The Price to Stay and to Leave Academia

A friend who left academia a few years ago, made a post yesterday on his blog about regretting leaving. This made me reflect about my own choice and where I stand with it.

I chose to leave academia because a very careful and detailed balance of my priorities lead me to conclude that, for me, it was a choice of having an academic career or having a life. I did not envision myself having my academic life and everything else revolving around it, i.e. family, friends, hobbies… I wanted to see myself having a life and work being part of it, not the core of it. This, of course, is not mentioning the nomadic life that comes with academia, at least for the early career stages. And it is also not mentioning the continuous pressure of publishing, and going to conferences, and getting grants, and observation proposals, and writing books, because the competition is fierce and, if you do not work as hard as you can, you may not get a permanent job… or a job at all. In fact, the pressure is so constant that it simply becomes a part of you, and you do not even see it or feel it anymore.

And all that, that I just wrote, is nothing new… to anybody that has graduated with a PhD. It was nothing new when I was in graduate school but somehow I did not know about it, and neither did my peers in my graduate school nor in other schools around the world, as I would later learn from my fellow postdocs. Why is this? Is it because those of us that choose to leave do not go back to talk about it with the current graduate students? I think this is part of it, but also, the folks that choose to remain in academia get absorbed in the academic life, and they forget to really talk about this, and so the cycle continues.

In short, I would make the same choice to leave academia today. I am convinced I chose the happier life, in my case. But I do see the point my friend made in his post. Working as a data scientist for a finance or fashion company for instance, would certainly not make me feel fulfilled with my job. So there is always a price, it seems. My friend has a very well payed job that allows him to be close to his family and have a life, but he does not feel fulfillment in his job. My friends that remained in academia are stressed out all the time (without noticing) but they are happy doing their job. And I am happy with my life and my job but, in order to “keep a foot in”, I took a big pay cut with respect to where I would be, had I continued full time in academia or had I moved to industry.

So, can we change this? I think yes but certainly very slowly. What I can do is spread the word about my personal path, and the choices I was faced with. But there is change that can only happen from the inside. Everyone has an opinion about this, yet we rarely see a deep and true conversation about how we can change this. The choice of leaving or staying is not fair and I really think it does not have to be this way. Have you thought about alternatives of the status quo in academia? Should the current metrics continue? Are they really useful and meaningful? I think, like all data, metrics alone are not enough. You still need interpretation and context, and this is what makes the process subjective. Maybe the first step is admitting that the process is not objective and, thus, it may not be reproducible.


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