Big Lebowski
The Dude abides. Image via Max Geiger.

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.

Phill Jones

Phill Jones

Phill Jones is a co-founder of MoreBrains Consulting Cooperative. MoreBrains works in open science, research infrastructure and publishing. As part of the MoreBrains team, Phill supports a diverse range of clients from funders to communities of practice, on a broad range of strategic and operational challenges. He's worked in a variety of senior and governance roles in editorial, outreach, scientometrics, product and technology at such places as JoVE, Digital Science, and Emerald. In a former life, he was a cross-disciplinary research scientist at the UK Atomic Energy Authority and Harvard Medical School.


24 Thoughts on "We’re not Drop-outs, We’re Quitters. There’s a Difference!"

I think this is a really important point. Where did we ever get the idea that a PhD was just a professional qualification for an academic career or that it was somehow socially undesirable to have a lot of bright people scattered around who understood the curious world of academia and could act as brokers to communicate more effectively with its denizens. A fair number of my own PhD students are not working in academic careers, but they all have jobs that are creative and fulfilling. Let’s get past the insularity and arrogance that assumes people who are not just like us are somehow failures in life.

A comment from a viewpoint of probable imminent personal plunge into quitter/drop-out/lebowskian space:

For many of us, it is a Failure. But not so much because uncle Joe might think so.

It is a Failure because for most who seek it, being a Scientist is not a job. It does not start at 8am and end at 5pm. Being a Scientist is not contingent on a contract, or a paycheck. Being a Scientist is (very) large part of what we saw ourselves to be, as persons.

Luckily, as we start to approach the edge, and look back, it is reassuring to see how the capital “S” shrivels in everyone else’s badge and their halo evaporates.

I’ve not personally met your uncle Joe, but he seems to be projecting his own sense of disappointment with his personal life choices onto you.

Joking aside, you’re correct. What you describe is certainly a contributor to the difficulty that people face moving on. What needs to happen is for universities to support grad students and postdocs better in their personal career development. There are other ways to be a scientist than in a university and there are certainly a lot more ways to contribute to society.

The Great Recession did a lot to change the market for tenured jobs in the US (or any jobs in academia for that matter). Having graduated with my PhD and lingered as a postdoc in that post-apocalyptic academic job market, dropping out seemed like the best option. I sometimes believe that I engage in post-hoc rationalization–that I’m better off working for myself than working for Ivory Tower Inc., But when I look at my life, I think it was ultimately the right decision. Today is a great day for a bike ride. Thank you sub-prime mortgage crisis: you made me a happier man!

Like you, I am regularly asked “do you miss it” or “would you go back?” The answers to both questions are a resounding “no” and “no”. It fascinates me that this parochial attitude still exists in an era when universities over-populate their graduate schools and fail to provide academic jobs for the vast majority of degree holders. I used to give “alternative career talks” and now I just give “career talks”. At this point, someone getting a job, any job, should be celebrated rather than disdained.

Perhaps some of the failing here is that we’re looking at the attitudes of people who never left school. Most academics go from undergraduate universities to graduate school and then either on to a postdoc or a faculty position. They have no frame of reference, no way of knowing what life is like on the outside (there’s probably some clever reference to be made here to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave

I feel that I was particularly fortunate to have graduate school and postdoc advisors who were more concerned with my happiness and well-being than in confirming their own life choices through their protégés.

You sound like the issue does not exist, but it does. Consider the parallel to trying to get published in high ranking journals, and then rejected. Personal happiness is not the point. Perhaps you should dig deeper. How many of the so-called quitters just lost the race? I know I did, in the sense that my unknown colleague committee failed to recognize my achievements.

In any case, producing ten applicants for every slot is not overproduction. It is competition.

What issue, specifically are you referring to? I can only speak from my experience, as someone who did publish in relatively high ranking journals, but who also knew, probably from the first or second year of graduate school, that I would not be remaining in academia. If personal happiness is not the point in choosing the path of one’s life, then what is?

In any case, producing ten applicants for every slot is not overproduction. It is competition.

