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Ten reasons NOT to pursue an academic career

Academia can be a wonderful but also a tough place. If you are nearing the end of your postgraduate degree (at the master’s or PhD level), you have to make an important decision: staying in or leaving academia. The following ten reasons speak against pursuing an academic career.


1. You have little time for actual research.

Academic careers tend to be idealized. The idea that you can spend most of your days conducting your research is far from reality. Many academic positions involve heavy teaching loads as well as administrative tasks.

Combined, teaching and admin responsibilities can constitute between 50 to 80 per cent of an academic contract!

If you love research but not teaching or admin, a research position outside of academia might be a better fit.

2. You have to thrive in a competitive environment.

The academic job market is extremely competitive. More and more people follow postgraduate degrees. Meanwhile, the number of academic jobs is limited.

Not everyone can deal with the stress that goes hand in hand with this competition.

Furthermore, the competition that you face is international. Academics are not only competing against other scholars in their city or country. Frequently, universities pick the best candidate for a job from a massive, global pool of applicants.

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3. You will face job insecurity.

Being excellent in your research field is a precondition for academic success. However, even if you are one of the best, it can take years to secure a permanent academic position.

This means that you have to be okay with short-term, temporary contracts.

Academics need to be prepared for unemployment.

Setting money aside and growing a substantial emergency fund during periods of employment is strongly advised.

4. You need to be flexible.

A competitive environment. Global competition. A high degree of job insecurity. To defy the odds and have the academic career of your dreams, flexibility is key.

You have to be willing to adapt to new projects, new universities and new locations.

If you don’t like change or moving, academia might not be the right place for you.

Hoping for a permanent academic position at a single university close by can set you up for failure. Never put all your eggs into one basket!

5. Your work-life balance will suffer.

A high degree of self-responsibility in academia often results in overworking. Academics are ambitious. Therefore, boundaries between work and private life easily blur.

This holds particularly true for early career scholars, who have to repeatedly deal with failures.

Being busy and doing ten extra projects in addition to a heavy workload seems to be the norm. Even if you love what you do, it is unhealthy to work nights and evenings for long periods.

6. You are expected to do a lot of unpaid labour.

Many anecdotes are circulating on the internet of family members asking academics how much they earn for their journal publications. The answer is nothing. Instead, some academics are happy if they do not have to pay for publications…

The academic system is built on unpaid labour. Publications, peer-reviews, journal editorship, etcetera.

All these tasks are good for your CV. But they don’t pay extra. Some royalties are paid for book publications, but it is generally peanuts.

7. You need to multi-task excessively.

The ability to multi-task is pretty much required if you want to pursue an academic career.

Lesson prep, research proposals, funding applications, conferences, media engagement, and fieldwork. The list goes on.

Some people are simply good at multitasking. Others can learn techniques to master the chaos and keep on track.

If you are easily overwhelmed, and not in the mood to learn new strategies and techniques, it is better to pursue a different career.

8. Your earning potential is limited.

Yes, in many contexts, academics earn decent salaries. Especially the lucky ones who have permanent, full-time positions.

However, academic salaries are often predetermined. How well you perform is often not reflected in your salary.

Secured funding for a multi-million dollar research project? Your salary is likely to remain the same. Instead, your salary might only grow with the number of years you spend in a position.

The sky is the limit? Not in academia.

9. Academic success is not always based on merit.

Favouritism. Nepotism. Jobs are handed to friends. This happens in all sectors. However, it shocks people more when it happens in academia. But be realistic. Even academia is not entirely based on merit.

If you decide to pursue an academic career, you need to accept this uncomfortable truth. If you prefer to be judged by (and remunerated for) your input and efforts, start to explore other options, such as entrepreneurship.

10. You may be overqualified for certain non-academic jobs.

Indeed, you can always leave academia. It is possible after completing a PhD. After a postdoc. Or even after working as a professor.

However, employers may hesitate to employ you.

So be cautious if you consider a complete career switch in the future. Having too many academic degrees can be an obstacle. Employers may fear that you are overqualified for a junior position, or will ask for too much money.

Of course, there are also good reasons to pursue an academic career. However, being in academia is not all roses, and you should make an informed decision.

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