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Minimising the trauma of leaving academia

By uczjsdd, on 1 July 2019

As a careers consultant helping researchers who are considering leaving academia, I gather case studies from people who’ve already ‘made it out’. I ask ex-academics how they weighed up the decision to leave, explored other options, and marketed themselves to employers. It helps me put together practical tips. I think researchers find that stuff useful.

But practical tips only address half the struggle. The process of leaving academia can be an emotional one, and it’s important to recognise this, especially given findings of above average rates of mental health issues within PhD students and academic staff. Crucially for us at UCL Careers, we often see these negative emotions impacting researchers’ ability to get on with the sometimes complex and demanding tasks involved in changing career.

So here are five insights I’ve gained from people who’ve been through these emotions and come out the other end, and from my own experience of leaving academia. Bearing them in mind may help reduce the stress of the move, and help you concentrate on making it a successful one.

1) View your PhD and post-doc years as a job

Many researchers see their time in academia as an insignificant extension of their undergraduate degree, just another qualification. What a depressing way to view years spent developing marketable skills, growing as a person, and setting and achieving complex goals! Maybe it was so long ago that you’ve forgotten, but your PhD and post-doc years are nothing like your undergraduate years. They’ve been a job. Think of them that way. Speak about them that way. It will make you more attractive to employers, and more confident in your own experience and abilities.

2) Your PhD years are gone, and you’re not getting them back!

People hate losing things. Tversky and Kahneman’s Prospect theory tells us they hate losing things more than they like gaining things. This is a problem for career changers. They lend more weight to what may be lost in a transition than to what may be gained. And maybe that’s ok. It’s natural. In fact, researchers tell us it’s an evolutionarily advantageous way to process risk. But it becomes particularly problematic for career changers when they focus on losing the past; when, for instance, researchers don’t want to change field for fear of ‘wasting’ their PhD years. If we’re lucky enough to make it there, we may well all be working until we’re 80+. If you love your subject, by all means try to find work related to it. But if you don’t, don’t let a few already-spent years dictate what you’ll do between now and 80!

3) Be honest with yourself

A huge part of career exploration is researching yourself, your interests, values, and skills. This can be tough, especially if an honest evaluation contradicts your ideal image of yourself, or the image you present to others. Many ex-academics I’ve interviewed struggled with this. There was the PhD who was proud of being seen as ‘the numbers woman’, yet had to face the fact she didn’t really enjoy data analysis. Or the PhD who’d always seen himself as career-driven above everything else, but had to admit he valued work-life balance more than progression. Or the countless ex-academics I’ve met who at some point had to accept they just weren’t as passionate about their chosen subject as they’d initially believed.

Accepting your true motivations, interests, and skills can be hard if it leads you to conclude your current role isn’t right for you. But it’s an essential step in opening up a world of possibilities that are right for you. And what’s more, there’s evidence that having a strong sense of your career identity makes you a happier person overall! Our How Will I Know What I’ll Like? workshop and one-to-one careers appointments can help you with this process, and so can sites like jobmi.

4) Remember a new identity can take time to wear in

Our career identity is more than just our current job description; it can be core to how we perceive ourselves. So a change in career path can represent a threat to our sense of self. If I am not an academic researcher, who am I? Adopting a new identity can be uncomfortable. And this is made even harder when, as is more than likely, the people we regularly socialise with have an identity resembling our old one. Your post-doc friends may find it especially difficult to understand why you’re leaving a life they still enjoy.

But forming a strong narrative around your decision can help. Connect the dots. What attracts you to your new direction? And what are the links – in topic, skills, people – between your academic role and the role you’re moving to? The story will of course still take time to ‘fit’ properly. But that’s ok. Rest assured, once you move into a new position, and gain new colleagues whose story is more similar to yours, eventually it will.

5) Relax: you don’t need a plan…but there’s no such thing as dumb luck

Academia offers an obvious progression: PhD to post-doc to lecturer to professor. If you leave, you may feel anxious to find another clear path. But few paths are as clear. A common theme emerges when I ask ex-academics about their careers: chance. Many didn’t leave academia knowing they would end up where they are today.  They were just “lucky” enough to stumble across something that suited them. But luck is never the only force at play. These PhDs had taken steps that put them in the right place to spot and seize opportunities. In the careers world we call this “planned happenstance”, a career theory that acknowledges the effects of chance occurrences on careers, while asserting that people have some influence over their own luck.

So if you have no definite plan, that’s ok. But don’t leave it all to chance. Identify your interests and follow them. Develop skills you enjoy using. Take an interest in people. Say ‘yes’ to things. In this way, you can ensure you’re always growing and learning, which will improve your confidence. And when an opportunity arises, you’ll be ready to grab it.

If you found this blog useful, you may want to check out our Managing Your Career Change Emotions workshop for researchers (see our website for more details of our programme).

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