there's life after academia

Two days ago, the New York Times published an article titled The Repurposed PhD - telling the stories of graduates, mostly from the humanities, who couldn't find post-doc jobs and are working as baristas (worst case) or successful entrepreneurs (best case). I can relate, even if in a slightly different way.

June 1998, on the day of my PhD defense

After I had finished my PhD in 1998, at the age of 32 1/2, I deliberately chose not to pursue an academic career. It wasn't because I couldn't find a job. In fact, I had a job offer for a post-doc position, and my honors degree, combined with some extra time and sweat, would have very likely put me in a tenured position within a few years. I rejected the offer because I was tired of teaching: Being a closet introvert, I found classroom work stressful; and being bored easily, I dreaded the outlook of conveying mostly the same old content to cohort after cohort of students. I did like the research part, but getting rewarded for your effort with tangible results (in the form of a published paper) only years later wasn't a rosy outlook either. Conducting an academically sound study takes lots of time: It starts with reading up on lots and lots of published research, writing grant proposals (and dealing with rejection frustration) over and over again, formulating hypotheses and operationalizing them, pretesting and reformulating, presenting at conferences, going through a number of refinement loops, and only then acquiring your actual sample, collecting and analyzing data, and writing down your results. But perhaps the worst part is that from submitting a paper to a journal to its actual publication, you have to allow at least two years, often more: the throughput time of top-tier academic journals is insanely long, since practically none of the reviewers actually keeps any deadline, and often you get a conditional acceptance, meaning you have to redo parts of your study again before getting accepted. Often, more than 5 years will pass from formulating your initial research questions to the publication of the results of your study. For someone like me who is fast and efficient, extremely impatient when it comes to red tape and bureaucratic processes, and longing for instant gratification and a pat on the shoulder every once in a while to keep going, it's extremely difficult to stay motivated in such an environment. At the same time I was feeling that everything I did had little real-world impact. And so I quit.

Instead I chose to become what they call a corporate whore, working my way up on the career ladder first in marketing agencies, doing research and project management, and then in a large multinational corporation, working in R&D, quality, and process management. In the 10 years of my corporate life, I had 6 different jobs in 4 companies, the last one at the level of an international director, with direct reports and project members in three countries and a sizeable portfolio of external suppliers to manage. These jobs and promotions were fueling my needs for achievement, gratification and appreciation, but 10 years of working long hours in incredibly competitive settings, where, in the end, all that counted was a two-digit EBIT figure, were landing me close to a burnout. At the same time, it was mainly the shareholders who benefitted from my talents and sweat, not the world at large.

When I moved to Rotterdam 5 years ago I entered academia again, but this time in a support staff role. After two years, my first assignment at my new employer was over, and my slim chances of getting a job in the non-profit sector as an international in her mid-40s without impeccable Dutch skills made me take on university jobs which were considerably below my level of education, leadership experience, and former pay level. The upside was that I have a life outside the job again, and I actually enjoy most of the work I am doing. While not rocket science, my job brings with it a varied field of tasks and responsibilities, lots of internet and social media time, internal and external interfaces I have to manage, and sufficient challenges for which I can use my various talents and experience in a beneficial way; the people on the teams I work with are usually nice and support each other; and I still learn a great deal of new things and acquire new skills on a regular basis. The web projects I manage range from a few weeks to half a year, rarely longer, and once we're live, everyone gets their appreciation from management and co-workers, and we move on to the next big thing. With 40 days of personal leave per year, I have time to regularly pursue my private interests (photography and travel), spend time with my sweetheart, meet up with friends and like-minded people, attend events, shows, potlucks, exhibitions, and other fun stuff, and I also have sufficient space in the evenings and weekends to volunteer for organizations whose goals I support, mostly related to veganism, food, or the environment. I even get to wear my Batman t-shirt and Chucks at work.

Dropping out of or deliberately leaving the academic career track is not the end of the world. In fact, if you're a doer like me, it can be a blessing. Is getting a PhD useless then, or do I regret getting mine? Not at all. Apart from the fact that I really liked my research work, had great colleagues who supported each other, enjoyed the freedom and infrastructure that comes with an academic position, and had oodles of fun, I also think I learned a great deal not only about my topic, but about research in general, about structured working and goal setting. And then, to speak with Russell A. Berman, German professor in the US and quoted in the NYT article: “I think that doctoral education is good for individuals who are passionate about the topic. I think it’s good for society. They contribute in lots of different ways.” And that is very much true.


  1. Gabi, you are so bright and talented and I hear what you are saying. However, the question I would like to pose is: how do we keep someone so bright and talented climbing in positions either in corporate, government, or education where power is present and decisions are made that fundamentally and significantly impact our social condition. Too many females are dropping out the career pipeline because they do not like working the hours, the politics, the gender bias and the shareholder perspective.

    1. Thanks for your reply and for asking an excellent question. I don’t have a comprehensive answer to it, but if I look at society at large, at latest trends in practically all systems that surround us: economies, ecologies, political systems, social systems, academia, human health, but also at latest technological trends and how people increasingly make use of them to create alternatives in almost all of the areas above, I predict that before long we will witness a major shift in most everything we know as of now. Just during the past week, I’ve been talking to a variety of people: two young women entrepreneurs in the Netherlands, two American musicians who are touring Europe, an unemployed man in his 50s living in England and trying to survive on the dole, a Dutch woman leader who is involved in the concept and logistics around new alternative local currency (’de Dam’) but also listening to British comedian Russell Brand talking about why he refuses to vote (because voting doesn’t work) and why a revolution is inevitable. Maybe, just maybe, power structures as we know them will become obsolete before long anyway, and instead people will be able to contribute their talents in ways that aren’t hampered or exploited by politics or capital.
      I'm not saying that to create an easy way out of the dilemma - in fact, I think it will, in the end, be more work than now. But it will be better work, more effective work, and more satisfying work. I look forward to it.

  2. Gabi, I hope you and Rosa will discuss this. She just finished her grad school proposal - a Magnum Opus -- on a topic that engages a good deal of this.

    1. Thank you, Tobe - will be happy to discuss with Rosa when back from vacation in early December!