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I have a PhD in mechanical engineering and am currently a postdoc. I have been fairly productive in my research, published fair amount of papers during my 5 years PhD and 1.5 years of Postdoc experience. I feel confident that I can keep publishing quite more in the coming years too.

But the truth is, I don't feel the point of any of this. I don't feel that even if I get an academic job, I can survive the constant pressure of securing grants, doing exciting but not groundbreaking research, feeling disappointment when submitting to medium impact journals, being overshadowed by successful colleagues.

When it comes to industry research, the positions in my field are hard to come by. I am an immigrant in the US and most of the positions require permanent residency or citizenship. I have been facing constant rejection for the past year. Also, I feel that my motivation to do fast paced research has reduced significantly since I graduated my PhD in 2020.

I have been considering non-academic jobs like data science (bit unrealistic) or software developer (more realistic, after taking a boot-camp or something similar). However, these will not make use of my PhD background and field of study.

Alternatively, I am thinking of going into scientific editing and communication with hopes of transitioning into a business development role. This will somewhat keep me connected to science and my field but away from the bench.

However, one thing that stops me from making a decision is the feeling of guilt and failure to achieve what I had planned when I started my grad school journey. I wanted to be a scientist, innovate, satiate my curiosity, helm a lab and be someone that plays an important part in the society.

Now, I don't know how to move past my feelings. Any advice?

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  • Please don't write answers in the comments. This question asks for advice; therefore, any advice should go in the answer box, not the comment box, as discussed here. A few clarifications have already been edited into the post.
    – cag51
    Oct 23 at 19:07
  • nobody wants to write a 5-line answer and get downvoted, which is why you'll keep having to deal with short answers as comments.
    – PatrickT
    Oct 23 at 20:41

11 Answers 11

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There is concept in the business world known as "sunk cost". The idea is to avoid the reasoning of "since we have already invested so much into this failing project, we should keep pursuing it." Instead, it is best to view the next decision as independent (i.e., we have $100 to invest, should I put it into a failing project or put it into something new?). Romantic relationships often extend too long for this reason.

In this case, I think you need to ignore the "sunk cost". Instead, take some time to think about what it is you really want to be doing. It's very possible your feelings are related to mental health (pandemic, burnout, poor sleep/diet, etc.) and actually have nothing to do with being a "failure". You may find you'd prefer to run an ice cream shop. If so, I'd start position yourself to run an ice cream shop. Instead, you may realize that mountains are climbed one step at a time, and you may go easier on yourself that you aren't a "top performer" (yet).

My last tip would be to keep a daily journal for the next 40 days. At the end of the day, write three things that brought you 'consolation' (i.e., joy, happiness, etc.) and three things that brought you 'desolation' (i.e., sadness, anger) from your day. You'll likely notice a pattern which could help you make a move.

Good luck.

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    I'm not in the exact same situation as OP but your tip is resonating with me and I think I'll give it a try. Thank you.
    – Dason
    Oct 21 at 18:10
  • you last tip is very good .. I'll try this. thank you
    – Gopipuli
    Oct 22 at 8:49
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    I wish more people who want to open ice-cream shops would.
    – user21820
    Oct 22 at 14:10
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But the truth is, I don't feel the point of any of this. I don't feel that even if I get an academic job, I can survive the constant pressure of securing grants, doing exciting but not groundbreaking research, feeling disappointment when submitting to medium impact journals, being overshadowed by successful colleagues.

To be honest, you will have similar pressures outside academia, so general dissatisfaction with things like this is not a great reason to leave academia if you are doing well.

I have 9 years of experience in my field and still haven't been able to obtain a "senior" position, while I see people with a couple of years of experience earning twice as much as I do. It's soul-destroying!

When it comes to industry research, the positions in my field are hard to come by. I am an immigrant in the US and most of the positions require permanent residency or citizenship. I have been facing constant rejection for the past year. Also, I feel that my motivation to do fast paced research has reduced significantly since I graduated my PhD in 2020.

Outside academia, you will also face constant rejection. For one reason or another, most companies will not want to employ you. But some will still string you along for a long sequence of interviews. Many will ghost you (this is a much worse problem than in academia.)

I have been considering non-academic jobs like data science (bit unrealistic) or software developer (more realistic, after taking a boot-camp or something similar). However, these will not make use of my PhD background and field of study.

That is true, but such jobs will make use of the fact that you have learned how to learn things, which is an incredibly valuable skill! Many people in many fields are not very good at this.

