Leaving academia Doctor Anna's Imaginarium Dr. Anna Zakrisson

4 signs that you should be leaving academia and 1 reason to stay

Returning to life after a Ph.D. viva is hard. I’d even go so far as to say that it’s much harder than the viva itself. You abruptly find yourself being kicked out of the harsh, but protected, academic world that has been your home for many years. Suddenly, you are expected to know what to do, have a plan for your future, and the energy to make it happen.

With a massive sucker-punch you are reminded of the sparse postdoc positions, the low pay (how come you didn’t contemplate that earlier?!), and that you will probably have to join the other nerd-nomads moving from country-to-country begging for positions for many years to come. Still, you make the decision to carry on in academia. For some, this is the right decision, but for others it might just be a prolongation of the inevitable and an expensive one at that.

Here are 4 reasons for leaving academia:

1. You can’t decide what you want to do, so you stay

You only started a Ph.D. because you didn’t know what to do and now you still don’t know what to do, so a postdoc might be the best option as you think that at least you aren’t closing the door to academia. Leaving your options open and all that…

Leaving academia Doctor Anna's Imaginarium Dr. Anna Zakrisson

This reasoning sucks. All you do is postponing great opportunities elsewhere. Have a good think where the postdoc will lead you. If you can’t answer that question in 2 seconds, you should probably have a good think about whether you are blocking your own chances for a rewarding and interesting career elsewhere.

2. You think you don’t know anything else

Are you are looking for a career in academia just because you don’t know anything else?
This might sound like a ridiculous reason to the outsider, but in my experience, this is a quite common reason for people to stay where they are. It is comfortable to just keep walking on that rocky and barren path than to take a few strides onto unknown land and make your own road.

Leaving academia Doctor Anna's Imaginarium Dr. Anna Zakrisson

Also, if you, like me, come from an academic home where academic achievements have been held in high regard and business know-how and marketing skills have been considered with both some ridicule as well as mockery, it is easy to see how the step out of academia can be a tough one.

This attitude prevented me for years to begin a career that has been much more rewarding and insightful that any traditional academic position would ever have been for me.

3. You don’t have the energy to check out other options

This is the saddest reason of the four and unfortunately seemingly common. At the end of a Ph.D. you are exhausted and close to PTSD. The effort needed to read up and understand the workings of other industries and businesses is daunting in a time when you hardly have the energy to brush your hair or cook proper food.

Leaving academia Doctor Anna's Imaginarium Dr. Anna Zakrisson

I also think that many Universities could do a lot more in encouraging students to interact with the industry or other alternative science careers after a Ph.D. I salute the Institutes and Universities that take this seriously and properly prepare their students for the future.

4. You want to have a family and stay in one place

Some of you will feel angry with me for saying this, but for many countries this holds true. Unfortunately. In some countries, such as the Scandinavian ones, there are many who successfully combine a career and parenthood in the academic world. Nonetheless, it is hard and near impossible if you are a single parent, something that I had to learn the hard way.

Many get extremely stressed when trying to reach a permanent position before their children reach school age, a time when it starts to become more difficult to move around. This stress can kill your relationship completely if you are unlucky.

Leaving academia Doctor Anna's Imaginarium Dr. Anna Zakrisson

1 reason to stay in academia:

You LOVE research and think that your life would be barren and pointless without it.

I have days when I feel like this; I look back and miss the wonders, the detective stories, and the amazing feeling of being at the forefront of knowledge. Those days, I really, really miss it. However, what I miss is research and not academia. I am still glad I left. It was the right decision for me and the experiences I’ve made in business, and during the founding of my own company has been just as rewarding, just different.

What’s right for you?

If you don’t answer yes to that one reason to stay in academia, you should probably prepare to leave. There’s so much out there! Much more than just biotech and pharma. Scientific and critical thinking skills are required in every industry and what’s stopping you from starting your own business? In the end, it’s only You who is standing in your way for a career outside of academia.

Perhaps, science communication is something for you?