Mar 22, 2021 | We Are the Champions. Leaving Academia After PhD Feelin' Good

leaving academia after PhD

Leaving Academia After PhD: Why Does Life After PhD Feel So Ambivalent?

Anyone who left academia knows this dilemma. Shall I stay, or shall I go? How will life after PhD look? Was a PhD worth it? Even if you made the decision quickly, then most probably, most of the people around you hesitated for a long time. Leaving academia after PhD requires a long and complex self-discovery process, especially given that you were investing in your career development in one particular direction for so many years.

It is a hard call especially given how the academic system is structured. Namely, academia is a bit like an army. It is a hierarchical system in which getting to a higher rank usually brings more respect from the environment and a deep sense of personal achievement. On the day of admission to the graduate school, most PhD candidates – either consciously or subconsciously – consider a tenure position in academia as a viable future career option.

But, then, in the self-discovery process, they often find out that for many reasons, academia is not the place for them. By the time they conclude that it’s time to leave, they need to cross out the original plan from the list of potential future careers. And that feels as if some door has just closed. So, how no to feel disappointment when it comes to looking for options outside academia? Well, it’s all about setting the expectations right.

The Olympic Games

And now, let’s think about the Olympic Games. When talented kids decide to become athletes in the future, they assume from the very beginning that doing sports for a living is a short-lived career. In most sports, you cannot stay competitive on the world-class level above the age of 30 or 35. What does it mean in practice? Well, it means that from the very start, these kids need to take into consideration that even if they eventually become successful, they will still need to worry about what they should do next in their thirties. And even if they are not fully aware that it is a problem, their parents know it well.

Yet still, millions of young people try themselves in competitive sports. Those who do it full time and reach the level of Olympic Games, need to sacrifice themselves fully to the cause. They rarely have time and opportunity to think about Plan B for life before it’s time to retire from a career in sports. And then, they need to search for a whole new way of life, which can be a challenge and a struggle – as pictured in the shocking documentary, “Why professional athletes and Olympians struggle with life after sport“. 

But do most athletes regret the way the spent their youth? Do they regret countless hours spent on the gym? Jogging in the rain? Stretching in burning sun? Fasting and counting a calories? Negotiating with sponsors? Stressing out before championships? Sleeping at the airports? Staying away from their family? Rarely so. What most former athletes remember best, are the days of glory – they days when they were standing on the podium, signing autographs and serving as role models to young people. They days when their family was proud of them.

How Are We Different From Athletes?

So, why do most Olympic athletes remember their careers in sports as the greatest adventure of their lives? While most PhD graduates think about their times in academia as some form of an unfinished project or a broken career, and are afraid of life after PhD? Well, expectations make the whole difference. The Olympic medalists never hoped to still compete at the age of 50 or 60 in the first place. Therefore, they step down and retire without the feeling of a loss.

Research is also a form of a sport. Namely, PhDs we also compete, just in a different way. We compete to understand some topic, solve some problem, or answer some question as the first in the world. We can only publish our work once we succeed. And when we do, we do win the Olympic Games of sorts! It is just that instead of cheering and being happy about it, we use to proceed straight to the next project.

Conclusion: Can Life After PhD Feel Like Being a Champ?

Is a PhD worth it? Can life after PhD be a blast? It’s not an easy question to answer, as it depends on your self-discovery process, namely on how well your PhD project will allow you to explore your natural talents, and how well PhD will fit into your long-term carer prospects.

As a rule of thumb, it is good for the fresh PhD candidates to treat their PhD program as Olympic Games rather than as the start of a life-long career. Setting the expectations right from the start will prevent you from many disappointments on the way. Namely, if you don’t expect to become a tenured researcher, you can only get surprised in a positive way. 

And once you do successfully come to the end of your PhD, you should be proud of yourself. You won the Olympic Games after all! It might be a competition in some niche discipline, yet still, it is an Olympic gold medal. It’s a reason to develop a deep sense of accomplishment and keep good memories for the rest of your life. Leaving academia after PhD should feel like stepping down from the podium as the winner – ready for competing in other Olympic games to come.

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Please cite as: Bielczyk, N. (2021, March 22). We Are the Champions. Leaving Academia After PhD Feeling Good. Retrieved from  


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