I love science. I love the academic environment and I love the work I do. I even think I’m quite good at it. But I’m leaving – I’m taking my PhD and heading to pastures new in the big, scary outside world, and I’d like to share my reasons.
I have wanted to be a scientist for as long as I can remember, apart from a brief Ally McBeal-fuelled teenage flirtation with the law, and over the last few years I have had the immense privilege of making that a reality. My PhD has been a genuine blast—I get to do really cool, exciting new work and boldly see things no man has seen before. I have been tremendously fortunate to work with a universally wonderful, impressive, and supportive group of people.1 If I could stay forever, I probably would. But I can’t, and there’s the rub.
You see—and this is where I expect to lose any sympathy you may harbour for me—I am a tremendously privileged person. I have had the excellent fortune to have found the person I believe to be the love of my life, who—very selfishly—has a career of her own. Through several strokes of luck and the generosity of others, we own a home, of which we are quite fond. One day, I should like to have a dog, and maybe even become a parent. Most academics do all of these things, but they are stronger people than I am.
The academic trajectory
I say this because of the very nature of life as an early-career academic, or postdoc, which would represent my next step were I to follow an academic path. I applied for exactly one postdoc position, in a particularly impressive group doing some really exciting work in a city of which I am very fond, and was fortunate enough to get an interview. And I found myself, quite unexpectedly, hoping that I would not be offered the job. I surprised myself; many people report their postdoc years as among the happiest of their career—spending all day, every day immersed in the research about which they are most passionate, unburdened by the other legs of the academic tripos, the much-maligned teaching and administration.2 I expect this is true.
The only downside is that, in the words of George Harrison MBE, All Things Must Pass.3 All good things come to an end, and employment contracts are no exception. The typical postdoctoral position in the UK lasts for around two to three years. After that, it’s time to pack your bags and move on to the next one, probably at a different university on the other side of the country—and probably do this more than once. (In my experience it is far from uncommon to hold multiple postdoctoral positions before finding a permanent job; the statistics on this are surprisingly sparse but I’ll present the best I could find in a few paragraphs’ time.)
And that’s why I didn’t want the job—because I knew I’d take it, but the idea of everything that would entail, of commuting long distances, of regularly spending nights away from home, of potentially relocating and leaving behind everything we have built here without any guarantee that I’d even be able to stay for more than a few years, made me sad and afraid. Thankfully, I was not put in that position and the job was undoubtedly offered to someone far more qualified than myself. But I realised then that this path—the one I’d always thought I wanted to walk—was not for me.
This may be unreasonable of me. Packing up your life, dragging loved ones behind you along with all your worldly possessions, may be troublesome, but people move for their careers all the time. At least there’s a permanent job at the end of it, right? Apparently not—it turns out that only 10% of postdocs will ever find a permanent academic position.
But at least it’s great experience for a career in industry, right? The consensus seems to be that no, it is not. In the words of a Stack Exchange answer:
the rule of thumb is that as soon as you are 100% [certain] that you won’t stay in academia, every further month spent as a postdoc is inefficient in terms of career development. Yes, some companies may count your years as postdoc as some sort of relevant leadership experience, but most won’t, and even those that do will consider a similar candidate with the same number of years working in industry to be much more attractive. [Emphasis added]
But at least you’re having fun… right? Studies seem to indicate that, once again, the answer is no:
Survey data indicate that the majority of university staff find their job stressful. Levels of burnout appear higher among university staff than in general working populations and are comparable to “high-risk” groups such as healthcare workers. The proportions of both university staff and postgraduate students with a risk of having or developing a mental health problem, based on self-reported evidence, were generally higher than for other working populations. [Emphasis added]
One lecturer, Dr Alexandre Afonso (then of King’s College London, now of Leiden University), went so far as to compare the academic job market to drug gangs as they were described in Prof. Levitt and Mr Dubner’s seminal Freakonomics:4
what you have is an increasing number of PhD graduates arriving every year into the market hoping to secure a permanent position as a professor and enjoying freedom and – reasonably – high salaries, a bit like the rank-and-file drug dealer hoping to become a drug lord. To achieve that, they are ready to forgo the income and security that they could have in other areas of employment by accepting insecure working conditions in the hope of securing jobs that are not expanding at the same rate. [Emphasis added]
I wanted to find statistics regarding the median age of UK academics upon receiving their first permanent contract. This was the best I could do: According to table 21 of a report by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, the median age of the inflow into the population employed on teaching and research contracts (94% of which are permanent, compared to just 33% of research-only contracts, according to chart 12 of the same report’s introduction) falls between 36 and 40, although admittedly much of this may be inflow of experienced academics from outside the UK. Conservatively, this suggests that even the exceptional 10% who do find a permanent contract do not typically do so until their mid-thirties, following around a decade of precarious post-PhD employment, but I would be interested in seeing some better statistics on this.
