June 13, 2012

Dear Aunt Rex – Should I stay or should I go? by Aunt Rex

Dear Aunt Rex,

I’m a third-year PhD student, and as submission looms ever closer, I’m finding the thought of the academic career for which I have been training less and less appealing.

My problem seems like a really silly one, but the truth is that I’m scared that I don’t want what I thought I wanted.Nine to Five

I look at my colleagues, established lecturers in my department, and the pressure they are under, the juggling of priorities and the individualism and competitiveness, and I can feel myself physically shrink. I feel alienated from academic culture. I have increasingly little tolerance for academese and jargon – sometimes I just want to jump out of my seat and scream at people to just say what they mean. I feel like everyone around me is their research, and defines themselves through their academic position, and basically lives to work. I just don’t feel like that at all. I feel passionate about lots of things, but my research is just one of them.

And, as I watch my peers, whom I respect and love, tackle admirably the quest of the early career researcher and that difficult period between the viva and that elusive first full-time lectureship, I just picture myself being crushed and worn down by the insecurity and stress – all for something that I’m not even sure would make me happy.

What’s weird is that I enjoy all the elements of academic life – I get such a buzz from teaching, and I love the research process and seeing the results. I don’t even mind the admin so much! But I increasingly feel like I don’t ‘fit’ here, and that academia isn’t the warm, stable, flexible career I once thought it might be.

I’m also thinking about starting a family, but the status of PhD students and the uncertain prospects of the early career research stage has made me feel like my life has yet to begin. I can’t see any kind of stability in the near future – maternity leave isn’t really an option if you don’t have a 'proper' job to speak of.

So here I am: racing towards my submission date, frantically trying to publish, publish, publish, so that I can make a name for myself, sat secretly dreaming of job security, full-time hours in the office, a structured career path, a guaranteed income, and being able to leave it all at my desk at the end of the day.

I don’t know how to tell those around me – my peers, my mum and dad, my supervisor! I’m worried that people will think I’m a failure, a quitter and that I’ve wasted three years of my life.

I’m so confused about my future, and I just don’t know who to turn to. What should I do? Please help me, Aunt Rex!



Dear SecretNineToFiver,

You have my full sympathy – Aunt Rex herself knows what a tricky time the transition from submission to ‘first job’ can be. PhD students, Aunt Rex would imagine, present a particular challenge to careers advisors – after all, some of us are surely only here because we have been dodging the question of ‘what are you going to do with your life?’ since we were 15. (Aunt Rex, however, has always known her true calling was to help out research students in need of guidance. It’s a vocation.)

The first thing to remember, dear Secret, is that you are not alone. In fact, 60% of individuals with a PhD go on to work outside academia. And, for the large majority, this is through choice, not because they weren’t good enough to make the cut, or they ‘gave up’ on the thing that they wanted. Academia can be ‘exhausting’, ‘horrifying’ and 'cutthroat', to use just a few phrases Aunt Rex has overheard in the past few months.

In fact, studies have recently been published that demonstrate this very trend – as students progress in the PhD (perhaps as they start to get a glimpse of what academic life really holds), academia as a career becomes less appealing. A recent survey of science PhDs in a top US research universityfound that as students progressed towards the end of their research degrees, the proposition of a faculty research post became increasingly less desirable.

This seems to hold particularly true of women in academia, as this recent report from a longitudinal study of chemisty PhDs in the UK uncovered. By their final year of study, just 12% of women expressed an interest in a career in academic research. As the analysis in The Guardian points out,

This is not the number of PhD students who in fact do go to academia; it's the number who want to. 88% of the women don't even want academic careers, nor do 79% of the men!

Women were more likely than men to see academic careers as all-consuming, solitary and as unnecessarily competitive. The successful female role models available to them were often childless. All these factors and more seemed to make academia an unappealing prospect for these women.

So there are lots of reasons why an academic career might not be for you, and you absolutely need not feel like a ‘failure’ for wanting to jump ship. If it feels like ‘giving up’, then this might not be the right move for you, but if you actively want a shift in direction there is absolutely no call for any shame.

Rather than having ‘wasted three years’, your PhD and the skills you have learnt during it will be a tremendous benefit in both the application/interview process and in any career that you take up after. You’ve just spent the last 3 years independently managing a large-scale project, delivered on time. You’ve attended conferences, speaking publicly about your work and networking with a wide variety of people. You’ve arranged meetings, seminars and/or conferences yourself, managing people and budgets. You might have participated in impact/engagement activities and been involved in translating complex research to different audiences. You’ve taught. And all of this before Aunt Rex even starts to think about the raft of other, non-academic involvements of many of you PhD students.

