Moving from one temporary postdoctoral contract to the next is not what most researchers have in mind when they begin their PhD studies.
But it has become the reality for thousands of early career researchers (ECRs) whose desire to pursue an academic career remains undiminished by countless setbacks and rejections. Even those who achieve what is supposed to be the holy grail of science – the permanent job – can wonder if it was worth it; even before the pandemic, the competing pressures of producing research outputs, securing grants and demonstrating teaching excellence weighed heavily.
At some point, academic life can start to lose meaning and become less gratifying. Researchers may begin to wonder about the purpose and difference that their research is making or how many more papers that perhaps only a few people read they will need to write. Questions can also surface around the sacrifices they are making in their personal and family life for an uncertain academic career.
Put simply, staying afloat in academia is often not enough. Researchers should not need to hold on to any possible academic position but have a career path that provides meaning to them, on both the professional and personal levels. As such, many STEM researchers have realised this path towards long-term career sustainability is more likely than not found outside academia.
But researchers often have little idea about how to make this switch. Many may seek career advice from their PhD supervisors, but the latter might not be in the best position to advise on non-academic careers – or might, less charitably, imagine that “losing” a talented PhD graduate to industry might be perceived as a failure on their part as a supervisor.
University career offices may have a better idea but don’t tend to have the know-how to support academic researchers’ transition into careers outside academia as their focus is to support graduate students’ employability.
So how can supervisors and institutions help PhD graduates and ECRs into a fulfilling career outside academia? According to research that I conducted with colleagues at Radboud University in the Netherlands and Kingston University, which drew on dozens of interviews with STEM researchers who had successfully moved into data science, these transitions require both individual effort and institutional support.
At an individual level, our study highlighted that STEM researchers must engage in a process of self-assessment, skill adaptation and tapping into social networks built up while in academia.
Gaining clarity about what they want and accepting that there are alternative careers is the first action to take. The point is not for STEM researchers to simply enrol on a course to develop the skills or knowledge required in a new field (they are already well equipped with transferable numerical, problem-solving and analytical skills) but rather to invest time in reflecting on their interests, goals and passion.
The second action is skill adaptation, which involves considering how to put already acquired skills into practice for new roles’ activities. Our study participants reported reading numerous books on relevant topics such as data science for business or machine learning as well as using community platforms such as Kaggle to support their transition into data science.
The third is to use networks and relationships to find out more about potential career paths. Networking and attending conferences give them the opportunity to talk to practitioners whose experience can illuminate potential career paths. Researchers should not be afraid to approach ex-colleagues who might have already left academia. They should gather as many insights as possible into where their skills are needed and valued before deciding to take the plunge and step out of academia for good.
While these individual actions are imperative, the transition into sustainable non-academic careers can be accelerated by what we call external “career catalysts”. These programmes, fellowships or boot camps are usually run by independent organisations that support talented researchers’ career transition into new roles, such as data scientists or other highly sought roles.
Career catalysts can help those leaving academia adopt a new mindset that is more aligned with working in industry, understand the labour market and ultimately gain meaningful employment. They provide valuable information, from potential employers to types of jobs and salary ranges, and usually require researchers to carry out a hands-on project with an organisation, developing and showcasing relevant skills to potential employers and, in many cases, securing a job.
While many STEM researchers will be successful in pursuing sustainable careers outside academia by their own effort, universities must also bear more responsibility of being more transparent about the fact that not all PhD students and ECRs will remain in academia long-term. They should also support researchers’ entry into worthwhile non-academic jobs by creating partnerships with relevant boot camps and employers with the know-how to facilitate the transition into non-academic careers.
For many, leaving academia is a painful process as they ponder unrealised dreams of professorships or research acclaim. It shouldn’t be this way; if researchers’ motivation to make a difference in industry can be successfully harnessed via career catalysts and university support, these transitions can be hugely rewarding for industry and individuals alike.
Mayra Ruiz Castro is a senior lecturer at Roehampton Business School.