Of course, much of this is probably field-dependent—it is quite possible that I would have it easier, in the sciences, than do my colleagues in the humanities, or vice versa. But it is clear that there is a problem. Within academia, we hear, of course, only from those who did make it—Dr Afonso’s drug lords. To them, the whole experience was worthwhile. We don’t hear from the other 90%, who tried and failed—and it is considered a failure to leave academia, despite being by far the modal outcome. To them, the whole thing probably doesn’t feel so worthwhile. I’m not dragging my life—and my fiancée’s—across the country to gamble on an outcome that exists only in the tails of the probability distribution. I have pledged to take the road more travelled by.
Losing me is no great loss to the academy, but I am not alone. If we keep shutting people out of science by making the profession inconvenient and unpleasant, rather than merely difficult, it is only a matter of time before at least one great, potentially world-changing genius takes a job in the private sector instead. I reckon they already have.5 Besides, every mind we lose takes with it a unique set of skills and a unique perspective, leaving us poorer, and we all miss out by making ourselves, our colleagues and our friends miserable for the first decade of our careers. Is it worth it?
While I would not dare to suggest that I know the panacæa for modern academic woes, I wish for this piece to come across not as a hollow rant but as a contribution to a constructive discussion about the lifestyles and mental health of academics everywhere. To that end, I wish to put forth my uninformed hypotheses about where the problem (such as it is) may lie.
As with most situations involving human interactions, the natural place to begin would seem to be in the language of œconomics (in which I am far from an expert). For example, the number of PhD graduates far exceeds the supply of postdoc positions, which in turn far exceeds the supply of permanent academic jobs. This is a classic imbalance of supply and demand, which is not a problem per se, and should be more obvious than it perhaps seems, but does not align with everyone’s expectations.6 This imbalance creates an effective oligopsony—a buyers’ market in which the universities have the power to impose conditions according to their own incentives.
What are their incentives? Employees are expensive and might not work out. No employer wants to be stuck with a permanent employee who turns out to be a bit rubbish. Short-term, grant-funded employment is a much safer bet: The work gets done without staking a penny on it, and these employees are interchangeable and easily replaced when the money runs out. This also suits the funding bodies, who similarly want to minimise their own exposure to risk of waste; and academics who already have permanent jobs, who are free to select the best candidate on a per-project basis, which is beneficial since their own careers depend on a steady stream of grants and publications.
This is but a hasty example—I am sure somebody else far more intelligent and skilful than myself could continue, refine, and expand upon this kind of reasoning, and I would be keen to see the results. The gist, however, is that nobody involved is doing anything wrong—everyone is simply behaving as a rational œconomic agent—but these factors exert a certain selection pressure on the academic community. Those willing and able to accept their ordained rôle as itinerant scientists survive; those unwilling or unable do not.
The question we must ask is: Is this really what we want to select for? Do we have reason to believe that these are the best scientists? Perhaps they are the most dedicated (for a certain definition of dedication), and this may well be correlated with excellence in other metrics, but if excellence is what we want, we’re looking at the long tails of the distribution of human traits, and the tails come apart. Selecting scientists based on dedication is like selecting basketball players based on height—you’ll probably pick better than a lottery, but you’d be better off actually watching them play basketball.
The inevitable followup is: Could science of a similar standard, or higher, be done differently? Could we make the profession more accessible to those with families, other commitments, and mental or physical health issues? I think the answer may be yes. And while it’s not my place to do so, I’d like to note that family commitments and increased risk aversion are more common in underrepresented groups; perhaps making the profession more stable and accessible will do more good for representation in the academy than any fair or outreach effort ever could.
This decision has consumed my consciousness for most of the last year, at the very least, and I do not take it lightly. Some people will inevitably think I am making the wrong decision. Many who have made the same decision have come to regret it—after all, the grass is always greener. I have been wrong before (like when I thought I wanted an academic career) and I will be wrong again.
Perhaps I would enjoy an academic career more than anything else. Perhaps this system results in the best science. Perhaps this is one case in which the tails don’t come apart, and the most dedicated scientists, those most willing to give their lives to the pursuit of knowledge, really are the best. Perhaps it is naïf or egocentric for me to assume that I am entitled to an academic job. Perhaps I am being too picky and the expectation that I willingly relocate my home and family for a temporary job is a perfectly reasonable one. Perhaps I am simply lashing out, blaming others for my own failure, and in truth I am simply not good enough. Perhaps all of these things are true.
There are certainly advantages to moving around. By exposing oneself to different working environments, one is exposed to new ways of thinking, new methods and approaches to problems, and discussions with a broader range of people. There is undoubtedly a great deal of value in that, and it is very important to see the world outside one’s bubble. This is possibly the most convincing argument in favour of the current system of itinerant research, and I don’t have a good response other than that I think the same ends can be achieved in other ways—perhaps the “loaning” of permanent employees to other research groups, or simply much stronger collaborative networks. All things considered, I think years of instability only weaken the positive exchange of ideas and shut out much of the diversity of minds from which we could otherwise benefit.
