Illustration of woman with head on computer holding up a depleted battery

Great Resignation in Academia

By Sushmitha Vallabh

“Overworked, underpaid, undervalued. All time eaten with service, no time for research. Too much stress for a job with no lives on the line”: this is one of the many responses in an online forum called The Professor Is Out. This crowdsourced document, with a sister group on Facebook, has over 450 responses from people leaving academia. The Facebook group now has over 20,000 members.

A career consulting company called The Professor Is In, which helps recent graduates navigate academia, started forums such as this one in response to the growing number of resignations in late 2021 and early 2022. The company opted to launch support groups on social media, and the responses have been clear: PhD graduates are tired, and the only apparent way out is to leave academia. The great resignation not only applies to the STEM field but also comprises all specialties from those in the arts and social sciences to those in the humanities and law. Clearly, all educational institutions have deep-rooted issues, regardless of the country or the funding situation.

multiple graphs of salary comparisons, salary satisfaction, and career challenges from Nature journal.Dissatisfaction among early-career and mid-career researchers has always been apparent, but the pandemic was the final nail in the coffin. Uncertainty in the world, coupled with stress and high workloads, created a breaking point for numerous trainees at academic institutions. Nature’s 2021 career satisfaction survey had 3200 responses from working scientists, and less than half of the respondents’ were positive about their prospects. If you go through these surveys and forums, you realize that most of the answers overlap and reveal just how frustrating it is to work in academia:

  1. Administrative duties: Professors and postdoctoral trainees often find themselves dealing with piles of paperwork. Grant and institute funding, article reviews, graduate programs, and training take up a large chunk of the time of these researchers,’ and they are too exhausted to focus on their own research.
  2. Pay: This is perhaps the most apparent reason for researchers leaving academia. They would be willing to put up with the long hours if there were good compensation packages and benefits in place, but most scientists struggle to make ends meet. Postdoctoral trainees get paid less than technicians in most places and must fight for salary increases. Women scientists particularly have a tough time affording child care, and they typically have to use more than half their salary to pay for it. The Nature article sheds light on how mothers must sometimes resort to crowdsourcing to pay for the day care that enables them to stay in academia. This is a pitiful situation that too few universities care enough about to fix.
    Finding sources of funding is also extremely stressful. Pandemic-related research has seen a boost, but many other research areas lack funds to support trainees and faculty.
  3. Discrimination: If you read the online forum The Professor Is Out, you will find many responses that mention racial and sexual discrimination in institutions. Some of the incidents are chilling and make you wonder why this is still the norm. When implicit bias exists in nearly every department, climbing the ladder becomes next to impossible.
  4. Mental health: The mental health crisis brought forth by the pandemic still looms over all of us. On top of this, career uncertainty, layoffs, competition, online classes, and high workloads have impacted every scientist. Organizations have taken notice and have implemented well-being workshops, but this effort has not changed day-to-day working conditions.
  5. Opportunities outside academia: Before the pandemic, opportunities for recent graduates were very limited in industry. Now, because of the pharma boom, scientists are getting recruited straight out of grad school, and more and more positions are opening up to non-scientists. Project management has also become a great alternative for scientists who want to get into management but who want to keep their feet in science.

Issues with academic institutions have always been around, but the pandemic has made them impossible to ignore. The transition to online classes and then the requirement to get back to work even when it was still risky have made many scientists reconsider their careers and whether or not it is worth putting their lives on the line. The meager initiatives being taken up by educational institutions are not cutting it anymore.

If anything, the pandemic has helped many scientists to leave toxic workplaces and to make better decisions for themselves and their careers. If you look up #leavingacademia on social media, you will find several articles and forums that can help you to navigate your own exit and make you feel less guilty about leaving your training behind. This female Scientist article perhaps says it best, in the words of an anonymous contributor:  “I urge you to stop thinking of a non-academic career as an ‘alternative.’ Think of it as YOUR career and nothing else.”

Sushmitha Vallabh, Lab Manager, SBP Medical Discovery InstituteSushmitha Vallabh is a Lab Manager at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute in San Diego, California. She graduated from the University of Cincinnati with an MS in immunology in 2017. After graduating, she has worked in the university lab as a technician and eventually moved to San Diego to accept her current role. She loves reading, watching sunsets, and meeting fellow scientists!

This article was originally published in AWIS Magazine. Join AWIS to access the full issue of AWIS Magazine and more member benefits.