#beyondAcademia: What are the motivations for a career switch out of academia?

jamrozik_anjahsAnja Jamrozik. We introduced our respondents yesterday. Their motivations for leaving academia fell into four broad themes: lifestyle factors, scarcity, curiosity, and impact.

Lifestyle factors

Most respondents cited the need for increased control over their careers and where they lived as important reasons for their career switch. Being a young scientist in academia involv­es stress and uncertainty.

academic olympics At every career stage, it’s not certain whether there will be a position available that you’re interested in, and, if so, where in the world it will be. You are expected to move frequently, for each new career stage.

When she decided to transition out of academia, Katherine Livins recounted, “I’d already moved three times (major, continental moves) for my career, and I wanted to have the option of staying somewhere for a while. I was excited for a postdoc and for doing future research but didn’t really want to move to locations that were mostly out of my control a minimum of two more times.”

Carly Kontra agreed, “When I looked at the path ahead in academia – moving based on where an ideal post-doc was located, living through the stress of being on the job market for years, and then moving again based on wherever I could land a tenure-track position – I decided to explore other options.” Pursuing a non-academic career provides more certainty over location. As Livins pointed out, “Industry lets you choose your location more easily, and even if you need to change jobs you don’t necessarily need to change cities, states, or countries (though you can if you like).” Indeed, the most frequently given motivation for pursuing a non-academic career was ability to choose where to live.

Another important lifestyle factor was improved work-life balance. As Maria D’Angelo reported, “I wanted a job with good work-life balance so that I could maintain my outside interests on my own time.” Increased time away from work and ability to choose location were also cited as important for maintaining healthy and strong family relationships.

Finally, financial considerations were also important. Respondents were looking for greater financial stability than they would have on a graduate student or postdoc salary—we all know that these are modest. They wanted to not have to constantly worry about money, to live comfortably in the location of their choosing, and to be able to travel.

Scarcity in Academia

The current state of the academic job market weighed heavily on our respondents’ decision to pursue non-academic options. As one of our respondents noted when considering all possible career options, the options “in academia were scarce and not desirable”. Seeing the experience of others who had transitioned out of academia got people curious, and they began to investigate their options. “There were more opportunities in industry”, Livins reasoned, and those opportunities looked promising.


Another strong motivation for moving out of academia was people’s curiosity and their desire to do interesting and enjoyable work. Academic work can involve long stretches of working on variations on the same theme, employing variants of the same task paradigm across dozens of experiments, or conducting years of studies on the same general topic.

Anita Bowles noted, “I enjoy working on a variety of topics rather than following a course of research that consists of multiple variations on a theme.” A non-academic career can provide more opportunities to work on a variety of topics and ideas, since projects often arise from the varied needs of co-workers or clients. Further, non-academic work can involve collaboration across disciplines, which was appealing to respondents. For example, you may work with co-workers from across fields, combining efforts to reach a common goal. It is likely you’ll pick up new ideas and learn new perspectives from these experiences.

Second, our respondents explained that certain tasks, particularly writing grants and papers, were the most boring part of their experience in academia, and they didn’t want to have a career built on having to do these activities. For example, Bowles remarked, “I don’t like writing grants or spending a lot of nights and weekends on manuscript revisions.” Likewise, Mike Winograd reckoned that, “I didn’t want my career success to be dependent on a never-ending cycle of publishing and grant/fellowship applications, which were my least favorite parts of academic work.”

Many respondents cited the fast pace of private sector work as another “anti-boredom” motivation. As one of our respondents noted anonymously, academia can move slowly, “most problems worth looking into take an incredibly long time to understand, and only very foolish people would consider one or two papers on a subject to be definitive. Yet it just didn’t fit my personal interest in moving more quickly—in trying to build things with new technologies and talking about new crazy ideas.” In non-academic careers, working on teams with others and having clear deliverables and expectations allows projects to proceed at a very fast pace, which is fulfilling to many of our respondents.


A final theme that emerged was the consideration of whether the pursuit of academic or non-academic work would have a bigger impact on others. One respondent introspected that “I never felt like the skills or successes in academia came as easily as they did in non-academia. As I grew more frustrated with academia, my passion for it left and I ultimately asked myself, where can I have a bigger impact? The answer was clear.”

Many respondents noted their disappointment with the current state of scientific research, mirroring recent discussion on whether the reward structure of science naturally favors poor practices. “Academia is broken,” one of our respondents anonymously noted, continuing “I can count the number of labs whose results I truly trust on one hand. If this were because these people are “bad” or “corrupt”, that would be one thing, because then I could argue that the field would benefit from more people who are aware of the problem and willing to stay true to the science. But the fact is that the academic system itself places strong, corrupting pressures on academics.” This disillusionment added to the “sense that I wasn’t doing anything valuable in my academic jobs,” as another of our respondents noted.

Outside of academia, respondents hoped that their work could have a real, direct impact on others. For example, Bowles was attracted to a non-academic career because she was “motivated to conduct applied research that can have an immediate impact on peoples’ lives or inform policy.” Katie Rotella agreed: “I wanted to know that my research had real life impact”. Overall, respondents felt that applying their skills to work with real-world data was the best way to have a direct impact on others, and made the decision to pursue a non-academic path easy.

In tomorrow’s post, we’ll explore how people apply the skills they developed in their graduate careers and what new skills they had to pick up after their transitions out of academia.

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