It’s basically creating a buyer’s market, which is great for one in ten who gets that slot, but not so great for the other nine. This is compounded by the enormous pressures that Phil writes about where you are continuously told you are a fraud if you consider anything other than an academic career (and in many cases, you are told you are “not committed enough to science” if you want to be a happy person or have a life outside of the lab). This creates a situation where the work takes years and the rewards are few, which tends to drive the best and brightest out of academic research.

My favorite is being told it would be a ‘waste of your brain’ to leave academia.

I agree that 10 applicants for every slot, while clearly competitive, is certainly overproduction, and since it is supported, often, by public funds, it raises questions of whether the money and the time spent by the applicants beforehand are well-spent. The later the drop-out (or quitting) the greater the waste.
My perception may be warped by age, since I am now retired but (low cost) research active out of simple enthusiasm. I had just three PhD students with a span of 26 years between the first and last registration. None became tenured faculty. None intended to do so. One joined a research council, one an Ecological Consultancy, one an IT advisor in a University. The consultant now does non-commercial science research of high quality in his spare time. At least two of the three were certainly using skills and knowledge they acquired as graduate students. Neither they nor I would consider their career paths as failures. But I know of many, especially in big research teams, who do feel tainted by failure and the sense that they were used as grunts to fill in the bits the team leader could not be bothered with.

No doubt many people who leave academia do so because they can’t find a job or can’t get promoted. There are certainly those who run out of time to get early career, new investigator or career development grants because the timescale is so short compared to the length of time it takes to do good work.

However, focusing on that narrative is harmful in my opinion. It casts former academics as losers and creates a stigma that prevents talented young people from using their skills to greater effect. In my case, I stayed too long in academia. It took until I landed a faculty position to realise that I didn’t want to be a scientist in academia. While I still enjoy science, the politics and grantsmanship weren’t for me.

Similarly to David, I was lucky that my last line manager supported me. In my case, he facilitated me taking the leap by keeping my appointment open for a while after I left. Most people aren’t lucky enough to be given that sort of safety net.

Nice post, as ever Phill. When I’m at conferences talking with grad students & postdocs, they often say that they’re anxious to discuss ‘alternative’ (i so dislike that term! alternative to what?) career paths with their PIs and others. we’ve even had to conduct career workshops in private because some didn’t want others they knew at the conference to see them talking with such an adviser!

The stigma of even considering leaving i think prevents many from openly and actively networking and figuring out what the rest of the world has to offer them (and what they have to offer in other capacities other than tenure-track). There are so many ways to contribute positively to science (e.g. Dr. Hammersley & Overleaf – near & dear to your heart!), and within academia is but one. I would in fact argue that various roles offer the chance to have a far greater scientific and societal impact than running on the TT. I think we owe it to early career scientists to be open and to encourage exploration & help them to discover a reality – whatever it is – that will ultimately make them happy.

Thanks Tracey. Indeed John ‘The Hammer’ Hammersley is a fantastic colleague of mine. In fact, most of the companies that Digital Science has invested in have been founded by former early career academic researchers. We also have a lot of former academics working in the Digital Science central team in both business and research/consultancy roles, including our Managing Director. Actually, he still publishes in theoretical physics every so often.

We’re just one example of the sorts of companies that employ highly educated people. There are many more both in publishing and elsewhere in the economy. I personally feel that I’m doing more good outside of academia that I was doing in it, allowing for the fact that might be just saying something about how much good I wasn’t doing inside the ivory tower.

Thanks Tracey!! I’m very flattered to have been mentioned 🙂 Lots of people contributing to science after leaving academia as you say, and I’m proud to be doing my (small) bit!

If anyone wants to know a bit more about my transition from academia (string theory!) to industry (driverless cars!) to scientific start-up (Overleaf!), I recently took part in a Reddit AMA on this topic, which has been conveniently archived and DOI’d by The Winnower here:

(and questions about it are always welcome!)

To go into an alternate career you must be prepared to work very long and stressful hours for less pay then at the University. In short, you have to perform every quarter and meet very specific goals. You subject yourself to the fear of being fired because well the numbers were just not there.

The advantage of having an advanced degree in this atmosphere is that you can clearly think how to solve an immediate problem.

