Many academics worry whether they ‘have it in them’ to succeed in academia. Consider Alise. Five years ago she completed her PhD. Her supervisor and colleagues in the field where enthusiastic about her talent for research and the chapters of her thesis have all been published in well-ranked journals.
Alise felt confident and gladly accepted a postdoc abroad. This turned out to be a jumping board for a tenure track position closer to home. She has now been working there for several years, but her confidence and enthusiasm are waning.
Fear of the Big Unknown
Her academic positions ‘just happened’ to her. She never really investigated her career options outside the university. Friends who did transition now hold influential positions in industry and government. And Alise notices how they look less stressed and burdened than her colleagues at the university.
Honestly, she would not mind a job with clear responsibilities and much less performance pressure than is the case in her current tenure track. But fear is holding her back. Fear based on 3 commonly believed myths about people who leave the university.
These myths are exposed in the report “Which grass is greener?“, a 2017 collection of portrets of PhD holders, also discussed here and here. The bundle showcases personal stories of professionals with a PhD and with careers inside and outside the university. These portrets have been selected from a wide range of interviews because they exemplify common themes running in all interviews held for the study.
Second best option
The first myth that this bundle busts is the belief that no one leaves the university voluntarily. The portretted academics who left the university chose to do so out of their own accord. Their transition was not motivated by the end of a contract or the lack of opportunity to continue within the university. 5 out of 10 even leave the university from an ongoing contract. Their non-academic career clearly was not second best to them.
“Those who leave their academic position must be less talented than those who stayed.” The second myth is the presupposition that the leavers are just not top quality, or they would have been selected by the academic system. However, the academic quality of the professionals interviewed appears to be outstanding. Often they have been invited to come do a PhD, offered a PostDoc, promoted for tenure. Yes, there is some pain and bitterness in their memories of their PhD, but they have no regrets doing their PhD.
Employers of these PhD holders confirm their quality. They are valued especially for their capacity in advising, designing and developing, as well as leadership. Non-academic employers do notice a steep learning curve for PhD holders who transition out of the university. They are new to the results focussed approach in a commercial setting, the deadlines and pace that come with it. As a result they start at a lower rank in the organization, but they grow and climb faster than those with just a master’s degree.
The third myth is that of a permanent choice: leave academic research once and you’ll never return. Many studies, like for instance Rathenau’s, have shown the job market mobility between the non-academic jobmarket and different levels within the university. One thing that is evident from such data is the great exchange of professionals especially at postdoc and full professor level. If we pair these statistics with the qualitative research from the 2017 bundle of portrets we can see that in these situations an extended network is key. So there is a lot that you can do yourself to keep options open.
When Alise takes note of these myth busting portraits, it takes the edge of her fear to look beyond the university. But what really convinces her is the feeling about research in the hearts of the interviewed professionals. Their passion for research if you want to call it that is not lost in their non-academic post-PhD careers, to the contrary. With this observation Alise is ready to look at her own career with an open mind and a tranquil heart.
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Updated to contain the link to the English translation of the originally Dutch report.