You may have decided to leave academia because you didn’t enjoy it as much as you thought you would. Or perhaps other interests bloomed and seemed much more exciting or important to pursue. It may also be that the pressures to develop a stellar track record or the uncertainties of landing a tenure-track position proved to be too much. In some cases, the decision may even be made for you—either by your current institution, the lack of prospective employers or funding for your research, or simply life circumstances.
Whether out of personal choice or a lack of opportunity, the prospect of leaving academia after many years of research training, professional dedication, and personal sacrifices is often daunting. It can take a lot of soul searching to make the decision to leave in the first place and then to also identify other career paths to pursue. But to some, leaving the laboratory behind may also come as a liberation, and reinventing oneself professionally almost always opens up exciting and fulfilling new opportunities.
Over the years, Science Careers has published many articles to help scientists who are unsure about careers in academia make the right decision, deal with the emotional aspects of a career transition, and figure out where to go from there. Here is a snapshot of our best advice.
Making the decision
Aligning career expectations with academic reality by Elisabeth Pain, 10 June 2015 Although young scientists must be given more tenured employment opportunities, they also ought to recalibrate their career expectations, a new report says.
The Risks and Rewards of Academia by Elisabeth Pain, 7 October 2013 A 2013 report suggests that high-achieving Ph.D. holders make the decision to stay in academia or not primarily based on their perception of whether the rewards actually justify the considerable challenges.
Translating Scientific Expertise into Publishing Success by Siri Carpenter, 16 December 2011 Evelyn Jabri’s decision to leave a faculty position that she was unhappy with to enter the publishing industry prompted a series of career transitions—all fueled by an intense appetite for learning.
An Interview With Carol Robinson by Elisabeth Pain, 11 March 2011 Following her Ph.D., Carol Robinson decided to take time off to raise her three children, even if that meant facing the risk of never being able to return to academia. Not only did Robinson never regret her decision, but 8 years down the line she was back in the lab.
Your Real Alternative to a Career in Science by Phil Dee, 19 August 2005 Science Careers columnist Phil Dee considered his career alternatives as he faced a wait of 2 months until the next grant notification—and the final word on whether he would be able to stay in academia—was likely to appear.
It Isn’t Just the Ambiance by Heather Sevener, 16 April 2004 Although Ph.D. candidate Heather Sevener enjoyed learning about the evolution of plant development and was happy in an academic environment, she couldn’t stand being at the bench.
(There Are) 50 Ways to Leave Your Enzyme by Benjamin Hemmens, 7 November 2003 Although Benjamin Hemmens was not exceptionally unhappy in the lab, halfway through his postdoc, he decided to take the plunge and try something else.
Ten Telltale Signs That Scaling the Ivory Tower Isn’t for You by Katharine Arney, 14 February 2003 Postdoctoral researcher Kat Arney offered some tongue-in-cheek advice on how to know if you really aren’t cut out for a career in the academic world.
Should I Stay (in the Lab) or Should I Go? by Career Doctor, 11 October 2002 Career Doctor advised a postdoc who is unsure about what his next move should be on the best way to focus his career plans.
Forging a New Path by Johnalyn Lyles, 19 October 2001 Although research was still exciting to Johnalyn Lyles when she was doing her Ph.D., she wanted to find a new way to pursue her interest in pharmacology without conducting laboratory-based research.
To Be or Not to Be a Postdoc, That Is the Question! by Ireena Dutta, 27 July 2001 Doubtful that the many positive and valuable experiences she had as a Ph.D. candidate would be sufficient to compensate for the lack of job security and the demanding hours of research, Ireena Dutta decided against continuing with a postdoc.
Tooling Up Book Club: Alternative Careers in Science: Leaving the Ivory Tower by Peter Fiske, 22 May 1998 Science Careers columnist Peter Fiske discussed a book that dashes the stereotypes that scientists who go for alternative careers have necessarily had bad research experiences, don’t purposefully seek out careers that are better suited to them than academia, and do not find ways to stay close to exciting science.
