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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':

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.

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