“Why it is not a ‘failure’ to leave academia”; “There's no shame in leaving academia”—these are a few in a recent barrage of articles scattering the commentary landscape. While these articles are noble attempts to comfort the academic workforce experiencing epidemic levels of depression and anxiety, they are innately misguided. By framing the conversation around career transition in this manner, the authors are inadvertently confirming the underlying premise: that leaving academia is indeed a failure that needs to be addressed.
Ironically, the notion that leaving academic science is a failure is itself unscientific. It lacks a coherent empirical foundation. There is no evidence to suggest that scientists in academia are more successful, more self-fulfilled or even intellectually freer than scientists in the for-profit, non-profit or government sectors. There is a possibility that this unempirical notion is a direct manifestation of academic insecurities: intellectual, existential and, perhaps most importantly, financial (on average, an assistant professor makes $87,000 a year). Also, many young scientists may see their decision to leave as a failure because of the sunk cost in their training.
Although failure is a subjective experience that is often intertwined with personal aspiration and goals, it is often depersonalized when discussing a transition out of academia. Within the academic narrative, academia is the ultimate prize that everyone is or should be seeking. The reason behind this is built on two main premises.
The first is that academia emancipates scientists—that it grants them the intellectual freedom to follow their curiosities wherever they may lead them. The second relies on the notion that academics live fulfilled and purposeful lives in the noble pursuit of knowledge and truth. In both cases, these qualities are suggested to be unique to academic pursuits.
Academia does not provide absolute intellectual freedom, contrary to the conventional wisdom. Graduate students and postdocs are limited to pursue only those questions that are related to their advisor’s work, if not directly handed experimental designs without room for debate. As mentees develop, they might be so lucky as to be allowed to ask questions of their own, but within clear and defined limitations.
This trend continues even after young scientists transition into independence and starts their own lab. Young professors are unlikely to receive funding in areas where they are not established experts, discouraging and stifling the core of what science is presumably based on: pure intellectual curiosity. This limitation is formalized in the NIH grant score methodology, which assesses not only productivity, but also past experience. A 22-year-old PhD student could end up committing her life to the study of an esoteric molecular mechanism even if she found the budding of yeast far more interesting.
In principle, the fundamental motive animating a life in academia is noble—that knowledge is pursued for the sake of knowledge. However, evidence suggests that academics are not any more insulated from self-serving, human incentives than their counterparts in the for-profit sector. Sociologists have laid theoretical and empirical arguments demonstrating that scientific incentives are stabilized, if not driven, by the need for recognition by others. The publish-or-perish mentality and the alarmingly high irreproducibility rate in academic “discoveries” indicate that truth is not the only goal being pursued.
It is important to note that a level of intellectual freedom does exist at the core of academia and should be supported and expanded upon, instead of stifled. And yet, the same type of freedom exists elsewhere and should also be recognized.
For example, discovery scientists at biotech companies are often incentivized to pursue the truth with relentless focus and without commercial considerations. After all, it was researchers at Amgen and Bayer who blew the whistle on the irreproducibility problem in biomedical research. And it was physicists at Bell Labs, the research arm of the telephone giant AT&T, who found the first compelling evidence of the big bang—a purely intellectual discovery that didn’t add a penny to the company’s bottom line.
The second point that underlies the stigma of failure is the notion that academia offers personal fulfillment and self-realization. This notion is contradicted by indications that the average academic scientist today is depressed and anxious. At any given moment, many are actively seeking a way out into the private sector—an undertaking that is much more challenging of a transition than it seems. Moreover, being an academic means living a difficult life with unnecessary obstacles to achieving self-realization, fulfillment and success.
It is absurd to think that leaving academia is a failure. Academic scientists work inhumane hours; are grossly underpaid; face unstable future prospects; and rarely have access to basic professional resources such as HR departments. More importantly, the few perks they think academia offers are either non-exclusive or practically non-existent.
When viewing the current situation through this lens, it is hard not to ask the question of whether or not staying in today’s academia is the real failure. Only by admitting the truths implied in this question will we be able to reframe the conversation more constructively and pressure academia to articulate a value proposition worthy of the sacrifice—or perhaps, to restructure itself in order to get closer to the ideals it claims to still cling to.