Left Behind

Mar 09 2011 Published by under career issues, graduate school

An occasional theme of e-mail that I get from readers involves angst, anxiety, or anguish about possibly (or definitely) "leaving" science. In these cases, the "leaving" in question is voluntary and stems from a lack of interest (to put it mildly) in an academic career and/or a discovery of an interesting non-academic career path.

Keeping in mind that I am speaking as someone who has long been a science professor and has never had any other job since college and that I am therefore speaking from the point of view of a science professor and advisor, my advice is: Don't worry so much. It isn't really "leaving" science if your career will somehow involve science, even if your new career is not research-oriented. And even if you do "leave" science, partially or entirely, why feel bad about that? What's so bad about leaving something you don't want to do?

I know, some people do in fact feel very bad because they have spent several (or many) intense years with a group of peers who are focused on science careers, academic or otherwise, and it can be difficult to admit to wanting something else; perhaps something that friends and co-workers might not respect (even if the rest of the world would).

Some of my readers worry that they are letting down their advisors by "leaving" science. I have colleagues who do, indeed, feel that their *most successful* advisees are the ones who are clones of themselves -- science professors at major research universities. I admit that it does feel good when an advisee wants to pursue a similar career path as my own rather than run screaming from anything that resembles having a life like mine. But that doesn't mean we professors don't like and respect those who choose other careers, and it doesn't (necessarily) mean that those who want to have a different kind of career are repulsed by the thought of being like their advisor (although some are).

I will say, though, that some advisors will not appreciate it if an advisee uses the fact that they don't want a research-focused career as a reason to scale down their efforts while still in graduate school. Just because someone wants to have a career in which they never have to publish, give a conference presentation, or write a grant proposal doesn't mean that they don't have to write papers, give talks at conferences, and perhaps contribute to grant proposals while they are still a graduate student. Maybe they don't have to be quite as intense in some ways as those revving up for an academic job at a university, but an RA supported on a grant has responsibilities no matter what their ultimate career goal.

Even so, if you are working hard and thinking of a different life, don't feel guilty or anxious.

So: I personally do not feel let down if a PhD advisee wants to pursue a non-academic career, but, to be completely honest, I am not sure I have always felt this way. I think that it gets easier to feel this way, as an advisor, when you've been around for a while -- long enough for various advisees to follow various career paths.

And that leads me to my questions for readers:

To those who are or have been the advisor of PhD students, especially those in fields in which academic careers tend to be valued (within academia) over non-academic careers: Do you feel particularly satisfied when students choose to pursue a research-oriented science career (preferably in academia?)? What do you think of those who "leave" science? Do you just want them to be happy, or do you feel that time and money have somehow been wasted?

To those who are or have been a PhD student who does/did not want to pursue the career path that is widely viewed to be the *best* by others in your department: Did you admit to your interests in an "alternative" career and/or your desire to "leave" the field chosen by most of your peers? If not, why not? What did you fear most? And if you did, how do you think you were viewed as a result? Do you have any advice for others in your same position?

51 responses so far

  • Lisa says:

    its really funny/ ironic for me to read this. i did not want a science career, i wanted out of academia. I was happy and willing to write up my thesis work for publication but i did not wish to continue down the research path. my advisor refused to write me letters of recommendation for non academic positions. he refused to talk about the subject of non academic jobs & continued to send me postdoc ads. he outright said that by staying in phd school city (for a serious personal reason, who i ended up marrying) i was potentially ruining my career (the one i didnt want).

    in the end things worked out. i moved laterally from "hard" science to a social science & a full time teaching job at a college (no research, very different focus of work). i love it, as i suspected i would & my relationship with my phd advisor was repaired. now he's much more open to alternative career paths for his students, but damn it was tough being the first one!

    • truth=freedom says:

      Agreed. But as I described below in response to moom, I was not asked to leave, but not asked to stay.

      Frankly, that's pretty crappy.

      Thankfully, I've stopped caring in the way I used to. But a friend who's leaving voluntarily to pursue something else pointed me to this blog, and I realized that I had never thought of this. To the extent I have lost contact with that group of my former colleagues it's more a matter of having been impoverished for a decent length of time, not a matter of not being interested in them as people. Many of them were fascinating people.

  • kamikaze says:

    But what about those of us who consider leaving because the university world doesn't give is room to do science the way we think it should be done, at least not without moving around the world for years and years? Are we just giving up too easily? Maybe so.

  • moom says:

    My problem is only with those students heading to non-academic jobs who claim they still want to publish their dissertation and I put a lot of effort into helping them write things up for publication but typically when the revise and resubmit comes from the journal they are no longer interested... That's kind of annoying... Otherwise, no problems. People should do what they want. Academia is a lot like a fundamentalist religion in the way it shuns those who want to leave.

    • truth=freedom says:

      @moom: I was shunned w/o wanting to leave. But yet they said I was good enough for the degree. Have you seen that happen? I'd have been OK w/being shunned for wanting to leave. *I*want*to*leave* after all. Being shunned w/o being told what was wrong w/one's work makes it pretty challenging.

