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Breaking Up with Academia

It takes time to change your mindset.

If you’re a PhD grad student or postdoc, and this is the first time you’re really thinking hard about a future that doesn’t involve an academic career, you’re not going to rewrite your dreams tomorrow. You won’t get past all of your concerns in a week.

It was probably a long time coming – this realization that the path you were headed in probably wasn’t meant to be.

Maybe it was a project that didn’t quite go as planned.

Maybe it was a big personal event that derailed your career plans, throwing a wrench into your academic dreams.

Or maybe it was just the gradual but continual accumulation of data – a comment here, an article there – that began to tip the scales away from a once certain goal, towards an unknown future.

You’re not alone; many graduate students and postdocs face a merciless job market feeling like the rug has just been pulled out from under their feet.


We all know that it takes time to heal your broken heart when a romance comes to an end.

In the same way, there is no quick fix when you break up with the expectations about your career that might have been years in the making and foundational to your sense of self.

If you’ve gone through other situations where you were forced to face a sudden new reality, you know it can take weeks or months to feel like you’re “normal” again.

Leaving anything we love – or thought we loved – is hard.  Your feelings of panic, confusion or disappointment are normal.  

Don’t be too harsh on yourself.



As scientists, we’ve invested time, energy, and focused cognitive effort to pursue something we care deeply about, whether by choice or by circumstance. Our work becomes central to our identity.

But if we place all of our eggs in that one basket, it leaves us blindsided when things don’t go as planned. We have only one identity – and when that identity is gone, many of us struggle to figure out who we are.  It’s like empty-nest syndrome – only before we even had a chance to build a nest in the first place.  

Those who start out with a broader view of things, with more than one source of stability and a diversified portfolio of dreams, tend to be more resilient to change in any one sphere of their lives.  

Unfortunately, we rarely think about self-identity and resilience as bright-eyed, bushy tailed graduate students during the course of our scientific training.  

Instead, we think that professional success is directly correlated with how many hours we spend in the lab, and ignore the need to build out a greater identity that is not completely dependent upon traditional valuations of research experience.

The days when scientists like my dad could get a tenure track position relatively easily after a two year postdoc are gone.  As modern students and scientists, this is a reality we each would do well to acknowledge. 

We have to diversify, and do it early, to ensure we can make an impact on the world with the degree we worked so hard to earn. Those who see academic research as the only way forward often spend years languishing in an unsatisfying holding pattern.

How do we escape the holding pattern?  By acquiring the extra fuel needed to break through one orbit and launch into another.

We have to broaden our minds.

When we break up with unhealthy assumptions about the future, we are planting the seeds of new ideas and perspectives.  Let new life sprout from the fertile ground created from the pieces of an old one.



If you know that it’s time to break up with academia, do what’s right.

But know that emotionally, you’ll probably not be over academia for awhile, and that’s okay.

Give yourself time.

You and your future deserve it.

“The end of one identity doesn’t mean the end of the world – it means that there’s now a chance to build a new one.  Give yourself good reasons to move on.” – Free the PhD


By Vay Cao, Ph.D.


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