Recently, there has been some talk among the Chefs here at the Kitchen about the role of former academics in scholarly publishing. It all started with a post on another blog calling into question whether it’s somehow damaging to the industry to have former researchers working in the sector and questioning the motivations of such people. A couple of weeks ago, the discussion culminated in an Ask the Chefs post that was excellently curated, as always, by Ann Michael. There may be more coming soon on the topic, so stand by. At the risk of being self-referential and laboring the theme, I thought it worth thinking about the flip-side of this discussion a bit and explore that most stigmatized of career changes — leaving academia.
Last week, I was in a meeting during which a new team member at Digital Science was introduced to some of us. We were asked to engage in the familiar ritual awkwardness of going around the table and giving a little background about ourselves. When it came to my turn, I did what I imagine everybody does and explained my job function and professional bio while simultaneously trying to come across as important and valuable without sounding like I was showing off. Immediately after I’d finished my series of vague humble-brags, I was asked a question to which I have a well practised answer:
‘Why did you leave academia?’
Admittedly, the question does have some context, given the environment in which I work, and it’s fair to say I’ve never been bashful about explaining why I left or why I chose to work in scholarly publishing. I have noticed, though, that even outside of my work environment, it’s a question that I get asked a lot. In fact, when people find out I used to work at a university, it’s often the first thing they ask. It seems much more interesting than what I used to work on, or indeed what I do now. The phrasing is occasionally quite loaded; so, why did you leave?, or even better, Why did you drop out? As I will explain, I didn’t drop out, I quit. There’s a difference.
People are fascinated with the image of the academic drop-out. Did you know that Gates, Jobs, and Zuckerburg are all drop-outs? Of course you did, everybody does. There’s something of the maverick about a person who says to hell with all this ivory tower nonsense, I’m going to change the world. On the other hand, dropout conjures images like Jeffrey Lebowski, the lead character in Coen Brothers movie, The Big Lebowski, an amiable but feckless pot-smoking recreational bowler. When people come across somebody who left academia, they can’t help but wonder into which category they fit.
The answer is: neither. People who were once academic researchers but aren’t any more are not drop-outs, they didn’t start something and fail to finish it, they’re just people who have changed jobs. A lot of people in all walks of life change careers. My next door neighbor, for example, is a politician who used to be a lawyer, I know somebody who used to own an Italian restaurant but now works as a Fortran programmer, and I remember my old A-level English teacher had a previous career as a chicken farmer. Sometimes, people change what they do because they think they’ll be better at it, they’ll enjoy it more, they think it’ll pay more, or they just fancy a change. So why do we think of leaving academia so differently to other careers?
Last year, I did a couple of careers talks. I was emailed out of the blue by Jo Young, who among other things runs the excellent E-Club (E for entrepreneur) at Edinburgh business school. Off the back of that one, I spoke at the Nature Jobs Expo in London. The talks I was asked to give were the fairly common hybrid of How I got where I am today/What I wish I knew when I was your age that many of us have given at some point. What was more interesting was the reaction of some of the people in the audience, particularly those who approached me afterwards.
There was a lot of angst among postdocs thinking of leaving academia to find jobs elsewhere. Part of it was certainly due to a perceived lack of career guidance. While it’s certainly true that most institutions have at least some non-academic careers support for graduate students, the amount of help that is given to postdocs looking to change careers is minimal. This is partly due to the fact that traditionally, most postdocs were using the job as a stepping stone to an academic career, with very few choosing a different path. Another aspect is that some institutions don’t act as if they have very much of a duty of care towards postdocs at all. It’s not unfair to say that most early career researchers have very little idea of what other careers are even possible outside of a vague notion of going into industry.
Several of the early career researchers who approached me after my career talks didn’t really have a specific question but wanted to know how to cope with redefining themselves as people who aren’t academics. A lot of postdocs have spent a large proportion of their lives thinking of themselves as researchers and academics and when they realize they may have a different destiny, or that academia is not what they imagined, they experience a kind of quarter-life crisis. Worse still, talented graduate students and postdocs are often dissuaded from seeking a career change by colleagues and more senior academics, as well as a kind of general stigma that sees careers outside of the ivory tower as somehow less meaningful.
To compound the effect, most people with a Ph.D. have a stubborn streak. I’d go so far as to say that the ability to hang on in the face of a terrifyingly overwhelming task is really the key trait in obtaining a PhD. Stubbornness can be a very positive trait, but it has a downside. In this environment, it’s easy for postdocs to get stuck in a career limbo, chasing a career path that either they are unlikely to achieve or worse still, they don’t actually want.
The truth is that there are orders of magnitude more postdocs than academic positions. While some will say that this is due to a combination of overproduction of Ph.D.s and inadequate research funding, I’m not sure that’s the whole picture. Those of us interested in the health of academia should, of course, call for greater funding, but at the same time, even if funding rose at a reasonable level, the numbers simply don’t add up. On the other hand, there is an upside to having a more educated population. If people are trained and supported correctly, they can use their skills and knowledge to be more productive and effective workers. The problem is that we’re not doing anywhere near enough to support people in leaving the ivory tower.
With so many postdocs struggling to compete for so few academic positions, perpetuating the stigma that surrounds leaving academia is extremely unhelpful. It discourages those who either shouldn’t be or don’t want to be academics from taking the difficult steps needed to move on. The education sector and society in general must embrace the fact that there are more uses for a Ph.D. than being a professor and stop perpetuating the myth that those who choose not to pursue that career path, have failed in some way.