Jul 10, 2020 | Why Did I Really Leave Academia? Top 16 Reasons
[Alert: quite a long blog post this time!]
The Reasons Why I Decided to Write This Post
I finally defended my PhD thesis three weeks ago. It feels like finishing a massive project. I wanted to be a researcher ever since I was a preschool student. Thus, I feel like finishing a project that is not 4 or 7 years- but the whole 28-year-old.
Now my unconditional love for neuroscience is more or less gone. Yet still, while reading my thesis once again to prepare for the defense, I could see why I fell in love with this subject-matter these many years ago. So, why did I really leave academia?
After all, all these concepts of causality in the brain or the brain at rest, sound very cool. And it’s a fascinating research problem: how to shake out the maximum amount of information based on very noisy data? Even now, after I learned how hard, tedious, and non-rewarding being a researcher can be, it was very interesting to read through once again.
So, right now, my feelings are a mixture of nostalgia, pride, melancholy, and hope, contaminated with little regrets. Plus, the economic crisis and the pandemic behind the window makes this mix of emotions even more explosive.
Cooling Down After The PhD Defense
In the past few weeks, I spent some time on chilling and cooling down after my defense. Now, I can say a few words about the real reasons why I left academia. By the way, I must say that I didn’t really quit doing research though! — these are two separate and almost unrelated things. And, I didn’t necessarily leave for the exact reasons that most people who know me think I did.
First to say, everyone who leaves the academic system has their own private motivations, and their own way to do it. For me, leaving academia was not a rapid decision taken on a particular. Instead, it was a long process and a slow mental change that was going on in the back of my head for years.
Initially, I decided not to look for a Postdoc job for a year after my PhD contract expired. I just wanted to rest after the intense and emotionally draining PhD (I described this experience in the blog posts “The gap year“ and “The gap year — vol. 2“).
Yet, in the process of healing and recharging, I got involved in many activities that ultimately turned out to be more joyful and rewarding than my research career had ever been. And in the end, the vision of me getting a Postdoc job started fading away on behalf of other career prospects. In the end, after over two years of inner struggle, I accepted that my mission is now different than helping the field of human neuroimaging to progress.
I talked about the most popular reasons for why academics tend to leave academia in my recent book entitled “What Is out There For Me? The Landscape of Post-PhD Career Tracks“ (Chapter 1). My personal list partially overlaps with that one. In fact, there are multiple reasons for this final decision. It’s never just one reason why you decide to change your whole life I think I could list hundreds of different reasons. However, for this article, I narrowed this list down to the top 16 given in (almost) random order. Enjoy 🙂
My intuition was just telling me that this is not the right path for me. And I feel quite disappointed with myself that I didn’t notice the fact before. I guess this voice of intuition had been speaking to me for a long time in fact. But, I was always to tired and too absorbed with everyday problems to pay attention.
Sometimes, you put an enormous amount of effort into a project. Yet, for some reason, there is little to no progress for a long time. You think you have a plan, you think you know what you are doing, you sweat a lot, you have developed sacred patience. And, you take all the hits on your chest with a smile on your face.
Yet, the rest of the universe is somewhat non-welcoming to all these efforts. Everything turns out more problematic than expected. You just keep on bumping into wrong people and wrong projects all the time. You feel almost a physical resistance as if some divine force was pulling you back. One sick joke after another.
And then, you finally take a punt and try something new. And then, all the resistance from the rest of the universe is suddenly gone. I took my first baby step outside academia by applying for the unpaid position of Career Development and Mentoring Manager in the Student and Postdoc Special Interest Group within the Organization for Human Brain Mapping. OHBM is one of the biggest organizations assembling researchers working in the field of human neuroimaging.
To my surprise, I was accepted for this position. And, I highly enjoyed working in this council and coordinating the International Online Mentoring Program created and managed by this council. Then, I took one more, a bit bolder move. I created a concept of a public foundation, Stichting Solaris Ondrzoek en Ontwikkeling. I wrote the statutory document, and I set the organization up at a notary.
Then, the foundation slowly started rolling. So, I took other steps. I wrote my first book, I set my company, Ontology of Value, and I started working on novel aptitude tests and a novel recruitment program within this company.
There were some hiccups of course. After all, all the things I was doing in the last 3 years, were new to me. Yet, 90% of the time, I was astonished by how easy things were — rather than how difficult.
