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I am 39 and I have a good position in a European university, on my way to tenure (in the Economics Department). I am miserable in Academia, and I have been saying for many years that I want to do something else. I hate teaching, and I feel my research is totally useless. Still, I manage to publish quite well. I avoid conferences by all means, and I minimize the time I spend at university. The only positive side is the extreme freedom I have, which I have been taking advantage of by travelling a lot, for instance.

I am desperate to leave, but I am terrified. I have no idea what else to do, I feel I don't have much to propose to this world. And I am scared to lose my freedom. And what if I hate my new job, while having lost the freedom? I have been sending out my CV to private companies, and I am learning data science online, but I have no answers so far. I am really not a junior profile, but I am definitely not a senior profile as I have no experience.

I am completely depressed, feeling like I should have made the move earlier, that it is too late, and that I will never find something else. Hence I will be doomed to stay in academia forever.

Is it common for one to leave academia around during their late 40s? What factors should I consider when deciding whether to leave considering the conditions I described above? Please answer based on the fact that I need to hear happy stories, since I am currently struggling.

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    This is not the place to tell stories, but I have heard good (and bad) stories about this dilemma. Do you know what you want to do (instead of knowing what you not want to do)?
    – user111388
    Apr 20 '20 at 6:14
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    Changing careers is totally normal. "I hate teaching" For the good of your students, please find a non-teaching job. Remember that Academia is a bad paying job (for someone skilled enough to do it). Apr 20 '20 at 8:32
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    what are you trying to achieve? Apr 20 '20 at 16:32
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    What do you like to do? If you feel your research is "useless", but you do not dislike research pe se, is there perhaps a slant of your research that might actually be useful? Think interdisciplinary, for instance. Apr 21 '20 at 2:31
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    In economics, surely it's more natural to think of going to a think tank or government job? There are tons of economists who don't work in academia, and in a non-academic setting there's at least somewhat less expectation that you'll be blazing a trail into the great unknown, as opposed to giving confident expert advice on questions non-researchers actually need answers to. Apr 21 '20 at 5:00
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desparate [...] terrified [...] depressed

First of all, however, I think you need to get proper counseling.


 Does anyone have managed to leave academia after 40?

I'm maybe within 5 % of that mark - but my story is nevertheless quite different from yours: I like research, I like teaching, I didn't look for a job when I left: I'm freelancer/self-employed now, my field (analytical chemistry + statistical data analysis) is quite different from yours. I decided early that I don't want to become a professor. Last but not least, I'd been considering this step for a long time. I.e. I considered this my plan B in case I end up without a new contract at some point. As it is, it was I who didn't renew the contract, and I took the opportunity to do a slow transition by part-time remote work at my now former employer.

I'm still involved with research and closely cooperating with research groups. And I'm teaching both in industry and in academic settings.

And are you happy with the change?

Very much so.

But I'm sure you realize that neiter is n = 1 a proper base for decisions nor will you be able to predict much how you will do even from a good poulation description of 40-year-olds leaving academia since the variance will be large.


I'd also like to state the somewhat obvious that by asking on academia.sx you'll probably get mostly answers by people who are still close to academia, since those who cut all ties to academia are very unlikely to read your question. And this means a selection of people who probably like research or teaching or both.

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    +1 for the recommendation to get mental heath counseling. This seems like a classic case of confounding dissatisfaction with work with broader work that needs to be done on one’s mental health.
    – Dawn
    Apr 20 '20 at 15:03
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    I do see a therapist since 2 years, and he told me that it is vital I do something else with my professional life. I am mostly happy with my private life, I have plenty of friends and a very rich social life. My problem is my job and the whole university environment, which makes me feel like I am wasting my time/life.
    – user10522
    Apr 21 '20 at 8:30
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    I always wonder about the very prevalent advice here concerning mental health counselling when it is clear that it is the circumstances that create the problem and it is not self-generated. OP needs advice about how to fix the circumstances, not their mental health. It's about like being told to go to the pediatrist when your feet hurt, rather than helping to fix the fact that you have a shoe of the wrong size (where, of course, the problem is that changing the shoe is not trivial) Apr 21 '20 at 11:00
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    @user10522: that is good to hear. You'll need to know what you want (in addition to freedom) and what things you like to do and are good at in order to decide what professional future you aim at. Apr 21 '20 at 11:08
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    Irrespective of whether problems are internally or externally generated, there are only two ways to change a problem - change yourself or change the situation. For both internal and external problems counseling can help you decide which of these options is possible and help to get started on making the change. But it can't make that change for you in any situation. Apr 21 '20 at 21:16
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I left academia about three years after completing my PhD. At that time I had a lectureship at a good university but I was deeply unhappy with the job and restless. I love academic research (biostatistics) but climbing the academic ladder interested me less, and I was disheartened by the massive attention put on grants and publications rather than research itself.

I decided to quit and move country. I took up a job as a data scientist at a large tech company. I immediately hated it. I felt trapped in an utterly vapid and uninteresting role. I didn't realize how much I would miss the ability to publish my work. Now anything I produced was hidden behind corporate NDAs. I felt like I didn't have any ownership of my work. I found it extremely difficult to sit at a desk from 9am to 6pm. In academia I could work whenever I wanted and did it because I was intrinsically interested and motivated. I regretted what I left behind and became quite distraught at what seemed like limited career options ahead of me.

