Divorcing Academia: Changing the PhD Mindset

By Isaiah Hankel, PhD

I made up my mind. I was dropping out of graduate school. I was going to leave with my Masters degree, get a job, get paid, and leave academia behind forever. I was so excited about the possibility of escaping the bench that I couldn’t think about anything else.

I lined up a few jobs, told a couple of close friends, and started putting my plan into motion. But then my excitement wore off. I wasn’t sure what to do next. How do I drop out, exactly? Do I just give my academic advisor two-week notice, or what? There was nothing in the student handbook about this.

A few days later, as I was still gaining the courage to quite, I got an email from one of the deans. He wanted to meet. One of my friends told him that I was planning on dropping out. Why did he care? I walked down to the Dean’s office and he called me in. “Do you need money? I mean, we all need money but do you need money?” This is what he asked.

No, I guess I don’t need money. I mean, I was poor and unhappy and just filed government assistance because I was having trouble paying for groceries but I wasn’t living in a cardboard box or anything. There were thousands of reasons why I wanted out of graduate school, but I didn’t say any of them. Instead, I said that I didn’t want to stay in academia. I wanted to transition into an alternative career.

“Come here,” he said. Then he walked over to his computer and pulled up a job website listing dozens of biotech and biopharma industry positions: “PhD required, PhD required, PhD required, PhD required, PhD required, PhD required.” …I got the point. Most of the postings preferred job candidates with a PhD. I didn’t realize there were so many options for PhDs outside of academia. My mindset about my career and the potential of my PhD changed right there in that moment.

Too many PhDs lose themselves in academia.

Before entering into academia, many PhDs know exactly who they are and what they want.

Then, over time, these same PhDs start to lose themselves in the academic routine. They get pushed down by the thankless grind of trying to publish. They get lost in the uncertainty of when they might finally graduate. They see the numbers like >60% of PhDs and >80% of Life Sciences PhDs will NOT have a paying job at graduation (The Atlantic), >99% of PhDs will NEVER be tenured professors (Royal Society), and 43% of PhD students will NOT get their PhD within 10 years of starting graduate school (CBS News). As a result, they become hopeless. They lose their confidence and their optimism about their future.

According to a report by the Royal Society, the proportion of PhDs who now manage to secure academic tenure positions is only 1-in-200. That’s right – academia only provides a future for 1 out of every 200 PhDs. Yet, if things are so bad in academia, why do so many PhDs choose to stay in academia after getting their degrees? The reason so many PhDs stay in academia after getting their degrees is because they’ve learned to limit their futures. They’ve been trained to have a limited mindset in academia. They’ve been trained to accept less than they are worth.

They’ve heard things like “things are getting better in academia” “if you leave academia you are a sell-out” and “you’ll never get a job outside of academia” over and over again. The only way PhDs can open themselves up again to all the possibilities available to them is by changing their mindset. They must change their mindset from limit and lack, to opportunity and options.

There are a number of limits that PhDs place on themselves in academia. One such limit is that high unemployment rates for PhDs mean that every PhD should accept whatever postdoc he or she can get. It’s true – the employment numbers for newly graduated PhDs do not look good. Over 30%-40% of PhDs are unemployed at graduation. This, coupled with the fact that graduate students and postdocs have a 1% chance of getting tenure now, can make PhDs feel isolated. These PhDs have made a decision to work hard, to create knowledge, and to make a difference. Yet, their futures seem bleak. As a result, most of these PhDs desperately accept any low-paying postdoc you can find.

The only way for a PhD to avoid this fate is to realize that he or she is not alone. Every PhD is worried about their future. Yet, every PhD has a future. Yes, the academic landscape is changing. Academic jobs are disappearing. But PhDs are still in high demand. There are over 22,500 new industry researchers and over 7,000 new government researchers right now (International Forum For Cell Biology). These industries are expanding.

PhDs may not be able to get tenure as easily as in the past, but they still have many options that will allow them to do meaningful work and get paid well for it.

If you leave academia, you’re a sell-out and can never do “real” science again.

How many PhDs have been told this? Too many. Too many graduate students and postdocs stay stuck in academia because they’re afraid of leaving science behind. They feel this way because these PhDs have dedicated their lives to research and study, and they falsely assume that transitioning into an alternative career track means turning their backs on their love of learning. The truth is that very often PhDs can do even more learning in alternative career tracks. PhDs can get access to better equipment and higher-level knowledge outside of academia than they can inside of academia. Again, the academic landscape is changing. Academia as a whole no longer has access to the highest level information in most fields. Instead, this information is often only available in industry and government positions. Moreover, these positions pay very well. PhDs should understand that it is now possible to make good money and do great research at the same time.

Changing your mindset is not easy. This is especially true if you are a PhD who has spent the last 20-30 years in academia. If academia is all you have ever known, you will have an academic mindset. PhDs in today’s world and job markets do not need to leave this mindset behind entirely, but they do need to expand it. PhDs have opportunities available to them today that they never had before, and they should seize these opportunities. But first, they must believe that they can seize them. These PhDs must know their own value and must leverage their value to the careers and lifestyles that are right for them.

 


Dr Isaiah Hankel is the founder of Cheeky Scientist, a one stop shop for PhDs wanting to transition out of academia and into industry.