All of a sudden, the right people pop up on the way in my life. Some unusual coincidences happen, and people are much more helpful and understanding towards your little failures than you’ve anticipated. Perhaps, this is what happens when others see and value how hard you try. And, things just keep on rolling in the most unexpected ways.
So, at some point, I came to the conclusion that this might be the right path for me. What was originally assumed to be just a side-kick activity before I take a second break and start a Postdoc job, has now become my way of living. And I am not sure where I will be in five or ten years, but I am sure that I am making baby steps in the right direction.
2. Hard Life for Generalists
I am a generalist. I learned this fact the hard way during my PhD. Neuroscience is a large field that involves over 100,000 people worldwide working full time in brain research. Human neuroimaging is a large subfield — I would say that probably, around 20,000-30,000 people in total. fMRI research is a substantial portion of this field — probably 10,000-20,000 people worldwide, although I cannot provide a definite number. And I would say that 10-20% of the people involved work on new methods for fMRI — that would be 1,000-4,000 people in total. Of those, 95% of the population realized a long time ago that causality is a stinky research problem.
It’s extremely hard to solve — both in terms of conducting projects and publishing the results — when compared with the methods based on functional connectivity or simple correlations. Plus, it’s quite a non-rewarding topic. Methodological papers published in this area aren’t cited too often, usually. This means that perhaps, any number between 50 and 200 people are currently working on this particular subject.
Of course, when your new paper comes out, most people in your field won’t even notice your work on top of all the noise. As a result, you can hope for maybe 20-100 people to find and read your work. This is just an extremely focused and specialistic discipline. And one paper is 1—2 years of your full-time hard work!
After as little as one year of my PhD, I was already frustrated about this situation. I personally prefer to think about big problems that are relevant to a lot of people. I would rather have a little, anonymous, and almost undetectable contribution to a big societal problem than revolutionize a “field” that consists of 100 people scattered worldwide. So, during my PhD studies, I was getting more and more frustrated.
Of course, generalists can survive in academia. Actually, for professors, i’s even encouraged if they propose big concepts of interest to the broad research community. Concepts that might potentially change the future research trajectory in some large subfield of science. But you need to get there first! — You need to first meet supervisors who will recognize your generalist’s mind, and help you develop in that direction. Most people, including me, weren’t that lucky.
Now, I can steer my career my way. Thus, I turned to work on a topic that is of interest to almost anyone who is breathing — namely, helping people with finding the right jobs.
Also, I always enjoyed the conceptual stage of the projects the most — the following long months of tedious execution by writing codes felt the worst to me. Programming gives me a very itchy feeling of isolation and anxiety, while working with people makes me feel dope.
So now, instead of looking for another job where creating ideas is 5% of the job, and 95% is programming in silence, I found a job in which 100% of the time is spent on creating new concepts, writing them down, and sharing them with other people. And I feel dope every day.
3. Lack of Sense of Humor
Let’s be honest: the sense of humor is not very well received in academia. And especially in the formal situations: in the conference talks, research articles, grant proposals. Using humor is just (wrongly!) associated with the lack of research quality or with inappropriate attitude. As a result, every text and every presentation are so boring that you need to first pour five coffees down your throat to even process until the end.
Plus, you can’t really express any opinions or emotions while doing your job. If you want to just be you, you need to basically hop on Twitter. And this might be why so many academics spend so much time there, actually… Academia is truly like a Shaolin monastery — the same dead serious, just more boring and unhealthy for the associated people.
I would probably not even realize the fact if not the blockchain conferences in Amsterdam that I use to attend. When I attended the first one, I felt punched in the face by the colloquial language and occasional F-words coming from the stage. But then I got to like this highly informal atmosphere. In these events, people were just themselves and that didn’t prevent them from getting their message across. And then I thought to myself, “Why do I even need to choose between doing the actual job, and expressing myself? Maybe I can have both at a time.”
4. Dysfunctional System
As a PhD candidate, I often felt like the character played by Seth Rogen in the movie “The Disaster Artist” must have felt. If you haven’t seen the movie, it’s actually a movie about the making-off of another movie, “The Room,“ a.k.a., the worst movie in the history of cinematography.
