Why leaving academia is OK!

The last 18 months have seen a huge change in the way that we are working. Many of us are working from home and are probably not in an ideal office space (I myself have had to set up camp on the kitchen table). Working from home and a lack of in person meetings has meant a real shift in mindset, for some, causing people to evaluate what it is that they really enjoyed about their work and/or role. The last few months have seen me discussing career direction and implementing career change more than ever so I thought it would be a good idea to address some issues around this topic.

An academic career is often viewed as undertaking ‘pure’ research whereas, research in industry can be seen as ‘the dark side’ with a focus on profits. Whilst, the focus on profits is partly true this is an issue that needs to be explored in more detail. Industry focuses more on achieving the product objective (likely getting a product to market). This means that managers have more control over research undertaken and its direction and ultimately you have less research freedom. Academia on the other hand has a more laissez faire structure and researchers often relish the increased independence. You need to decide what you are most comfortable with. Of course this is touching on only one common issue when people begin to question leaving academia. Another commonly cited reason is time pressure and work-life balance. Academics (and especially those in more junior roles) are expected to produce huge outputs in order to remain at the top of a competitive field. For some this isn’t sustainable or a way of working that they want to undertake. This brings us on to the importance of self-reflection and thinking about what you do want from your career. What factors are you willing to be flexible on and what is non-negotiable i.e. time and money.

It is important to recognise that the structure of a typical academic career path is not ideal. Postdoc positions were never intended as long term positions but they are excellent training for a wide range of careers! This is because of the wide range of skills that researchers develop (independence, problem solving, resilience, flexibility and data management just to name a few).

If you’re thinking of moving away from academia that’s ok! You just need to be aware of the process to follow to properly assess your options. Firstly, think about what you enjoy doing on a day to day basis. What skills do you like using? Next think about the range of skills that you have developed over your time in academia. Now you need to research what roles and opportunities are out there and try and make a match between them and your skills. For more detailed information on the career planning process see the Career direction workshop on the IAD Researcher blog Career Choices for Researchers – IAD4RESEARCHERS (ed.ac.uk). For now, I’m going to focus on digging deeper into roles that really interest you. This is the part of research that cannot be done solely online through reading websites and case studies. You can’t build a true picture of a role or sector without speaking to people who are currently working in it.

Expand your Network:
Building your network is key to exploring new sectors and roles. The simplest thing to do is to start with your own network and see if there are any contacts already there. If not widen this out to your contact’s networks – do they know anyone working in your area of interest. If they do contact them and set up a time to chat. Other ways to broaden your network are to attend conferences or events run by Professional Bodies. You can also use LinkedIn to build your network of contacts online. Again, engage in professional groups or simply search for contacts in organisations and sectors of interest. See the following for suggestions of questions to ask a contact when seeking more information on their role Informational interviews | The University of Edinburgh

10 days professional development:
Make use of your PDR or regular meetings with your supervisor to talk about longer term goals and professional development opportunities. Take time for professional development to develop skills that are relevant to your new area of interest. This Concordat for researchers highlights 10 days allowance for professional development activities so make use of this time wisely. IAD run many training courses, see if there is anything that fits your needs Courses & events | The University of Edinburgh

Alternatively you can look further afield and try to set up some work shadowing in order to gain a deeper insight into roles of interest.

Time outside of work:
Take time to enjoy life outside of work. Simple things such as breaks away from constant screen time, regular walks or enjoying a coffee in the sunshine are all really important for our mental health. If you have a hobby that you love consider if this has any mileage in developing into a possible working opportunity. Try and develop skills in other areas as these will benefit you in the long run. For example, get involved in committees or societies, positions of responsibility, or possibly start a new hobby.

Remember this key point:
Experience as a researcher is highly valuable! Employers do value the skills that you have but you need to ensure that they are presented in the right way. For further tips and information how to do this effectively see the blog for our workshop on adapting your CV for non academic roles Adapting Your CV for Non Academic Jobs – IAD4RESEARCHERS (ed.ac.uk). See the IAD website ‘Career Management’ for researchers section, look at the handouts /infographics on drafting CV, planning a career change, self-reflection exercises and identifying skills Career management | The University of Edinburgh. If you need further help or a discussion to motivate you then book a 1:1 appointment with me* and we can kick start your career planning for the next step!
Career development consultations – online booking page | The University of Edinburgh

*Eleanor Hennige is the Research Staff Careers Consultant based in the IAD.  Eleanor runs 1:1 Career Development Consultations and our Careers workshops.  To find out about the Careers support available to Research Staff.

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