  • RQ says:

    As an advisor of PhD students, I generally want them to be happy. Whether I think it was a waste of time and money if they decide not to pursue an academic career depends on what they do and who they are. One of the best students I ever had decided against an academic career because she wanted to live in a particular place and not have as to work as much as she perceived academics to have to do. She's cobbled together a working life based on several part time jobs in a city where she wanted to live. She's happy; I'm happy for her (though a little sad that my discipline won't have her voice in it). I have three recent students who had babies and became trailing spouses (for partners not in academia) and ultimately stay at home moms. One of those I think was a waste of time and money, but because she was never very serious (IMHO) in the first place--so in her case, I've regularly thought working with her was a waste of time and money.

  • GradStudentAbroad says:

    If a grad student's productivity declines and he/she also decides to leave academia, the second fact is not necessarily the cause of the first. Seems to me that it is at least as likely that there is some other, underlying issue causing both -- for example, a general disillusionment with the value or conditions of academic work, loss of interest in research, psychological burnout... [the extension of this list is left as an exercise to the reader].

  • Anon says:

    I'm now a postdoc but have considered with varying degrees of intensity leaving academic science since I was a first-year grad student. I love the questions and much of the research, but the culture continues to wear on me. It's partially a continuing crisis of confidence: my major research projects have taken a lot longer than expected to produce results, and I debate every week exactly how much of the delay is my fault and what that means. This wouldn't be as big of a problem if I weren't in such a cutthroat field. The pressure to publish is intense. I've been scooped twice, see others hoarding data that's supposed to be public, and have also seen and experienced "collaborators" suddenly stop communicating and then emerge months later with a submitted manuscript. I feel like a small cog in my mentor's lab machine and am not sure he'd have much advice for me aside from "publish more." It's dispiriting, and that's the problem--I'm not so egotistical that I can blast through these anxieties, but I also have no idea how to remain excited about *me* as a scientist *in this field.* This affects the scale on which I plan research, the numbers of papers I read each day, and the manner in which I network. But never in a million years would I let my peers, PhD or postdoc advisers know I was thinking about leaving unless I was clearly on my way out: the research world is too cliquey and competitive to risk any loss of advantage unless I'm sure I can actually afford to lose it. To more experienced investigators: Did you ever go through a period like this? How do you maintain your pluck? How do you maintain the confidence to keep going when a good chunk of the people around you aren't playing by the rules, and you have few data points (publications & grants) to plot your success?

  • Nicole says:

    I don't 100% understand why folks care what people that they are no longer going to be interacting with will think about them. Sure, if they could see the disapproving/pitying glares on a daily basis, or if they had to rely on the disapprovers for a recommendation... but in general, if the spheres of influence no longer intersect, why can't folks just forget about them?

  • I advise colleagues and some students about continuing in science. I think most of the time to continue in science you have to be really gifted to make it to the top (given that they are cutting down on tenor track positions) and that once you reach some level you might always be happy. A lot of times I try to talk people out of doing PhDs. The idea that most PhDs have not had a job since college outside of academia is quite frankly sad. Academia is a bubble and in this bubble of publishing, talking to peers and looking down on 'not respectable jobs' outside of their world. This is given that I have had many jobs before and during my time in academia. I think in the end it is more fulfilling. So I ask people- 'Do you truly love the research and can you not live without doing it?' If they say 'yes'. All the power to them. If they say 'no' who am I to judge I am just a scientist. They will probably do something more fulfilling with the skills they learn in science anyway.

  • S Seguin says:

    I've been quite open about wanting to leave Academia, either for science policy (plum fellowships at AAAS) or an industrial position. I know that this is a personal choice, but people still react defensively when I say that doing a post-doc won't help me achieve my long term goals. My adviser seems fine with this, writing letters etc, but has passed me over for several other opportunities. I am one of 5 grad students and 5 postdocs right now, so there are certainly other people to give seminars, write reviews and grants etc, somehow my name never comes up for these things though. I've dealt with this by creating my own opportunities with the help of other mentors in the department.

    A couple of my colleagues feel the same as I do (looking for greener pastures down the road), but haven't told the boss. Since he has been no help to me in the job search, I don't see any good reason to tell him- you'll just miss out on other opportunities. (Although in my memoirs I will probably say this time in my life taught me the importance of developing many mentoring relationships.) Although, the upshot of admitting my goals to him is that we were able to make a plan for me to defend in just under 5 years (his students usually do 6 full year dissertations), and I am very grateful to be able to move on with my life now that I've made this choice.

