Why is it so hard for scientists to talk about leaving academia?
We should value scientists who transfer their skills
During the second year of my PhD program in psychology, I found myself on the verge of quitting. I was overwhelmed by the pressures of graduate school, feeling bouts of imposter syndrome, and struggling to do research independently. I had considered other non-academic jobs but never had the gumption to discuss it with anyone, especially my adviser. Those were dark days.
In February of that same year, I learned of an opportunity outside academia. A university email mentioned that applications were open for a national science communication conference called ComSciCon. The goal: to teach STEM grad students how to better communicate complex and controversial scientific topics to non-scientific audiences.
My interest in the premise was immediate. But that very excitement scared me. I knew that graduate school required full-time commitment, which left me with little time to pursue much else. How would taking part in a non-research-based workshop reflect on my PhD candidacy? What would my adviser say? Despite these questions, impulsively, I applied.
My application was rejected.
The following year, I tried again, and was one of 50 selected from a pool of 970. The two-day workshop gave me indispensable tools for thinking about science not just as a scientist, but also as a layperson. Simple questions became more meaningful. Asking “why” and “how” of basic concepts helped strengthen my foundational knowledge of science, which made it easier to add complex ideas to that. Safe to say, the experience of ComSciCon changed the direction of my life. Instead of quitting graduate school, I became more invested, and was able to confidently take on my research work.
Importantly, one thing was clear: I wanted to pursue a career in science writing and journalism after receiving my PhD. Somehow, I had to convey this new aim to my adviser. The idea of a confrontation was disconcerting. I needed a strategy. So I did the first logical thing: a Google search.
How to talk to your adviser
There are many how-to articles on this issue. LinkedIn even has its own blog post on it. The consensus boils down to two ideas: if you have a good relationship with your adviser, tell them why you want to leave the field, and they may even help you network; if you have a bad relationship, consider not saying anything, since they may not accept the decision.
The vague advice was disturbing to read. More than half of STEM PhD holders are employed in non-academic positions. Regardless of the nature of the adviser-student relationship, denying yourself a conversation is not a viable option. But the abundance of articles on this topic exposed a disturbing reality: PhD students are struggling to tell their advisers about their non-academic career choices. Why is it so hard to talk about?
In search of answers, I turned to the etymology of PhD. The highest degree conferred in the US, the acronym stands for “doctor of philosophy.” However far philosophy might seem from STEM degrees at times, its use is no accident. Derived from the Greek word meaning "love of wisdom," the field of philosophy is intricately linked with the expectations of a PhD candidate and the pursuit of “knowledge, truth, reason, reality, meaning, mind, and value.” The fundamentals of philosophical practice suggest that PhD students should engage in sophisticated thought experiments, carefully consider their questions, and then seek solutions through independent and high quality research.
But if philosophy moves our research, why is there an unspoken rule about what career we pursue with it? One might think that as long as we advance science by generating, disseminating, and analyzing new knowledge, then we would continue the work in any arena – and at the same standard – of academic institutions. But the reality just ain't so.
Since its inception in the 1800s, the classical model of higher education has largely remained untouched: undergraduate to PhD to full-time professor. Many graduate students have internalized this strict hierarchy, where a tenured professorship is thought the apotheosis of success. Advisers can enable such thinking: they spend years mentoring students, often encouraging them to expect that, with hard work, they'll make it to the top. They also feel external pressure, since a résumé of graduate students who go on to become postdocs and/or professors reflects “well” on an adviser's skills.
Thus, for those who pursue a PhD and do not intend to make a career of traditional academia, success and approval can be hard-fought. When you raise this problem in the scientific community, it's not uncommon to hear graduate students or postdocs ask, "Why did you even want a PhD if you don't want to be a professor?" or suggest, "Maybe you should do a postdoc, just in case, and not close the door to academia." A research lab with such a rigid culture can deter young and impressionable students from following their passions, old and new, and from adapting the lessons of their PhD experience. Indeed, the system can undermine a student's sense of agency, breeding self-doubt, fear, and guilt in what's already a psychologically demanding environment.
Some might ask another question: why does a graduate student need an adviser’s approval? In short, most of us may not need it, but many of us value it. Feedback from mentors matters because it offers perspective about long-term performance – the average PhD student takes five to six years to complete their dissertation – and because it can foster better career decisions. Vitally, advisers have a duty to talk with mentees about their future; after all, it's an open secret that there are not enough jobs for every PhD to hold a teaching position.
The benefits of life outside the tower
But the sad fact is that asking advisers to encourage and cultivate career possibilities for their PhD students is an emotional plea. The academic system does not reward mentors for such encouragement. New job avenues are usually touted as last-minute “alternatives” by seasoned professors, a stance that usually dismisses their value. But if an adviser can change their perspective and recognize the value of work outside academia, the benefit is both moral and creative. If they see alumni thriving in varied careers, they can be more supportive to their mentees and open academia to new ideas and means of communication.
Pigeonholing students into any career path – especially one with a remarkably low probability of success or stability – is a losing situation for mentors and mentees. A vast number of graduate students have acquired skills from their PhD that exemplify the valuable work ethic of a well-run research environment. We should understand and value the work of scientists who want to transfer those skills into careers outside academia. They can be a source of pride, not derision.
So did I eventually tell my adviser about my career goals? Well, not quite. During our Friday meetings with the entire lab – undergraduate and grad students, postdocs, and my adviser – I decided to teach a 10-minute statistics class. My goal was to explain a particular statistical practice and make it useful to everyone in the room. Before long, the mini-courses became a Friday staple, and a few weeks later, while discussing my future, my adviser said that the classes were benefiting the lab by breaking down the statistical method into digestible pieces, and then commended my interest in science communication. I was relieved. Such one-on-one conversations are crucial in a mentor-mentee relationship. They have no substitute.
The dark days recur infrequently now. As a fifth-year PhD candidate, the finish line is closer and clearer. I continue to talk about my career with my adviser, and I'm less afraid to disappoint anyone now. I hope we will sit down again so I can summon the strength to clearly articulate my desire to leave academia and pursue science communication.
But we should not have to worry about those conversations in the first place. Hopefully, by highlighting these silent stories that many graduate students endure, more academic institutions will recognize that we live in an interconnected world, and that if we can spread the appreciation of knowledge through many means we will only strengthen academia, not dismantle it.