Was it really what you wanted? // A change is coming

Did you really “fail” if you didn’t get something that doesn’t exist, or isn’t what you really wanted?

Fail has very negative connotations, but a lot of people being forced to consider their careers in academia will be reaching for that word. Even though we all know that 99% of PhDs don’t end up as tenured professors, those of us who choose to remain in academia always believe we’re in the 1%, despite all evidence to the contrary. So when things don’t work out – and contrary to all hopeful expectation, they usually don’t – we’re likely to blame ourselves.

If you’re on the way out of academia, chances are that you’re stressed and miserable. Academia stops being fun a long time before you exit, especially if you’re being pushed out rather than leaving on your own terms. 

But is it fun when you get to stay? 

If you’re one of the lucky 1% that manages to cross that rickety rope bridge over the gorge, all the way to that Lost World called “tenure”, you’ve probably not been thinking farther than that point in terms of detailed career plans. And that means that this Brave New World you encounter may not have the lustre you expected.

Despite achieving tenure, probably in large part due to outstanding research performance, you’ll probably find that your new tenured position means lots of new administrative responsibilities and less and less time in the lab. The prize for winning the race is to be pulled inexorably away from the arena of your successes. 

The important implication for young scientists at this stage of their careers is that a change is coming, regardless of whether you get tenure or not. Regardless of whether you want it or not. A tenured professor is not a senior postdoc with a permanent contract, it’s an almost completely new job with a whole new set of responsibilities. 

If you thought tenure meant being an independent group leader with a permanent position and no responsibilities besides research, you’re going to be disappointed. If you wanted tenure but are being shunted out, you’re going to feel disappointed.

So ask yourself, what is it that you really want? Do you want to keep on writing grants? Do you want to keep going through peer review? Think about the things that you enjoy the most about science, and then ask how many of those things you would still be doing if you were a tenured professor. Then ask how many of those things you would still be able to do if you changed your career path, out of academia but still somewhere in science. Chances are it’s a lot more than you first think.

In life, you’ll be happy if you’re able to embrace changes and see them as opportunities for further growth and development. That applies to people getting tenure; it also applies to the 99% of us who don’t. 

Of course, it’s crucial for people who have attained tenured positions to (subliminally) suggest that people leaving academia will not be as happy, because if people were happier outside academia then it devalues the achievement of those who remain. The sacrifices made to get tenure have to be merited, and if scientific fulfilment is possible elsewhere then it suggests that the stress, the pain, the insanity weren’t worthwhile. We know of the Matthew Effect, but what about the Matthew 16:26 effect – what will it profit a person if they gain the whole world, but lose their soul? That’s why there’s always this almost imperceptible pitying tone or expression when the 1% commiserate with those on their way out of academia – but the reality is that both parties are changing their circumstances for good.

Sure, there will always be things in academia that we will miss if we leave, but that’s true of everywhere we go and everything we do. But you won’t miss them so much once you start something new and are having fun. And you will have fun. There’s much more to science than just academia, and what academia offers may not be what it once did. And if what you thought it was offering doesn’t actually exist, then it wasn’t what you wanted anyway.

Related postings:
It couldn’t ever happen to me (the importance of career Plan B’s in academia)
Where is the fun? (how research is actually only occasionally a pleasure)
Snakes and ladders (why promotion in academia requires skills that are not predictive of future performance)

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