Why I chose to leave academia

Warning: this post might be ranty, angry and disillusioned. For your reading pleasure, the most ranty and disillusioned bits are in italics, so you can choose to skip those, or decide to only read those for the ultimate #disgruntledpostdoc experience.

When I was in grad school, I was told that getting high impact factor papers and postdoc experience abroad were necessary in order to get personal grants, which in turn were necessary to establish oneself as independent scientist. Fast forward about a decade and I can say that I have learned that this is neither necessary nor sufficient.

At the end of my PhD (output: a couple decent papers and one so-called high IF paper) I decided that I wanted to do a postdoc abroad. Not just for CV-building-sake, but also because it seemed like a good opportunity to live in the US for a while. My husband (boyrfriend at the time) and I bought plane tickets (that we had to pay for ourselves by the way) to interview at a couple labs across the US. We ended up finding two positions in different labs at the same university. A good university, but not Harvard or Stanford or UCSF, which the homecountry scientific organization apparently seems to think is necessary to give you a personal grant to go there. But fortunately we both had PIs willing to cover our salary.

Fast forward 4 years (3 as post-doc, 1 as research associate, output so far: 3 decent papers, 1 high IF, 1 still coming, 2 babies): we decided to move back to the homecountry, as husband got a personal grant there, my PI had left academia and we wanted to be closer to family. When you go from one post-doc to the next (because my husband's personal grant still makes him a post-doc here; I guess it's the equivalent of a K99) you have to pay for this yourself. The university gave us each a compensation that was less than the cost of a plane ticket, let alone moving stuff and kids. I looked for tenure-track jobs or something like that but in the two years I applied there were only two jobs, both of which I did not get (which I guess is not weird with only 3 years post-doc experience at the time). 

So, I also found a job as a post-doc. I was excited about this job, as it was in the group of someone I was already writing grants with together and I could do the things that I knew how to do and in the meantime apply for funding. However, it was a job for only a year, that stretched a little longer as I decided to work 4 days a week instead of 5. After that year, I either had to have my own funding, or the PI is was working for needed to have more funding. Both of these scenarios were very insecure. And as much as I think I'm competitive from a scientific perspective, I'm not sure if I'm competitive from a stress-resilience perspective. Every day I realized how many days I had left on this project, and how much of it had needed to happen yesterday so to speak. It felt like a huge burden on my shoulders and I had a hard time finding a way to deal with this. And since I wasn't allowed to apply for the homecountry grant anymore, the only option I had left was a Marie Curie fellowship for two years. And what would happen if I didn't get that grant, or what would happen after those two years, nobody could tell me. There was no money for a back-up plan it seemed. And the decisions on who gets to have a position in a lab or not are based on the personal grants, so they are made by anonymous reviewers instead of by people in the department. And in turned out that some people who never went abroad but just stayed in their own university were just as likely to get them.

Another aspect that cost me a lot of energy being upset about was the fact that this post-doc project was a huge step back in autonomy. For the past 6 or something years (end of my PhD, post-doc and research associate time), I was able to decide which experiments to do and where to take a project. This project, that was only a year, had completely been written and I was basically the pair of hands to execute it. On top of that, the two PIs who had written this small grant were now writing a bigger grant to continue this project, but they did not involve me in this writing at all. Even though I had been writing grants with one of them, I was completely being ignored in writing this one, despite my knowledge and experience with this subject.

So the combination of a very insecure future, the fierce competition of other post-docs and the feeling that nobody seemed to want to invest in me made that when I saw an add for an industry scientist job, I decided to write a letter and see if I would be competitive for this. To cut a long story short (more on this some other time): I was competitive and was offered this job, and decided to take it.

I would be lying if I'd say it doesn't feel like defeat to leave academia. It does. But it also feels like a huge weight off my shoulders to know that this job is a lot more secure. Here, if I do my work well, my contract is extended, whereas in my current post-doc job, if I do my job well it is still insecure if I can stay. Also, it is nice for a change to have the feeling that people are happy to have you, instead of the feeling that you're the umpteenth post-doc to compete for the very few jobs at the university. It's nice that when they ask you how much you want to earn and you say a number that feels very high, you actually get offered exactly that number. It's nice that this company has time and money for personal development, and it's nice that I am encouraged to choose which direction I want to steer my career into. And on top of that, it's nice that in this period in my life with small kids and sleep deprivation and very little time for myself, I don't need to feel like everything has to happen yesterday. I found out that I just don't deal well with this stress, and I feel relieved to be able to step out of this. Not that I think that this industry job isn't hard work, it will be, but all the energy spent at worrying can now be used for something useful.


