When is it Time to Leave Academia?

For the last few months I’ve been debating the concept of leaving academic research to pursue something new.

I have always considered myself on track for a lifetime of academic work, leading to my own research group and training the next generation of scientists. I love bench research and sharing my scientific insights and knowledge with others. Despite that having always been the plan, as I progress through my career, I am realizing more and more that a tenured position is less likely for me.

Thinking about an alternative career at this stage isn’t something new. Postdoctoral roles, particularly in the life sciences, are growing exponentially, largely because funding for the life sciences has more than doubled in the last 10 years. This over saturation of the market has inevitably led to high competitiveness for academic positions, as well as funding.

In the US it has been reported that around 65% of PhD-holders continue into a postdoc, but only 15–20% of those move into tenure-track academic posts. The situation in Europe, although less well reported and analysed is similar.

This career stage is also a pivotal time for women on the academic path. The stats show that the number of women in science rapidly declines after graduating from their first degree, with most women opting to leave academia during or just before postdoctoral roles. This is a multi-faceted problem, caused by lack of support to have a family and a career, historic gender biases and low postdoctoral wages.

For me personally, the drive to leave the academic lab however is that; the longer I remain, the more I become aware that my chances of success further down the path are almost zero. As I get better acquainted with the over-subscription for funding, the need to do lengthier postdoctoral roles and the undervaluing of my skill set by many universities, I realize there are other forums where I can use my scientific knowledge to advance technology, and more directly improve lives.

Research is my passion. Designing and planning experiments, analyzing data and getting to connect the dots is what I live for, but there comes a stage when the cons of the academic environment outweigh the pros.

So back to the question, when is it time to leave?

There are sadly so many reasons to leave academia; the end of your funding, loss of enjoyment in what you’re doing, poor work-life balance, the terrible pay or the serious gender imbalances, to name a few.

For me, I got to the end of a project and started thinking about writing it up, and all I could think was ‘there has to be more?’ I’ve been working and training for this for the last 10 years, and I’ve reached the point where the cycle has become predictable and repetitive. Research and innovation is born out of excitement and enjoyment in what you are doing, and the predictable work style has started to hinder my personal development. That’s surely not the case for all people. For some that comfort and routine is great, but for me I need to keep learning and applying my skills in different ways.

The skills you learn from being  trained as a scientist are really cross-applicable to a whole range of roles, from management to design. The most difficult lesson I’ve had to learn is that, just because this is what I’m doing right now, it doesn’t mean it’s what I have to do forever. It’s not failing by choosing to follow a new path and, equally, it’s not mundane if you love what you do and what to stay doing it for a lifetime.

I love science, and I love research, but maybe now is the time to try something new….