Employers are hungry for people with these high-level skills. However, the expected career trajectories and advice for different subjects can play a large part in students’ familiarity with the thirst for PhDs in non-academic job markets. Within the sciences, transitions to industry, commercial operations and NGOs are a little more established and expected, and humanities students may have had little information or insight into the opportunities available to them – but they are definitely out there. The alt-academy website, although US-biased, is a great starting place for ideas and stories of working 'off the beaten tenure track': http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/alt-ac/

Finally, SecretNineToFiver, Aunt Rex must urge you not to be afraid to talk about your feelings, fears and dreams to the people around you – both those inside and outside the academy. They will know all the pressures that you’re under, and will empathise with the reasons that you want out. Who knows, they may even feel the same way! Aunt Rex will always remember her colleague, who took up a job in an NGO after finishing his PhD, and was terribly anxious about his parents’ reaction. Expecting disappointment, my colleague was shocked by his mother’s massive sense of relief on hearing the news:

I was worried that you’d led yourself down a path that wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. I think this will be a real turning point for you.

After agony aunts, mums know best. Remember, this is a scary and confusing time, but it is an exciting one, too.

Aunt Rex is handing over to you now, PhDLifers! What is your advice for our SecretNineToFiver? Have you already made the switch to a non-academic role? Are you 100% sure that academia is the career for you? Or have you perhaps found yourself in the same position as Secret?

You can ask Aunt Rex a question here.

- 9 comments by 3 or more people Not publicly viewable

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  1. Alan Smithee

    That little situation you painted (full-time job, with security, and leaving it behind at the end of the day) honestly sounds like nirvana. I’d kill for that! But then I wonder… are there careers that will engage you intellectually (I don’t necessarily just mean academia) that don’t have at least some take-home stress?

    While the vast vast majority of people I’ve met in academia are lovely, helpful and are genuinely interested in collaboration and the exchange of ideas, there are a horrible few that seem intent on eviscerating you, and treat the whole enterprise like some massive, cloak-and-dagger, fight-to-the-death competition (if they could turn it into a Hunger Games-style situation, I think they would). I try to ignore these people as best I can, because frankly, they’re pathetic (and they populate many other careers too. I think it’s just human nature really, and that’s DEPRESSING).

    Overall, however, I feel your pain. I think our whole generation’s been sold down the river, and we are doomed to work longer hours, more years, for less money, whether we become academics or birthday-party clowns. Which is why I dream of changing things by going into politics, which may not be the best way to avoid competitive cruel people and brutal long hours…

    14 Jun 2012, 09:22

  2. I’ve been having this argument with myself for like 2 years now! Have never felt any certainty about wanting to leave, though, and often (but not always) feel like academia is still the right path, so I figure I might as well keep on putting my chips in and make a go of it….for now.

    14 Jun 2012, 11:04

  3. Lauren Thompson

    Obviously a timely concern, SecretNineToFiver, as there are no fewer than TWO articles on this issue in the Times Higher Education today: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=420234&c=2 and http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=420262&c=2 (NB ReX staff – are they stealing our ideas?!)

    The first article suggests that (especially in the arts, humanities and social sciences), there is a strong bias against discussion of non-academic careers, which are seen as, and claims that ‘the norm against making a Plan B serves the interests of professors and universities much better than it does those of young scholars.’

    I think it makes some important points with regards to careers advice from faculty, but there are a few things that don’t sit right with me about it – i.e. I’m not sure that studying for two further qualifications at one time is advisable, and (especially when I was teaching) I’m not sure when I would have got my thesis written if I’d have done work placements/internships during that ‘long summer break’ that we all supposedly get(!)

    I think partly this issue is a question of the value accorded to academic/non-academic careers during the PhD ‘training’ period, and how it seems to be unreflective of the actual rewards/benefits/challenges of either path. In the set-up that we have at the moment, pursuing a non-academic career does seem to have those associations with ‘giving up’ or ‘failure’ that Secret worries about, but, as one of the staff at Careers advised me during a session a few weeks ago, it is rarely perceived this way by employers, and negativity is much more likely to come from the students themselves – because we’ve all been bred to think that academia is ‘the way’!

    Which is kind of what the second article attempts to do – ask questions as to why desires/questions about deviation from the academic norm are so bound up in secrecy and sensitivity. Do both PhDs and non-academic careers need a rebranding?

    I think you’re right, Alan, that all careers have their stresses and their bad eggs, and the culture of overwork extends beyond academia. I guess it’s down to the individual in what areas and at what point you make compromises (e.g. on salary, security, moving away and breaking personal relationships etc.).

    14 Jun 2012, 12:09

  4. Lauren Thompson

    Oh and Anna, I think the ‘for now’ attitude is a great one. Virtually no career decision that you make is permanent, anyway, these days! And keeping re-evaluating your feelings/satisfaction/wallet is probably one of the most sensible things to do in any career path.