Dealing with emotions
Feeling stuck by Carrie Arnold, 28 May 2015 Realizing that you want to or have to leave academia and reinvent your career can be a stressful and daunting experience.
Into the wild by Rachel Bernstein, 10 March 2015 After finding out that his early successes wouldn’t land him the tenure-track position he desired, Ethan Perlstein felt like he was “in the wilderness” for about a year before he reinvented himself, first as an independent scientist and then as a biotech startup founder.
Life at the Bottleneck by Ruth Müller, 26 October 2012 Upon realizing, as a scholar of science and technology studies, that success and failure in academia depend on more than personal effort, Ruth Müller made it a point to identify other potential interests and fields of occupation to increase her resilience to career anxieties.
Falling Off the Ladder: How Not to Succeed in Academia by Kathy Weston, 4 February 2011 As she prepared for a career transition into science writing, Kathy Weston reflected on how she went from being an idealistic young researcher to letting her academic career slip out of her hands.
Life After Rejection by Siri Carpenter, 23 October 2009 The experience of embarking on a long search for a new path upon not getting tenure has given Cliff Mintz the belief that his scientific training has equipped him with the necessary skills to reinvent his career as many times as needed.
A Silver Lining to Redundancy? by Career Doctor, 11 April 2003 Although being made redundant may be a devastating experience, it can give you unique opportunities for change, professional development, and personal growth.
Jumping Off the Academic Bandwagon, Part 1: An Agonizing Decision by Holly Sawyer, 26 October 2001 Holly Sawyer found taking the initial leap outside academia scary and difficult, but it also turned out to be an exciting and enlightening experience with a fulfilling career away from the bench at the end of it.
Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway by Kathryn Phillips, 27 July 2001 Moving from the research lab you know into the uncharted waters of a new career often demands a readiness to take a few risks.
Alternative Career Anxiety: A Reckoning with Lingering Doubts by Larry Lab-Rat, 11 May 2001 As he struggled through the patent bar exam, Science Careers columnist Larry Lab-Rat was forced to reconsider the downsides associated with not only entering patent law but also leaving research in general.
Making the first steps
Cold emails and hot coffee: Take action on your career by Albert Chen, Sara Wong, Gabriel Martinez-Santibanez, Angelina Londono-Joshi, Paula Wishart, and Aaron Goldstrohm, 18 June 2015 The Active Career Exploration (ACE) plan for career development is a tool to help you discover the many rewarding careers that exist outside the traditional academic path while continuing your lab work.
Content Collection: myIDP by Science Careers Staff, 14 May 2013 Deciding to leave academia is one thing, but figuring out what other career paths you may want to pursue may be another. Here is an individual development plan (IDP) to help guide you through the process.
Expand Your Professional-Skills Training by Elisabeth Pain, 1 October 2010 Voluntary activities, such as helping to organize conferences, offer early career scientists opportunities to gain new skills and also broaden their horizons.
Mind Matters: Leaving a Lab Gracefully by Irene S. Levine, 18 January 2008 Whatever the reasons for your decision to leave the lab, it pays not to burn any bridges.
Shutting the Research Door (Gently) Behind You by Kat Arney, 23 July 2004 As she prepared to hang up her lab coat for good, Kat Arney shared her tips for a smooth and harmonious farewell to academia.
Keeping Your Options Open by Career Doctor, 8 November 2002 Career Doctor advised a young scientist who was partway through his Ph.D.—and unsure whether he had a future in academia—on how best to proceed.
Leaving the Lab Behind by Career Doctor, 25 October 2002 Considering the wider research process allows you to identify a great many alternative careers related to research.
The Quest for a Post-PhD Career by Ireena Dutta, 31 August 2001 Here’s how, after deciding against pursuing a postdoc, Ireena Dutta began to think about the many possible alternative careers she could choose.
Science Careers also has a wealth of articles exploring alternative careers and ways to successfully enter them. As a starter, see science writing and editing, teaching, careers in zoos and museums, entrepreneurship, industry careers, and patent law.