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On leaving

The following is a transcript of a talk I gave for an event held by the British Academy for Early Career Researchers (ECRs) on the 22nd of February, 2022. The event focussed on careers on life after academia and work beyond, and was structured by prompts from the event organiser (in bold):

What were the drivers for seeking work outside of academia

Hi. I’m Rhodri. I’m currently a Research Analyst at an asset management firm based in Edinburgh. I left academia in November of last year, so I’m still very much fresh out of the academy. Given that I’m no longer working in academia, I won’t be giving a power point presentation. One of the perks of leaving, I guess. Instead, I’ll be talking about why I left and my transition to the private sector.

Now, leaving academia is actually quite a difficult thing to talk about. I’m sure it is for most academics who decide to do so. Academia is an important part of who we are, or at least who we were.

To understand why I left, I have to first talk a little bit about my time in academia. I want to start with the highs, rather than the frustrating and, sometimes, painful lows.

So, prior to joining my firm, I spent around six years at the University of Edinburgh – beginning a PhD in October 2016 through to my final post as ESRC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Sociology of Science, which ended in October 2021.

I was very much in love with my research, which examined how scientific ideas develop, spread, and change over time, and how scientific fields emerge, grow, and decline over time. I was productive and reasonably successful. I published a dozen or so journal papers. I was fortunate enough to be able write and publish a book with MIT Press – The Matter of Facts, which is about how ideas develop in academia, but also about some of the problems with the current research system. I was able to win grant funding and was being put forward to submit further grants.

So, my decision to leave wasn’t because I didn’t love my research, and it wasn’t because I hadn’t been able to publish or attract funding.  

I also loved teaching. I taught hundreds of students as a tutor – and I was good. I won a Teaching Excellence Award in 2019 for my work tutoring undergraduates. I also guest lectured on several courses, and, in my last years, developed my own course teaching students in both the biomedical and social sciences how to systematically find and evaluate published evidence.

Whatever drove me to leave, it wasn’t because I couldn’t teach or because I didn’t want to.

So why did I leave?

Well, I’ve told you about the highs, about those aspects I’m still proud of. But my time in academia was hard and stressful. Academia became what I worked on during my contracted hours, what I did after work, and what I did at the weekend – leaving little room for much else. Like many, I felt pressure to work as much as possible, under the assumption that this would help secure a stable future. I believed that if I just worked hard in both research and teaching that I’d make it.

Unsurprisingly, I burnt out – or at least this is what I suspect happened. Burn out for me didn’t stop me working, but I found it increasingly hard to find pleasure in my work. The more I worked, the more anxious I became about securing stable employment – and this created a feedback loop whereby the more anxious I became, the more I worked.

By the last year at Edinburgh, all I could think about was securing a long-term position to take the stress off for a bit. I got it into my head that all I needed was a permanent position, and that this would fix all of my problems.

I applied for ten or so lectureships and long-term postdoctoral positions, but was unsuccessful in my applications. I applied primarily to positions in Scotland and the North of England, as my partner works in Edinburgh and loves her job. We didn’t have access to the money that would have allowed us to up sticks and travel too far, unless we could both be assured of stable jobs. And I felt I’d been selfish enough of the last few years in focussing on my research to possibly ask her to give her up career so that I could better pursue mine. This, of course, limited severely the academic positions I could apply for.

I applied for a few lectureship positions at Edinburgh for which I never received an invitation to interview, sent only a standard form letter that told me that I’d been unsuccessful. That they wouldn’t be giving feedback on my application. And, I quote here, that they ‘hope that I remain interested in working for us at some point”. Well, I’d worked there already for six years…thanks!

Given the lack of success in my job search, I was also preparing grant applications. I was put forward for the Leverhulme ECR Fellowship, but was ultimately unsuccessful in this bid – again, no feedback. I was then put forward for the ESRC New Investigator grant.

However, the chances of success on these grants is small. Given that the chances of success are small, and without a secure position at Edinburgh, this meant that I had to take on the risks associated with applying for grants personally. These risks are largely unrecongised by universities and grant funders, so let me explain. Applying for these positions requires a substantial time commitment, and this comes at the expense of not dedicating that time to pursuing other activities, such as publishing, looking for work, or taking time off. If I was unsuccessful in my grant bids, I’d be unemployed. And, even I was successful, I wouldn’t have been able to receiving funding for at least six months or so – and so I’d have to find another short-term position to keep my afloat. And these Fellowships only last between 1 to 3 years, and the idea of repeating the process that soon wasn’t appealing.

Burnt out, losing confidence, and frustrated that I still didn’t know if I’d have a job next year, I’d had enough.

In the end, I left for security and stability, not because I didn’t love research and teaching, but because it became too hard to keep doing the parts of the job that I loved.

And so what changed in your mind set and strategy to find a job outside of academia?

Well, I’d decided I was open to leaving two months before the end of my Fellowship in the July of 2021. I began by updating my LinkedIn and CV, and then started looking for new jobs. I was confident in my research and teaching abilities, but also in the transferability of both my long-term research agenda and the methods I used.

Nothing about my approach to writing applications changed. I still highlighted my research and teaching achievements, used the same academic CV (though shortening to remove unnecessary detail), and explained that I wanted to test my skills in a new environment. Of course, I’d fit my skills to the job description, as is the case with all academic applications. I figured that what made me unique in the job market is that I am an academic – and that skillset can be useful in many different places. Lots of private organisations need high quality researchers and teachers, so this really isn’t a hard sell. I know the public sector is just as accommodating – before doing my PhD, I’d worked as a policy advisor for a few years, and know they value research and teaching skills just as much (if not more) than academia because they are unique. In academia, everyone is a good researcher and teacher, but outside of academia you have something most others don’t.

