Additionally, using your strengths and performing well affects your confidence, too. Despite a need for change, it can be scary to trade something comfortable and familiar (i.e., academia) for something foreign and unknown.

However, choosing a position that allows you to use your expertise will make this jump a little less dramatic and increase your chances of success in that new position… which in turn boosts your confidence, which helps you perform better, which further boosts your confidence, etc. (positive feedback loop!).

So look for a role that plays to your strengths. Don’t accept a position that pays well but is a struggle. This will only provide daily frustrations that are not easily fixable without a huge time investment to learn a completely new skill.


Feeling as though your work makes a difference is supremely critical for maintaining motivation and job satisfaction.

Lastly, look for purpose in your new position. Feeling as though your work makes a difference is supremely critical for maintaining motivation and job satisfaction.

If it didn’t matter whether or not you went to work and if the world wouldn’t notice if that job was never completed, then you won’t be happy in that position. Regardless of how well it pays or how great the hours are, without purpose, you won’t be happy.

So look for a position that gives your work meaning, and keep in mind that what’s important to someone else may not be important to you, so find a position that gives you the opportunity to do something that is important to YOU.

To conclude

In sum, when scientists are dragged down by the pitfalls of academia, they can be enticed to seek prestige and salary in a new position, but these things likely won’t lead to a fulfilling job.

Instead, look for positions that afford you autonomy, mastery, and purpose. These aspects are associated with greater job satisfaction, and with better job satisfaction comes a happier work life. Thus, if you wish to leave academia because you’re unhappy, make sure you avoid non-academic positions that will leave you feeling equally unhappy. Find a position that gives you independence, plays to your strengths, and gives you a reason to get up and go to work every morning.

With autonomy, mastery, and purpose at the top of your priority list, your alternative career search is bound to find you a wonderfully satisfying non-academic position!

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