Reclaiming Your Identity After Leaving Academia


For those of you who’ve followed the blog for a long(er) time, you’ll have realised that I did make the decision to leave academia after finishing my PhD. This wasn’t always the plan, it just ended up that way. When starting the PhD I was well convinced I was going to see it through all the way into academia: post-doc, assistant professorship and then working towards tenure. But as I spent more and more time (read: years) toiling towards this, getting to know the academic system better, well, it didn’t feel like the best of ideas. I made my peace with leaving academia, or no longer being an academic, a long time ago. Now working in industry I’m actually really quite happy. Obviously, there’ll be a transitional phase. Not all your PhD skills are as required in industry as they were in academia. And obviously, some things are done completely differently and it takes a while to adjust. All completely logical and to be expected. What I didn’t expect was the fact that finishing a PhD, and leaving academia, kind of messes with your (professional) identity a bit.


When introducing yourself to your new colleagues, they’ll inevitably ask about your past and your journey into your current position. You’ll tell them about your education, the PhD, moving to the other side of the world (that might not be super relevant to your story, but hey) and why you’ve decided to leave academia. And the more you tell that story, as cognitive dissonance dictates, the more you’ll identify with it – you are leaving the academic identity behind you. At the same time, your new identity is starting to slowly form. With the emphasis on slowly, as you’re a complete novice in this new company (this also works for government, policy and non-profit, by the way), and that identity takes time to form. Essentially, you are between identities.


Now I know what you’re thinking: your job isn’t your entire identity! I know that. But if you’re spending 40+ hours per week on something, it becomes part of your identity. It has to, it’s almost impossible not to, unless the job is not a goal in and of itself but a means to something completely different (e.g. some people hold jobs just to make money to fulfill other passions in life. As a result their identity is more closely tied to the passion). Thing with PhD students is, they have to be quite passionate about their topic of research, otherwise you’re not super likely to make it through. So let’s assume for a bit that you derive some type of passion or goal-fulfillment from your work, and that it does shape your identity. As you are learning new skills and new roles outside those you already held outside of academia, your identity will start to form. Issue is, unless you are a natural (I’m not), you might struggle a bit at the onset of this new role, which might negatively impact your identity. Now I’m not claiming I was world’s most excellent PhD student. Or that I would’ve become a great academic (doubtful, very doubtful). But at least, after years of practice, I (sort of) knew what I was doing. And your identity and self-esteem revolves around that too: knowing what you’re doing, or at least feeling like it. In my new role, outside of academia, I’m still learning. It’s a bit of a process. There’s things I’m good at, and things I’m not so good at. And there’s God knows how many things I don’t know (yet). And then you’re surrounded by people who do seem to know how corporate works and what you’re supposed to be doing and it can get a bit discouraging. You’re the odd one out. Without any real prior experience to fall back on.


Now that I’m writing this down it does actually remind me of starting the PhD, well, the actual research part (the year after you’ve finished your coursework). The initial shift isn’t too bad; you still have coursework and you know how to navigate that, especially as you’ve come straight out of education. The research part, however, tends to be a lot newer. It’s likely the first time you’re doing research on your own, and you’re trying your best to find out what you should be doing, to what extent, and to what level of quality. Sometimes with guidance, often without. And if you’re then surrounded by those with lustrous research careers, well, you are the odd one out. In hindsight, maybe these things aren’t so different after all. So granted that there might not be too much different, look back on what you did before to navigate that. I know what I did: talked to everyone who seemed to know what they were doing, and learn from them. Guess it’s time for me to book in some more meetings! And then, eventually, through time and experience, I will not know what to do, when, to what extent and with whom. And I’ll stop feeling like the odd one out, as my new identity will have taken shape around me. And by the time that it has, knowing myself, I’ll move onto something else. As I always do.


Not much of a blog post today folks. Just some scribbles about me having a shifting identity. And the real surprise here is that I didn’t really see it coming. Maybe I should have? I’d love to hear if others who transitioned from academia into industry have had similar experiences!

Behavioural Science