We have come to the end of the post-PhD career profile series where we’ve heard from my friends who have left academia and those who have stayed. I hope that it was useful and inspiring for those who are currently doing a PhD. You may have noticed that people left/stayed in academia for many different reasons. There isn’t a formula for what you should or shouldn’t do but I have noticed some trends which I want to summarise.
Quite a few people have left academia to pursue what has been described as more clinically relevant work. E.g. medicine and the pharma industry. I think that in the past academia has been all about basic science but nowadays, funding bodies are asking for clinical relevance in project proposals and PhD students are well trained in thinking about the “Who cares?” in their work.
It was noted by almost all who are staying in academia that they enjoy being able to work independently. Although those who have left academia have not really said they missed or disliked independent working, some do comment that they enjoy being part of a team in their new roles. Maybe this is a trait to distinguish what career path might suit you better?
A few non-academics say they left because they wanted more short-term goals/things to tick off a list rather than hours and hours of work to find that something needs repeating again. And on the other side, the persevering postdocs don’t really bring this up as a negative point. Rather, many mention they love the challenges that research brings and the satisfaction when they solve it. Personally, I feel that when I complete a panel on a figure is a tick off a list. It’s just that most things take a few baby steps (optimising protocols, biological/experimental replicates) before you actually get to make a tick – and when you do, it’s very rewarding.
A few non-academics have also noted that they miss being an ‘expert’. I think this is because a PhD is a really intense relationship between the student and their research topic. Like a break up, you would miss the comfort of what you know but ultimately, if it wasn’t good for you, you’ll learn to love your new career path if it’s the ‘one’.
Many who have left academia and those who are still in it talk about wanting a permanent contract and job security. If you want to become a principal investigator leading your own research, you have to show independence and raise your own funding – I don’t think the postdocs on an academic career path mind this, what they mind is the lack of funding and how competitive it has become. It can be a bit discouraging when you think your hard work and science brilliance might not reward you with your dream job – so the ones who persevere must LOVE science A LOT.
In addition to looking at the reasons of people’s career choices, I also asked them for their advice for those of you think of taking on a PhD. Read the profiles for more details but in short, here are the main points:
- Choose your PhD supervisor carefully – speak to the lab members
- Choose a research topic you really love or that sparks a genuine interest in you
- Love the science process – it involves (a lot of) repeating the hypothesis/optimise- plan-experiment cycle
- Be prepared for hard work and it not being a walk in the park
- Take advantage of workshops and develop your transferable skills
- If you’re thinking of taking the academic career path – publish and network!
- Have a plan and have a plan B
- Most important of all, enjoy it! Make friends, do fun things, and make the most of it!
I’d like to thank all my friends who took part in the mini career profile series this time! I wish them all the best of luck in their career endeavours and I look forward to a follow-up in the future!
The career profiles might have also made some of you more confused than ever before about what to do afterwards and I want to say to these people – don’t worry! You have a whole lifetime* ahead of you and sure, the next step might be a ‘bad’ decision but it won’t be the end of the world and it may actually be a ‘good’ decision where you’ve a) learnt more about what you really want to do and b) picked up some more or developed existing skills. Everything you do will be character building. I am telling you this from my own experience; I’ve learnt that if it’s really where your heart lays, it won’t be too late to get back on track. (But it has been and will continue to be a lot more hard work.)
Like Aaliyah sings, “If at first you don’t succeed, dust yourself off and try again!”
*Not a whole lifetime but definitely more time than you think (I mean, we are going to be working until we’re 70)! For those of us aiming for an academic career path, some Research Councils have lifted the ‘years post PhD’ limit which will buy us a li’l bit of time too.