So, the movie follows what was happening on the set of “The Room“ and showcases all the absurd situations and decisions of the director, the eccentric, one and only Tommy Wiseau. In the movie, Seth Rogen plays a crew member who is the only rational person on the whole set. He can’t stop asking questions why things are done the way the are done — only to hear that this is so “because this is the way it is, so cash your salary and shut up.“
Seth Rogen and James Franco in the movie “The Disaster Artist“. A highly recommended watch! Interestingly, James Franco is currently enrolled as a PhD candidate in English at Yale University.
So, I often felt the same. I was asking perfectly valid questions to my superiors, e.g.:
a) Whether I have a daily supervisor who openly declares that he doesn’t want to have PhD students and explodes his frustration on me. While at the same time, there are so many Postdocs around who do want to have PhD students,
b) Why we don’t change the scope of my PhD project given that after one your of research I came to the clear conclusion that it’s not possible to solve the research problem posed in this project,
c) If it wouldn’t be better if I collaborate with someone who works on the same type of research problem (and there are people fitting the criteria in the institute) rather than sitting alone in my cubicle all the time,
d) If it makes any sense that I spend half a year reimplementing the simulation study from the paper that my supervisor co-authored. Rather than just asking the collaborator for all the codes and running them from my computer,
e) If the fact that I’m asked to reiterate the analysis for as long as it takes to get a nice set of p-values isn’t an bad research practice a.k.a., p-hacking.
But every single time, my words were either falling on death ears or I was being openly told to be quiet and keep on working as I am paid for. “This is how we do science here,” “You are not in a position to discuss your project,” “You are not in a position to talk about the rules” — so I heard over and over again.
At some point, I realized that even if I get rid of people I currently have to work with, this will never change anyways. Everyone in academia, even full professors, have people over them who can use power to push them to do absurd things. And if you’ve never watched “The Disaster Artist,“ I would recommend it — just to check whether you also feel like Seth Rogen’s character by any chance.
5. Give a Chance to the Young People!
I don’t really like environments dominated by the demographic. Namely, the environments where the oldest people have all the power, often because of the bare fact that they’ve spent the most time around. I highly prefer environments where only competencies decide how much you can actually do. In such setting, young people can also have a say.
When I am in such an environment, I always feel like being on the edge of self-organized criticality. Anything can happen at any moment. Every day is yet another chance for a major breakthrough. I just like to see energy, youth, and creativity around me — and academia is just not like this.
6. Where Are All the Beneficiaries?
I was also frustrated about the fact that I couldn’t meet the beneficiaries of my work. For worse, it’s possible that there were no beneficiaries at all. My research topic was very theoretical and I could only hope that one day, someone would pick up my methods, apply to their datasets, and pass the results to someone else who would work on the clinical applications. The probability of that ever happening was close to zero. This type of research is often referred to as “basic” or “fundamental.”
Great to call it that way. Still, someone should make sure that there is a good connection between fundamental and applied scientists. In my case, there was none. I felt that I badly needed to take a turn into much more applied fields, or otherwise, I will get an ultimate burnout.
You know, it’s nice to hear compliments from fellow researchers, as it certainly was during my PhD defense. But I would rather hear from one person who thanks me for the way my work improved their life rather than hearing from 100 people who praise me for the potential that my work has.
7. Depression and Learned Helplessness Are Just a Norm in Academia…
…to such an extent that it has become welcome to openly share with the research community how depressed you are (e.g., on the aforementioned Twitter). Nothing wrong with sharing but only as long as you are still looking for solutions.
Yet, there are plenty of “activists” whose only actions boil down to complaining in public and calling out anyone who is potentially responsible for their problems. These people don’t help anyone, they just catch new followers with their crazy rants. Living among such passive and negative people is just unbearable to me.
Besides, I don’t particularly enjoy the working culture dominated by learned helplessness. A culture in which people stand in place with hands crossed and cry over themselves. In academia, life is hard, that’s true. But there are plenty of people who openly promote themselves by openly talking about how hard it is and without giving any solutions.
And, they build their careers this way. In some research environments, this went so far that saying that you are actually happy is treated as a sign of a lack of empathy (I touched this topic in the blog post I wrote some time ago, “Hunting for the happy people“). I’m a type of problem solver, and I like surrounding myself with people who are alike. Thus, this working culture was really draining to me.
