Custom CSS

On leaving academia for industry

Photo of the author who wrote this blog post
Oliver Back
6 min read

On leaving academia for industry

Dr Matthew Carlson studied for his master's degree and PhD in the social sciences with the aspiration of becoming a practising therapist. He describes the motivation behind his academic journey as his ‘life purpose’ to help others, to become a professor and to train other PhD students. 

After working with families involved with child protective services, and taking on an academic position post-PhD, Matt decided to leave academia, and now works as a data analyst in the healthcare sector. Alongside his work as a data analyst, Matt runs the Instagram page @gradschoolsucks where he talks about his experience whilst helping others to make the leap into a career in industry.

This story is not at all uncommon, the majority of PhD graduates end up leaving academia, some sooner than later. It can be a difficult and emotional experience as so many PhD students embark on the academic path with the intention of making an impact in their chosen field. Many feel that their skill set may be under-utilised, or that their specific training will not transfer over to an industry position. Matt does not feel this way, and believes that the PhD experience translates perfectly to many of the roles commonly found in industry.

What made you want to do a PhD in the first place? What was your motivation to pursue an academic degree?

The reason I chose to do a master's program was because I was extremely drawn towards being a positive force in the world. And I felt like to do that I needed to become a therapist. And then once I got into the training of being a therapist, I felt like I both wanted to learn more, but I also wanted to scale the impact I could have. And that was the language that a professor had given me. So that was my mission when I started my PhD: to scale up the positive impact that I could have on the world. My motivation for finishing the PhD changed as I went.
I fell out of love with practising as a therapist; I just basically got burnt out and had come to appreciate the research side of my work more. In the end, my motivation to finish my dissertation and get my PhD was that I needed a job, and my son had been born, so I had to wrap things up.

Did you enjoy your time during grad school and what were some of the bigger challenges that you faced?

I think I actually enjoyed the majority of my time in grad school, and I think maybe that's something that I don't talk enough about. I really liked the research process, and I actually enjoyed the majority of my clinical work. I also liked the grind and the long hours before my son was born. I think the obstacles I ran into were related to trying to do everything on the clinical side, trying to save everyone. And the politics of academia was something I bumped into a lot. I probably didn't handle this in the best way and I never really got to a place where I could handle it well.
I started going to a therapist mid-way through my program, and I did take antidepressants for a few years. And frankly, really benefited from it. I don't know if I would have finished if I hadn’t done those two things. I also had a really great cohort, and I know a lot of people don't have that experience. They were essentially my family, besides my wife, of course. And so, yeah, I think all those things together definitely helped me finish the race. The people that you study alongside can really make or break any career, any job, but especially a PhD.

How was your relationship with your supervisor? Do you look back on this fondly?

That's a good question. I think I had a good working relationship with my supervisor. And the majority of the time we were I felt like we were very synergistic. We both wanted to succeed and get papers written and I got a lot of opportunities working with him that I wouldn't have otherwise had. I think where we eventually diverted was, frankly, that I fell out of love with academia and the idea of an academic career. This wasn't something that ended our relationship, but we did stop working together as a result of my decision.

Did you take much (enough!) holiday during grad school?

I only took one memorable vacation. It was an extended one, though, and it was a summer where I didn't have an assistantship. My wife and I did a road trip around the US, and that was maybe two years before our son was born, right before I started Dissertating. And that was a great time. But other than that, it was mostly just travelling to see family during grad school.

What was the one thing that made you leave academia?

That's a that's a great question. The main reason I left academia was that my mom passed away right before the pandemic, and we had just grown tired of living away from family after we became parents. And then I think all the other things: lower pay; slow progress towards promotions; the toxicity you might find in academia; and the general grind became more apparent when my mom passed. And I thought, okay, that’s enough.
I didn't have an idea about what to do next. And so I basically resigned, not knowing what I was going to do. A month later I moved with my family back to our home state, and then started to figure it out from there. So if I were to be in that position again, there would probably be a lot of other reasons for the transition, but frankly, it was just the fact that we didn’t want to live away from family. And I think if we didn't have a son, it would be a different situation. But I think when you have kids, it just changed the ball game for us.

Is there anything that would make you consider going back to academia now that you’ve made the transition to industry?

Would I ever go back? The answer is probably not. If I were to go back to academia, it would probably be to take a part-time teaching position. When I had made it in my career I found I  just wanted to give back or be a part of the teaching process again, but it’s highly unlikely that I would ever take a full-time position in academia because of the things that people normally say: the low pay, the lack of work-life balance, the general toxicity. 
I did a poll on my Instagram page and obviously this is not a nationally representative study. In the poll I asked: “If you were given the opportunity to go back to academia and get a job as a professor and you already had tenure, would you leave your industry career for that?” And over 80% said no. And I think there's something telling about the fact that the majority of PhDs who are in industry would not choose to go back, even with the golden ticket of a tenured job. And so, no, I would not go back. 

