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What It's Truly Like Leaving Academia



I knew before I submitted my PhD that I was leaving academia. Throughout the PhD I had experienced aspects of academia that just weren’t for me. And despite trying to trick myself into thinking a postdoc would suit me, deep down, I knew better. For now, the academic chapter of my life is over. So after I submitted the PhD, I had my viva and that was it. 6 weeks or so after my viva I landed in Sydney, Australia. Time for the next challenge: working in corporate.

Some may argue that ‘leaving academia’ is quite a dramatic way of expressing finishing your PhD and moving on. Maybe it is. But it is quite the transition. I have already written about how your identity changes as a result. You’re no longer ‘an academic’ and all the weight carried in that identifier. So yes, that will take a while to rebalance. Moving on from something as abstract as identity and looking at the daily grind: corporate and academia don’t have that much in common, if you ask me. And I’m still in a behavioural science unit, in a bank. I literally have not switched fields, nor topics. I’m still looking at financial decision-making, which must have made the transition considerably easier. Despite this smoothness, corporate is different. The amount of meetings is just staggering. You won’t find it easy to find a day in my work calendar that doesn’t have one (or seven). Which also means that this idea of just being unreachable for days to bang out an analysis, paper or really go into a state of deep work to crunch out ideas and research designs isn’t happening. Which is unfortunate. I expected this to happen. My projects now are on much quicker timelines. Working together with multiple teams is the new normal. And then scheduling meetings becomes harder. So they become all over the place. Although, some meetings could really have been emails. On the topic of emails. They are constant. All the time. Non-stop. Truly perplexing. You’ll send 5 and get then 10 in return. And repeat. Missing them isn’t too much of an option. Unfortunately. Although it’s always good to have a paper trail!

I feel like I’ve moved into the territory of complaining, and I didn’t mean to! I really enjoy working in corporate. Unlike the PhD, your projects are predominantly team-based, so you really get into it with your colleagues. I like this, a lot. I like my colleagues in general. They’re a better fit for me than my PhD cohort was (nothing wrong with that, it happens). And let’s talk about the obvious twin elephants in the room: work-life-balance and compensation. Although you can work whenever during the PhD, I did always try to somewhat make it 9-5. And if I needed to get something done during these ‘working hours’ well then I just worked longer. I allowed some lie-ins, which then shifted the work till later. The PhD in that regard is more flexible. But it also meant my work and side-gigs (teaching, writing etc.) were blending together. And ultimately that I was doing longer hours and more days. I’m not going to say that corporate is ‘oh so relaxed’, it isn’t. The past 3 months (Q2 for us – October – December) were incredibly intense. No one was pulling 40 hour work weeks. It does happen. But people take note of that and try to figure out why the work is too much and to have that solved at least by the next quarter. When in the office, people also tend to leave around 5, at least before 5:30 unless they’ve indicated that they have a serious reason for staying. It’s a nice change. Then the compensation. There’s no feeling like that first paycheck. It’s indescribable. I felt loaded. Wealthy. Rich. Opulent. This highlights another major issue in academia: on the lower rungs you get paid fuck all, and that really is a problem. For the same work you get paid so much more in corporate (and this goes for non-profit, policy and governmental work as well). That shouldn’t exist. Suffice to say, I’m feeling much better compensated. And it does, although it shouldn’t, change some perception you have of your work, and your worth.

So some changes, but really not that much. And some things haven’t changed at all! My unit has lots of academic collaborations. I’m on several academic oriented projects still. Yes, they need to have commercial value, but there’s also a strong focus on publishing. In addition to still doing ‘academic work’ in my working hours, I’m also still doing so outside my working hours. One core aspect of academia (or my PhD) I began to miss? Teaching. I love to discuss behavioural science; its theories and applications. Luckily, thanks to my unit’s academic collaborations, it was not difficult for me to find teaching gigs. I now teach both at University of Technology Sydney (UTS) as well as the University of New South Wales (UNSW). The first for two behavioural science courses, and the second for one course on fintech and payment system disruptions. I love it. Last, the PhD isn’t over when you submit. I still have semi-regular meetings with my PhD supervisors to make sure we can publish the papers we worked on. It drags on, it’s not fun, but I do want to get it done. It’s the ultimate sunk cost fallacy. That aspect of academia is something that simply hasn’t left me behind. So for those of you leaving academia, keep that aspect of it in mind.





There you have it. My journey out of academia, into corporate, or an #AltAc (alternative to academia) career. If you want to know how exactly I left academia, how you can do it, or how to simply progress in your own PhD or career after the PhD, make sure to read my first book ‘The Ultimate Guide to Doing a PhD’ – in which I get even more candid about how rough this journey can be, and what you need to do to make the most of it!


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