As a matter of fact, everyone experiences some hardship in their professional lives, not only academics. The point is that communicating the negatives to the public is a very short-time strategy to feel better. In the long run, this behavior conditions you to focus on reinforcing the problems in your mind rather than looking for solutions.
I can see that, unlike academics, entrepreneurs have a strong incentive to play it cool and pretend that things are better than they truly are. However, in the long run, they are also happier in their professional lives. If you focus on trying to be happy regardless of the circumstances, you’ll reach the goal sooner or later. So, between the two, I would rather choose this path.
8. Wrong Reward System
Your salary primarily depends on the amount of time spent in academia up to this point, and not on how productive you are. It’s very simple: the longer you are able to keep your position, the more you earn.
For instance, in the Netherlands, all salaries in the public sector are regulated by the government (the public Labor Agreement). In other countries, this looks a little bit different. E.g., in the US salaries in academia differ depending on the state as the living costs very across the country. In any case, there are some local rules that your employer will need to follow.
This means that every two PhD students get more or less the same salary. This is true even if one of them works their butt off and publishes 10 research papers during their PhD while the other one spends half a day gossiping by the coffee machine, and publishes pretty much nothing.
Sometimes, it even works the other way around: the person who gossips the whole day lands the next contract because they are befriended with a lot of people around and know about the opportunities. While the person who was working behind the closed door, doesn’t.
This is a very demotivating factor (or at least so it was to me), and feels very unfair. Especially if you actually are that productive person who works behind the closed door and ends up without a contract.
Don’t get me wrong; I didn’t set a company because I aim to be rich. I just prefer the system in which if you consciously decide work double and you produce two times more value to other people (more content, products or any other form of innovation), you also earn double. I find this system fair.
Also, regardless of what the society thinks about academia, it’s not a place where creativity, or novelty, are promoted. To live well in academia in the long run, you need to play the publication game. This rarely has anything to do with real innovation.
Of course, if you happen to be born as a creative person, it’s still possible to survive in academia. But you will still need to accept the rules of the game and you will need to make some extra effort to find some time to be creative next to playing the game.
Of course, there are also some real idealists and artists who survive in academia. But this is usually the case only because they luckily found themselves next some good player with a lot of impact who came to the conclusion that it’s beneficial to keep them around.
To conclude, if you really want to have a job in which creativity and thinking out of the box are the major factors for success, you should go industry, and preferably, set your own company.
9. Poor Teamwork
It’s not a secret that academia is dysfunctional, all from the undergraduate to the professorship level — and in many ways. The university courses are given by overworked professors who would prefer to do their research instead. There are just too many students per teacher. On the graduate level, there are also additional problems such as abusive people overusing their power, (passive) aggression, and mobbing.
But especially, what affects both the mental health and the quality of research, is poor teamwork. This problem is obvious to anyone who has ever been associated with academia — but I’ll mention it anyways, just for the records. The quality of teamwork in academia is very low, mostly due to the fact that the system of incentivizing people is flawed.
At the end of the day, everyone needs to mind their own CV, namely, the projects they are leading rather than projects in which they play an auxiliary role (I mentioned this reason in my book as well). People literally don’t respond to your emails for months and don’t face any consequences for acting this way. Especially if they are in a position of power.
This is effectively blocking other people’s projects, and as a consequence, blocking their whole careers. To make it even worse, the same people who notoriously don’t respond to your emails, are glued to Twitter for the whole days. Which best demonstrates how busy and responsible they really are…
I still remember that shock I felt when I learned that entrepreneurs answer my emails within one hour, usually accompanied by an apology for the fact that I had to wait more than a few minutes. “Is this for real?“ — I asked myself. “This is heaven!”
Feudal System In Academia
Furthermore, a lot of people who are in more senior positions, leech on you — to put it simply. They know that they will end up on the authors’ list from the very start, so they don’t even try to pretend that they work on the project at all.
I also didn’t enjoy the fact that I had little freedom to choose people to work with. At the end of my PhD the situation got better, mostly because my academic contract expired and no one could tell me anymore what project I should or shouldn’t do. Then, research projects finally started working for me as I could simply avoid toxic or incompetent people. And of course, surprise surprise, all of a sudden I started to publish much more than before.
