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The Black Hole

You are not a failure for wanting to leave academia

Universities employ a very small fraction of all career scientists and serve mainly as a stepping stone to the next career phase rather than a final destination.


I had a couple people reach out to me this week for perspective on their intended career transitions from academia. Their concerns were ones I’ve heard repeated often and are worth addressing more generally here:

  1. “Am I a failure for wanting to leave academia?”
  2. “Should I stay in academia or leave for industry?”
  3. “Everyone says …”

1. You don’t need to justify the transition to yourself from others’ perspectives. Just like there are stages in life, there are stages in careers, and environments that may have felt thrilling and enriching during one stage, could become monotonous, punishing or draining in the next. Not feeling satisfied or happy in your role or feeling overly stressed or uninspired and in need of a change are reasons enough to transition into something new. This is not failure, it is recognition that you are unhappy and doesn’t require further justification. Forcing yourself to continue in something you don’t like to do when you have other options is the real betrayal. Future employers will ask you why you are intending to leave your current job for this one, but this is a standard interview question all job candidates receive. What employers want to hear is that you are passionate and committed to the new role for which you are interviewing, that it aligns with the next stage of your life/career, and that there are no red flags in your background that would suggest you would introduce a destabilizing effect upon joining. Outside of tenure track academic positions, no one cares about your funding and publication record beyond the soft skills in budgeting, writing, and program management that they convey.

The American sociologist Charles Cooley best captured this concept of social subjectivity in the (now famous) phrase “I am not who you think I am; I am not who I think I am; I am who I think you think I am.” In his exploration of human nature and social order Dr. Cooley introduced the concept of the “looking glass self” in three parts: (1) how one imagines one looks to other people, (2) how one imagines the judgment of others based on how one thinks they are viewed, and (3) how one thinks of how the person views them based on their previous judgments. This is worth reflecting on because it helps explain that our sense of identity (how we view ourselves and act) heavily depends on what we believe other people think of us, which is why it’s so difficult to break away from.

2. You have options. We need to do away once and for all with the notion of “academia” vs “industry” since these are inaccurate constructs that falsely bin scientists into “us” vs “them.” For starters, it’s important to remember that many academic institutions are by definition private companies. There are a tremendous number of jobs – and careers – within academic institutions in core facilities, grants management, public relations, administration, operations, intellectual property management, venture funding, etc.; these are not tenure-track and operate like stand-alone groups within the broader institution. Academic institutions, in turn, contract and collaborate with not-for-profit institutions and patient interest groups, federal and state/province funding organizations, lobbyists, media relations, legal counsel, business and strategy consultants, contract research organizations, product manufacturers, and biotechnology, pharmaceutical, and device companies, all of which also comprise of scientists at all levels of education.

In truth, universities employ a very small fraction of all of the career scientists out there, and most commonly serve as a stepping stone to the next career phase rather than a final destination. Statistically, if we’re going to use the term “alternative careers,” we should apply it to those at the university. For the scientists that do venture out from the university, there is typically fierce competition for the very best of us among employers. In the case of biotech companies, there is a lot of money riding on high-risk programs with very tight timelines within which they need to succeed, which is why great/experienced scientists command far higher salaries in the “private” setting. Business people don’t create new technologies and drugs – we do.

3. You need perspective. For all the great qualities of academic institutions, one major challenge is they become echo chambers for its members that can result in very myopic views of the world. You can go years without seeing or hearing of any real options beyond the university’s construct, if you are relying entirely on internal programs and academic colleagues for input. You need to break out and seek contacts, mentors, and experiences outside of the university in order to change your perspective and fully appreciate the magnitude of opportunities available.

Metaphorically, if academia is a vast ocean and you’ve only ever lived beneath its waves, the sky appears two-dimensional and the reflective surface of the water often mirrors the sea below. Others will sometimes enter the water from above, but when they leave they seem to disappear entirely; the same is true of colleagues that have left to explore new things. It’s only after you break through the surface that you can appreciate how vast is the sky and how different from what it appeared to be. You finally see the birds and can appreciate where everyone has gone. The sky is not better than the water, but it’s substantially vaster and you’re not limited to either. If Dr. Cooley was right and entity, or self, is the result of learning to see ourselves through what we perceive to be the perceptions of others, then the first step in changing this narrative requires changing our environment, and in turn, our perspective of ourselves and others. In other words, explore what is outside the university before you reflect on your next steps.

Dave and I welcome guest articles. If you have concerns that are not being reflected or addressed in our posts, we invite you to submit a comment or post. We are happy to publish it anonymously and respond in kind with our perspective. Odds are your concerns and reservations are shared by others and the community will benefit from hearing them voiced here.

Jonathan Thon
Jonathan Thon is a serial entrepreneur and founding CEO of STRM.BIO. Before STRM.BIO Dr. Thon founded Stellular Bio where he served as CEO and chief scientific officer. Before Stellular Bio, Dr. Thon was an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.
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  1. Gooitzen van Dam / August 18, 2019 at 18:38

    Entirely true. I am just submerging out of the academic ocean as founder and CEO of TRACER Europe / North America – a contract research organization for fluorescent imaging in drug development in humans – and on a daily basis amazed about the perspectives offered.

  2. Grumpy_Prof / August 19, 2019 at 09:10

    I think point 3 on perspective is very astute. I am well-respected in the ocean of academia. I likely serve as an object of mirth for many undergraduate students I teach. And none of my neighbours can figure out how it is I can get paid for what I do.

    If you are wired to thrive in the sometimes very odd world of academia – great. But I would never view someone leaving academia as a failure, because the working parameters can be very outside the norm.