As I mentioned in my first blog posting on this site, after finishing my PhD, I left academics. And I know I’m not the only one – I can think of a few recent PhDs grads that I know that left academics, either voluntarily or because they couldn’t find postdoc or faculty positions.
At first blush, it seems kinda crazy to spend 11 years in postsecondary education, only to leave the hunt for the job that a PhD is ostensibly preparing you for. But the job prospects in academics are, quite frankly, bleak. First of all, after spending more than a decade in post-secondary education, becoming highly skilled and educated, if you are lucky enough to find a postdoc position, you’ll get paid somewhere around $33,000 to $37,000 (before taxes), and you’ll probably have to move to someplace you aren’t necessarily interested in living. Then you’ll spend 2, 3, 4, or possibly more years as a postdoc, during which time you won’t get a raise, you may not have any benefits, and you’ll probably have to write several applications to try to maintain your salary. I know some people who had to supplement their postdoc salary by taking on college or university classes to teach which, of course, eats into the time you have available to do research, making it harder to get the grants you need do more research and, ultimately, secure a faculty position. The average age to get one’s first operating grant in the US ((I don’t have comparable numbers for Canada, but if you do please let us know in the comment section)) is 42 years old, up from 34 years old in 1980 ((source))! Even if you manage to get one of the rare tenure-track positions, for which you probably had to uproot your life and move yet again to some place you may or may not really want to live, it generally takes 7 years to get tenure, which means that by the time you have some sense of job security, you’re into your 40s. And I say job “security” lightly – you still have to apply for new grants for the rest of your career! Seriously, I’ve worked with profs in their 60s who worked countless evenings and weekends, and experienced extreme stress, trying to secure their grant. Losing a grant means not only being unable to continue your research, but also being unable to pay the salaries of your staff. It’s stressful.
It was seeing these kinds of things that prompted my decision to leave academics. When I was approaching the end of my PhD, I actually did apply for postdocs. I wasn’t 100% sure it really was the career path I wanted to follow, after having seen what the life of an average prof was like – constant stress to write research grant applications and publish papers, losing faculty positions after investing a further decade+ after their PhD in the academic career path ((2 or 3 postdocs plus 7 pre-tenure years)) – but I was willing to give it a try because there were some really cool research projects I was interested in being part of and because I’d spent six years developing the skills to be a research scientist. I was offered two postdoc positions – one at McGill and one at Stanford, the latter of which I accepted. But then, five days before my PhD defense, the funding for that postdoc position fell through. And to me, that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It really reinforced all the things about the bleakness of the research funding and academic situation that I feared. And so I made the decision that the academic life was not the life for me.
So what does a PhD do when they decide to leave academics? I’ll be talking about that in my next posting!
For further reading:
- Real Lives and White Lies in the Funding of Scientific Research: The granting system turns young scientists into bureaucrats and then betrays them – discusses what it’s like to be a new faculty member and why some people leave science
- Leaving Academia – a blog dedicated discussing the issues of PhDs leaving the academic world