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?