Also, there are many tiers of academia and not all lead to a life of exciting research. In fact, the vast majority lead to a life of tattered notes and the inevitable boredom of saying gee it is September again and time to lecture on H2O!

“To go into an alternate career you must be prepared to work very long and stressful hours for less pay then at the University. In short, you have to perform every quarter and meet very specific goals. You subject yourself to the fear of being fired because well the numbers were just not there.”

I’m sure my academic career was not unusual in that it involved long and stressful hours, and, though my performance was assessed in different ways and my goals were more nebulous than they might be in a non-academic job, they were still there.

It’s true though that I did leave academia for a job that paid less at entry level – academic publishing – but a job that had vastly more scope for advancement, to the extent that I was earning more than my old head of department after a few years.

Thanks Phill for a thought-provoking post and one that reminded me, again, how right I was to get out of postdoc research almost 20 years ago, even though I faced exactly that fear of “Failure” that Janne described (I assume his “uncle Joe” wasn’t Stalin – that’s a failure no one wants to face…).

I do want to point out that some academic institutions do (or did) try to help postdocs who are looking to leave academia – I had access to some very useful external careers advice thanks to my department at Oxford University, so the outlook isn’t necessarily always so bleak.

I’ll second the notion that there are lots of non-academic jobs that are less stressful, require fewer hours per week and pay much better than being an academic researcher.

I have to agree with the others who have replied to this.

I have personally never felt more overworked, underpaid, stressed and insecure in my position than when I was a postdoc.

A couple of years ago I put together a panel of early career researchers for the STM frankfurt conference. I wrote two guest posts on the Kitchen about it here and here.

After the session somebody came up to me. I won’t name them, suffice to say that they have a job in the publishing industry where they occasionally face unenviable challenges. That person said to me ‘You know, even on my darkest days, I’ll now be able to look in the mirror and say. It could be worse, at least I’m not a postdoc’. It was a little bit of gallows humour, admittedly, but there’s truth to it.

Let me remind Phill that some of us left a teaching/research career track without leaving academe. I had a splendid career spanning more than 45 years working for two great university presses, which of course qualify as part of academe. Others go into career paths in academe, such as administration. That’s why the common discussion of “alt-ac” careers is so misleading; some of the other opportunities exist within academe itself.

What I think is most wasteful is the remaining festishization of the dissertation, as though somehow writing a dissertation is important for getting a good job outside of academe (or into other areas within academe) when, in fact, it hardly ever is. I benefited from the two years I spent in grad school, which were relevant to my later work as an acquisitions editor, but writing a dissertation would not have aided my later career path at all.

To me, this dissertation fetishization Sandy brings up is pretty key. Universities and departments not supporting grad students in career trajectories other than academic ones is troubling. But more so, to me, is the insistence upon the academic dissertation in a very traditional and quite exclusively academic form. I work a couple of non-academic jobs now and it’s very clear to me the skills assumed to be taught in the dissertation process need to be really stretched to be made to seem relevant and useful outside of academia. At the core is the fact that simply no one writes like academics do (which has a number of downsides). PhDs who go on to work outside of academia (by choice or otherwise) need to learn other ways of writing. We may have had some sort of training in writing a monograph fit for a university press, but no one is going to ask us to write one. Departments, it seems, need to get over the insistence on training grad students how to write them. Not only does writing the dissertation specifically not help anyone get a job outside of academia, it also doesn’t come along with many skills that will be of much use outside of academia. In the dissertation, more than anything else, academics are training people to be academics, to do something only academics do. Once I started working outside of academia, (actually, once I started looking for jobs outside of academia) I wished my department had given more training in skills that were not benchmarks just within the ivory tower.

And, to the extent that learning how to do original research and write a scholarly essay is relevant, I think I did that already when i wrote my senior thesis at Princeton, which was 85 pages long and equivalent to a master’s thesis. Writing a dissertation would not have added any new skill, but simply taken a lot of time better devoted to learning other skills.

Don’t forget librarians. The library might be the biggest area that falls under the umbrella of the academy but isn’t primarily a teaching or grant funded research post, although I fully understand that librarians do participate in those activities and that there is somewhat of a spectrum between librarian, teacher and researcher.