    14 Jun 2012, 12:11

  5. Well said, Lauren! The articles sound fascinating. Interesting about Times Higher Ed…....

    14 Jun 2012, 17:40

  6. I wonder whether this is actually a ‘normal’ part of finishing one thing and moving on to the next? I remember feeling like this both at music college and when I was coming towards the end of my midwifery education. Perhaps this is the best time to question our motives for doing something! Lots of student midwives seem to go through something similar when they’re coming towards qualification – fear of not fitting in, fear of making a huge mistake, fear of just not loving the job they’ve worked so hard for…

    On the subject of feeling like academia is not for you – I empathise with that! But I’m going for a ‘suck it and see’ approach. And besides, if so many people think the current emphasis is so badly wrong, there really is only one way to change it, and that’s from within!

    I certainly would never be inclined to think that working outside academia while holding a doctorate could ever, ever, ever be seen as a failure of any kind – the sooner we move away from this attitude of the PhD as some kind of apprenticeship into academia, the better, in my opinion. After all, there’s a whole world out there, and the work you do during the PhD years could be useful in many, many ways…

    One last thing – yes, academia has its stresses, but really, doesn’t every job? You just have to work out which stresses are the ones for you!

    22 Jun 2012, 11:18

  7. Hannah Andrews

    Whilst I think there is a large dollop of naive optimism in this Guardian blog post (by a 4th year PhD Student), I did find it refreshing to have someone talk about the perks of academic life. It’s good to remind ourselves every now and again why we put ourselves through this:


    22 Jun 2012, 11:53

  8. Hannah, have you read the comments underneath?! Some strong feeling there, on both sides of the argument. I agree with you – yes, there’s some optimism there (although it’s not necessarily naive – some people just live their whole life that way!), but equally, it’s great to finally hear a counter-narrative. I wrote a blog on this very subject about a year ago – and yes, I’ve continued to count my blessings ever since!

    I always say, stress is relative to your perspective…and ultimately, such an individual thing. I still get massively embarrassed when I sit in a room with my dearest midwife friends, listening to the tales of maternity life (which I remember only too well), and then they ask me how my work is going…

    22 Jun 2012, 12:18

  9. Chris Atherton

    I think it’s really brave to be asking yourself this question; not only that, but I think it’s really important that you do — that everyone in your position does. It’s surprisingly easy, if you’re the academic type, to travel all the way through the academic funnel (high school, college, postgrad, etc) without really thinking about it. And then you look up, so many years later, and wonder how you came to feel so overstretched and burned out.

    By the time I was finishing up my PhD, I was pretty much burned out on research and felt very much as you describe. The one thing I did still want to do was teach. I managed to secure a faculty position (this was ten years ago, when they were somewhat easier to come by) at a university with a teaching focus, albeit one that was desperately trying to bootstrap itself up into the big leagues and compete against the research giants (a laudable aim, but maybe bordering on delusional). I wanted to forget all about research and concentrate on teaching, and managed to really throw myself into that for several years. Eventually I found out that it was actually possible to research teaching, and I did that with great gusto for a while before concluding that (a) there’s no money in it, (b) there are almost zero promotion prospects in it, (c) not very many academics are interested in changing how they teach, preferring the comfort of outmoded approaches, and that ultimately, (d) academia was not for me, because I need to work in a more technologically-aware and change-oriented environment.

    I bailed out from my fairly secure and well-paid academic job and went to work as a (paid) intern in software for three months, where many of my skills from academia (research, numeracy, ability to wrestle with a problem, etc) came in handy. From there I freelanced a bit and then found a position in the digital sector that suited my mix of skills and experience. I won’t say there’s been no grinding of gears: the speed of things in academia is absolutely glacial by comparison with industry, which took a while to get used to, and I’m still getting used to the fact that I need to tell people what I’ve been doing and account for every hour of my time — very different from academia where if someone else tells you a thing needs to get done, the assumption is that you will do it, and that’s that. The fixed hours of a ‘normal’ job also grate a bit, relative to academia where I could come and go as a I pleased.

    BUT … despite all those settling-in wrinkles, I am still so very glad I left. I’m not stressed by my job, I’m not watching all my colleagues get sick (from stress, mostly), I’m not as frustrated by the state of contemporary higher education and my complicity in it — I had felt for a long time that the system was sick, if not actually broken.

    You will be fine. Your academic skills are relevant in the real world, and your ability to look around you and consider what it is you really want (and evaluate your own needs and values) will be incredibly useful. Brace yourself for some initial acclimatisation, misunderstandings, cultural clashes; get used to saying “I don’t know” again, and try to check your ego at the door whenever possible. But you will be fine.

    Hold your head high, go forth, and be awesome. And please submit your thesis if you possibly can (you sound like you will); that will help a whole lot. Out here, people are actually impressed by someone holding a PhD ;)

    If I can be of any help, ping me — I’m @finiteattention on Twitter. Good luck :)

    23 Jun 2012, 13:43

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