Alternatively, I am thinking of going into scientific editing and communication with hopes of transitioning into a business development role. This will somewhat keep me connected to science and my field but away from the bench.

I did have a friend who went this route after his PhD in mathematics, but he gave it up after a while. I have the impression that it's much less realistic than the other suggestions you make above. So I wouldn't put all the eggs in this basket.

If you are interested in scientific communication, I suggest you begin by starting a blog and see how long you can keep it up.

However, one thing that stops me from making a decision is the feeling of guilt and failure to achieve what I had planned when I started my grad school journey. I wanted to be a scientist, innovate, satiate my curiosity, helm a lab and be someone that plays an important part in the society.

Well, this is the sunk cost thing, indeed. I also spent my entire life trying to be an academic, and I still feel guilty about giving it up, 10 years later.

Now, I don't know how to move past my feelings. Any advice?

It sounds like you are doing well in your academic career, so congratulations! I would do a bit of research, speak to any contacts you have in industry (particularly former academics) and try to learn about what their work is like. Take some programming courses if necessary, so you don't feel like you would be starting from zero.

Find out about routes which people took out of academia. Don't be afraid to ask people about their experiences. Most will be happy to help you.

Don't be discouraged by the constant job rejections. It's tough at the moment, and just as bad in industry as academia.

Don't throw money at a therapist unless you really think it will help. Americans think therapy is the answer to everything. I recommend talking to your friends first.

I know people who left academia after a postdoc or two. I also know people who did research on industry, learned some useful things for their Plan B, but ended up staying in academia. Both routes are viable.

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    I'm gonna disagree a little with your first sentence. I think "not seeing the point" is an excellent reason to leave academia. Yes, in industry you might also be asked to do stuff that doesn't feel particularly fulfilling, but at least they pay you well for it. If you stay in academia, you better do it because you either really like the job or feel it's highly necessary.
    – xLeitix
    Oct 21 at 13:48
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    I agree partly with @xLeitix, but I do think the point Flounderer made is is worth making, even if maybe it should be amended to add the indicated nuance. It is absolutely valid that if OP thinks that by going to industry they will completely avoid the problem, they're suffering from greener-grass-syndrom and will be dissappointed. After all, the Dilbert cartoon didn't come out of nowhere...
    – bob
    Oct 21 at 20:13
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    Don't throw money at a therapist unless you really think it will help. Americans think therapy is the answer to everything. I recommend talking to your friends first. Huh. As an American, I wish that more of my colleagues/friends/family would consider therapy. Where in the U.S. are you? Certainly talk to your friends, but if the issue is depression, anxiety, ADHD, etc, a therapist will be the quickest path to diagnosis and appropriate support.
    – LShaver
    Oct 21 at 22:59
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I also wanted to be a scientist, and did a PhD in chemistry. I didn't get any postdocs, and was made redundant from my job in industry after a few years. It was a difficult time, filled with a lot of rejection.

I decided to retrain in informatics, and now I'm a business analyst working on a large data management project in a research organisation. My previous experience is useful to me every day, I'm sometimes surprised how much it helps. I find the work much more interesting than what I was doing with chemistry, and I think my potential to help society is greater now.

Only you can decide if you're happy with your current direction and staying where you are, but I can tell you from my experience that changing to something that interests you more is not throwing away what you have done, and it is not failing. According to the book "Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World" by David Epstein, it might not even set you back at all.

Whatever you decide, I hope you enjoy the results.

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You should be proud of yourself for identifying that a career path won't make you happy before sinking more valuable resources into it.

Best of luck finding a path that makes you happy.

6

Frankly, this paragraph in your question gave me pause:

I don't feel that [...] I can survive the constant pressure of securing grants, doing exciting but not groundbreaking research, feeling disappointment when submitting to medium impact journals, being overshadowed by successful colleagues.

I think your situation is one where you would profit from a mindset change/improvement. If you were not in academia right now, but in an average IT company, your statement could be worded like this:

I don't feel that [...] I can survive the constant pressure of procuring new customer projects, creating exciting but not groundbreaking software, feeling disappointment when finishing medium impact software, being overshadowed by successful colleagues.

If you were in a purely teaching role:

I don't feel that [...] I can survive the constant pressure of getting assigned to my favourite courses, teaching exciting but not groundbreaking topics, feeling disappointment when working with medium students, being overshadowed by successful colleagues.