There are other things people do while working for universities, information technology, administration, compliance, research assessment, HR, legal, tech transfer, the list goes on. It’s perfectly valid to put some or all of them under the term ‘academia’ but to me, that’s not the point. By focusing on that word, academia, and arguing about who or who is not in the club, we reinforce the paradigm that academia is a more worthy place than elsewhere, which I think is harmful.

I’m not sure about insisting on a thesis or dissertation being a bad thing. At the end of the day, if you do a PhD, you pretty much have to be able to build a substantive argument that furthers human understanding of your discipline and putting it in dissertation form and having an examining committee try to pick holes in it is about a good a way of learning that skill as any. I absolutely agree that graduate students and postdocs should be better prepared by their institutions than they currently are for life on the outside, but an academic qualification should still be an academic qualification.

If anything, I fear that we’re loosing the distinctiveness of the PhD dissertation (that’s PhD Thesis for British readers). Speaking to academics, I’m hearing that increasingly, dissertations aren’t as much of a singular argument but a collection of previously published work. The focus on getting published in academic journals and using that as the measure of success, rather than the quality of the research and thought, creates the risk that students are trained in how to work the academic publishing system, rather than doing good researcher.

To me, knowing how to think critically is the big skill that comes out of a PhD, knowing how to get published is really just a way to stay in a job as an academic.

Interesting post.
What a scientist or academic would mean?
Is it to work with a mouse in a lab or with a plant in a flowerpot, or passing his life working on a protein without any practical applications behind?
Most applications in life come from industry and farmers, rarely from academia, or university labs.
Even for the structure of DNA double helices, what are the real applications we have from this discovery? I do not see much!
Is an academic only to work in university where sometimes the atmosphere is replete with harassment, arrogance, fraud, favoritism, conflict, etc., etc.?
Is a repetitive, routine work really rewarding?
There are thousands of university in the world, what they offered to the world?
Are academic or scientists only those working with rats or mice in a lab?
An academic or a scientist more generally is much larger than the narrow definition of a scientist to be confined in a dusted lab with mice, weed, or machines surrounded by 4 walls in a building called university or school, on center…
In short, being a scientist is the ability to ‘know’ something, to analyze, to critics, to propose adequate solutions, to contrast, etc., but not only to be confined in 4 walls in university X or Y.
Being in a University is not a gage to be a scientist at all. A cooker is a scientist in his profession, a shepherd is a scientist in his profession, a hairdresser is a scientist in his profession…a historian is a scientist in the history and events that took place long ago, a poet is a scientist in linguistics, etc., etc..
Everyone is a scientist in some domain. With the Internet, everybody can now be a scientist in a given field.
The so-called ‘conventional scientists’ or academics are even unable to see the many, many biases they use in their so-called ‘scientific’ work methodology (statistics, impact factor, cover letters, prestige, elite, ranking, etc. which all have nothing to do with an objective science. However, these subjective criteria are the ‘bread’ of so-called scientists as most of them are addicted to.
Are such people really ‘scientists’ when they are attached or use biased approaches?
They are all but scientists.

Hoo boy, Where to even start?

Most applications in life come from industry and farmers, rarely from academia, or university labs.

And all of those applications come from the basic research done by academia. This has largely been the course of progress for the last century or so. The companies won’t do basic research because there’s no direct profit in it. So the government, recognizing that this is a key to progress for society, funds it. Industry then takes the discoveries of academia and turns them into practical applications. You can’t have the latter without the former, and this is increasingly a huge problem we’re facing as governments get more and more inclined to only fund research with direct societal impacts in the short term, rather than funding basic research for the long term health of progress.

Even for the structure of DNA double helices, what are the real applications we have from this discovery? I do not see much!

So you don’t see the thousands of genetic-based diagnostic tools? The countless therapies that have cured diseases, saved lives and reduced suffering worldwide? The ready availability of recombinant drugs like insulin that keep millions alive every day? Forensic tools that prove guilt or innocence in court? Tools for identifying organisms that help us better understand our environment every day? Need I go on? Sheesh.

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