So you are in the final year of your PhD or doing a Postdoc. However, you are still not sure on what exactly you want to pursue afterwards. Do you want to stay in the academia or look for a job in the industry?
You are not the only one stuck.
I remember myself starting with my PhD having no idea of what I was going to do next. I expected my following career steps to become clear to me in my final year. Well, this was not the case. In my final year I knew a lot about my PhD topic, writing articles, applying for grants and what to do to get a Postdoc position.
But then I had a nagging thought of not wanting to continue my career in academia and I wasn’t sure about what I could do instead. Of course I knew that the alternative would be going into the industry and getting a job at a company. But it took me a while to actually make the choice and start looking for an industry job. I’ve talked to many PhDs in a similar situation and it turned out that I wasn’t the only one struggling.
So what makes the choice on leaving the academia after your PhD difficult?
1. Having to make a career decision
It’s time that you need to make a choice. The thing is that up until now you never really had to choose. Sure, you chose your university study and then chose to continue with a PhD. However, you knew from the start that PhD is something temporary, just like your study. Now that you are done, you need to choose on what you are actually going to do in your career and this feels more permanent. Are you going to be a researcher/scientist in academia or are you going to be an industry professional (tens of different job possibilities)? It’s similar to the choice that people need to make after finishing their studies (like university or college) and there are tons of articles online on how that can be challenging and overwhelming.
2. Leaving your comfort zone
At the end of your PhD you’re comfortable in your research field as you are an expert in your PhD topic. You know the way to communicate with the others in academia and how the whole game works. Also, you have a good idea on how to find Postdoc positions and what the work will be like. Well, looking for a job in industry is completely different. Chances are that you don’t know many people working in companies and your colleagues who work in academia are likely not to be of much help. This means that you will need to make new connections and start job hunting in an unfamiliar field. So yes, you’ll definitely need to step out of your comfort zone. This may make sticking around for some more years in academia doing a Postdoc seem more appealing.
3. There are more career options outside of academia
A career path in academia is a straight road which gets narrower the further you get as finding a position higher in the career ladder gets more difficult. A career path outside of academia is more like a busy network of streets where there are many crossroads and you need to choose the route you would like to follow. The funny thing about having a lot of choices is that even though it seems appealing at first, it can stop us from taking any action at all. It therefore becomes tempting to do another Postdoc and postpone your career decision for several more years.
4. You don’t really know what to expect from a job in industry
You know exactly what a research job in the academia will be like. However, the job descriptions in industry are often very general and it’s not clear what your day job will be. Also, for some reason I had the idea that there will be little research and a lot of routine work in an industry job. I really pictured myself doing some routine testing with no freedom or research whatsoever. There are jobs like that in the industry, but in general they are not meant for applicants with a PhD. Of course each job has some kind of routine and tasks that you don’t enjoy as much. But be honest, do you like absolutely everything you do in your job right now?
5. You may need to temporally lose your ground
Industry has different demands and your strong points in academia may actually become your weaknesses in the industry. Things that are important for your career now will not be of interest anymore. For example, in academia we are focused on writing perfect articles. In a company on the other hand, a report needs to be done on time and good enough is good enough. Just as well, in academia, your publication list is what really counts, whereas in industry it can be that nobody will really care. It doesn’t take long to flip the scale back in your advantage as long as you are flexible and willing to learn.
6. You feel like you’re trading down
When you are in academia and you are thinking of looking for a job in the industry, you can’t help but feel that you are trading down or taking the easy path. I really thought that this feeling was specific to me. That was until I have spoken to many other PhD students and people working in industry after their PhD. It turned out that many of them had that feeling too. I’m not sure what the source of the feeling that academia is the only right way is. However if you are already hesitant in what you want, it can hinder you in making the decision. Also, don’t forget that you have invested at least four years (plus a lot of hard work) into academia and leaving it can naturally feel as a career switch. In this case you can feel like you will lose a lot by making a wrong choice.
The bottom line is that deciding on what to do after your PhD is not that simple. This becomes even more difficult when you are working round the clock to finish off your experiments, complete your thesis and prepare for the defense. But if you find yourself feeling that you don’t want to go further following the academic career path it is definitely worthwhile to look into other options.
What makes it most difficult for you to decide? Please share by leaving a comment.