My problem was that in case I came back to academia and landed a Postdoc position, there was a danger that the situation would get back to “normal.” Meaning the lack of freedom again. And I think that I no longer have the patience for this lack of synergy…
The opportunity to cherry pick the right people to surround myself with has changed my life for the better. To such an extent that I can’t even imagine coming back to the previous, low standards. It just feels all too good! Besides, hunting for the right people is exciting too.
10. False Impact
A lot of people just do “projects” or “initiatives” to “raise awareness” — especially on social media. In fact, many of these projects don’t have any deliverables and their only real purpose is to increase the following of the leader on Twitter.
There is a lot of noise in the public space, and fighting for attention not substantiated by any real content. Many researchers spend half of their working time sitting on Twitter and engaging in conversations only to tell other people that they are sorry to hear about their problems and to get likes and followers. And, the taxpayers pay for that from their income tax!
I have friends who are active on Twitter — both in academia and beyond — but they first produce new, original content and develop valuable projects offline. And, they log into Twitter to spread good content, information, and fellow advice. While many people get it all wrong, and instead of spreading content, they only spread noise and misery — yet they really think that what they do, is influential.
Also, there is also lots of hypocrisy in the public space, especially when some particular subject goes viral. Then, everyone suddenly turns into an activist who has this subject at heart. The recent outburst of anti-racist protests is a good example for this phenomenon.
I observe many Twitter communities, not only the academic Twitter, so I have a comparison how different environments reacted to the same problem. As a matter of fact, the online buzz that emerged in the scientific community was incomparable to the amount of attention that this subject earned in the private sector.
To make it clear, the problem of racism is real, important, and should be solved. BUT, the issue is that in academia, all the attention racism receives is a mixture of real interest and care, with fake interest shown only for the sake of likes and follows. There is quite a massive percentage of people who move from one topic to another depending on what is fashionable at the moment. They praise and retweet resources without ever reading them and call out anyone they can for not paying attention.
They strive to get as many likes as possible and keep on competing for the title of “the most engaged and caring person.” For instance, in 2019, the big topic on academic Twitter was the carbon footprint. While in 2020, I haven’t seen one Twitter post on this subject! Where are all these people right now?
Where Did The Ecologists Hide?
The truth is, the same individuals who used to be feisty ecologists fighting for clean air last year, completely changed their scope of interest now. This summer, all of them have suddenly became anti-racist activists as there is hype for this topic at the moment.
And, similarly like they didn’t solve the problem of carbon footprint, they also don’t propose any solutions to approach the problem of racism. But rather, they call out other people and/or institutions for racism and collect followers. I’m looking forward to see how many viable solutions for tackling racism will come out of this buzz (and I sincerely hope there are any!), and how many people will still advocate for the ethnic minorities’ rights in 2021.
As an author, I also know how hard it is to convey your message given how much noise there is online. There are probably some people out there who have viable solutions to the problem of racism in their hand but their message is invisible among all the noise that the follow-collectors induce.
So, I made just one anti-racism statement on Twitter and stepped back. I preferred to give the floor to those who have some solutions at hand. And I’m not going to take part in a race for the title of the activist of the year.
Besides, it’s again not the people but the system that is responsible for this problem. In academia, you need to be influential in one way or another to survive. The granting agencies expect you to be sort of recognized in the research community and develop a good PR — whatever that means.
As a matter of fact, not everyone will ever be able to publish in Nature, or get a Nobel prize; the scarcity of these high achievements is exactly what makes them attractive and powerful. Yet, anyone can create a Twitter profile, start collecting followers and Twitter-friends.
Again, this can lead to positive events — today, Twitter is not only a way to create new circles but also to build new research projects and collaborations. But unfortunately, it most often leads to a lot of noise instead.
To make it clear, I like Twitter and I find it very useful. I even co-authored one recent publication about Twitter. The point is that, the original role of Twitter was to spread important information, create new trends, induce discussion, and help people create personal and professional networks — especially if for some reasons it’s hard in their current working environment. While what is happening today, is something else.
I sometimes need to spend a few minutes scrolling down the Twitter wall to find anything that I could even call news or information in the first place. Everything I notice are gifs, public complaints, and angry statements from self-proclaimed activists.
And that’s something that drains me, especially given how much misery and (often empty) activism I need to digest in the process. Do you know that every time you complain, you shorten the lives of those who read your complaints?
