Leaving academia: there are still opportunities to make a difference in research
Leaving academia isn’t the same as leaving research, which is why we need to reimagine what a successful research career looks like.
Around 70% of researchers leave academia after completing their PhD, according to analysis presented by Dr Sally Hancock at the launch of the Research on Research Institute (RoRI). That’s a big number and it’s a stark reminder that a PhD is no longer a guarantee of a lifelong academic career.
The first reaction might be to see this as unalloyed bad news. Indeed, in many cases, hidden behind the numbers are truly sad stories of individuals who, despite working hard and desperately wanting to do research, have been forced to leave through circumstances outside of their control. There are also biases in the system, for example women are more likely to leave academia than men, and there are biases connected to socio-economic background.
We need to analyse the data behind such cases to identify how biases are introduced and how they can be corrected, for example by improving research culture. To that end, an initiative like RoRI is long overdue (full disclosure, I am on the board at RoRI).
In many cases, leaving academia is a rational and exciting choice
Important as these issues are, in this article I want to talk about the opposite bias — pretending that the academic track is always the best option for young researchers, or that leaving ends any hope a researcher has of making a mark on their chosen field. As Dame Athene Donald, University of Cambridge, said during the launch of RoRI:
“I hate the fact that many supervisors see their students leaving academia as a failure. A few more MPs with PhDs might be a good thing.”
In many cases, those departing academia are making a rational and exciting choice. They might be going on to set up a business, to work in government or to carry out research in the private sector. Dr Hancock’s analysis also showed that almost half of those leaving academia still take up a research role. I am one such case and I wanted to share my story in the hope that it might reassure those who want to pursue other paths.
I completed my Master’s degree in Chinese Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in 2003. I loved the subject, but SOAS didn’t have a programme that could fit the interdisciplinary area I wanted to research for my PhD — the influence of Han and Tang dynasty Daoist practices on modern Chinese martial arts. Tackling an area like this cuts across no fewer than five disciplines: sinology, anthropology, history, philosophy and religious studies.
My supervisor suggested some other universities in Germany, the United States and Taiwan. But I soon found that, for all the love that funders and research policy wonks have for the concept of interdisciplinarity, on the ground there are some serious structural problems for academics wanting to pursue this path. None of the universities mentioned could quite cater for what I wanted to research. For example, pursuing the university programme in Taiwan would have forced me to strip out the anthropology element and restricted my study to the textual analysis of Chinese manuscripts.
A couple of years later I completed a second Master’s degree, this time in Philosophy, thinking it would help me get onto a PhD programme if I refocused my research idea more on the philosophy of martial arts. I applied again for a PhD position. Once again I was rejected.
Interdisciplinarity is not a weakness
One of my supervisors said something that has stayed with me all these years — that interdisciplinarity is a weakness. And that the only way to succeeded academically is to focus on a small and tightly defined space, otherwise you will always lose out to the deeper expert. I was shocked by this attitude. How did we get to this perverse system that encourages people to excavate ever downwards in narrower and narrower isolated knowledge mines? What about all the ground between these mines still left unexplored?
Faced with having to abandon my research dream I decided to opt out of the academic track. Together with a few friends I set up a popular online magazine about traditional Chinese culture and martial arts. I then used the proceeds of that business to fund my own anthropology research in China. Eventually I published the results in a book, which is still cited by academics today.
Since I’ve been at Wellcome, I have done a PhD part-time — changing my focus completely to research the practice of research itself, partly inspired by my negative experiences earlier in my career. After getting my doctorate, I used this knowledge to start an interdisciplinary research team called Wellcome Data Labs and, in collaboration with other colleagues, helped set up the Research on Research Institute.
Suddenly my own career has come full circle. So, if you’re worried about leaving academia, don’t give up, there are plenty of opportunities out there to make a difference in research. And don’t fear interdisciplinarity, it is the future.