Why are we surprised when people leave the ivory tower?

Nov 07 2013 Published by under [Et Al]

I'm using the royal We here, but it's an honest question. Blog posts announcing one's decision to quit are apparently shocking to some people, but for the life of me I don't understand why. When lawyers quit does everyone stand staring, mouths agape? What about when doctors chose to do something that isn't clinical?

A PhD is a highly variably degree that trains you for a lot of things. One of those things is a job in an academic setting, but there are others. This post isn't about job shortages or "alt careers" (which is a misnomer in itself), but a PhD is more flexible than it is often cast.

Being a PI is a hard job with it's pluses and minuses, just like any other competitive career with a lot of training. There are pressures and stress and constant rejection. At times things get overwhelming and you're pulled in far too many directions. For every person who appears to lead a charmed life, there are ten more who spend 40% of their time battling bureaucratic red tape. So why is it shocking when people find another opportunity that they want to explore?

8 responses so far

  • Scicurious says:

    Because academics are like monks, you see. It's a calling. Not a job.

  • Joseph says:

    It is not surprising if the new career is one that is rewarding and fulfilling. But there is a lot of sacrifice and many years of effort to get a PhD, complete a post-doc, and land an academic position. Nobody does that lightly.

    This goes double if it should turn out that the new career opportunity is Starbucks Barista or McDonald's short order cook (training provided!).

  • Beth says:

    As someone who left academia after my PhD, my experience is that, for the most part, those inside it - whether those who "made it" as a PI or those still in the pipeline (grad students and post docs) tend to view leaving academia as a failure - you couldn't make it so now you've given up and have to do something else. Situations where I've seen people be shocked at someone leaving academia have been those situations where someone is clearly "high potential" as prof material (has tonnes of papers, first author on a Nature paper, etc.) chooses another path and people have trouble wrapping their heads around someone who could make it actually leaving, because it doesn't fit the assumption that those who leave just weren't good enough.

  • Shane says:

    As a recent PhD (defended two weeks ago) who is now leaving academia for a policy-oriented fellowship (Sea Grant Knauss Fellowship), I have had to deal with numerous individuals in academia who are simply amazed that I would "leave" after spending all this time honing my craft. My situation is a little unique because I hope to use this opportunity to broaden my knowledge base to later use in academia, but that usually brings up a whole slew of other issues (e.g., "What? You think you can leave and then come back? Are you crazy?")

  • Actually, when someone (MD) quits a clinical academic department to go into private practice there is the same kind of stuff, but an extra level of assholishness of "well, we knew he/she didn't have what it takes". I do hate the MRU. Most of the time, these days.

  • Casey says:

    I get this sometimes when trying to network in my chosen "alt" field. "Why do you want to do this? You have a PhD, go do something that requires that." A lot of people outside of academia don't understand the realities how the workforce is structured.

  • Busy says:

    "What? You think you can leave and then come back? Are you crazy?"

    ...and you know what? they are, for most the part, correct. It is very hard to come back to academia unless you keep an active publication record going.

  • Geologist says:

    I think those people who are surprised when people leave the Ivory Tower, are that way because they don't understand. They either do not work in academia and view it as some kind of utopia (boy, are they wildly mistaken), or they do work in academia but their path has not been as hard as those who decide to leave.

    The ones I see who leave most often do so because they were strongly bullied - this often occurs because they are somehow 'different' - different gender, sexual orientation, race, disability, etc.

    And often the whole system supports the bullies not the victims. People just decide it isn't worth it anymore, and it isn't. I think it is our loss when we lose these people.

    There is also a fear from those who stay and watch others go. They ask themselves what would they do if they had to leave?

    The longer you are in academia the greater the fear of leaving and trying something new.

    And there are those who WANT to leave but don't have the courage to do it.

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