  • I have been toying with the idea of leaving academia for a number of years. I do enjoy doing science, but I am not thrilled about a future of working for as many hours per day as I've seen my advisors do. As I haven't fully made a decision, and certainly do not have a new position lined up yet, my boss does not know. It's not so much that I am concerned with how he will view me as a person or as a trainee, but I really don't want to miss out on opportunities that might help me in the long run. For example, if I decide I want to go into scientific writing, having the experience of writing manuscripts and review articles will be helpful. If I want to be a scientific administrator or editor, then writing grants and manuscripts will be helpful. If I want to go into teaching, then giving talks and posters will be helpful. Many non-academic positions I would be interested in require and/or would benefit from a quality postdoctoral experience. Of course, if doing these things well sets me up to be a successful academic, then so be it! I guess I just don't want to count my chickens before they're hatched, so I will continue to do my experiments to the best of my ability, I will submit my F32 application by April 8, and I will do whatever it takes to be the best postdoc I can be. At the same time, to keep my options open, I will still research alternative careers and I will still be committed to my new blog.

  • Cloud says:

    I left academia after graduate school, which was more than 10 years ago now. The primary reason was that the work I was offered in industry was more fun and interesting than the work I could find as a post-doc (and I had an offer for a post0doc at what was considered one of the top places in my field). I work at the interface of science and IT, and at the time I left academia, there wasn't much scope for doing that in academia. That has changed a bit in the intervening years, but I've never really regretted my decision.

    I was honest with people, and several people thought I was crazy to turn down the post-doc. My advisor was very supportive, though, and even asked me to come back to his lab, give a seminar and talk to his students about jobs in industry. He realized that the fact is that most students will end up as something other than a research professor.

    I still notice a lot of superior attitudes among academics (particularly online, where I suppose the anonymity makes it easier to voice these opinions). But I really don't care. I like what I do and I am well-paid for doing it. There are some downsides to my chosen career path, like a complete lack of job security. But overall, I think I'm happier here than I would have been in academia, and that is what matters the most to me.

  • anonymous says:

    My biggest anxiety on this is becoming part of the "leaky pipeline". I feel like I am somewhat letting down WOMEN IN SCIENCE (!!!) if I choose to pursue a career other than academic scientist at a top research University. 🙁 My field is now a majority women at levels from PHD to PostDoc, and is close to equal at teaching university positions... and yet research PI's are still predominately men. So I feel anxiety about taking the "easy" way out and avoiding an intense research career when I could help to improve things. And I DO enjoy research, it's just a rather risky and stressful career that I'm not sure I want.

    As to the other question, I have repeatedly told my PhD adviser that A. I am not sure exactly what career I ultimately want, but that B. I will continue to work hard and produce as long as I am doing research. He seems OK with A as long as B continues to be true.

    • Zuska says:

      It's not your responsibility to change the world of science for women. Institutions that are doing a sucky job for women at the faculty level right now need to undergo institutional transformation to make themselves places that are attractive to women in science as a place to make a career, and places that are capable of retaining women who start their career paths there. You aren't failing women in science. Institutions are.

      • pavlovs cat says:

        Thank you for saying that. I dropped out of a PhD in engineering eight years ago, and am now a science teacher. I do often have dropout-guilt about whether I let the whole of womankind down by not continuing. Sometimes it feels slightly hypocritical to now be making efforts to encourage girls who want to do science. But I'm happy where I am (very much not the case before changing career), and I'm also probably encouraging more girls to consider science as a career from here than I would be otherwise.

    • Cloud says:

      What Zuska said.

      Really. Re-read her comment and take it to heart.

      And remember, there are ways to make things better for women in science without being a research professor. Try to be a research professor if that is what you want to be. But don't do it just because you think you should. Go do something that will make you happy, instead.

      • Dr. O says:

        Anon, I wrote about this last year, but finally decided that it's not my problem (ie, what Zuska and Cloud said). You're not alone.

    • jc says:

      Your prof is "OK with A as long as B continues" because B BENEFITS HIS ASS!

      Translation: He doesn't care what YOU do to benefit YOUR career, as long as YOU keep benefiting HIS career.

      Don't think of it as a "leak" - think about ESCAPING the abuse. Zuska is spot on for the difference between investment and training. Investments are OWNED possessions. Training is about helping someone reach independence. Your douchecanoe "advisor" wants a return on his investment. FLY THE COOP. He can advise himself.

      The biggest value you have as a Woman In Science is to yourself. Save yourself first, then help others with their oxygen masks against the gender smog.

      • anonymous says:

        This is the same anon.

        Zuska, Cloud, and Dr. O
        Thanks for the advice... I will try my best to stop feeling guilty whatever I decide to do in the end. 🙂

        I think you may have missed the part where I still enjoy doing research and find my current position rewarding. Why quit now before I get my PhD when I am still happy? I'll be a reasonably successful PhD graduate and I do have a good relationship with my adviser I think. I'm glad I'm able to discuss the possibility of other careers post graduation - I know many advisers are not that flexible. Besides it kind of is my job to do research while I'm in grad school... the adviser-advisee relationship is supposed to benefit both parties is it not? Given how stressed out a lot of younger PIs (of both sexes) are, though, I'm not sure that's what I want my ultimate career to be, which is where the angst lies.

