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My journey leaving academia

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Oliver Back
8 min read

Why did I leave academia?

I recently interviewed Matthew Carlson, and Phil Gooch, who are both PhDs that left academia for industry positions. They shared their stories and explained why they undertook the lengthy PhD journey and then left academia for industry.

My personal ‘exit from academia’ is a story I’ve wanted to tell on this blog for a long time. Why go through the arduous process of completing a PhD to then not work as an academic?

Well, I think there are many reasons why an individual would want to undertake such a rigorous qualification, and then take a job that doesn’t require a doctorate.

Originally, my intention was to complete a PhD with the goal of taking a position as a post-doc, and then go on to a lectureship. I also wanted to eventually work my way up to become a professor, where I would lecture undergraduates. I wanted to have my own lab and have PhD students that I would supervise and mentor.

Why I decided to apply to grad school

I knew I wanted to do a PhD before I even started college, earning the title ‘Dr’ was a dream I had from the age of 13, but it wasn’t a constant bucket list item.

The change in support as I transitioned from secondary school, into college, and then university made me second-guess my ability, which left me looking at other avenues for my post-university life.

What were the convincing factors to pursue a PhD?

During my second year at the University of Reading, I did a module on robotic systems which included a larger piece of coursework that contributed towards my final grade. To complete the coursework, we had to produce a written report and presentation on a particular academic journal article that we could choose from a list.

When the list was released, I made a beeline for the brain-computer interface section where I found an article titled ‘The Neurally Controlled Animat: biological brains acting with simulated bodies’ and was absolutely captivated by it.

Because of that article, I chose to do my undergrad dissertation research on a similar topic, with the module convenor, Dr Yoshi Hayashi. We researched some of the minimum requirements for intelligence to emerge in complex systems, by simulating the Gray-Scott reaction-diffusion model, as an ‘engine’ for a simplistic mobile robot.

Over the course of my dissertation, Yoshi brought up the suggestion of me pursuing a PhD a few times. I brushed it off at first because I didn’t think I would be capable: I didn’t even have a master's degree, which I assumed would be a prerequisite. Yoshi encouraged me to apply, and I was pleasantly surprised when I was offered a place.

Starting graduate school

I began graduate school during the September 2018 intake. On my first day when I met my cohort, I realised I was the only one without a master's degree, and was quite a lot younger than the others, at 21 years old. I tried not to let this affect me, but I definitely felt a lot of imposter syndrome.

I felt like I’d been thrown in at the deep end, when, two weeks in, deep into my literature review ahead of my 6-month report, I was already teaching in the part-1 programming module and being asked to collaborate on other students' research projects.

What were the positives of doing a PhD?

I enjoyed it though, it felt like the first time that I’d had proper responsibility and could do something that actually had an end goal with real-world implications. No longer was I working on coursework purely to get a grade for my certificate, I needed to complete this work because it would eventually be published and read by academics around the world. And the teaching was great! I was able to share advice and teach undergrads who seemed to genuinely want to listen. I took this in my stride and would take on as much teaching as I could. I ended up participating in 6 or 7 different modules, with responsibilities ranging from lab demonstrator, to instructor, and even lecturing. It felt great being able to enjoy the work I was doing, and being paid a bit of money for doing so was even better. I was eventually asked to help supervise some students' dissertation projects, and developed a more personal relationship which was incredibly fulfilling.

Finding my path

After a while, I realised that I enjoyed teaching and helping students far more than my research responsibilities. The academic pressure would mount until I crashed with burnout. I never felt like I took any proper time off from my PhD, as any ‘downtime’ was spent recovering from overworking, only to go back to university and immediately repeat the cycle.

The publish-or-perish attitude at academic institutions was also very damaging, as I was made to feel like I was not doing enough work and that far more effort was necessary, even though I was at my absolute limit.

Very frequently when I requested time off, I would be asked to continue doing some analysis, or finish some writing while I was away. Any time off I spent was usually wracked with guilt that I was not being productive enough, and that I was falling behind my peers.

Why I wanted to stay in academia

It probably sounds crazy that I still wanted to stay on the academic track through all of this. And looking back, I think that a big reason  I wasn’t immediately dissuaded was the thought of not fulfilling my academic potential. I had told friends and family for years that I would be a professor, and there I was, a PhD student -  of course I would continue working as an academic.

There were moments during my PhD that really spurred me on to work as an academic. A collaborator on my first paper, Munehiro Asally was a great inspiration. After a trip to visit him for a progress update at the University of Warwick, he talked to me about how the progress of a PhD isn’t linear. There will be ups and downs, there will be changes in direction, and you have to trust the process. He instilled the idea of learning for the sake of learning, which was a big factor in me wanting to become a scientist in the first place. The open discussion that academia encourages was incredibly fulfilling, and being part of it was a fantastic experience.

