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The Black Hole

Why PhDs Leave Academics

BY BETH | NOV 12 2009

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!

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  1. Judy Wearing / November 12, 2009 at 13:45

    Great post Beth.
    SOme more reasons for leaving academia:
    the academic environment seems to breed a type of arrogance in many (obviously not all…many academics are incredibly kind, modest people and among my best friends). As one PhD I know put it, the job depends on people’s insecurities. Not a great working environment…
    Another is family. As a woman, childrearing often begins at about the same time that the PhD is done, and though it is possible to have young children and be a young academic, I don’t think it is possible for MOST of us to do both well.
    I think a lot of the best and brightest, most innovative, people oriented, business oriented PhDs are working elsewhere. The question is – does this matter?

  2. Lisa McDonnell / November 13, 2009 at 04:13

    I think what you wrote about is what so many PhDs struggle with….all this training, but such a bleak looking future as an academic scientist that it doesn’t seem worth it. It seems to me that other countries and some institutions (e.g.: Australia) treat post docs differently….at least, I know of a few postings that pay post docs MUCH more than in Canada, they have benefits, it’s like a real job! Why can’t Canada follow that model: pay and treat post docs for what they are – trained, talented, scientists.

  3. Beth / November 13, 2009 at 07:52

    Excellent points, Judy. I remember a prof when I was doing my Masters degree lamenting that so many bright scientists he’d seen leaving research for medicine/rehab/etc. because in those professions, taking 6 months to a year off to have a kid doesn’t result in you getting too far beyond your leading edge field to catch up. And your question “does it matter?” is also a good one. I certainly don’t think all PhD-trained scientists should necessarily be researchers/academics. I think the world would be better off if we had more scientists in politics/health care/education/etc. But wouldn’t it be better if people didn’t feel like they had to choose between having a family and being an academic, or feel forced out of academics because the $33K postdoc wasn’t anywhere near enough to pay off the $70K in student loans they racked up getting their education or because there just isn’t enough research money/tenure track faculty positions?
    Lisa – I didn’t know that about Australia. I will have to take a closer look at that continent!

  4. Dave K / November 13, 2009 at 08:22

    Judy… I can’t resist responding to the insecurities comment. A friend of mine forwarded me an article the other day as the “most read” article in the Journal of Cell Science entitled: “The importance of stupidity in scientific research” – it touches this issues and is something I plan to write on in a couple of weeks time.
    It’s not hopeless though folks, in fact, it’s the way it’s supposed to be… the fact is, your PI should only be training 1-2 “replacements” over their entire career – everyone elese should be doing something else – this is one of the key issues that our group (and this blog) will touch on. Why are we all being prepared to engage a career path that only ~10% of us will actually take up? Everyone who leaves is seen as a failure, and while that is true in some cases, the vast majority of motivated and clever people that don’t do the PI thing, find themselves in extremely challenging and rewarding careers. Did they see it coming though?? Not with the current state of training….
    Stay tuned – and keep these comments coming!

  5. Agatha Jassem / November 13, 2009 at 16:44

    Tt’s a shame that even though most trainees don’t become PIs they are deemed failures. This change in careers has been going on for a while, why are supervisors still surprised when it happens to them? Wouldn’t it be great if we could all be honest with each other in the lab. “I don’t think you’ll make a good PI” said the lab head. “That’s ok, I’ve decided it’s not for me anyways” replied the student.
    For those people who still see some hope in academia here is a good article about how to succeed in science (esp. good to forward to happy, newbie grads).
    http://www.nature.com/nrm/journal/v9/n5/abs/nrm2389.html
    p.s. Dave, love the stupidity article