  • Anon says:

    How I solved this problem: I never wanted to have an academic job. My adviser assumed I did. I produced a lot of data, but was slow to publish. I took a 4 month "family leave of absence" to have an industry internship ( adviser did not know I did the internship). I was offered a job with the company, decided to finish my degree asap, and go. My adviser has since published all of my cool data with me as a second author.

    Summary: your adviser is not your mom and dad, you don't need to tell them all of your plans.

    • grad student says:

      If your advisor is like mine, better be sure they don't find out the plans you don't run by them. Mine expects to be consulted on all such decisions and gives you hell if you don't.

  • GMP says:

    I am in a field where industry jobs are well paid and challenging, so most of my students end up in industrial jobs and that's perfectly fine. Since I am relatively junior (been a prof for 7 years), at this point in my career it is more difficult for me to place a student in an academic position than it is for somene more senior/established, so I am upfront about that -- if you want an academic position and you do a PhD is in my group, you have to publish A LOT and well and then also land a postdoc with someone who has a bigger clout.

    Bottom line: I don't consider it a failure at all if students end up in industry. They make more than me right off the bat and these jobs can be very interesting and rewarding.
    On the other hand, regardless of what a student wants to do later, there is a minimum number of papers that need to be published before a PhD, as well as minimal scientific competence, ability to give talks, write papers etc that everyone has to have in order to get a PhD, no exceptions. Those students with academic aspirations I will push extra hard in certain directions, but everyone has to do original supervised research and develop into a quality scholar during the PhD.

    There are a couple of students who were a waste of money and time, but these did not finish a PhD (we parted ways after they spent a year or so in my group). So far I have been quite proud of all my PhD grads.

  • linda says:

    I have been an advisor for 11 PhD graduates - all of whom have gone on to a career in research (some in academia, some in other research-related employment). I have also had 14 postdocs, 5 of whom dropped out of doing science altogether. These 5 were all women. They dropped out at various stages (some right after the postdoc, some after time as assistant professors) and in most cases this involved personal issues revolving around accommodating their significant others. Yes, in each case it was their choice. But it is indicative of why the top tiers of academia (in science at least - I have limited knowledge of other fields) are male biased. By the way, I am also a female science professor.

  • Zuska says:

    No matter what you do, someone around you/ahead of you on the career path is going to find fault with what you do or advise you differently. Want to aggressively pursue your academic career, but you're in a relationship? Your advisor may tell you, as mine did, just wait till hubby gets a postdoc, because "these things are easier to arrange after the husband gets his job." Want to make that dual career relationship work when you've both gotten jobs in the same place? You must have "settled" for a lesser position and you are throwing your career away. Want to stay in the same town for a career opportunity to be near loved one/family member needing help? You are throwing your career away. Want to take time off from your career because you have a new baby or a family member is seriously ill? But we've invested so much money and time in you! You are throwing your career away! Want to go into industry or public policy or some other career path rather than academia? But you have the ability to be a star! We've invested so much in you! You are throwing your career away! Unless you have exchanged vows and plighted your troth with your job, and only your job, you are doing it wrong.

    There is intense pressure on grad students and postdocs to follow the academic path no matter what, no matter how unsure the rewards, no matter how well it meshes with their lives, because they are seen as investments not trainees, and returns are expected on those investments. The return is x amount of data, y amount of publications, and z amount of reflected glory for the PI who trained, I mean, invested in, the grad student/postdoc. Shaming is a tactical strategy for keeping people on this path. Shaming individuals to keep them in place, and a culture of shame that is understood to attach to anyone who has "left" no matter how happy their lives, how much money they make, how interesting and varied the career paths they've taken.

    It takes a while once you've "left" science to understand that (a) you haven't left science, only academia, and (b) you really can be quite happy in the alternate universe, which is far larger than you ever dreamed. I was terrified the day I walked out of the lab and into my first job in industry but it didn't take long for me to discover how happy I was with my choice, how much I enjoyed the work, the larger paycheck, and the flexibility of the career path (geographic mobility, more options for lateral and upward career moves).

  • Dr. O says:

    I remember telling my advisor during my fourth year of grad school that I could *never* do what she did (mom and tenured prof). What a shock when she looked at me perplexed and asked "Why not?". Until that time, I had talked quite openly about teaching high school, working in government, or any other number of non-academic careers. And I never felt like I was maligned for these aspirations. Having a mentor who made me feel comfortable talking about my fears openly helped me make the decision to pursue the academic path. I was never pressured, just supported. I don't think I'd still be in academia otherwise.

  • Ibod Catooga says:

    What I've found in science is that you do all this yadda yadda and then someone comes around like blah blah and then the next thing you know you are rolling around the floor in your own vomit.

    That's why I left.

  • Alex says:

    What's depressing is that to some people even a teaching-oriented university is considered an "alternative" career.