Plus, as mentioned before, the society pays for this! If you were working in a private company and your boss found out that you are spending hours and hours in your working time on spreading gifs, joking around, or developing your private activism ambitions, you would lose your job immediately. Money for research doesn’t grow on trees, it’s taken from nurses, street cleaners, teachers, and all the other hard working people.
These people are enforced to pay high income tax hoping that this money will be spent in a good way, for instance on research. They don’t give this money away with a purpose to create a huge online dustbin!
I have a company now and I’m also a hard working citizen who doesn’t get any money from any academic institution. I need to work hard and pay high income tax from anything that I manage to earn. And, when I see how my tax money is consumed, I’m not happy at all. Not mentioning that the pathological Twitter users who tweet every 5 minutes and complain in public about how overworked and oppressed they are, are ridiculous.
11. I Had a Desire to Test the “no-constraints” Condition
What would happen if I completely free my mind? When I only do the things I enjoy in life? When I only work with people whom I like? During my PhD, I was pushed and pulled around way too much. I was forced to work with people who were often dysfunctional, and on dead-end projects that were giving little payoff given the amount of work put into the project.
I wanted to see what would happen if I just let go. If I let myself freely gravitate towards some new career by making baby steps towards whatever I feel strong at, and whatever I enjoy, with whoever I enjoy working with. So far so good! I can testify that you can make much more progress in one year if you walk in the right direction than in 15 years if you are pushed and pulled in every direction.
Also, I love this “all is one” lifestyle. Just a blend of work, sleep, friendship, effort, joy, creativity, daydreaming, relax. Yes, of course, in academia, it’s also the case that professional and private life are close together. After all, academics tend to make close friends with their coworkers, keep on thinking about research problems even when they are on vacation, and use social media not only to rest and burn some time but also to make new collaborations. Yet still, I felt that life was fractured into pieces.
Whenever I was at the office, when I was presenting to others, talking to my students, etc., I had to show some persona. This wasn’t the same “me” that I could expose while having beers with friends or so. I felt I had a few different personalities depending on the situation just because this was expected of me. Now, I feel more like being myself — consistent and quite indifferent to the external circumstances.
12. The Sense of Guilt Is Just Draining
Academia forces you to feel guilty every single time you are not working, and most people experience a lot of anxiety for this reason. If you take a day off as an entrepreneur, you can also get an itchy feeling as well After all, you might (directly or indirectly) lose some clients.
But, this is your decision and the trade-off you actively choose to take. I never felt guilty for taking a free day since I left academia. I (sort of) pay for it in cash — and not in a feeling of being left behind.
13. Scientific Projects Have a Dead End
The moment you see your paper published online, the project is usually finished. Then, you move on to the next one. And, usually, you try to forget about the whole tedious publication process. People, on the other hand, are projects that live on. Every person is a new open book, and when you help them in finding a new job, it’s the start of some new journey. As long as they are still alive, your paths will cross again sooner or later. And, I really enjoy opening doors everywhere I go.
14. Sanity Check
When you are 30+ and you have been working hard all your life, you should already know what you are good at and what you are not. And sometimes, it’s good to admit to yourself that you are just not talented for something. One door getting shut means another door just getting opened somewhere else.
So, I feel that academia is not an environment that would reinforce the skills and talents that I have. Firstly, I already learned the hard way that programming is just not my thing. It doesn’t give me any satisfaction as an activity. Moreover, no matter how much hard work I was putting into it, I reached some upper limit of programming skills over which I couldn’t progress anymore.
Also, it’s one of these activities for which, whenever I break the pattern of constant practice, my level immediately drops. Plus, I suspect that I might have an undiagnosed dyslexia — I make quite a number of typos per volume of text. Even after rereading the text a few times, I still cannot pick up on many of these typos, they are somehow invisible to me.
You know, when you write a prose such as a blog post as a dyslectic person, the typos remain just typos. It’s a little inconvenience to the reader, but overall, typos don’t change the meaning of the text. However, if you write a code, typos can lead to huge problems and result in false discoveries, malfunctioning products, and even people getting harmed down the line.
In the end, I came to the conclusion that will be better for the world if I didn’t have a job in which programming is the pivotal part. And, I know that if I chose to continue in neuroimaging, I would need to do it for a few more years before I get my own students to do all the programming for my projects. In the same amount of time, I can get much further while doing things I love doing every single day.
