Nature career column: Why it is not a ‘failure’ to leave academia - Here’s how PhD students can prepare for different careers, and how lab heads can help.



(From: Nature, by Philipp Kruger)

As a PhD student in my final year, I find it demoralizing and frustrating to be constantly reminded of the bleak job prospects in academia. This dim outlook may well increase the pressure on students and contribute to high rates of anxiety and depression among them (T. M. Evans et al. Nature Biotechnol. 36, 282–284; 2018). The scientific community could help to solve this problem by encouraging us all to change the way we think about the PhD. And scientists can start by appreciating a simple truth: researchers who leave academia are not failed academics.

Students and their supervisors must begin to regard a PhD programme as a traineeship in scientific thinking and an invaluable qualification for a diverse range of careers. If everyone involved in academic science could accept a variety of roles as the default outcome, we could change our flawed definition of success. We could transition from a culture of failure to a healthier and happier scientific enterprise.

I’ve found it daunting to determine the best career to match my personality, skills, priorities, ambitions and interests, particularly because most people around me treat the academic path as the default. But we PhD students have an obligation to see to our own professional futures. Many of us, of course, are driven by the excitement of discovery, and we relish the freedom to pursue our curiosity in an academic laboratory.

However, some of us discover during our PhDs that in our dream job, the emphasis would be on using interpersonal and communication skills, having a more immediate impact on society or gaining financial rewards, job security or family-friendly working hours. Our direction should be the result of a conscious decision rather than a perception of a lack of opportunities. And it should have nothing to do with a sense or fear of ‘failure’.

Click to read what PhD students AND supervisors can do.