The prestige of working in an institute for decades upon decades, publishing research, and travelling for conferences was incredibly attractive. I wanted to be able to look back at an academic career having developed the track record of being a great academic with a lengthy Google Scholar profile, and the reputation for being an approachable lecturer who had time to answer any question.

The dream to become a professor, and have my track record of publications was coming to an end though. I was realising that there were more negatives associated with staying in academia.

Why I decided to leave academia

The politics felt like a game that I didn’t understand, with nobody to explain the rules to me. Observing academics interact at conferences, or during networking events felt like I was an outsider trying to learn unwritten rules with strict penalties for failing. And that’s not to say there can’t be politics at work in industry, but the academic flavour of politics seemed confusing, out of date, and elitist.

On top of that, a common conversation starter when you’re getting to know someone, or even catching up with family, is chatting about work. I came to realise I was dreading the ‘how’s university going’ talk, and that it would likely never end if I were to stay within academia. There would always be someone to ask me what I was doing, and I felt like it was always going to be an uncomfortable question.

I even started asking my mum to tell my grandparents not to ask when I was going to graduate, or what Yoshi was up to whenever I visited home. 

A bitter end, or a welcome relief?

Being a PhD student is a unique feeling. Your project takes up almost 100% of your brain space. Whereas for your supervisor, who likely has other PhD students, and even undergrads to supervise alongside their other commitments, you become a statistic. Which is fine, because realistically, you’ll be a statistic in any job, especially if you join a large organisation. But having something so personal as my PhD project, boiled down to a 30-minute meeting once a week, was disheartening.

I grew bitter about being immediately shut down, and receiving comments like ‘show me more evidence’ when I hadn’t even finished the presentation I was giving. I know that academia has a very high burden of proof, and that the default response is to not believe results until they are verified and confirmed. But having a constant battle to prove myself was exhausting, especially when I didn’t feel I was given the space to explain myself.

I even considered dropping out, which made me feel guilty, as I had never quit anything before! I found myself imagining what my life would be like if I left graduate school. But I persevered, I had to finish, and I did.

Joining industry as a PhD

Towards the end of my PhD, I began working as an assistive technology (AT) trainer, which I really enjoyed. I had a lot of hands-on experience working with students and with EdTech tools.

I spent a lot of time using one called Scholarcy, witnessed my students take advantage of it, and had benefitted from using it myself. So around 6 months after submitting my thesis, I decided to see if they were hiring.

It had been a while since I had applied for a job, and I had never applied for a permanent, full-time position before! Shortly after applying, I was invited to the first-round interview, and then the second round, which was with the entire senior leadership team. To my surprise, that afternoon I was offered the job!

Joining Scholarcy was an interesting experience. It’s a start-up with a small team, and I was amazed by how quickly things got done. Someone would suggest something, or mention they were going to work on something. And then it would get done!

The upsides to leaving the academic environment

My experience as a PhD student, and AT trainer was taken very seriously, and I never had to jump through loops to demonstrate my expertise – a welcome change from academia!

I can still find some post-PhD guilt creeping in once in a while! A lot of the time I feel that I should be more productive, even when I am told I have achieved a lot. And booking time off work for a holiday still feels awkward – It’s a welcome change for the expectation to be that no work is done during time off.

I’ve personally found the transition into industry to be very smooth, and enjoyable. I’m intellectually stimulated by my work and have a fantastic work-life balance.

Would I do it all again?

It’s an interesting question and one I was asked recently. I ran into a student that I had been teaching during the part 1 programming module, and they asked if I would do it over again.

While I don’t necessarily need my PhD for the job I am doing, having done a PhD was a major advantage in the hiring process. The PhD experience and skill set is also very transferable, which means a lot of the tasks I am doing benefit from my PhD, even though I am not doing anything remotely related to liquid droplet robotics at Scholarcy!

Another major benefit I gained from doing my PhD is the tremendous amount of personal growth. At 21 I had a lot less confidence, and if I’m being harsh on myself, I was also probably quite lazy. Doing a PhD taught me a lot of self-discipline, it enabled me to acquire communication skills that I wouldn’t have otherwise learned, and I’ve developed the ability to manage many spinning plates - and found that I enjoy doing so!

If I were talking to 21-year-old Oliver trying to decide whether to accept the offer to do a PhD, I would encourage him to. But the reason for undertaking a PhD would be very different now. It would no longer to be to earn the minimum qualification to do work as an academic, it would be for the growth, experience, and transferable skills which I developed.

I also made a lot of great friends. In the interview with Matt, I mentioned that we joke about how we bonded through shared misery. The kind of long slog that graduate School is, because it's so gruelling, it can really bring people together.

Matt responded:

In the clinical world, we call that trauma bonding. I don't know if that's the official term, but there is research showing that stronger bonds are formed under stress.

So in short, the PhD was the right choice, and the transition to industry was an even more right choice.