It may also be beneficial to be able to select the best candidate for a given project—if the tails come apart, the best postdoc for one grant may not also be the best for the next. I touched on this when discussing incentives in the previous section, and agree that this is rational. However, I am not sure the magnitude of this benefit outweighs the costs of the current system, considering that successive projects in the same research group are unlikely to suddenly require a completely different set of skills that can’t be obtained through collaboration. As well as the personal cost to researchers, there is also a cost associated with recruiting, onboarding, and integrating a new employee, whereäs a permanent employee is more likely to be able to hit the ground running on a new project.
There may always be a need for consulting-type arrangements and short-term contracts, just as there is in industry, but I dispute that there is likely to be any significant benefit from such arrangements as the norm. Notice that few other skilled jobs rely on short-term labour to the extent that academia does, despite arguably stronger incentives towards profitability.
I also acknowledge that there are probably more people alive today in a position to practise science than at any point in history. It is no longer necessary to possess great wealth, or the patronage of someone with wealth of their own, to conduct research. Not all that long ago, I might have been expected to go and join some royal court if I wished to do my simulations (although I may have needed to invent the computer first). Perhaps I have unreasonable expectations about a system that has made so much progress already.
But none of this makes my life any easier. Maybe my priorities are all muddled up, but they remain my priorities. I want to have a positive impact on the world, but I also desire stability, financial security, and a peaceful and rewarding home and family life. I don’t think I can get that in academia, but I think I can elsewhere. Your priorities may differ, but I have little expectation that I am alone in my desire for stability, given that the bulk of my twenties is now behind me. Accepting instability as a fresh-faced young graduate with nothing to tie them down is one thing—but can we really expect people to work this way well into their thirties?7
I may well come to regret leaving academia, but on the balance of probabilities I think I’d regret staying more.
I wish to reïterate before closing that I have no regrets about the path that has led me here. My PhD has been the privilege of my life, and, while I could perhaps have made better use of the opportunities it presented to me, I would not undo one iota of it.
I truly, deeply admire every single person who manages to make academia work for them. They have a mental fortitude and flexibility that I can only dream of emulating. If you are among them, thank you for the work to which you have given your life—you are enriching the global commons and I salute you. You are part of a chain of scientists and philosophers reaching all the way back to Thales of Miletus8 that I hope remains forever unbroken.
But there is a systemic problem. The academy is losing some incredible minds (of which I can assure you I am not one), and making worse the lives of those it retains—the UK’s academics have spent much of the last few years on strike over a set of disputes about pay, pensions, and working conditions. Whatever your thoughts on those disputes, one thing is inarguable: They are unhappy and the system is failing. No, not everybody needs to be a scientist, and not everybody should, but we should make sure that the best people can, whatever their background and personal circumstances.
I have said nothing in this essay that I have not seen or heard myriad times from others at all stages of their careers, and know I am not alone. The academy is a global enterprise and its problems transcend national borders every bit as much as do its successes. The mental health of our colleagues and friends is suffering, and so is our science. Academic research offers a unique opportunity to observe the true beauty of creation in all its magnificent detail, but we seem to have forgotten this. Science will always have a place in my heart, but our relationship is not a healthy one and it’s time I moved on.
For the world is hollow and I have touched the sky.
I would wholeheartedly recommend the University of York, and especially the Noy and Leake groups, to anybody looking for a position in the physics of life, and am happy to talk to anybody interested in joining them. Please don’t let this essay put you off following your dreams. ↩
Some more jaded than myself might prefer to call these heads of the academic hydra. ↩
It may be unfair to credit this quote to Harrison, as he adapted it from a poem entitled “All Things Pass” by Dr Timothy Leary, who in turn translated it from an original by Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, author of the Tao Te Ching, but it’s a good song so I’m doing it. ↩
This is an Amazon Associates link. If you make a purchase, I will earn a small commission. This doesn’t affect my decision to discuss or recommend products, but helps to very slightly offset my hosting costs, given that I display no adverts on this website. I can assure you that this is not a profitable enterprise. ↩
Of course, the narrative of the lone genius revolutionising their field is a well worn and overly simplistic one—science is a story of gradual, incremental refinement of knowledge by a global collective of minds—but I think the point holds. ↩
How many times have the average PhD student’s grandparents been shocked to discover that one does not simply walk into a permanent academic job? Perhaps too many sitcoms have given them the wrong impression. ↩
I actually think we expect too much mobility and poorly-calibrated “dedication” of graduates too, but I’m aware that a great many graduates seem willing to move for whatever graduate scheme will take them and my differing priorities may render me an outlier here. ↩
Thales of Miletus (Greek: Θάλῆς ὁ Μιλήσιος), born c. 626–623 BCE, was an ancient Greek philospher known as the “Father of Science” for his theory that everything in existence is made of the same primary substance: water. He was, of course, incorrect, but this did not preclude him from being a major influence on later thinkers including Plato and Aristotle. ↩