Now, I can’t lie – it wasn’t my job search skills that led me to my current employer. Rather, a recruiter for my current firm found me on LinkedIn in August, and offered me the chance to interview for a permanent research position at the firm. I initially thought it was a scam, especially since my background is in the sociology of science and politics and not economics and finance, but thought I’d see if anything came of it anyway. Embarrassingly, I even refused to give over any of my personal information to the kind recruiter that I had mistaken for a fraudster prior to the interview – sorry! But if you are looking for work beyond academia, recruitment consultants are amazing.

The interviews went well. The first lasted about an hour, and was relaxed and friendly. I talked about my interests, about my passion for research and teaching, and how I thought research and teaching were important everywhere, not just in academia. We chatted about the focus of the firm, about its aspiring research agenda, and how I thought I could contribute. The second went well too, this time in front of one of the directors of the firm. I then got to meet the team I’d be working with. Everyone was kind, enthusiastic, and eager to hear about what I thought about things – and I was just as curious to understand what they wanted from the role. They wanted someone who thought differently from them, who had different skills, and who could bring new ideas to the firm. Great.

In October, they offered me a full-time permanent position, and I took it. I was incredibly lucky. I spend most of my day analysing data, researching, and writing, though in a modestly more restrictive environment than academia. I’m also still involved with academic research, and part of my role is to reach out to academics on behalf of the firm who have produced research that is of interest. I still write papers in my spare time, I still review for journals, and I have plans to write another book. So, little has actually changed – apart from I spend 9-5 working on projects that my firm want me to do, and then I have the rest of the evening and weekends to do what I want.

Now, looking back, was it a good decision to leave?

No, I don’t regret leaving academia. It was the right decision for me in my situation. My hours have slightly reduced, though I still work maybe too much. But the security of my job has changed my life. I was able to buy a flat and relax about mortgage payments, I got a puppy, and I was able to start making proper plans for the future in the knowledge that I had a steady income stream and a permanent role. Life is good, for now – though it is still early days.

So, in the span of about three months, I made a series of really big changes that I needed to make. This has all felt, for me, considerably less stressful than the anxiety caused by the absurd precarity of the academic job market for ECRs. I could go on at length about the problems of modern academia, but as ECRs you probably already know these. So, no, I can’t say I miss that situation.

But what about leaving academia in the broader sense? Well, I still believe academia is a wonderful place that provides incredible opportunities, and is full of interesting and kind people. As academics you do two of the most important jobs in the world - teaching the next generation of thinkers, and contributing the ideas that drive progress in our knowledge. These are both wonderful privileges and demanding duties – and I’ll certainly miss being part of that. And hope that I can find a way of contributing to these in some way in the future.

While I’ve left academia for now, I’d certainly consider returning if a full-time permanent position was offered to me. But I’m not willing to re-enter the short-term, precarious job market that ECRs are currently subject to.

Do you have any particularly useful tips for ECRs in limbo?

Looking back on my time in academia, I realise I didn’t take the time to enjoy any of my successes, and I always felt that I wasn’t doing enough. That I wasn’t good enough. As an ECR, I had come to see my value as bound up with the value my university and the grant funders appeared to place on me. When I didn’t get a lectureship or didn’t win grants, I took this personally – and it began to erode my self-confidence and happiness. The most important advice I can offer is not to do what I did.

Do not work yourself to exhaustion. It won’t get you the job you think it should. I know many people who have published more and better papers than me, won more grant income, and are better teachers – and they still don’t have permanent positions, sometimes many years after their PhDs. I also know many people who have published and taught less than me, and they have found stable positions straight after their PhD. The longer you spend in academia, the more you see that both the academic job market and grant funding is largely a lottery – you need a lot of luck, not just good ideas and hard work. So don’t beat yourself up, don’t overwork - and please try not to take rejection personally (though know this is hard).

Academia needs to do a huge amount more to protect and nurture its ECRs – it needs to change in so many ways, but particularly on this. So, if you stay in academia, which is an incredibly valuable and rewarding profession, please try and make it better for others – especially for the young that will need you most. Recognise that are incredibly lucky to have made it, and don’t fall into the trap of thinking you got there solely on merit – you won’t have. If, like me, you decide to leave, then keep trying to change academia for the better from outside. I’m giving this talk voluntarily because I believe academia is worth something, and you, as academics, deserve every opportunity and respect – and it is a privilege if I can help any of you.

Do I have any other tips for other ECRs who maybe relate to my story? Well, if you are like me, you probably won’t listen to advice anyway. From individual to individual, we each have a different relationship to academia and to its current configuration in higher education institutions – so it is also hard to give advice. But, if, like me, you feel undervalued, or maybe you feel the need some security, or you just want something different for your life, then please be confident in your abilities.

I know this can be hard when confronted by the inevitable rejections you’ll experience. But you have a lot to offer, more than you probably realise. Others will see that, at least the right people will. Don’t be afraid to try, don’t close yourself into the small specialised boxes that suit academia – decide what you want, or at least what you don’t want, and just bloody go for it. And please remember, you don’t owe your university anything – it isn’t a person after all; it can’t love you back – so don’t stay in a situation that is making you unhappy out of a misplaced sense of obligation. Finally, if you define yourself as a scholar and teacher, then please don’t think that universities are the only place to be these – you don’t just lose these qualities when you leave. The prefix Dr is for life, after all.

That’s all I have really. Thanks for listening.

Leng, R.I., February 2022


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