Is the ‘sunk cost fallacy’ sinking your career?

Making the decision to move away from research can be daunting, but a big dose of rational thinking can help you make the right choice, says Emma Williams

Emma Williams's avatar
EJW Solutions
24 Feb 2022
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Early career researchers not let previously invested time and money impact the decision to leave university and research

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“I’ve studied all this time.” “I’ve racked up student loans.” “My family have supported me during my studies.” “I always wanted to be a researcher.” I hear these phrases from early career researchers time and time again. Often, they are spoken by people who started the sentence with: “I think I should move on but…”

They are all very real and credible examples of the intellectual, financial and personal costs that one might have put into their career so far – so it’s strange that such investments can be the very thing holding us back. They are also all examples of a sunk cost – something we have already “paid” for in one way or another. We commit the sunk cost fallacy when we continue a behaviour or endeavour because of previously invested resources (time, money or effort), even if it would be beneficial to stop or switch.

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Nobel-winning behavioural economist Richard Thaler introduced the world to the sunk cost concept. The act of “paying for the right to use a good or service will increase the rate at which the good will be utilised” even if something cheaper or better comes along. This is obviously not a rational decision, but as humans we want to avoid those negative feelings associated with a loss. Our emotions make the decision.

The work of David Ronayne, Daniel Sgroi and Anthony Tuckwell from the University of Warwick in 2021 identifies the factors of effort, belief, emotion and time alongside money as key drivers in being susceptible to the sunk cost fallacy. Those first three might be felt much more personally than the more measurable metrics of time and money. Reassuringly, they also highlight that the brain power required to avoid the fallacy is “slight” once we have noticed it. We need to apply information and experience in a structured, rational way to avoid the trap.

So, if the ability to notice the process is key, where does it manifest itself in the day-to-day life of researchers? Sometimes it can be the relatively harmless lines on our CV of prizes we won at high school. Our subsequent, more relevant achievements are a little diminished by their presence, but we keep them in there, having invested so much effort into them. Another common scenario is still fretting about those papers from six years ago that you’re a middle author on and that sit at the bottom of your old PI’s to-do pile. A huge amount of effort, worry and emotion is expended when, quite often, the postdocs concerned would be better off focusing on publishing current work. Our six years of fretting is holding us back from the clarity of understanding that if they aren’t written by now, they probably never will be.

But the biggest sunk cost fallacy comes when we know we should move away from academic research but feel we cannot. This often coincides with the postdoc period, by which time we’ve been on the vocational academic track for at least 10 years. If we include schooling that easily doubles. I do not use the term vocation lightly. I work with many researchers driven passionately to explore and learn their subjects. A vocation encompasses those five metrics of time, money, effort, emotion and belief perfectly. No wonder people explore the “just one more postdoc” route.

The key here is to notice the language we use. We know we should move. This implies we have facts, information and experiences to bring to the decision. We feel we cannot. This implies our emotions may be having a disproportionate say in the matter. We need to engage our rational researcher brain. Harnessing the power of decision-making mapping tools such as a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) or even a simple list of positives/negatives for several career options will put down in black and white the facts of the situation. 

If there are gaps in the facts, obtain information from all sources – both factual (job descriptions) and personal (informational interviews, chats with connections in that industry). Interestingly, when people dive into the information, they score different job options using the same metrics that were holding them back: salary (money); work/life balance (time and effort); happiness/fulfilment (emotion); and alignment with their values (belief).

And then there is the elephant in the room. By stepping away from academic research, we are somehow seen as failing. Sometimes we impose this on ourselves. Rather than flagellate ourselves with the narrative of “I’ve wasted all this time” we should be taking the wealth of skills and experiences we’ve gained to explore new avenues and solve new problems. If this message of waste is coming from those researchers around you, bear in mind they can only advise from their situation. If they’ve always been in academia, this is the framework they’re speaking from. Thus, ensure you have a variety of career advisers across different work sectors (mentors, peers and connections). These people will often see your several years’ research experience in a completely different (and positive) way. 

Choosing to step away from an academic career opens us up to daunting, negative feelings of loss. We can overcome them with a big dose of rational thinking and research – our core skills, after all. We arrive at any career crossroads with a backstory full of hard-won victories and often several years of study. But to quote the first rule of holes: “If you’re in a hole, stop digging.”

Emma Williams is an independent trainer providing advice for early career researchers. A former postdoc, she is also former head of academic practice at the University of Cambridge and co-author of What Every Postdoc Needs to Know, with Liz Elvidge and Carol Spencely.

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