I’ve told my story about how I left academia a lot over the years. Some might even say I’ve told it too many times.
But here I sit, 5 years later, still so thankful I left.
It took me time to figure out what I wanted to do. After meandering through I think tank and politics and government and doing a lot of smart jobs, I finally woke up and realized what I actually love… creating and marketing.
And now, I get paid to do both of those things. And I love it way more than I could ever love academia. I wouldn’t go back – unless briefly to live in Oxford, which was always a dream that didn’t come true 🤣
But five years ago, I made the painful decision to leave academia. I stumbled through. For a while, I thought I was going to be a manual laborer. But the same thing happened to me that happens to so many smart people who get the hell out of this broken institution… I figured it out.
In this post, I want to talk about why this might be the time to leave academia. I want to share with you some of the things I’ve learned by leaving, not to mention by meeting and interviewing tons of other people who have left.
How can you tell when to leave academia?
I think this is the hardest decision anyone ever has to make. Because you don’t have the right information to work with.
The way the academic cycle works, you can always hold out for one more year. If you’re on the job market, by the time it’s done, it’s almost time to apply again. This makes it almost impossible to decide when it’s time to leave academia.
This terrible cycle keeps people in limbo and prevents them from choosing to leave academia. “There’s always next year!”
So, there’s no simple way to answer this question, but let me say this. If you’re waiting for a sign, it’s unlikely to come. Academia will keep taking your energy and cheap labor as long as you want to give it.
Is it okay to leave academia?
Yes. Of course. It’s easy to think you need someone’s permission, especially when you probably have a clear power dynamic between your supervisor or PI.
But even they don’t get to decide what’s right for your life. It’s perfectly fine to leave academia if you’re ready. You don’t have to ask them. Just tell them.
Reasons to leave academia
1. Because your skills are needed outside
When I left academia, I didn’t know this. I just figured that all of the skills I had in writing, researching, teaching, etc., would just be put to waste and I would have to retrain to be a plumber or something.
That’s actually ridiculous. Many of the skills you have in academia are in high demand outside. For humanities PhDs like me, it might be more about your transferable skills than your actual subject knowledge. For a lot of my STEM counterparts, it might be both.
It takes time to figure out how and where to apply your skills, but they are definitely needed.
2. Because you should make more money
“I’m not in it for the money!”
Sure, I know you’re not in it for the money. In fact, academia grooms you to say this. If you care about money, you’d be selling out, wouldn’t you?
I distinctly remember one sociology grad responding to a tweet about money, telling me that his supervisor says “you shouldn’t be in this for the money.”
I responded, “Is that the same supervisor who makes $200,000 a year?”
Someone once told me that “following your passion” in the world is a neoliberalist brain-trick to keep you exploited.
They weren’t talking about academic work. But they could have been. Why is academia the WORST at this?
Academia pushes passion hard and makes you feel guilty for thinking about money.
Or, I see academics who are trying to stick up for themselves financially. Awesome. I see grad students and postdocs on strike trying to get their funding package from $35,000 to $40,000. But any gains they make are usually pathetic and piecemeal (sorry to be blunt).
Whether you’re a grad student, a postdoc, a sessional, or even on the tenure-track, chances are you’re not making enough.
It’s okay to leave academia for more money. Maybe you have a family to support. Or maybe, you just want to retire before you’re 95.
3. Because non-academic work is fulfilling
Before I left, I only ever heard about non-academic work from people in the academy.
And there seems to be pretty unanimous agreement that non-academic work is not fulfilling.
As I’ve written about elsewhere, since I chose to leave academia, I built refugee programs, worked on high-stakes government projects, helped millions of people with this blog, and run a marketing consulting business.
It’s all been fulfilling in different ways. And, I’ve met people in sectors from tech to pharma to government and beyond. A lot of them find the work really fulfilling.
I’ve also met a lot of professors who are trying to leave academia because it’s not fulfilling anymore.
Don’t believe this lie.
4. Because it’s going to keep getting worse
I’ve done some work in the future of higher ed, and I got to dive into the research for a little while for a consulting client.
And it’s not looking good folks. It’s projected that a huge percentage of colleges will close, and colleges and universities are cranking up tuition just to keep the lights on, right as people are more and more avoiding higher ed.
The people who are trying to turn the ship of higher education are a bit like that pilot in the Suez canal that got the freighter stuck. It’s too big even for them to handle.
Heck, as I write this, I’ve had several profs in the last few weeks tell me their positions are being eliminated. Whole departments are being cut.
Join the rest of us rats and jump from the sinking ship. Because I don’t have a lot of hope for the future of this institution.
5. Because of the opportunity cost
This is the single biggest reason in my opinion to leave academia. But it’s also the one I didn’t clue in to until I left.
Staying in academia comes with a huge opportunity cost. Each year that passes is a year you could be building a non-academic portfolio, learning to earn more, and growing your wealth. I once estimated that staying in academia costs $500,000 to your net worth.
You could also think about opportunity costs in terms of your career progression.
If you’re going to have to leave academia anyway, might as well rip off the Band-Aid and start building a career.
Either way, it will probably take you a bit of time to sort out your future. Might as well get it over with now and get on with it.
6. Because you can’t be good enough
I don’t know if people are still doing this, because it’s so commonly spoken about.
The odds in academia were always terrible. But when I was studying for my PhD, I decided that I would be the exception to the rule. I would be better. I would publish more. I would work harder.