Yet another aspect is the leadership: I don’t have any problem leading projects. I successfully led many projects in the past. However, I’m not sure if I would like to be an employer to a group of people. At the moment, I highly prefer partnering with subcontractors and other partnership-ish relations instead.
Academia is hardwired in a way that you must become a leader to a group of people at some point, and it’s just not my favorite scheme of work. Many listen to my advice daily but they do so because they respect my knowledge and/or life experience and because they trust me.
And not because I pay them to do what I asked. Influencing people without exerting any power over them (sort of a Yoda style mentoring) brings me much more satisfaction than the traditional employment would ever do.
15. You Can Only Have One Passion at a Time
When I was starting my PhD, I was passionate about the topic of causality in the human brain. Now, I’m focused on solving a completely different problem. And, although it’s a very human problem, it has almost nothing to do with the human brain. And, as Paul Graham pointed out, you need to be a fanatic in order to achieve any real innovation.
It’s debatable but I believe that you only have space for one passion at a time. In my case, one passion was replaced by another one and that’s how my academic career track in human neuroimaging has naturally died.
16. The Source of Motivation
This is probably the most important reason among all. At the end of the day, there are only two types of motivation you can ever have. Namely, you are either driven by fear or by love. And academics are often driven by fear. When you enter the PhD track, you are excited to do science.
But with time, you spend less and less of your time thinking about research problems on behalf of planning how to hold your position for as long as possible. First-year PhD students talk about research projects and courses by lunch, while fourth-year PhD students only talk about whose contract is going to expire next and how this person could or couldn’t stay around.
This never-ending fear of a loss makes people really miserable and toxic to each other. When I made friends with entrepreneurs, this was the first time when I realized that one can actually live differently, have no fears, and be motivated by a genuine desire to grow. And, that’s what I chose.
So, Why Did I Really Leave Academia and Was It a Good Decision?
I couldn’t point to just one reason. After all, big breakups in life are usually caused by a combination of factors, and this big decision was no different than any other. I can only say that I have a strong feeling it is a good step for me, and I’m excited for the new challenges to come.
What do I do about my life now? I established Ontology of Value, a company in which I started helping PhD graduates like me in finding new, fulfilling careers. I wrote the book “What Is out There For Me? The Landscape of Post-PhD Career Tracks” and I developed intensive career transition workshops that help PhD graduates kick-off new, exciting careers in industry. Do I love what I do? Hell yes! I can also invite you to take a look at my YouTube channel where I talk with PhD graduates in industry as well as professionals representing other, unique career paths.
I have also developed and released a new aptitude test that helps professionals with higher education and strong working ethic in self-navigating in the job market:
The test is based on Alfred Adler’s theory of human motivation and indicates what your natural profile as a value builder is, and where in the job market you can find your tribe: a group of people who think like you and who will appreciate you as a professional. I was developing this test for over two years, using a combination of field research, psychometrics, and machine learning (which I learned during 15 years of my higher education process, all the way from triple MS studies in Physics, Mathematics, and Psychology, to 8 years spent in Computational Neuroscience).
Please find all the information at the test website:
And, my future and the future of the company are all about building value for professionals and helping them self-navigate in the job market. The job market becomes more and more liquid and it requires great self-management skills to develop your career in an optimal way.
I find great satisfaction in discovering and creating new tools to help professionals progress in their careers – and every new project is built upon the know-how and expertise gained in my previous projects. There is no piece out of place in the development of my company! I also recently shared my insights into the factors that help me develop my company as a PhD, and the factors that make it harder in this video.
And, what happened to my academic career? Well, interestingly, it seems that without my involved, it is going better than ever! According to my ratings at Google Scholar Citations, my publications records went ballistic after I left! Sometimes it is just better to let go and not touch anything 🙂
And of course, I wish you best of luck with developing your post-PhD careers, whether it involves building your own business or not!
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Please cite as:
Bielczyk, N. (2020, July 10th). Why Did I REALLY Leave Academia? Top 16 Reasons. Retrieved from https://nataliabielczyk.com/why-did-i-really-leave-academia-top-16-reasons/
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More of my writing about careers:
If you would like to read more about careers (for PhDs and other white-collar professionals) and effective strategies to self-navigate in the job market, please also take a look at the blog of my company, Ontology of Value where I write posts dedicated to these topics.
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