Last week Nature published (another) piece about Why it is not a ‘failure’ to leave academia. Now that I am in the outside it feels surreal that this is still an issue, but I am close enough to academia to understand where this comes from. The article has a lot of nice suggestions of how to find your place outside academia, and what supervisor can do to help. But it doesn’t really talk about the actual feeling of failure.
Yes, the struggle is real. There is a general feeling of failure once you leave academia. In my case, after being in academia for 20+ years, I seriously thought that was the only thing I was capable of doing. And most worrying, the only thing I’d love to do. If you go through my blog posts from when I started blogging (2013), I was a postdoc, and almost all my posts were about the struggle of finding an academic position. But as years went by, more and more I feel like this feeling of failure is something that happens mainly in your own head. As @sennoma put it brilliantly on twitter a couple of years ago, it takes a lot of time (and work) to overcome that feeling:
Leaving academia is not easy. It takes a lot of courage to take the leap and jump out there in the open, in the unknown. Because we have been in academia for so long, we are surrounded by other academics, and it is easy to get swamped in feelings that if everyone around you succeeds in academia, you should succeed as well. And if you don’t, you are a failure. It is so easy to think that you’re all alone, and the only person going through those feelings. That’s one of the reasons we created our Recovering Academic Podcast, to help others cope with their feelings about leaving academia
For me, that feeling of failure started to go away as I started to be exposed to other recovering academics, other #NonAcademicScientists, other people with a Ph.D. that succeeded outside academia. Talking to other people that had gone through similar experiences was so valuable! In the beginning, most of my interactions came from Twitter. I had a lot of support from other Ph.D.s that were happy with their decision of leaving academia, but still remember how hard it was for them to actually leave. During my last trip to San Francisco, @lteytelman and I went through a DM we had back in 2014 (!) [published with permission]
And he was absolutely right! I left academia about one year after that conversation. I’ve got my first job outside academia on July 2015. Life changes, and slowly you start to realize that academia is not the only way to be happy. Today, it’s been 3 years and a half since I left academia, and I am more certain than ever that this was the best decision I could have taken. I admire those who continue in academia, but the more time passes, the more I feel like this was not the life I wanted for me. I feel like now I have a much healthier work-life balance, and also, a much better salary 🙂
Of course, you may still feel pressure/disappointment from family, colleagues, and mainly from your supervisor when you decide to leave. But the more you are certain you are taking the best decision, the more they will understand and support you. So stay strong, reach out to your network, and don’t forget: there’s sunshine outside the ivory tower!