Academic Research: Knowing when to quit

Recently I participated as a panellist in an online debate on the Guardian Higher Education Network. The subject of debate was the PostDoc Dilemma: whether to stay in, or leave academia.

There is no single solution to this question. There is no universal experience. There are no rules to guide you. There are only things to consider. The Guardian live chat showed me that many people have the same considerations, but your own considerations will always be your own. I’m not sure any one person could comprehensively cover every consideration in a short piece such as this, but these are my particular considerations: What qualities do you have, and what quality of life are you willing to give up?

Academics are a special breed of people. It requires a lot of dedication, and a lot of sacrifice. If you’ve made it as far as early career research, you might see a fellowship and a lectureship as the natural progression. But…

There’s an easy way to picture this progression: imagine you and all your fellow early career researchers standing shoulder to shoulder on one side of a gorge. A great chasm separates you and the other side, where you can see an emotional rollercoaster in the distance (that’s your career as an academic in a university).  A thin rope bridge connects one side to the other. The bridge doesn’t look strong enough to safely transport more than a few of you across, in fact you might have to drop some of your baggage on the way. As you peer along the length of the rope bridge you can see that there are slats missing (geographical leaps will be required here), and the whole bridge is being blown about in the economic wind.

Some 44% of you might want to carry on to do research in academia (What do researchers do? Doctoral graduates destinations 3 year on – Vitae 2010), however less than half of those will achieve it (Careers in research online survey (CROS) – Vitae 2011). Be realistic – are you that 19%?

The next logical step after a post doc or two is to apply for a fellowship. In order to achieve this, you will need to have had practise in writing successful funding proposals, a track record of good publications and your own research interests. Do you know what you want to research? Is that research distinct and different from that conducted by anyone else, including your Primary Investigator? Do you know where you could conduct that research? Are they willing to accommodate you? Do you have any unique selling points beyond being exceptionally clever?

Have you considered your future as an academic? A few years in one institution as a fellow, then you’ll have all this again whilst looking for lectureships, where you’ll probably have to move to another institution. Who are you leaving behind? Are you prepared for the financial instability? What if your life changes, i.e. you meet someone, or a baby comes along?

Wherever you end up, there will be a certain amount of teaching required. Can you teach, and teach well? Does your intended research area have enough scope to allow for Ph.D projects later on? Can you manage those students, and manage them well? Are you prepared to spend ever more time at meetings and ever less time in the lab?

If the answer to any of these questions is No, it might be time to think about a different future.

Knowing when to turn away from the gorge and walk in the other direction could save you and your loved ones years of heartache. The only way to decide whether to cross is to look at what is on the other side, and decide how attractive that is to you.

There are plenty more options away from the gorge, but no one can guarantee that you won’t come across more bridges of varying size and structural stability down the path.

Knowing what is on the other side is key to deciding which bridges to try and cross.



About nicolajrolfe

Dr. Nicola J. Rolfe is currently looking for her next opportunity to make a big splash in East Kent industry.
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