25 responses so far

  • pyrope says:

    Congrats on the new job & good luck!

  • potnia theron says:

    I'm sorry it feels like defeat to you. I have some understanding of that defeat, but obviously not the whole thing. The insecurity of the whole system is a major problem. I'm not sure how to solve it, but I think all senior people need to be at least aware of these issues, if not actively working on them.

    • babyattachmode says:

      Yes I agree that it would be good if senior people would be aware of this. I'm being honest about why I leave to the senior people at my university. Some care and are trying to change this system as much as they can, others are very surprised that I am stressed about job security.

  • Dave says:

    From your post, I'm guessing you came from continental Europe? I would guess either Germany, Holland or France? I came to the US from the UK, and there was never any talk about how we should leave the country to become more competitive. I find that odd. Marie Curie grants are almost impossible to get, so don't beat yourself up over it.

    I would be lying if I'd say it doesn't feel like defeat to leave academia

    Of course it does, and anybody who says otherwise is lying. However, remaining in science is what's important to me (and probably you), and I would feel more devastated if I couldn't work in science. After a while, I don't think you will miss academia as long as you are doing science.

    But it also feels like a huge weight off my shoulders to know that this job is a lot more secure

    Questionable these days. The illusion of security may be there, but I would not feel more secure in an industry job.

    Here, if I do my work well, my contract is extended

    So, you are on a rolling contract? That is not a 'secure' position.

    • babyattachmode says:

      I'm well aware that of course security is never a sure thing, and that in industry often people are laid off or companies change direction or location or what not. My PI seemed delighted to point that out to me when I told about my decision. But it totally feels as a step up compared to what I have now.

      • Jim Woodgett says:

        From my experience with people in academia and industry (inc. ex-trainees from my lab), the academic track is all or nothing. You literally are as good as your last paper/grant and if these dry up, there is often a spiral downwards. Some may go into administration, but more often they leave academia. Moves within academia are typically only conducted by people who are relatively successful. I'd guess the average tenure in a given university/research institute is at least 10 years, if not a lot more.

        In the private sector (pharma and biotech), there's less of a stigma associated with moving, especially when people are let go. The talent pool seems to be more mobile and people move jobs for all sorts of reasons. The reasons that people are let go are often not to do with their performance. Priorities and markets change. Researchers are valued for their experience (and reputation) and their skills are transferable. It's true that you will have less control over what you work on, but freedom to pursue your nose is also more limited in academia than we assume. You are working towards the aims of a grant and the reviewers, via their scores, dictate to you what you will be funded/guided to do in any case.

        I've known a few people who have moved from academia to industry and back again. They usually find academia too restrictive and go back to the private sector with its allure of not having to constantly scratch for funding.

        Your choice of employment is personal and while we tend to be protective of the university environment, its intellectual purity and somewhat staid traditions (as well as looking down on commercial activities), if your passion is research and you are good at it, then it doesn't matter where you practice it.

        I sense the disappointment and some bitterness (tweets on comparing your CV with fellowship awardees). Don't feel bad. You are trying to explain something that is fraught with uncertainties, errors, unfairness and random chance. Move forward.

  • Nat says:

    Best of luck in the new stage of work!

  • The "hire for a year" thing happened to me too, in Germany. My collaborators were actually gracious enough to include me in the grant writing- a DFG grant that got voted fine for "science", but no for "giving us any money". I was lucky enough to get 6 month contracts for the next few years, but it was a real pain to have to deal with Auslanderhorde on top of managing many physical chemistry experiments that were getting translated into a hospital setting. (Translational work has a *lot* of translating to do.)

