We Are the Champions. Leaving Academia After PhD Feelin' Good.

Last updated on April 21st 2024

March 22nd 2021

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This text was fully written by humans.


  • Leaving academia always feels ambivalent. It doesn’t feel like success.

  • As a PhD graduate, you achieve formidable personal success. You become a world class expert in your discipline. It is like winning the Olympics!

  • In this article we discuss why you should feel proud as a PhD. It is a massive personal and professional success!

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

Anyone who left academia knows this state of mind. Shall I stay, or shall I go? How will life after PhD look? Was a PhD worth it? Living academic life, it’s easy to fall for the prestige trap and develop a belief that no other way of (professional) life will ever give us the same level of inspiration and sense of mission.

Today, the numbers are against us and academic career has effectively become an alternative career path. 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 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 in the job market 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 not to feel disappointed when it comes to looking for options outside academia on the open job market? Well, it’s all about setting the expectations right. You can review more information on how to proceed in the book “What is out There For Me? The Landscape of Post-PhD Career Tracks” by Dr. Natalia Bielczyk.

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, from the get-go, 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 the Olympic Games, need to sacrifice themselves fully for 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 they spent their youth? Do they regret countless hours spent in the gym? Jogging in the rain? Stretching in the burning sun? Fasting and counting 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  the days when they were standing on the podium, signing autographs and serving as role models to young people. The 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 a 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 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 your PhD will fit into your long-term career prospects.

As a rule of thumb, it is good for fresh PhD candidates to treat their PhD program as Olympic Games rather than as the start of a lifelong career. Setting the expectations right from the start will prevent you from many disappointments on the way to building your career path. 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.

And, the job market reflects that: PhD degree holders are well-paid across the board:

Ontology Of Value Post-PhD-salaries We Are the Champions. Leaving Academia After PhD Feelin' Good All Posts For PhDs
Median annual salary of doctorate recipients with definite commitments in the United States, by position type and broad field: 2021, source: NCSEF Survey of Earned Doctorates

Furthermore, as research by the Oliver Wyman agency has revealed, it’s analytic thinking (rather than AI and big data skills) that still scores as a top skill desired by employers.

Ontology Of Value The-PhD-Creed-Why-Work-Ethic-Is-As-Important-For-Your-Professional-Development-1024x609 We Are the Champions. Leaving Academia After PhD Feelin' Good All Posts For PhDs

Academia creates this never ending sense of void. Yes, you scored a Nature Communications publication, but hey, your colleague scored Nature, so you can do better next time, right? Yes, you made a discovery, but there was no press buzz around it, so it is not all that important, isn’t it? 

While working in academia, no matter how hard we try, we stay under the impression that the gold medal is still on the other end of the rainbow. It is like a fatamorgana the desert. We often don’t realize that we have already won the gold medal!

And, the impact of science on the society reaches way beyond just research:

While working in academia, you need to develop a deep sense of accomplishment all by yourself and learn to cherish 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. 

Please also have a look at our articles on related topics: 

Would you also like to receive further intensive training oriented toward discovering your identity as a professional and learning effective strategies for landing great jobs?

We developed a special, intensive career transition program tailor-made for PhD students and graduates who seek to start new careers in the industry; please find all the information and registration links HERE

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Are you planning to upgrade your career to the next level or change your career path? Are you pondering your options? Don’t be alone in the process – join us at our live online Ontology of Value® Career Mastery Program!

At this intensive online training, you will focus on discovering your identity as a professional, and learn effective career development strategies for landing great jobs.

We will help you choose the right career path, assist you in landing your new job, and teach you self-navigation strategies that will guarantee your success in professional development, and serve you for a lifetime!

Please find all the information about our incoming, game-changing program here:

Please cite as:

Bielczyk, N. (2021, March 22nd). We Are the Champions. Leaving Academia After PhD Feelin’ Good. Retrieved from https://ontologyofvalue.com/life-after-phd/

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