    When I was in grad school my projects were not going well, and I seriously thought about leaving. I knew that many people would be disappointed. (Though I suspected that my advisor would be relieved.) Strangely, I thought that I could face my family and tell them about my decision, but I simply could not imagine telling a former mentor from my undergrad years, a Dean Emerita who took students under her wings. I knew it would break her heart.

    That's not the main reason I stayed, but it was a factor that kept me going as I worked my way back to a place of excitement.

  • ex-scienceprof says:

    Perhaps it is the knowledge that those who "stray from the path of academia" are rarely welcome back into the fold that makes it such a difficult career choice for many of us. It took me years to realize that I sufficiently disliked some aspects of academia to risk leaving my reasonably successful tenure track position and change course. As one of very few females in my field with my level of seniority, it did cross my mind that I was not helping with the leaky pipe. It has not all been plain sailing, but I have moved to a different research environment and maintained my contacts in my field. It was a good decision for me and most of the colleagues I talked to are sympathetic of the choice I took.

  • pre-doc says:

    When I started grad school, I wanted a research/academic career. At some point during my grad school years I developed health problems that slowed down my progress significantly. It's beyond my control; I've visited several different doctors and have tried several different treatments but so far I haven't found a good solution. During my worst time health-wise, when my research had slowed down to a crawl, my dissertation advisor said to me that I'll never succeed in academia if I can't get my health problems under control and be productive, and that he would not recommend me for postdoctoral positions. This conversation affected me strongly, and I was determined to prove him wrong, that I could indeed succeed in academia even with my health problems. Fast forward a couple of years and now I'm sick of my research, severely unmotivated, and desperate to finish the dissertation already so that I can get out of research and academia. It's possible that the conversation with my advisor was the catalyst for this disillusionment, or maybe I just burned out after too many years in grad school with higher than normal levels of stress because of the health problems that cause me to not be as productive as my peers. In any case, I cannot even imagine myself now in a research career. I dread going to the lab every day, I hate the data analysis, I just want to be done and get out of here. I feel the urge to simply quit at least once a week, but I've been in grad school too long and if I drop out now when I'm so close to the PhD, I'll feel like I've wasted a good chunk of my life. So I trudge along, trying to get to the finish line, so that I can get out, regain my sanity, and continue trying to find a solution to my health problems without worrying about the paper that I need to submit or the data that I need to analyze. As for my career? I have no clue what I'm going to do. I hope I can figure it out not too long after I've graduated. Maybe I'll try to get into education and public outreach. I do still love science, I just don't want to research it.

    • tam says:

      I'm sorry to hear about your health problems, however, could it be possible that it's not just academia or a research career that would be severely affected by it? Would your health problems - and corresponding lack of "productivity" however that is measured - affect any other career path you might have gone into besides a PhD program?

      • pre-doc says:

        It's certainly possible, and it's something that I worry about a lot. It's not something I even considered when I was an undergrad because back then I was healthy, and a research/academic career seemed like the most natural progression after the bachelors degree since I was someone who lived and breathed this one particular branch of science. But life brings unexpected detours, and my detour has been health-related. Once I'm done with grad school I'll at least have the chance to take time off, unwind, let my brain heal from the burn-out. There's some magical thinking in the back of my mind that says maybe my health problems will go away once I'm done with the stress of the PhD research, but I know that's just wishful thinking on my part and incredibly unlikely to happen. Perhaps working in public outreach, or freelance science writing, or something along those lines, would not be as demanding as the publish-or-perish culture in academia, and more accommodating to my health issues, which would be a very welcome change from the environment I've been in for the last too-many years.

  • Anne says:

    "Leaving Science" ... Funny expression, it sounds like you are married.

    I studied engineering and research was not my primary goal. I discovered it by chance by doing a short internship in a lab. I loved it and made another internship, then a PhD ... I thought I would do research as long as it would be fun. There have been hard times of course but I am now a relatively happy postdoc, considering an academic career.

    A few things that make me hesitate :

    1 - I have doubts about my abilities to face the challenge (being a woman probably does not help). I enjoy designing and performing experiments, but will I be good at giving more general scientific directions, advising students and postdocs ? Our constant exposition to peer reviewing should assist our self-evaluation process but somehow it does not work with me

    2 - Knowing that it is hard to alternate academic and non-academic positions in a career, I feel a lot of pressure due to the irreversibility of the choice. I also deeply regret to not have the opportunity to explore other domains. For myself, because I know nothing about industry and am curious about it, but even more for others. I think it is sad to force people on linear tracks. I am sure the whole scientific community would benefit from a more flexible system where people could spend one or several years outside academia before coming back to it.

    3 - In grad school, I worked a lot in team with fellow students. As a postdoc, I already feel more isolated. I really fear loneliness at the faculty level.

    • AAA says:

      You are absolutely right about #3. It doesn't get any less lonelier as you climb up the hierarchy. As an Assistant Professor, you also get a lot less time to make an effort to go out and meet people, so, overall things actually get worse.

