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Don’t let academia consume you

Academia has been called many unflattering things: overpriced, top-heavy, bloated, unnecessary, irrelevant, a scam, toxic, broken, pointless, a pyramid scheme, the edible nut of an Australian tree of the plant family Proteaceae. … Wait, that’s macadamia.

The point is that the very institution we’ve relied upon to educate and train us in science is far from perfect. Many Ph.D. awardees, on graduation day, feel less proud of their accomplishments and more relieved to be done and headed out the door. Even those still interested in academia often find that academia—at least, the sparse academic job market—isn’t interested in them.

For years, professors seemed blind to this. Grad students were told, either implicitly or explicitly, that any career outside the academy was tantamount to failure. Tenure-track professorships were treated as amazing and abundant opportunities, while any other job was reserved for the students who shouldn’t have been in a Ph.D. program in the first place.

Luckily, that attitude is starting to change, an evolution I’ve witnessed firsthand as I’ve traveled around the United States to speak at grad student training retreats—at least, I used to witness it, back when traveling and in-person events were a thing. Grad students would pack into rooms to learn about careers available outside academia. I found it notable that many of the events had “first annual” in their names. At schools that are decades or centuries old, that gives you some indication that program administrators have been missing an opportunity for a long time.

It’s refreshing to see these institutions finally get the message that a Ph.D. can help one find a rewarding career in a building not abutting a quadrangle. But academia’s self-focused mindset hasn’t entirely gone away. I’ve had friends who were thinking of stepping outside academia—doing an industry postdoc, for example, or even taking a couple years off for parenting purposes—but they always hesitate, afraid that if they leave academia, they might never be allowed to return.

I was thinking about my own escape from academia recently when I happened across a blog post by Inger Mewburn, director of researcher development at The Australian National University. Mewburn decried the insular and dated academic model that forces students to kowtow to “an academia of the past,” arguing that now, more than ever, is the perfect time to fix the system—with academia facing an economic crisis and careers outside academia growing in importance.

In Mewburn’s view, Ph.D. students are often dissuaded from spending time on activities that might legitimately benefit them outside the university. They hone niche skills such as writing dense journal articles that no one can read, for example, but they’re told that public speaking competitions are “a waste of time.”

This point certainly rang true for me. I don’t remember all of the details of my graduate education, but it definitely felt like the 7 years of my Ph.D. program contained less than 7 years’ worth of useful instruction. Grad school is such a sizeable block of time in one’s formative years. Imagine if it was filled with broad professional development—rather than years of repeating the same lab experiments, or what Mewburn calls the “hazing ritual” of writing a dissertation.

I called Mewburn, partly to chat about the current state of graduate education and partly to avoid having to homeschool my kids for an hour. She gave me even more reasons to question the traditional academic model. “I did a little research project,” she told me, referring to a survey she conducted in which she asked job recruiters about their views of academia. Respondents reported back to her that they viewed academia as “an alien place” or “another world.”

“They felt that when someone had ‘Ph.D.’ after their name,” Mewburn explained, “they were indoctrinated in a certain way of working that didn’t work in corporate land.” Academia, in other words, by focusing on its own priorities, has been neglecting a broader enriching of skills that would help graduate students go on to find nonacademic jobs. And job recruiters can tell.

The meet-an-escapee-from-academia training events that some graduate programs are now offering are important, but Mewburn thinks they should go further. She hopes programs will eventually reconfigure themselves to provide more training that’s useful outside academia. But until that happens, Mewburn’s solution for grad students stuck in a broken system is a sort of selective negligence. She asks them to consider which aspects of their education are worth pursuing wholeheartedly, and which aren’t. For example, which arcane degree requirements might they satisfy with token gestures, knowing that they’re ultimately unimportant in the long run anyway?

Cough cough … DISSERTATION … cough cough.

I feel like this is a conversation we have over and over again, like the daily struggle I have with my kids after they’ve dumped their jackets on the floor. (“The coat hooks are right there. They came from Ikea and they’re shaped like owls.”) The conversation inevitably starts when someone points out that academic science training is mired in traditions that no longer make sense. Everyone nearby loudly agrees—but those who truly need to be convinced remain silent because they don’t read this section of Science anyway.

I hope that with all the hiring freezes in academia, more people will listen this time. But I’m not holding my breath—and I do hope that graduate students will prize their own needs and desires beyond what their advisers and programs expect of them.

So let’s say this together, one more time: Don’t let academic science training dissuade you from considering nonacademic careers. If your university provides resources to help grad students find nonacademic job paths, that’s great—and if not, do your own research. Seek opportunities to build skills in grad school that go beyond lab work. Make the most of your own training. Because the system we’re working with right now? It’s just nuts.

Wait, I’m thinking about macadamias again.

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