Why is it so hard for scientists to talk about leaving academia?

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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?

A nonivory tower

Timothy Vollmer / Flickr

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.

Researching research

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. 

What are we doing here, really?

Christian Fregnan / Unsplash

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.

 j zamora / Unsplash

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.

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Devang Mehta

Genomics

University of Alberta

I’m glad your advisor was so supportive!

In my experience (in Europe) traditional academic careers are already becoming less attractive to new PhDs. I’m the only PhD student in my lab (and maybe one of only five in my institute) who wants to stay on in academia. A lot of this is because graduate schools here are becoming more open to other career paths. My cohort, for example, had courses taught by a science journalist, a policy maker, policy professionals, and government regulators, and we visited NGOs and companies, instead of traditional coursework. I think it’s also important that more scientists with experience with scicomm or other non-lab related activities become professors and PIs. I can’t imagine a Massive graduate, for example, discouraging a student from pursuing a career outside academia.

Allison Fritts-Penniman

Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

California Academy of Sciences

I am an example of someone who followed the “maybe you should do a postdoc, just in case, and not close the door to academia” track, despite the fact that science communication is more interesting to me than research. Both my PhD advisor and my postdoc mentor are incredibly supportive, and we frequently have talks about how to harness my passion to create the career that will make me most happy. 

However, the fact remains that academic mentors only know what they are familiar with, which is the track to become a professor, so they don’t necessarily know how to advise students about other career tracks. My grad department held panels for graduate students to talk to people on alternate career tracks, but among students the academic professor was still the definition of “success” in the field, and alternate tracks were considered backup, given the high level of competition. I think the mentality is slowly shifting at some schools, as professors realize that there are not enough academic positions to employ all of the bright and talented scientists with PhDs. 

We as an academic society need to shift our view of PhD training away from being a professor assembly line and more about developing critical thinking skills, with deep knowledge on the philosophy of science that can be translated to other careers. As for me, I still haven’t been able to let go of the idea that success is defined by me becoming a professor, but I think it’s because I have very few role models who have PhDs and chose other career tracks. The more common this becomes, the easier it will be for us to envision non-academic careers, and to develop career strategies with our mentors.

Matteo Farinella

Neuroscience

Columbia University

I want to add my perspective, because I have a slightly unusual and hopefully encouraging experience. I left academia to pursue science communication after my PhD, but when three years later I applied for a postdoc, my experience in SciComm was not only tolerated but even valued (although, admittedly, it’s a very unique interdisciplinary postdoc).

I’ve never thought this would be possible. I always assumed that once you ‘leave’ you’re stained forever, but why should that be? I can’t think of any other profession in which you are allowed to do only that one thing, for your whole life, in order to succeed. 

This may be too idealistic given the current state of things, but I think we should aim to completely flip the conversation. Not only should non-academic jobs be accepted by your supervisors as viable alternatives (which they are) but I think they should be considered an added value. You should be able to spend a few years writing about science, work for a company, a museum (or even just travel around the world) …and STILL become a good scientist! Maybe a better one at that, since you will have developed your own unique perspective, instead of following in the prescribed path.

In short: I don’t think we should feel like we’re ‘leaving’ or ‘giving up’ academia forever. We should present these other jobs as opportunities to learn different skills, instead of a rejection of academia.

Prabarna Ganguly responds:

Matteo, I could not agree with you more. That is the attempt I made with this piece – to reflect on the fact that I myself could be disallowing myself from pushing the envelope, or breaking the mold, because of the set standards. Our awareness is our greatest tool for a thoughtful reformation. The hope is that this conversation reaches the advisers and heads of institutions rather than just remain within the bounds of graduate students and postdocs. 

If we see 10, even 20 well-established professors share an opinion of acceptance, then it will reach the audience that does see such a shift as a threat to the academic system, and that is where an actual dialogue will begin. The ones who are faced with this will always agree with each other; it is the people who disagree, or are uncomfortable with such a change, whom we need to consider. But, that being said, it really is heart-wrenching to see so many people share the relative despair. We will fix it! I have faith, and we have ideas!