  • jim says:

    I was in Math rather than in Science (institutionally, they're quite different). Back in the '70s, the old boy system was not quite dead: my advisor couldn't pick up the phone and get me a job, but he could pick up the phone and get me an interview. The interview went appallingly badly: I hated them, they disliked me. I asked myself, if I didn't want this job -- top 20 SLAC, young supportive faculty, selected enthusiastic students -- did I really want an academic job? and started circulating my resume outside academia.

    A few years ago, my old department held a graduate student reunion. My advisor is long since dead, but numbers of his old students made it to the reunion, including some who remained close to him after they left the nest. I asked one of them if he had been disappointed in me. His response: you had a good career, a good life, he should be unhappy? Those who had pushed on into academic careers, failed, became embittered; these made him unhappy: he asked himself, was it his fault?

  • akajb says:

    I'm a PhD student in comp sci. The good thing about comp sci, is that it's quite common for phd students to not stay in academia. Many of the big companies (Microsoft, Google, IBM...) hire a ton of PhD grads to do research. So it's possible to continue to do research while not staying directly in academia. Even in areas like video games, have multiple industry people who still write papers and attend conferences.

    When I started grad school, I was thinking that staying in academia sounded like a lot of fun. I like the idea of doing my own research and teaching. The longer I'm here, the more I learn about school politics, the more I wonder how much I really want to put up with this.

    Especially as a female. I've dealt with a lot of crappy comments over the years. And I've dealt with people in my own research group looking at me differently (I'm the only female). My supervisor, however, has been awesome. He's super supportive and encouraging.

    I still have at least a couple of years to go before I'll graduate, and lots of time to see how the market changes and what kind of positions will be available.

    This makes me think of the imposter panels. They're a session where a bunch of successful females talk about times where they feel like imposters. If you've never heard of an imposter panel, I really suggest looking it up. They do them at Grace Hopper (a conference for women in comp sci) and it's really a great session for females thinking about what they'll do in the future. It's great to see that others have felt the same way as you. Sometimes, when I get really down, I think about that as well.

  • Bagelsan says:

    I haven't had any experiences myself re. leaving science, etc. but I heard an interesting turn of phrase recently about reasons for leaving research. A person (not sure if they were a student or postdoc) decided to leave research because they "didn't feel smart while they were working on research". (According to their PI they were a fine researcher, so it's not like they weren't plenty smart enough. But apparently it made them feel crappy.)

    I thought that was a somewhat novel concept. Particularly in science, I think feeling "smart" is a part of a lot of people's identities, and if you're not getting that bit of your self-image reinforced/supported that can be really hard -- but I'm still totally undecided about whether this sounds very self-aware and reasonable, or if it's completely egotistical. :p

    • GMP says:

      Your comment reminded me of this essay (on the importance of stupidity in scientific research)


    • postdoc says:

      This is so interesting. I feel like I'm constantly torn between my desires to feel smart/successful/useful, to feel challenged, and to work on what I consider to be important problems. As a postdoc, I'm not so happy in academia, but I can't figure out a better career to balance these three desires. The largest gap in academia is definitely in the smart/successful/useful category: I wonder all the time if I show evidence of having the skills to be a good researcher (or the ability to improve the skills needed to be a good researcher) and stress about my publication record. I know some people enjoy the competition, but the constant comparisons and worry about whether I'll be good enough detract from the science for me.

  • Christina says:

    @ Bagelsan : Related to your comment about "stupidity" being the reason to leave science, I expect that The Importance of Stupidity in Scientific Research by M.A. Schwartz is standard reading for first-year PhD students: http://jcs.biologists.org/cgi/content/full/121/11/1771

    Here's a nice little story from one of the profs at my uni about one of her PhD students: This student (brilliant scientist by the way) was at a conference sitting next to a Big Name old boy. Big Name asked her what she was hoping to do after completing her PhD, and she went ahead and told him: "I think I'll open my own cake shop!" What courage/madness possessed her to say this to someone like Big Name! She's just that kind of girl and we love her. Anyway, her prof was laughing with the rest of us about it, and I asked her "wouldn't that be disappointing for you: a brilliant student of yours leaving science to go make cakes?" She replied: "Well, she *does* bake amazing cakes!"

    I'm about a year and a bit away from finishing my PhD. I've always had this notion that if you've done a PhD and then don't use it by going on to become a researcher, either in academia, or in industry for that matter, then you've been a waste of time and money and "what was the point?!" For one thing, I don't actually feel like I could do anything else! Overqualified and underexperienced. Careers advisors keep saying that's not true, but I'm not looking forward to pitching my experience-poor CV to anyone other than a PostDoc application.

    My advisor has actually been quite positive about my non-academic inclinations, but was quick to suggest that a PostDoc project can be applied rather than just academic. I am sure he will be very happy to give me a reference for related applied work, but I'm not sure how he'd feel if I told him I was thinking of a completely different direction.