    I wound up having to flee back home to the USA, only to find my nation in the midst of a chronic funding crisis; with most of the funding going to those Major Players you mention in your post. I'm lucky to even have a job these days, considering I hared off to some unknown East German university after my PhD in the States. (I edit up grants and Nature papers for a quantum physics group that does materials science. It's quite interesting.) I'm pursuing several options while my boyfriend does a second postdoc with the group- he got caught in a dead-end subfield, but managed to bail and is now doing quite well.

    Don't see moving to the private sector as "giving up"- heck, us chemists commonly see that as far preferable to sticking with academia! Things have been going downhill for a long, long time in terms for how our societies try and fund this sort of discovery work.

    • babyattachmode says:

      Yeah it's scary how it seems like one less favorable step in your career can make it so difficult to find a job. Good luck to you too!

  • Cloud says:

    Congrats on the new job! My prediction is that in a few years, you'll look back on the angst you feel now and wonder WTF was wrong with you. Anyway, that's what happened to me. I downright agonized over the decision to take an industry position over academia back when I did it. Within a few years, I was so excited by the work I was doing and having so much fun learning the new things I was learning that I could hardly believe I'd felt so much angst about the decision, particularly given the pay differential between the two options I was considering (job I took literally paid 2x the postdoc I turned down).

    That is not to say anything bad about academia. There are great things about it, too. Just to say that it isn't the only great way to have a career in science.

    Anyway, good luck on the new endeavor!

    • babyattachmode says:

      Thanks! And thanks again for your help on my CV. I think you're right that all this doubt about whether or not to take this job will seem crazy in a little while (it already seemed crazy to many of my friends right now). I take comfort in thinking that I will never know how the other option may have panned out and that way there really only is one choice.

  • Sara says:

    I'm glad you are sharing your experiences!! I think in Academia there is the illusion that 'if you do the right things', you will get an acadmic position. Unfortunately, this is just not the case - like industry and other aspects of real life, we can work really hard to achieve our goals, but there is never any guarantee...

    Having had experience in industry, and with my husband now in industry, I think it's generally understood that 'shit happens' whereas the academic training pipeline pretends there is this neat little set of steps to become a prof. Sometimes there is just a bad boss, or a bad set of conditions, that can really disrupt a career path.

    Anyway, keep fighting the good fight - and congrats again on finding a job so quickly!

  • Congratulations! We're one year out of DH leaving academia and he's never been happier in his adult life.

  • gradminion says:

    Just starting out at grad school, and I've already started stressing about my prospects. Severe case of imposter syndrome, and I'm just not enjoying any of this already. I've been a research assistant for a few years (loved it, had a great PI and was given a lot of independence to do my own thing), and got a decent number of publications too... but somehow just being thrown together with smart people who are all 'competing' just makes me feel meck.

    So that bit where you said "I'm just not competitive from a stress-resilience perspective" helped me IMMENSELY. I'm good at what I do (and have already scored 30k funding for my projects), but I can't handle the stress of it all. And I've been thinking it's some sort of character flaw on my part, but reading it the way you've put it helps me objectify it a little bit more and think that - hey - maybe this is something systemic, and I'm just not cut out for a sh*tty situation like that. That (paradoxically) makes me feel strong enough to keep on trudging a little while longer (at least until I meet the requirements of an exit-degree). I'm suited to being a research officer (where I just need to produce good science to keep my job), I'm not suited to being "assessed" as a grad student... or a postdoc... or a PI.

    Anyway, just wanted to express my thanks for sharing your post (especially the angry, ranty, disillusioned bits), and send you best wishes as you finish up the postdoc and embark on a new exciting career.

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  • onkelbob says:

    Very late to the party but I get in trouble as I ask the postdocs in the frau's lab, you're smart, why the f'ck are you in science? Let's be real: Academia in the USA makes the mafia look like boy scouts. Most (if not all) R1 universities are criminal organizations - fraud, extortion, grand larceny, these are a day's work for the average dean.

    Leaving is not defeat - it's recognition that you no longer wish to be a gangster, because that's what these organizations are Racketeering Influenced Corrupt Organizations; commonly referred to as criminal gangs whose members are gangsters. Hell, your average MS13 member has higher ethical standards than our dean.

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