Guilty As Charged:
On Leaving Academia

(originally published on

Academia has a habit of making graduate students feel guilty. I am no different and have been trapped in this dubious situation several times over the course of my PhD. In this piece, I look inward and outward on why I’m making the right decision, to leave academia.

Academia is full of traditions, old and new. Many of them are a source of pride or humor. The one I struggle with, however, rarely gets the attention it deserves: Guilt and disappointment have been my constant companions for the the past five years, and sadly I’m not alone in this boat.

I felt guilty that I questioned my decision to join a Ph.D. program back in 2012, even after getting acceptance letters. I felt guilt that I spent more time outside the lab than most of my peers. I felt guilt that my activities and hobbies kept me more interested than the the research itself. I felt guilt when I counseled friends and family to really consider, just one more time, whether they actually wanted to do a PhD.

Towering over all those feelings, though, was the guilt over leaving academia.

Year 2 of my undergraduate was when I felt intrigued by scientific research. I was designing a study about developing fingerprints on materials affected by arson. It was tantalizing, this little glimpse into the academic life. It pushed me to get my masters and ultimately to enroll for my doctoral studies.

Almost since the start of my second year in Ph.D., I was questioning whether academia was the right place for me. Against all my hopes and optimism, I knew the end of the road was leading me away from academia. It was a disappointing look at into the future — enough to add to my depression and to want therapy.

Becoming a professor is still considered the ultimate destination of an academic career. It’s the holy grail, worthy of Indiana Jones-esque efforts. The excitement I felt designing that forensics project was still alive in me, and it seemed but natural to aspire for a career in academia.

To realize that you have failed to achieve your dream, failed in publishing just the required amount, or collaborating/ networking just enough is rough on your psyche and your self-esteem.

The last 3 years have been full of frustrating days in the lab, countless sessions of introspection, a few restless nights, and may be a bucketload of tears. I’ve come out it with a better understanding of myself and of academic institutions.

I’ve realized that I still love science, but I hate the isolation research in higher education surrounds me with. It disconnects me from the real world, truly living up to the concept of academic bubble — only in my case, it wasn’t that real life was kept out, but that science was kept in! I now know I need the human connection, be it science communication or outreach or education. I know I need to get out of the lab, and out of my own head, more.

I’ve also come to recognize the ways in which academia perpetuates these feelings of guilt and disappointment. We as a community need to stop and to recapitulate on our failings. We need to let others know that it’s ok to want something else out of one’s PhD. We need to accept that most graduate students will not achieve their dreams for their PhD. We need to prepare ourselves better, as individuals, as communities, and as institutions, for that eventuality.

Some days I still wonder about ‘What if’s — although now I know I’m not willing to force myself through the grueling process of post-doctoral fellowships and tenure-track positions. I know that the academic game is one I’m not willing to play past the completion of my PhD.

I once said to a friend — PhD shows you who you are at your worst. I still believe it, but graduate school has also taught me perseverance. Only now, I accept that, for me, the eventual rewards of being called a professor are not worth persevering through next ten years of angst and heartburn.