    I don't know what I want exactly, I just know I don't want to deal with academia, as a woman and as a person! I could do research but only if my life didn't depend on publications. And I want to do something relevant to science, because I'm actually passionate about science, just not doing research.

    I'm gradually accepting that it's OK not to carry on with research/academia after completing the PhD. My advisors are supporting and aren't going to judge me. No one should be forced into doing something that doesn't make them happy because they are seen an investment that is expected to deliver returns with interest, or because they feel guilty in any way!

    • Per says:

      there are many good reasons to leave academia. But as for reasons to STAY in academia, the unwisest one IMO, is out of pressure of feeling a failure if you don't. this indicates a lack of self esteem, and is an intrinsic problem that will follow you wherever else you go (even if you continue staying in academia).

      If you are someone who feels compelled to stay in academia (or any other endeavor) against your better judgment but simply because you fear feeling or being judged a failure if you leave, you should really work on yourself and work on developing a higher degree of confidence and self-reliance or independence. i.e. your sense of self worth should come from within, not from external sources because if it's the latter, then your life will always be an emotional roller coaster no matter what other path you take, whether it's academia or not.

  • Per says:

    I wasn't responding to "Christina" in particular though my previous comment seems to have been indented after her post.

    I was writing in general.

  • Hilary says:

    It's interesting to read this - I've just finished visiting potential MSc/PhD supervisors in hard sciences at three universities, and many of the profs brought up industry connections and applications. Two universities had programs designed to introduce students to entrepreneurship and the concept of marketing products they develop - often not the point of the lab's research, just incidental (like laser technology, for example), and the professors there were enthusiastic about the non-academic success of previous students, talking about successful start-ups and the opportunities outside academia. And in the very non-applied, cutting edge lab, the prof pointed out that if all his students went into academia, he should only train one in his whole career!

    So clearly there are some faculty, at least in this geographic region, who not only support 'leaving science', but want to make sure you have the tools and knowledge of how to do so. The professors that didn't mention it, I made a point of asking, and they were happy to tell me about the range of employment opportunities, and didn't seem taken aback when I said I wanted to make sure I had options. They understood why I would ask such a thing, having some experience with the job market themselves. But then, none of them were particularly old, so perhaps it's a generational thing?

  • undergrad says:

    Great post, and great comments as well.
    I've worked in a lab most of undergrad so far, and I'm there a few hours a day, so it does allow for close observation of and interaction with graduate students and post-docs. It's been really interesting talking to the them about how they're still not sure what they want to do after they get their degrees. Some are considering the possibilities that are similar to the "alternatives" people have listed here, some are even more vague, but no one has said they are sure they want to be a professor at a major research university. Some of them have expressed serious reservations about that track. I'm not sure whether their advisor is the cause of this, but I do know that he seems to be very accepting of these attitudes. It's my guess that if they had a different advisor, some of them might not be so ready to say these things.
    As for me, I was tentatively interested in grad school when I started this job, but now I'm pretty sure I don't want to do that. I'm even feeling a little bit bad about the idea of leaving science. I have invested practically no time or energy, but I relate to the idea of needing to adjust your vision of yourself.

  • Blue says:

    My first grad school adviser told me quite explicitly that not only did he reckon students who did not at least *want* an academic career to lack ambition, anyone who did not wish to join his particular flavor of Christianity was also going to be disdained in his presence, and furthermore anyone who did not wish to pursue some of his pet (failing) projects should GTFO.

    Second grad school adviser was in engineering, which is typically more industry-oriented anyway, so it was normal for them to have non-academically-inclined students. But yes, the whole entire department of Previous Adviser shunned me.

    My advice is that statistically, regardless of what you might aspire to, you are probably NOT going to be doing whatever your adviser very much believes you should. You should make a concerted effort to join professional organizations in your field and talk, talk, talk to what those people actually do for a living. Have they had a hard time finding a job? Have they had to change fields frequently? Would you be OK with, say, doing a PhD in organic synthesis and then finding out that you are not employable--and have to go back to school for complete re-training in a radically different field? The vast majority of academics don't know beans about the job market; many reckon that chemists or biologists employed as Data Entry Coordinators and waiting tables counts as actual employment--gee, who is to say those folks aren't happy? If you believe that it's a waste of training to drop out, why isn't it a waste of training for people to be incredibly under-employed?

  • TYT says:

    sounds like going through a divorce. Even though you no longer want this kind of life (married to your spouse or being in academia), you still feel guilty about leaving and starting over and making a new life for yourself but with a different identity because other people tell you you're a failure since THEY didn't leave theirs. There's a lot of moralizing about staying in the situation you are in, and a lot of personal judgment heaped on those who leave. Not to mention that if you leave, then the years when you were still invested in that life trying to make it work are now seen as being a complete and total "waste" and thus many people stay on after all against their will or better judgment, just to hold on to their sense of investment.