Do you ever regret leaving academia? 

I don't regret leaving academia. I regret not leaving sooner. The only thing that I miss about it is the academic community. I really like the conferences and I like to see all my friends and colleagues. I enjoyed the opportunity to focus on a topic, but being outside of academia was a little bit easier than I expected. So, I don't regret leaving, I think I should have left probably two years sooner, right after I finished my PhD. At that point, I could probably have just jumped straight into industry.
The majority of PhDs who leave academia have never worked in an academic position. This may actually make the transition easier, as they won’t have become ingrained in the academic lifestyle. They essentially finish with being a student, then go out into the job market in industry, rather than starting an academic career, then opting for a career change.

Is there a feeling that your potential as an academic is not fully utilised in an industry position?

That's a great question. And I would say yes, but I would have a caveat. And it’s this:  when you're an academic, you're usually wearing two or three, if not four hats. You're probably teaching; you’re doing research (which involves both writing and some kind of analysis); and then you're doing administration of some kind, typically running a lab or managing grad students. If you’re clinical, there’s a fourth hat. Whereas if you’re in an industry position, you can wear one hat. Typically you'll have a team of people and that team will be made up of diverse skills and experiences.
And typically, people focus on one thing. So I think grad students and PhDs who go into industry, in my experience, can feel some whiplash because they feel underutilised. They feel like they're not doing anything. They start to feel guilty because they are not as you know, working themselves to the bone and being and being the one to solve every problem, it's just often not how the workplace in industry is run. And I actually heard someone say that being a professor, or sometimes postdoc is more akin to being an entrepreneur than as a W-2 employee, which I think is pretty accurate. And so, yes, I would say that my PhD skills and experiences are underutilised, but I think it's supposed to be that way. And I wouldn't change the way it is.

Do you feel that you're treated differently in industry being a PhD holder?

No. And I would actually bet that most of my co-workers would not remember that I have a PhD. That may be just an aspect of the kind of job that I'm in. I work with other data analysts and we all analyse data, and as long as we can analyse the data and talk about the results, there's no deeper complexity that having a PhD would give you. Maybe if I were in a STEM field where you have to have a PhD to be at a certain level, there may be more of a pecking order where PhDs are treated differently than folks who have a masters or bachelors degree. But no, I don't think I'm treated differently. Perhaps when you’re on the job market, that's a different conversation - PhDs, I think, have the obstacle of being seen as both under and overqualified in different ways.
But in my day-to-day job, I feel like I'm treated just like a “normal person”, quote unquote. And I love that. If I'm being honest, no one calls me Doctor Carlson. That would be absurd.

When I had my own thesis corrections accepted, I was officially a doctor, and my mum and my grandparents had sent me a letter, and they wrote doctor on my address, but they're the only people who have used it. I haven't updated my ID or my bank statement or anything. It’s only really my family and my partner that call me doctor, which is good, it stops me from getting a big head.

Can you tell me about a particular highlight or something you’re proud of that you'd like to share. This can be from a PhD from your work life or something entirely non-work related.

Honestly, and some of this is luck, I love having achieved a work-life balance. I get to take my son to school. I get to pick up my son from school, and I'm not under the gun to, you know, get another grant, publish another paper, prep for another class. And of course, life in industry can still get busy. And maybe one day, maybe when my son is older, I'll be in a more intensive role that requires more of me. But I think if I'm proud of anything, I'm proud that I accepted a slower pace of life and just got okay with being that way. It's almost two years at this point that I've been a data analyst and honestly, at the beginning, it was really hard. Because I think once you get that used to that fast pace, it's there's a little bit of like an addictive component to it. And so I would say I’m proud of letting go of that.

If you could give advice to your past self. What would you say? 

There's an entrepreneurial quote, and I don't know who said it, but it was to fail fast. And I think we can get so caught in essentially like a sunk cost fallacy of whether it's completing our PhD, or continuing with an academic career. And I think as soon as you realise you're on the wrong road, find a new road. There's no reason to continue going down a path, you're just going to have to turn away from eventually.

Thank you to Matt, for sharing this interesting and thought-provoking story! The path from Academia to industry is a commonly taken by PhDs all around the world. Next up in this series, is Scholarcy's founder and CEO, Phil Gooch.