Eight Questions and Answers on Leaving Academia

Eight Questions and Answers on Leaving Academia

  1. How many people leave academia after doing a PhD?
    a. The data says about 50% of PhD graduates will leave immediately after graduation. And, that only 8% (or less) will stay in academia for ten years or more.
  2. What do people with PhDs do?
    a. Academia
    b. Anything else
  3. That's a bit vague, can you be more specific?
    a. Yes ... And no.... The reality is you are qualified, and capable of doing many things and perhaps nothing. A PhD is learning more, and more about less, and less until you know everything about nothing. If you know you don't want academia, but you want something else, then reflect on your other training (e.g. Degree, Honours or Masters). If you just had those qualifications - what jobs would you be looking for? A PhD does not automatically qualify you for any job (other than being an academic researcher). In that way, it is very much a vocational degree. And, as the model is very much an apprenticeship style, it's a lot like being a carpenter. You do your apprenticeship, then you could do lots of other things. Build house frames, kitchens, bathrooms, become a builder, and make furniture. But the starting point - carpentry - is the same. PhDs can analyse data, design experiments, conduct experiments, write, communicate, manage.
  4. Does anyone regret leaving academia?
    a. I'm sure they do. But their stories are hard to find.
  5. Does anyone regret staying in academia?
    a. Some. But most like that too. Of course, there are lots who would not do their PhD again if given a second chance (UK data says 30%).
           What are the risks of leaving academia? Different
         for different people. But I’d also ask you to consider,
               “What are the risks of staying in academia?”.
  6. Does anyone wish they left academia sooner?
    a. Yes. Lots. Because they find themselves in their new career. There's a lot of flexibility in being an academic. That flexibility can be liberating for some and constraining for others.
  7. If you leave academia, can you return?
    a. Yup. In fact, lots of people feel their non-academic experience makes them a better academic. For most people in this category, their non-academic job was still research. Thus, their experience of running a research project outside academia, gave them very relevant experiences. Of course, you would not expect to have the same standing as you did in your non-academic role. And, you'd have to develop your academic profile/reputation.
  8. How risky is it to leave academia?
    a. Not very. In fact, it's more risky staying in academia. In Australia, there are 66,000 PhD students. Each year about 10,000 graduate. There are about 122,000 people employed at universities in Australia (all roles and positions). Each year, that number grows by about 2%. So that means 2,000 new positions max per year. For 6,000 graduates. Added to that there are 135,000 PhD holders in Australia. So maybe the better question is - Am I willing to put up with the risks associated with being an academic?

Got other questions you’d like answered?

Send them in, and I give it a crack.


Dr Richard Huysmans is the author of Connect the Docs: A Guide to getting industry partners for academics. He has helped more than 200 PhD students, early career researchers, and established academics build their careers. He has provided strategic advice on partnering with industry, growing a career building new centres and institutes as well as establishing new programs. Richard is driven by the challenge of helping researchers be commercially smart. His clients appreciate his cut-through approach. He knows the sector and how to turn ideas into reality.

To find out more, call 0412 606 178, email (Richard.huysmans@drrichardhuysmans.com) or subscribe to the newsletter. He's on LinkedIn (Dr Richard Huysmans), Twitter (@richardhuysmans), Instagram (@drrichardhuysmans), and Facebook (Beyond Your PhD with Dr Richard Huysmans).

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