By Ian MacNeill |
Towards the end of last year, I wrote a blog about the choice facing PhD graduates: whether to continue with an academic career or pursue a non-academic option. As this is, sadly, my last post for Pubs and Pubs as a member of the committee, it feels nice to be returning to the subject of that post having decided which fork in the road to take: in a few weeks time I’ll be taking up a non-academic research post. In this blog I’ll be thinking through some of the factors that influenced my decision.
Leaving academia can be a difficult process. There is a general feeling among the PhD community that pursing a doctorate is an apprenticeship for a full-blown academic career, and taking the decision to step outside of the academic bubble can cause surprise among many. When doing some research for this post I came across several opinion pieces and blogs that referred to ‘the trauma of leaving academia’. Whilst I would argue that the language used was somewhat overwrought, there is something to be said about the conflict people can experience concerning the decision to leave academia after a PhD. Indeed, while I’m happy about the decision I have made, and excited about the job I am about to start, I do have feelings of regret. After all, the reason I applied for a PhD was that I wanted to work in a university, to teach, and conduct impactful, relevant research.
My decision to opt for a non-academic job was based on 3 factors. Firstly, pragmatism and finance: this is the first full-time job I have been offered since my PhD funding ran out earlier this year. I have applied for multiple academic posts and been interviewed several times, but I was coming to the realisation that I did not possess a CV that really stood out amidst the hyper-competitive academic job market, and I had lost out to more experienced candidates on several occasions.
Secondly, having worked alongside established academics during my PhD, and having lived the life of an academic in many respects, I am increasingly of the opinion that working in academia isn’t worth the stress and strain it can cause people. The reality of life in many academic posts – long working hours, the squeeze on research resources, slashed pensions, and increased bureaucracy – frankly does not appeal to me. This situation has, in some ways, left me with feelings of bitterness towards academia – not towards the people I worked alongside or that supported my PhD, I owe them endless gratitude – but towards a wider system that must now be regarded as wildly exploitative. Career progress in academia is based on the mantra that with enough hard work and perseverance you can rise the ranks and secure a permanent job – yet, and this will come as no surprise to readers of this blog, there aren’t enough jobs for newly minted PhDs, and it seems like there are fewer every year.
Thirdly, my family situation meant that I was not comfortable with the realities of ‘post-doc’ limbo, where I would likely have found myself flitting between a succession of short-term contracts, often across several institutions. In addition to balancing the demands of these jobs, post-docs then have to carve out some some spare time from somewhere to publish from their PhD, pursue research funding, and perhaps, very occasionally, see their families or a pretence of a social life. Again, this was not a work-life pattern that I was happy with.
Instead, my new, non-academic job offers me the chance to have a research focused role with the very real prospect of directly and positively impacting peoples’ lives. Additionally, it also offers a host of other conditions that are becoming increasingly rare in academic posts: it is permanent, with a (currently) secure pension, offers something called ‘flexi-time’, and has fixed weekly working hours. What saddens me most, I think, it is that these are the sort of conditions that academics, as highly trained professionals, should expect in their job, rather than the often perilous reality.
And yet, I am struggling to shake the feeling that by opting out of an academic career, I have somehow failed. This require some explanation. I have always had a complex relationship with the university experience. I bounced around a series of undergraduate programmes in may late teens and early 20s, never finishing.After I finally realised that I needed a change of direction, I spent several years doing something completely different and a university degree became something that I thought wasn’t for me. Yet every autumn I would feel a surge of longing and a unfulfillment. I made the decision to scratch my academic itch in 2008. Since then my life my life has largely been bound up in the cycle of the academic year. I find the rhythm of it year both exciting and comforting. Autumn brings the enthusiasm and possibilities of the new academic year and summers on campus belong to postgraduates, as you can finally get a decent desk in the library. I find university campuses to be inspiring places to work and after finishing my undegrad in 2012 I had settled on the idea of a career working as an academic at a university, hopefully one with a quadrangle. In this academic idyll I would carve out my own research niche and immerse myself in teaching and other aspects of university life. Teaching is perhaps my biggest regret about leaving academia. I was a youth worker in past life and have always enjoyed engaging with people’s different perspectives about things and the breaking down and reforming topics through discussion that occurs in teaching and learning interactions, often creating exciting results.
To be honest, I’m not sure I’ll ever shake elements of the regret I feel at not pursuing an academic career – and perhaps I will change direction again in the future. Quitting the academic job market made sense for me for various reasons, some of which won’t apply to everyone. I hope this his piece hasn’t come across too negative about the reality, as I perceive it, about working in Higher Education and if you think an academic career is what you want to do after your PhD, then pursue it with all you have. However, what I think is important for people to bear in mind that completing a Ph/d opens many doors and there is nothing wrong or lesser about taking up an non-academic career path
Ian is currently in the ‘very’ final stages of writing up his PhD, which explores the resettlement experiences of young prison leavers. He was the social media editor for Pubs and Pubs. You can find him on Twitter.