I hope you see where I'm going. These are just the average, regular, completely normal day-to-day workings of how academia, businesses, schools etc. work. The productive parts of your life are not always grand heroic events...

I would really encourage you to sit back a good amount of time and think about your motivations. Nothing would be worse than throwing away all you have worked on, starting over, and then ending up in the exact same spot (or, likely, worse!) not too far in the future.

I wanted to be a scientist, innovate, satiate my curiosity, helm a lab and be someone that plays an important part in the society.

You have many, many years - decades - in front of you. Nothing but yourself keeps you from taking it a step at a time. Changing careers now will place you in the freshman steps again and solve none of your problems right out of the gate.

Your personal network needs time to develop. This would maybe be one thing your could really shift your focus on - start collecting business cards. Learn to know more researchers, but also more companies in your field. Look for industry-sponsored projects (I know, you find this not one of the greatest elements of your work) and actually do (or at least manage) those projects.

Find areas with your customers where there is actual chance to improve things that interest you. Eventually you may be a spider in a net of relationships to the industry, to students, and co-scientists and make everything work smoothly towards an overarching goal, really improving the world (or at the least the lives of some stratum of people...).

Even if what you are doing only positively impacts the people directly around you, as a prof you might have the chance to influence hundreds or thousands of people in a positive way. That is much more than most other people can claim.

6

There are "rockstar" or "olympic" professions, where the reward for being among the best in the world is large, and the reward for being not among the best is really bad. These professions are a trap.

The most visible members of the profession are the "rockstars". So when you look into working towards that profession, you end up aiming for the "rockstars" as the goal.

But until you put a huge amount of effort into getting better at the profession, you won't know if you are a rockstar or not. You don't have the information required to know if you are going to be a rockstar; often, for every rockstar, there are 10,000s or more people who are convinced they have a chance.

When aiming for a profession, what you need to look at

  1. The median member of the profession's status, rewards, etc., and

  2. The winnowing rate from people starting at your point to being a member of the profession.

For academia, you are someone who has "won" each stage of what could be a path towards becoming a professor multiple times. You probably won at elementary, high school, college, graduate school "winnowing" stages, doing exceptionally well compared to your peers. You now get yet another winnowing stage; where some small fraction of people with PhDs get a tenure track position; and only a small fraction of tenure track positions result in becoming a "rockstar" professor. It is lower than 1000:1, knowing nothing about you other than you have a PhD, that even if you continue to work towards becoming a "rockstar" professor that you'll become one.

If your goal is to become a "rockstar" professor, you almost certainly won't. Do you want to become a median professor with tenure? Reaching that point is going to be challenging, but it is at least a plausible outcome.

For your alternatives you should also look at both the winnowing rates and the median result of passing each winnowing stage.

The rewards here could be financial, social status, or whatever.

If you would be satisfied with the median results of a plausible path (with, say, at least a 5% chance of success), that path is something you should consider. You should still look at fallback plans (what happens in the other 95% of the time), but aiming for that 5% is an achievable goal.

If the chance of success is under 5%, broaden the "success" criteria until it breaks a 5% threshold, then look at the median rewards in that 5% success zone. If that doesn't count as "winning" to you, find another path.

This means you shouldn't get a PhD unless the process of getting a PhD (getting years to do some research while being paid to feed yourself) is enough. You shouldn't train for the Olympics unless living the life of an athlete is reward enough. And you shouldn't go on to do an academic career after your PhD unless being a professor at a mediocre school doing median amounts of research in a small under funded lab is enough.

Becoming a rockstar, even after insane amounts of talent, sweat and tears, is winning the lottery. Almost nobody at a stage when they aren't a rockstar knows if they'll get there, because for everyone who is convinced they can do it, 100 are falsely convinced, and those that believe it is beyond them are going to be only marginally less likely to succeed.

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    Why was this downvoted? I don't entirely agree but it does redirect the aims of the OP.
    – Kwame
    Oct 22 at 13:53
4

Big life transitions are a really good time to meet with a therapist to talk it through. Even if that's not something you want or need to do long term, a month or two of sessions right now could really make a difference in terms of sorting your feelings out about leaving academia now rather than letting it linger. If you're having strong feelings of guilt that's a good sign that there's something you need to talk through to feel better about your decisions.

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"feeling disappointment when submitting to medium impact journals, being overshadowed [...] "

Now, I don't know how to move past my feelings. Any advice?

