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What happens when a PhD student decides academia isn’t for them?

That’s what happened to me throughout my time as a PhD student (which is still ongoing, by the way). I started my academic journey as an undergrad at the University of Derby with the sole aim of one day attaining a PhD and working in academia as an astrobiology researcher. Now, though, that is far from how I want to live my life.

For further context, at the beginning of the PhD I still retained this goal. I can’t attribute my change of heart to any specific moment but instead perhaps I had misunderstood the lifestyle an academic leads.

Academic lifestyle

Many files

In retrospect, I definitely had a slightly romanticised vision of what an academic does in their job. I dreamt of being a glamorous jetsetter, spending much of my working time either at conferences in exotic locations, trekking through remote locations collecting unique samples or, when not travelling the globe, in a laboratory experiencing a chain of daily eureka moments. This vision of academia is, however, far from my experience so far and a million miles away from the experience I’ve noticed the academics around me having.

I cannot, obviously, speak to the experiences of others around me or try to guess what an academic lifestyle means to them. However, I can observe those ahead of me on the academic ladder and draw the conclusion that they are not living the lifestyle I was hoping for.

I could, of course, accept the truer, alternate lifestyle of an academic and live a comfortable life in a nice house and experience a smaller portion of what I had expected from academia. After all, I have been to many lovely locations for conferences including Spain and Italy, just to name two. I definitely picked the wrong project and science questions in order to fulfil the exotic sample collection fantasy, having never actually conducted field work of any sort and as for the laboratory, well, let’s just say that I haven’t fallen in love with lab work in quite the same way a lot of my colleagues seem to have.

What alternatives are available?

Most PhD students do not stay in academia after completing their degree. I read that if all permanent full-time academics in the UK were to quit their jobs today, only about half of the current post-doctoral (early career researchers who have recently finished their doctorate) cohort would be needed to re-fill all of the vacated academic posts; so it’s certainly competitive.

Instead, many try their hand working in industry. There are a multitude of private scientific companies who require people with the deep level of understanding and experience a post-doc would possess. Lots also decide that their time in science is up and use their skills in other sectors, turning to the civil service or finance to earn their incomes. However, many also decide that whilst they no longer want to be directly involved in conducting research, they still want to engage with the cutting-edge of science. Plus my degree will be in astrobiology, which is just cool!

This is where science communication comes in. Once a researcher has produced research, it is their duty (and often, a contractual obligation) to disseminate that research to other stakeholders. After all, the money used to fund the research is primary sourced from public funding bodies. Well, science communication is exactly what I want to use my hard-earned and well-developed skills doing. If I can engage people of all ages and interest them in reading and learning about science by producing high-quality content, then I think that would satisfy my love for science more than sufficiently and allow me to pursue a work life balance that being stuck in the lab all day simply won’t allow me to have.

Live a lifestyle

Ultimately, I’ll soon be an incredibly highly educated person who’s worked extremely hard to earn my degree and this approach will allow me to live a lifestyle that I will design, whilst also utilising those skills and leveraging the degree to work for me. It essentially offers freedom for me to work for myself and do work that excites me without being beholden to the pressures of finishing that one last experiment in the dead of the night and writing that paper in time to present at a conference.

Incidentally, that freedom will allow me to work from home, in a small container house that I will build, surrounded by fruit and veg I’m growing to feed myself…but that’s a whole other story!


David Slade


David Slade
is a PhD student in the School of
Physical Sciences
at the Open University