Deciding to leave academia can be a wrenching experience. Sometimes, people who decide to leave are bitter and angry to their core. Other times, they are sad, with constant feelings of failure. And many, many times, they feel lost.
When I first really seriously thought of getting out of academia, I remembered an ‘alternative careers’ seminar I attended my first year of grad school (the only one, actually, that I ever DID attend in grad school). The speaker was Nancy Baron, the author of “Escape from the Ivory Tower.” At the time, her talk of alternate careers inspired me. I bought the book. I read some of it. Then, I got swept up in experiments and grants and more experiments and classes, and forgot.
But the book stayed on my shelf. So when I decided to look at other options, I went to go find it.
…and realized the book was now over six years old. Many of the recommendations seemed old fashioned, half the web addresses no longer worked, and then, I was just out of ideas. I wanted out, but where would I go? What would I do?
It’s easy to fall into that feeling of helplessness. You start to realize that you want to leave academia, and you wonder what you have to offer the outside world. Well…I can pipette! And I can handle mice! And I’m very good at ANOVAs…well. Crap.
But for those who want to leave, all is not lost! Here are some tips that I’ve picked up along the way, and I would welcome any other tips in the comments!
1. Develop your networks, and of course, hit the internet. There are many other professions out there. Find out what they are. Go on a hunt. You may be in academia, but everyone knows someone. And with all the people who left, it never hurts to ask around. Some people are…worried that advisors and other people in the department won’t take it well, and so don’t want to be loud about leaving academia. In those cases, you can ask the career center (though many of them are best equipped for undergrads). You can also look around at other, closely related departments.
And of course, the internet is your friend. There are LOTS of us here, and many of us are vocal about our own career changes, and glad to help out others who are heading the same way. We can help you out, help you find people to contact and network with. Network contacts can help you get things like informational interviews, which can lead to more networks and valuable information to help you as you start on your new career.
2. Prepare a resume, and have people outside of academia look at it. This is vital. I prepped a resume based on my CV with the help of a career center. They had no idea what they were doing, it was basically the highlights of my CV in academic order. I sent it to a friend outside of academia. Three drafts later, it was a completely different document. Formatting changed, emphasis changed, everything changed. Her insights were hugely valuable…because she wasn’t an academic. She knew what people on the outside were looking for. Find these people, and ask them for help.
3. Join groups. Groups like the Versatile PhD were built for those going out of academia, and are replete with advice. Many unis hold job fairs, get on the lists and go to them. Check out what’s out there. See if there are groups around the uni doing things you are interested in. Maybe there’s a science policy group. Maybe there’s a research council that you could get experience on. Maybe there are groups that hold workshops that you can get involved in. Maybe there’s a newsletter for a group you are in that you could write for.
If there’s not a group for what you are interested in, start one! You’ll get valuable experience, and help build up your resume with leadership roles along the way.
4. Get started. For god’s sake, get started. It is never too early to start developing new talents that might help you in your future career. Many, many times, I’ve had people mention to me that they wanted out of academia, or ask me for advice. I tell them “what do you want to try? You may want to get some experience teaching/writing/in policy/whatever.” Some of them dive in, find something to try, and start doing. Soon, they are having successes in their new field, and feeling more confident.
But often, I’ll come back a few months later and say “hey, did you try that thing?” And they haven’t. They’ve been busy. They are tired. The lab is hard.
I understand that. I do. I worked my share of long hard hours. I’ve been my share of busy and crazy and knocked down.
But, in the words of one of my mentors, “we’re all busy.” You need to make time for the things that matter to you. If getting out of academia matters to you, if seeking a different career matters to you, GET EXPERIENCE. If you don’t start looking and trying, it’s easy to remain on the same path in academia, grad school to postdoc, postdoc to another postdoc, just funneling along the path you know. Get experience elsewhere. Without it, you will not stand out from the herd of other PhDs who are out there looking for a career change. A PhD, funding, and publications look great in academia, but they are little-valued currency outside the ivory tower.
A side anecdote: I applied for a fellowship. I got an interview for it. I was excited, nervous, but felt like I maybe had a chance. At the interview I met two other applicants. One was about to defend their dissertation. They’d gotten some patents on the way…and founded a highly successful non-profit to help low income kids learn sports. While getting their PhD.
The other was an MD/PhD who spoke four languages, and had recently been spending their time with Doctors Without Borders in a South American Country. While they were there, they’d noticed a need, and started a successful vaccination campaign in another nearby country. THAT was what I was up against. Get experience.
For many careers that require a science PhD, you will be up against people AT LEAST AS successful as you. You need to be better. You got through grad school, you have the ability to be just as intimidating as those people. You DO. Get out there, and become it. Get experience. Maybe you can teach a class at a community college. Maybe there’s a policy group at your school you can get involved in. Maybe there are internships. Maybe you can start writing a blog or a newsletter for a group, or take on editing on the side to get experience. As I said above, if there’s isn’t a group for this at your uni? Make one!
5. Find fellowships and internships. Some of these are listed on the Chronicle of Higher Ed. Some of them come through internal listservs. AAAS has fellowships for mass communications and for science policy. Many other groups have fellowships for science policy as well. They are out there and they are designed for people coming from academia. They know what it’s like to get out of academia, and are prepared to deal with those coming from that world, to help shape our talents for our new careers.
What tips have I missed? Let me know in the comments. And for those looking to leave academia, take heart. Some of us did it. You can, too.