Starting next week I’m making a departure from physics, and academia as a whole. There are several reasons for my decision to depart, which I want to share, as I think the problems I have with the academic system don’t just pertain to me, but are very generic problems that affect many people in the academic community.
The academic system has some serious problems. Most notably in my opinion, there is very limited scope for promotion. For every permanent position there are countless postdocs competing for that position. It simply isn’t possible for all of us post-docs to progress right up through the ladder. Many of us will be stuck as postdocs for the indefinite future. Realistically, I could expect to spend the next 5 or even 10 years as a post-doc before a permanent position would come along, and even then I would have very little control over where I would end up. I’ve seen many outstanding colleagues in exactly this position. This is unlike the private sector, where in virtually any industry there is a well-defined roadmap for promotion, which can be achieved if you’re good enough.
There is a huge salary discrepancy between academia and the private sector. With the same qualifications one can earn twice as much in the private sector than as a post-doc.
So from a financial and career progression point of view, academia is not especially competitive. Of course, academia has lots of fantastic advantages, which is why so many people choose it, despite its shortcomings. Most notably, in the private sector you will almost never have the degree of intellectual independence that academia offers.
In recognition of these problems, I realize that academia probably doesn’t represent a sustainable long-term career path for me. So the question is when rather than if I will change career. If I am going to change career then it’s far better to attempt to do this while I’m young, rather than wait another 5 or 10 years, after which it would be much more difficult to switch into a new career.
What are people’s thoughts? How can the academic system be improved? How can these problems be remedied? Can academia be made more attractive to people in the early stages of their careers?