Researcher Life: “Leaving” Academia?

It’s 09.45pm, on a warm June evening in Copenhagen. The sun hasn’t set yet and I am reflecting on my experience being on the Career Panel at Understanding Vision 2021. While this was an utterly flattering invitation that led to an hour of stimulating discussions with wonderful panelists, it required me to think about how I got to this warm evening in Copenhagen (Denmark), when this time last year I was in Freiburg (Germany), this time 7 years ago I was in Bangor (U.K.) and this time 10 years ago I was in Mumbai (India). If you’ve known me and have been following this blog for a bit, you know I’ve lived, studied and worked in multiple cities. You know that I have a PhD in clinical Psychology. You know I’ve been involved with R-Ladies and you know I enjoy talking about science. You probably also know that I am currently working as a Product Specialist at iMotions. So how did I get to where I am and what advice can I give others?

Did I know, 10 years ago, what I would be doing? Did I see my career path the way it turned out? No! Is my career now exactly what I want it to be? Yes. Career paths, while great to think about, are slightly unplannable. They depend on the right opportunities to come at the right time, for you to be able to see these opportunities, and sometimes seek out opportunities the world tells you don’t exist. So how do you prepare for a career, particularly during your PhD?

The panel discussion at Understanding Vision 2021 gave me some clarity on what PhDs struggle with when they have to make hard career choices, particularly around leaving academia. I don’t think career advice is a generalisable concept, because every individual path will look different; but the panel discussion led to a lot of contemplation, and I’m putting down some of these thoughts below.

Leaving Academia

When people talk of “leaving academia” (yes, I’m using air quotes), they talk of it like a breakup or the end of a toxic relationship. Leave, block each other’s number, never see them again. If you want to come back, you will not be allowed to. If you stay too long, you won’t be able to leave. Personally, I feel this distinction is a lot more arbitrary than it is made to seem. I am not employed by a university anymore, so I am technically in an industry job. Half my colleagues have PhDs, everyone is engaging in research, and talking to researchers and academicians globally, every day. I also know of people who left academia after multiple post-docs, and who transitioned back to academia after an industry stint. So, all the rules PhDs are given about academia fall apart quickly when people start looking around. We are all doing science and need each other for science to grow. Your career path is defined by skills and experience, not who your employer is.

Will you use the skills you learnt in academia if you leave?

Yes, because it is all science! Further, your skillset is whatever you define it to be. We are made to believe that the skills learnt in a PhD can only be applied to a post-doc. We learn a lot during our PhDs, yes, but most people also have other side projects, volunteer projects that align with their values, teaching experience, and so much more! You may have a lot of tangible and soft skills at the end. You may not carry forward all of these, but you can assess what it is you enjoy most, highlight this pruned skillset and find a job that allows you to use this skillset.

Who is still ‘doing science’?

There is so much perceived prejudice and so little conversation around who is doing science. This prevents people from reaching out to non-university jobs. The general assumptions seem to be everyone in academia is doing science and everyone with a PhD should be doing science. This is untrue! There are lots of non-PhDs in R&D positions across the spectrum, and a lot of PhDs that decided to use their skills in positions not focused on research. You could be working with data, designing studies, talking to research bodies and empowering them, conducting tests to guide decisions, even influencing policy making…and all of this would need your scientific skills. Irrespective of where research and innovation is happening, you will have a team with/under you to carry out various aspects of research. It is a pipeline and sometimes you may supervise this pipeline, sometimes you may give inputs from the side, sometimes you may be involved in just an aspect of the process, depending on where your expertise is required. This is the case in academia, and it’s the same for a research-adjacent industry job.

Being an outcast…or not.

Many of us, while still in academia, have the sense that accepting a traditionally non-academic job will be viewed by our superiors and peers as a betrayal of kinds. I thought so, too. Honestly, every time I mentioned I was looking for positions and not restricting myself to academia, I got indecipherable looks or subtle comments about how there aren’t a lot of options for psychologists. It went as far as people saying ‘you have X number of career paths, invest in getting one of these and stop wasting time looking for something that doesn’t exist’. These interactions just made me sad, sometimes angry. The fact is, that each of us can only imagine a limited number of possibilities based on what we actively seek out in life. There are so many careers out there that I have no idea about! I am often surprised at what people study and where they land up eventually. So while it is tempting to listen to people’s opinions on our career path, maybe we are just looking in the wrong places. Once other people saw me make the decision I’ve made and how good a fit I was at the job that I’m at, support followed. Much to my surprise, people (yes, even within academia) are supportive of other’s career choices once they see how it is the only choice that makes sense for them.

Piled Higher and Deeper by Jorge Cham Title: “Sell out” – originally published 3/21/2007

What my career path looked like

When my stipend ended almost a year before I defended my thesis, I chose to not ask for an extension of my contract at the university hospital, but rather move out to a more clinically inclined position at a private practice. This allowed me to gain some non-academia work experience and actually use my clinical psychology knowledge for the true end-users. While I enjoyed clinical work, I knew my passions lie in research. Not just the skills I learnt in my PhD, but also those I sought out to acquire outside my university work. For instance, I founded and now co-organise the Freiburg chapter of R-Ladies. I engaged in a lot of science communication and diversity building activities. My profile was built around these aspects, and when I started looking for research positions, I made sure to highlight these. I did not always edit things out, if a job description I was interested in did not explicitly ask for it. Showing your values, while vulnerable (and unconventional?), is a sure way to make sure the job you get is a right fit. A lot of people told me that putting my work with R-Ladies may seem too political, but I now work with a company that works extensively with R, and I have a gender-balanced team. My present job has me engaging with research problems, data, analysis, and I get to engage with different research projects via our clients everyday. Just because the lines between academia and industry are blurry, does not mean I feel like I have left science.

So, to you fellow academician asking me in hushed tones if you should leave and if the grass is really greener on the other side, I want to say – I see you, I hear you. Follow your passion projects and keep your eyes open. The right job will come by, and when it does, don’t let fear or invisible voices get in the way.

Your career decisions are not right or wrong, they are yours (sooner or later, or a little later still), and they can be whatever you’d like them to be.

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