Seeking an ‘exit plan’ for leaving academia amid coronavirus worries

The pandemic is prompting some early-career researchers to rethink their hopes for a university post.
Chris Woolston is a freelance writer in Billings, Montana.

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The full impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on scientific careers might not be known for years, but hiring freezes and other signs of turmoil at universities have already shaken faith in academia as a career option. As universities try to adapt and survive in a pandemic world, a growing number of PhD students and other early-career researchers will be looking at careers in industry, government and other sectors.

It’s unknown how many of these researchers will eventually leave academia — whether by choice or out of necessity — but observers are expecting a seismic readjustment in scientific careers. “More and more people who come to me want to leave academia,” says Tracy Bussoli, a London-based career consultant and development coach who works with universities in the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe. “They’re thinking about an exit plan, but they don’t know how to do it.”

Whatever the magnitude of the academic exodus, researchers will have to prepare themselves to navigate a new career landscape. Those who decide to look for jobs in industry should expect to face stiff competition, but they can take steps to stand out from the crowd.

Global concerns

Unease about academic careers has spread around the world. In the United Kingdom, some 30,000 jobs could be lost in the university sector, according to a report issued in April by the consultancy London Economics.

A May report from Universities Australia projected losses of more than 20,000 university jobs in the second half of the year. Many early-career researchers in the country are “going through a bit of a freak-out”, says Inger Mewburn, director of research training at the Australian National University in Canberra and author of the popular Thesis Whisperer blog. “People are going to have a lot of tough conversations and tough decisions.” The situation is especially pressing for researchers with short-term contracts in academia. “If I were a postdoc, I’d be getting the heck out,” she says.

In Germany, where hiring slowdowns and freezes at universities are less common, the last few months have been a time for reflection and rethinking. Cecile Petit, a molecular biologist and the postdoctoral representative at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Hamburg, has been reaching out during the months of lockdown to remind fellow postdocs that they have options beyond academia. “Maybe [the pandemic] will actually help them,” she says. If they decide now to head to industry, they won’t spend ten years doing postdocs only to find that there are no permanent academic positions in sight, she adds.

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Petit, who is approaching the last year of her postdoctoral contract, says that she realized academia wasn’t for her before she even finished her PhD in 2018 at the University of Toledo in Ohio. She says that she was discouraged by the numbers: too many postdocs were vying for too few tenure-track positions, leaving many trapped for years in dead-end posts. The pandemic and the resulting economic downturn have only strengthened her convictions, and she doesn’t think she’s alone. “Postdocs and PhD students are realizing that they don’t stand a chance” in academia, she says, “even more so now.”

History suggests that the shortage of tenured and tenure-track university positions will only deepen in the coming years. The sharp recession of 2007–09 offers one strong lesson. In the United States, for example, the recession coincided with a strong shift towards ‘gig’, or temporary, work. According to a report from the US Government Accountability Office, the number of full-time, tenure-track positions per higher-education institution fell slightly from 2007 to 2011. Over the same period, the numbers of full-time ‘contingent’, or non-tenure-track, positions increased by nearly 20% and the number of part-time positions jumped by 14%.

Home in on skills

Even if the exodus from academia reaches unprecedented levels, it will still be possible for jobseekers to make their mark, says Christopher Caterine, a communications strategist based in New Orleans, Louisiana, and author of the forthcoming book Leaving Academia. For starters, academic escapees need to learn how to emphasize the skills that they developed in their university careers. “Instead of telling people what you do, tell them how you do it,” he says. While describing their work, academics should zero in on the processes and results that matter to the employer. “If I’m talking to someone in business, I don’t tell them that I taught three classes a semester, because that doesn’t mean anything,” he says. “I tell them I generated US$500,000 a year for the department in tuition revenue.”

Woman in lab coat points at screen

Cecile Petit at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Hamburg, Germany.Credit: Claudia Litz

Petit wants to find an industry job in Europe and is already trying to build a network of potential contacts. Among other activities, she is looking for job openings on the professional online network LinkedIn, but for now, she is focusing on finding employees of companies that interest her, to whom she might be able to talk to learn more about working at those firms. She will also reach out to EMBL alumni who have made the move to industry. “The way you get a job is by making connections,” she says. “And you can’t wait until you need a job to start doing that.”

Researchers who are having trouble finding employment outside academia might need to broaden their search, Mewburn says. She and her colleagues have been using machine learning to pinpoint job openings that would be suitable for someone with PhD-level skills. She says that about 80% of jobs identified so far don’t specifically target PhD holders, meaning that jobseekers might be missing out if they are looking for the word ‘PhD’ in the list of eligibility requirements. This October, Mewburn plans to release a subscription-based service that will let researchers around the world browse job openings that have been earmarked as PhD-appropriate.

Despite the current economic climate, PhD holders have a reason to be optimistic, Bussoli says. “PhDs are highly employable,” she says. “There is always going to be industrial research and development. PhDs have to make a case for their skills and experience.” She often reminds researchers that they can reach for positions even if they don’t meet 100% of the job requirements. “Companies are looking for potential and the ability to learn very quickly,” she says. “Early-career researchers have that in buckets.”

Bussoli notes that she still meets many junior scientists who remain wedded to a career in academia. “There’s a real mismatch between reality and people’s aspirations,” she says. “I want people to be flexible and open their minds up.” She adds: “I’m a big believer in PhDs. I believe they’ll get through.”

Nature 583, 645-646 (2020)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-02029-6

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