    I haven't left academia (I'm one of the fortunate ones who managed to carve out a satisfying career of it) but I have been through a divorce. Also I have known many peers who left academia. And thus my observations of the similarities between the two situations are based on my experiences

  • As an engineering professor, I expect many of my students to go into industry. A couple of my early PhDs have had fairly happy careers in industry (one has been with the same company for about 15 years), but my more recent PhDs have pursued postdocs and academic positions (several currently have postdoc positions, a couple have achieved tenure, and a couple have moved into academic research positions off the tenure track). I would actually prefer it if more of them had gone into industry, but that seems to happen more with the MS and BS students.

  • guilty says:

    So my situation is different from the rest of the people on here, and you all will laugh at this post, but I really need some advice on this issue:

    I am not a grad student, but a recent college graduate. I began college with the intention of double majoring in Biology and Political Science, because I had a strong desire to learn both. However, I intended to eventually become a scientist of some sort. But in 2nd year I did terribly in Organic Chemistry, freaked out, and dropped the course. As my confidence plummeted, I also dropped Biology as a major and just went on to finish my college degree with a B.A. in Political Science. I also minored in Anthropology and Development Studies (the study of poverty alleviation).

    While I thoroughly enjoyed the remainder of my undergrad studies (and did cool internships in D.C. and stuff), I still feel terribly guilty about giving up my B.S. In a way, I needed some space from my science courses after failing chem, but now I feel bad for totally giving up on science. Being one of those high schoolers who always got straight A's, I feel like I let pride and narcissism get in the way of taking challenging science courses. I also worked in a research lab for a year and really enjoyed that, but left after I felt guilty for failing chem (gah!)

    I have way too many internal conflicts going on surrounding this issue. Basically, I thought I would ask on here for advice on how I can worm my way back into a science career/science research? I actually already got accepted into a master's program in sustainable development. I think I will pursue that with a concentration in environmental policy. (I am researching how to improve marginalized people's access to safe drinking water in developing societies). So if I were to pursue another degree in science, I would most likely focus on water treatment/sanitation.

    Just to be clear, the highest degree I am considering right now should I re-enter science is an M.S. (maybe a PhD by way of some miracle). I admire everyone commenting on this article, because even if you are a grad student "divorcing" scientific research, you are still contributing to the field. So don't feel bad! I am definitely the biggest traitor to science lol. Like someone mentioned in a previous post, I also feel like I failed "women in science" by failing to enter the field at all.

    Thank you in advance to anyone who bothers to read this post. I know I sound ridiculous, but any career advice will be greatly appreciated and give me some perspective. Thank you!

    • beakers4change says:

      As a former TA for organic chemistry I wish I would have been there to help you and relieve your frustrations to help you through the class! I think it is really cool that you are gathering up interest in science again. Honestly, it would be great to have a more humanistic approach to science and see real and meaningful applications of our studies in the world. So I think it is great what you are doing and having the determination is really important to push through the tough classes. In a way I might be doing the opposite of what you are describing; going from graduate studies in chemistry to science and technology policy because I want to help people directly in a meaningful way. My education has always been evolving and steering me in different directions as I learn, but I've always chased the hardest thing possible - I'm also a narcissist and thus my initial aspiration to be an academic scientist. Now the realization that my personal satisfaction with my career and my own happiness is what matters most in life and that I do not need to prove anything to society (that women can do science) because I know that we can. As those before said we are fighting the system and just getting sucked into it is not going to fix it, changing policy such that it will encourage universities to be more welcoming to female faculty maybe a solution.

      • guilty says:

        Thank you for your thoughtful reply.

        I am also thinking of going the science/tech. policy route, since it will put into effect the background I already have plus my interest in science. I don't know yet how I will go about finishing my biology degree, but as of now I am thinking of taking 2 physics courses (the ones I neglected to take as an undergrad) to get me started re-building my science background. I am still interested in water sanitation/wastewater treatment.

        What kind of science and technology policy issues will you be working on? (I think it would be really cool to work for AAAS - American Association for the Advancement of Science. Is that where you are going by any chance?)

  • third degree says:

    This is a different article for me, that delves on something that has plagued me for the last 5 -6 yrs now. It is so hard to give up not necessarily a career you can't love (I do love science), but a lifestyle you can't be happy in. When you are in the PhD it is easy to think that the lifestyle will become more regulated to give you a life, you will have a certain level of comfort at some point as you gain experience, skills and technical help. It is also very easy to put blinders on and say that won't be me.

    But the stress I feel on leaving science isn't in letting down professors (maybe it is a little) but more to do with the letting go of the fact that I spent 11 years of my life so invested in a career, which it requires, that going back to the drawing board and retraining to a new profession is scary. Both financially, because lets face it the bus drivers make the same amount as us PhDs, and career wise. And like I said it is not science itself that I am unhappy with, but the continued life style of a scientist.

    Thanks for writing this! I can tell when you train your students you actually develop a relationship and care about them.

    PS It does in a way benefit PI's. If trainees go on to successful careers they will likely recruit more postdocs and move up promotion ladder easier. As well as look good to the graduate programs reviews.