I survived for nine months on the new job but it had become unbearable. Out of the blue I got an email from some researchers abroad who were interested in the work I published shortly before I left academia. They flew me over, paid me a lecture fee for my visit, and offered to pay me again if I helped them with their research project. It was the push I needed. I quit my new job and became self-employed. I reached out to an old boss in academia and agreed to a part-time academic position where I could work remotely. This gave me some security. In the meantime I reached out to more of my former colleagues and I got more work as a self-employed freelancer. I absolutely loved this new way of working. I had the independence and freedom to manage my own time, and to take on as many many projects as I wanted.

One project in particular was extremely interesting and exciting. It involved academic research and the subsequent commercialization of our findings. I got to do the type of research that I enjoy, combined with the excitement and challenges that a startup environment can offer. I continue to work in this academic/entrepreneurial niche, combining interesting research with the opportunity to really scale and grow ones research outputs. And no faffing about with academia bullshit.

Leaving academia was the best thing I ever did, but be prepared for a shock to the system as you enter the "real world". You might not find what you are looking for straight away, but stick with it and you will succeed!

Don't burn your bridges when you leave. Returning to academia in a year or two is a perfectly fine option if you miss it. Also, it took me a while to get a job in industry. Several employers were turned off by someone who had been in academia for too long, but stick it out and you'll find something. Exciting times, good luck!

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    Thank you, this is really inspiring :-)
    – user10522
    Apr 21 '20 at 11:15
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I have left academia in the past and I still maintain strong ties outside the ivory tower. There are advantages and disadvantages to both sides. If you want to leave, you should do so.

I don't know what your background is but if you're in a professorship you can make reasonable claims to be (1) good at supervising direct reports (2) good at time management (3) good at project management. Plus whatever your PhD is in that you're an expert in. These are the things that will get you a job - learning data science on the internet is neat but it's not why you're better than other people. Anyone can do some stuff on DataCamp, and if you apply to data science jobs on that basis alone you're going to get politely shown the door.

What I'd suggest is that you find networking events near you. Your skill set is likely to fit in well with consulting or with research institutes / think tanks. You should talk to people with those kinds of jobs and feel out if that's something you'd like to do.

Under no circumstances should you leave your current job without a new job lined up.

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One of my favorite quotes is

A fault confessed is half redressed

Personally, I believe there is no such thing as too late in terms of professional decisions. I have seen many examples where people change their careers in their late 30s. Some of them started college to be proficient in some other field, some of them completely ignored their formation to do something else.

To me, academia has two huge benefits, which are the freedom of time management, and being able to choose the topic you want to work on. In return, it is not well-paid.

If you do not enjoy the first part enough, then it seems like you are just doing a low-paid job for absolutely nothing. So, if you leave, then you will have more money and be happier.

If you are confident that you can utilize your skills in a corporate job, or be self-employed, then I'd say you should go for it.

I need to hear happy stories.

One of my former colleagues left academia after getting his tenure, and he dramatically improved his life. He left academia because just like you, he hated teaching. Unlike you, he loved research.

He found a job in a research institute, now he is earning double, and twice as happy. He quit occasional drug usage, cut his smoking habit in half, and lost a ton of weight. He wanted that energetic, always shifting, so called "exciting" life-style which academia could not offer.

In short, you are unhappy, depressed, and have a low paid job. What could go worse?

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I think this is a perfectly legitimate question and may apply to many readers. The answer here seems clear by the way the question has been asked, which is that it is time for a change.

It is difficult to make the change because we worry that we might be reacting to something internal and making a huge mistake. Perhaps the answer is to take a sabbatical, pause the career and do something different, somewhere different. If it turns out that you're not happy in the new situation either then consider a return to academia with less of a grass is greener on the other side feeling.

If you don't want to make a giant leap into something totally unknown and burn your bridges, can you swing a year or two doing something which is accepted as having value? For example, writing for an economic journal or even learning a new language at a language school in the country of that language? You could make the case that you were adding a unique skill set with the plan to branch out into a specialist field. This sort of thing might be a face-saving way to get some breathing space and evaluate what you want to do.

EDIT 24.04.2020: One more idea, I got an email from a publisher about a webinar called 'Learn Start-up Principals: Utilize your research background to build a successful start-up without leaving academia'.

I had not thought of this and perhaps it's not as suitable for economics as some other fields but getting involved in a start-up is another idea for how to change it up without burning your bridges.

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  • Thank you! Unfortunately I cannot take a sabbatical, because I am not tenured yet (and I need another 3 years to be). So if I leave, there is no way I can come back. Another reason I am still doing this job is that it allows me to be in a very nice location in the south of Europe, where there are not many job opportunities. Hence most likely I will have to move to the north. But my desire for a professional change is strong enough to do that. You are totally right, I am afraid the problemis internal and it would be a mistake, but I do not want to regret not having tried something else.
    – user10522
    Apr 20 '20 at 10:55
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    I empathise with this, another suggestion is can you chip away at the stuff you don't like, get some marginal gains. For instance, you hate teaching, can you change the format, teach for a college instead of the university itself or do more mentoring which is a slight sideways move from teaching? Can you get involved in governance and leadership? Regarding the is it internal or is it my job bringing me down, that is a tough one to answer!
    – croc7415
    Apr 20 '20 at 11:05

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