And I got smacked with the truth. You can’t be good enough if there are zero jobs to apply for. Even a great CV isn’t going to get you shortlisted for the two jobs that each have hundreds of applicants. What if just one of them is better than you?
The problem is, academia isn’t a meritocracy. At those odds, it’s not about working your way to the top. It’s more like winning a lottery, in which every other person who bought a ticket also had a fantastic chance.
Don’t take it personally. But you’ll probably never be good enough.
7. Because you deserve to be valued
This seems like a wild statement, but I felt worthless by the time I was done my PhD. Academia made me feel even more worthless. It took me a few years to recover.
If you’re tired of being treated like garbage, leave academia so that you can be valued. Heck, I’m not saying that every workplace will value you the way they should. Many probably won’t.
But academia is an entire system that survives because people don’t know their worth. If all the adjuncts quit tomorrow, they would either collapse or they’d have to pay more. But people won’t. They’ll keep showing up.
You deserve to be valued.
8. The degree might not be worth it
I’m probably going to piss off some of my friends and colleagues in this online world. You know, the ones posting about what great transferable skills a PhD gives you.
I can see the value of PhDs in STEM, or even quantitative or qualitative research. My humanities PhD has almost no value. There is no way I would ever do it again, knowing what I know now.
And here, I’m talking about value in real terms. Was your humanities PhD valuable?
I spent years acquiring knowledge I don’t use anymore. I spent time mastering skills only to find that I could only earn so much using them. I ended up making about $100,000 using my PhD in government, which was almost the best-case scenario. They just liked the PhD and didn’t care much what it was about.
When I stopped trying to use my academic skills, and moved into marketing, I almost doubled that. To be successful in what I do now, I’ve actually had to unlearn a lot of my academic skills. If I wrote like I was trained to write, there’s no way in hell I would make any money off it.
I ain’t making this decision for you. But I will tell you, for me, that PhD was not worth it. I could have left ABD and saved a couple years of misery. Or I could have just skipped it in the first place.
But for some people, it IS worth it.
If you’re ready to leave academia, but think you need the degree, you might not. Heck, if you are a year or even 2 years away from finishing and you can see that it will help you in the marketplace, go nuts.
But if there’s no end in sight, there’s no shame in cutting and running.
How to leave academia
We’ve got a ton of resources on the website dedicated to figuring out how to leave academia, so I won’t rehash them all here. But let me give you some basic points and then link off to some relevant resources.
Step 1: Give yourself permission
Nobody’s going to tell you to do this, in my experience. The first step is usually wrapping your head around it. But this is your decision. It’s your future. And you are the only one who can make it.
Don’t let a supervisor make it for you. Ignore your academic friends who say that there’s nothing you can do or that you won’t be happy. You need to give yourself permission to leave academia. And in my experience, that can be one of the hardest parts.
What Nobody Tells You About Leaving Academia
Step 2: Start exploring
Hopefully the next step is fun. You can start exploring what’s next. When I started doing informational interviews, talking to people doing interesting work, my options opened up.
These people told me about all the amazing things I could do. They introduced me to jobs I didn’t know existed. And I would work several of these, working for think tank, as a government policy analyst, and as a consultant.
Your first step is just to start talking to people. Be really open-minded and have conversations with anybody you possibly can.
Here are some more resources.
Step 3: Create your brand
“Brand” feels like a funny word here, but I want to encourage you to think beyond resumes. Of course, you can create a resume.
But it’s not always the most important thing. I would actually consider a LinkedIn profile more important, especially because you can use it to start meeting people and scheduling informational interviews.
Here are some more resources:
- 6 Steps to Write the Perfect LinkedIn About Section (LinkedIn Summary)
- LinkedIn for Phds: How to Use It to Build an Amazing Non-Academic Career
- 6 Actionable Tips to Turn a CV Into a Resume that Employers Love
Step 4: Start applying
In some cases, active networking will open up opportunities. That’s how I got my first job. If not, you’re going to go into a period of applying for jobs. It can be challenging and stressful, but we’ve all been there. There will be some rejection, but hey, you’re used to that.. right?
Step 5: Land your first job
Eventually, you will get your first non-academic job. In my experience, it might not be your forever career. But it is a start.
It starts with one opportunity. One thing on your resume that’s not academia.
You will probably go through some interviews. And hopefully you get the job offer!
It doesn’t matter if it’s your dream job, necessarily. You might not even know what that is yet. Unlike in academia, you’re not married to this thing forever. It just needs to get you started.
Step 6: Rebuild your vision
I’ve learned from years of working with phds that it takes time to rebuild a vision. It doesn’t happen overnight. That’s why I put this at the end of this article.
You might get lucky and discover that your first job is something you’re passionate about and enjoy. But for many of us, it takes time to rebuild the vision you had of a life in academia. You need to replace that with a new vision.
And if you try to do that before you’ve been in the world at all, you won’t have any idea what to put there. Take some time instead, let your vision develop.
If the time has come to leave academia, I hope this article was helpful to you. A lot of these are things I’ve learned through the school of hard knocks, not to mention from having spent five years studying and meeting PhDs who have left.
It’s not always easy. But it’s usually worth it.
PhD Graduates Don’t Need Resumes. They Need a Freaking Vision
How to Quit Grad School and Not Ruin Your Life. A Simple 8-Step Plan For Leaving.