You can stop being delusional, you can realize that you are not in the top 0.00001% of the academia that will win a Nobel prize by living in a cave in a remote region of Africa. You may be not even in the top 0.001% that will win a Nobel prize. May be you will not even in the top 0.1% that will get a professorhip in a decent university. Yes, there are people more lucky than you, better at science than you, better at publishing than you.

But then, who cares? you are you, they are they.

Enjoy your life, consider that we are human beings and not machines, we can be productive for a limited amount of time in our life (both in terms of years and hours per week) and do the best you can with this limited amount. You will have whatever impact on society and on science that you can have, no more.

Good luck!

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    Although academia has its problems, it's a bit of a hyperbole to state only 0.1% get a professorship at a decent university, unless your definition of decent is overly restrictive.
    – gerrit
    Oct 21 at 15:22
  • The OP is not being delusional at all in his message, why do you tell him to stop being delusional?
    – SpiderRico
    Oct 21 at 15:31
  • @gerrit You are right. However, only 3% of PhDs become professors. Considering the universities dimensions here noted en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… I have a bad feeling...
    – EarlGrey
    Oct 21 at 15:42
  • @SpiderRico how would you define someone that dreamed of being a scientist but is worried by the securing grants pressure and being worried by not able of delivering groundbreaking research? Research is 99% failure! All this while putting him/herself in comparison with colleagues that are overshadowing him/her: either they are luckier than him/her, so he/she should be angry, if anything, or they are objectively better than OP, so OP should not have a bad feeling about that and should take it with serenity (plus, I would be curious to see a definition of "being better").
    – EarlGrey
    Oct 21 at 15:45
2

Go to industry and find out, that there are cool jobs, too. Even outside of corporate research. Being a project manager, team lead, or recognized expert can be very satisfying. And it might be more healthy compared to academia (depends on job, company, and you).

Looking back, my PhD time was one of the most pleasant times of my life: I was young, did cool research, had a great group, worked for a well-respected supervisor, got a title, met smart people, traveled to conferences, presented my work in talks.

But for me it could not last forever, thus I had to make a move. Now I don't have to think about funding, I have a permanent contract, still doing cool stuff (but completely different), I took over a lot more responsibility, and never wanted to go back.

Your mileage might vary, but I hope to give you some perspective.

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Think twice, rest a little and think again.

Whatever decision you make is the right one. Both paths have positive and negative sides. So there is no right answer, no one who can make this decision other than you, no one who can know the future. And whatever decision you make is the right one. (I know it seems to contradict itself but it doesn't really do it). It is important that you are serene about this, because you have to live with it.

Research is a drug, and once it gets under your skin, once you are addicted to it, it will be difficult to be without it. But the path you are on now, that you described so well, also gives you reasons to change: the stability of work, besides a right, is a necessary basis for peacefully building your life outside (outside the world of work). And for a balanced life you cannot have only one aspect active, because in the long-term you have to be able to expect periods in which problems arise on some aspect. Having more active sectors guarantees you that somewhere something will go better than somewhere else.

On the other hand, a job that you really like doesn't weigh in your life. Never underestimate it.

Continue publishing. I would like to lead you to reflect on this aspect as well: you state you can continue publishing by doing another job.
True for the first time, more and more difficult later, because you will not easily be able to keep your knowledge updated up to the level necessary to be able to publish where you aim, and you will find less and less time to devote to this. By making a career (or wanting to make it) your energies and more importantly your time will be focused on something else. Not to mention marriage, children, parents (including in-laws) as they age, home...

Secondary job. However, you could also decide to continue the current job and try to do as a "second job" the research on the topic you would have liked to do. Try for 4-6 months to read, digest and work on what is needed for it, and then you could have the first outcomes to evaluate.

Alternatively, you could try to walk the path you mentioned _scientific publishing and communication _ (or whatever) as a second job and see how it goes.

Final words of warning. If your soul is bounded to research and you need to sell it for a job, do it for money!

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Okay, I am leaving academia too. This is the nature of academia in the way you have described. My point is go into data science and opportunities will come and you’ll be more appreciated into the industry.

If you can go in healthcare data science, I assure you won’t be disappointed. I was wise enough to stop my PhD in the third year, started a Msc in Data Science and landed with a job in healthcare industry, in an academic sector. However, after 3 years and a half, I have been offered a job in a corporation well established and will definitely go for it.

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