Should I stay or should I go now?


Or maybe an alternative title could be “The Accidental Academic”.

This November I heard back from the two main Swedish funding agencies that I didn’t receive a grant this round. For me this means not only that I don’t have funds to run my lab, but also that I don’t have a position for myself. Because my temporary professor position is coming to an end, no grant also means no funding for my salary and I’m transitioning to being an unemployed academic.

So, should I stay or should I go now? The question has been rattling round in my head ever since I got the grant rejections.

This isn’t the first time I’ve questioned my career in academia. I began my undergraduate degree ages ago and stayed for all of one semester. This had a lot more to do with moving very far from home (Halifax to Vancouver) and feeling overwhelmed by a big school and a big city then it did with anything academic per se. My small scholarship wasn’t enough to cover my costs, I couldn’t work enough to live, and my family couldn’t afford to pay my way. At that point it made sense to drop out. Two years later, now with the help of student loans, I went back and slowly worked through an undergraduate degree while working part to full-time. I knew I didn’t want to continue to work the kind of unskilled labour that I was doing in Vancouver long-term but I certainly didn’t go back to school to become an academic. I thought I would end up in healthcare (it explains why a plant ecologist has degree majors in biology and psychology) but I got caught up in research.

My economic position meant that I was very motivated to do a co-op program that would give me work experience. That and a few key courses would expose me to research and ignite my interest. I still wouldn’t say that my career in academia was set but suddenly I saw the possibility. An opportunity came up to do a masters and I leap at the chance. But although I really loved the research, at each stage I questioned whether I should keep going or not. Partly I was protecting myself against the possibility of failure, I kept the option open that I wouldn’t continue with research. I have always been keenly aware that it is highly competitive to find research positions at every stage and that I might not get a position. In some ways, I kept wondering if the axe would drop and the time would come when I wouldn’t be able to continue. But I got a masters position, a PhD, and an assistant professorship. Have I reached the point where I can go no further? I hope not but there is a distinct possibility that I have.

I see lots of examples around me of good scientists leaving science. I see others making compromises to keep their career that I am unwilling to, like living in a different place from my family. I see others who seem to have it all, until you talk to them about the compromises and gambles they and their partners have made. And then there are those who get lucky. I’ve had my share of luck too.

I know I am not alone. That is comforting* but doesn’t change the fact that I will have to eventually answer the question: should I stay or should I go? For now, I’m not giving up the fight. I’m applying for positions and grants. I am working on papers and reminding myself that despite the frustrations and uncertainty, I do love being an academic. But I’m also reflecting on what I am good at and what other career options I might find satisfying.

I am trying to stay positive. I’m reminding myself of the great opportunities my career has offered instead of focusing on the ones that it hasn’t (like a permanent position). I have travelled to interesting places, met wonderful colleagues, and most importantly been able to learn so much about the ecological world outside my door. If this is the last stop, it certainly has been a fun ride.

For now, I’m planning my life as an unemployed academic for the coming months. Who knows, maybe they will be even more productive.



*In part that is why I am sharing my story here.

8 thoughts on “Should I stay or should I go now?

  1. It looks to me that it’s not your choice to make: if you get any grants you stay (because you obviously want to, despite all those ”explanations”), if not, you are forced to go. As simple as that

  2. I sure hope something comes through! If a return to Canada is an option, I’ll keep an eye out for opportunities.

  3. You are waiting on a grant but I am guessing from your posts you might have a few if not a lot of contacts out of academics. I hope you are networking with them. Many friends of mine have left academics and moved into government or NGO or environment advocacy organizations such as Nature Conservancy or science staff at nature preserves.

  4. Although I agree to a certain extent that the decision to stay in academia is somewhat external to the individual (ie the choices are made for them when they either get a position or don’t), I also think this is an overly simplistic way to view things. The choice comes from deciding what you are willing to compromise and what you aren’t. I could for example, decide that because I will be unemployed I won’t work. That wouldn’t be a strange reaction for most jobs but instead I will continue to advise my PhD and masters students, I will continue my collaborations and writing, basically doing almost everything I would normally do if I was still employed. For an academic this is completely normal because to give up on those things would mean deciding not to continue in academia. Of course, I can’t continue on indefinitely without a salary but deciding I want to stay means deciding to work without one for the short term.

    There are also a series of decisions that go into every position/grant you apply for. I don’t doubt that I could stay in science if I was willing to go anywhere, for any kind of position. Many people make those decisions to stay in science. As a family, we’re willing to move but I’m not going to ask them to make a major move for a one-year contract and I don’t want to live apart for extended periods either. Those are choices that affect my chances of staying in science, so it isn’t simply just as case of whether or not I get a grant/position.

    I definitely would like to stay in academia but I am coming to the point where I need to make tough decisions about what I am willing to do to make that happen and what I am not. It is an easy equation when you get lucky and get the position, harder when you don’t. I’m not sure much in academia is “simple as that”. I think it is important to acknowledge the complexities and the fact that those who leave academia do so not only because external decisions force the issue. There are a mix of external and internal circumstances that drive every academic career path and it is not uncommon for academics to come close to quitting (e.g. With this post I tried to highlight my own cross-roads and the decisions I can make.

    ps. Jana: I would love to return to Canada :) and Andrea: part of the contemplation is thinking about other opportunities that I would be skilled at and enjoy–those are definitely good options that I am keeping in mind!

  5. Careers are tough. I haven’t left academics, buy I have taken an unexpected left turn. When my wife and I were postdocs, it came to a point when she needed to move on due to lack of funding and opportunities. All my grant applications were being rejected and I was only getting minor traction with faculty applications (interviews but no solid offers). This was surprising, because i have a very strong CV aside from a lack of independent funding (that experience reminded me that universities are businesses too – money talks). Also, my wife and I have a toddler and we were unwilling to live apart and risk one of us not being with him. In the end, I took more of a service position at another university. I still do research, but it’s not quite the same. I miss my postdoc years deeply and sometimes feel depressed. But it was probably the right choice overall. My wife is able to continue as a postdoc in a new lab. Hang on to the research path… until you can’t.

  6. You’re absolutely right Amy that people’s decision to stay or to leave can be quite complex, involving both external and internal factors. For me I’m firmly of the opinion that people should not be exploited because of their de-leveraged situations. I find the idea that academics should continue their work without salaries because the repercussion would be that they cannot continue in academia at all absolutely revolting. I left academia partly because they stopped paying me. And strangely, the rest of the world operates on the principle that you get paid for your work.

    There are a lot of interesting work outside of academia that can be both intellectually challenging and personally fulfilling. As Andrea above mentioned NGOs and Government, but there are many private sector jobs that have such a positive influence on the world one should not discount them.

    I hope you arrive at a decision that you and your family are happy with. If you ever want to find out more about opportunities in the private sector, I’d be more than happy chat.

  7. I think the key is to leave Sweden. The lack of tenure track position, and the rampant inbreeding ( makes it impossible for foreigners. It is shameful that their definition of internationalization is to hire foreigners on non tenurable positions (fo-ass/”assistant professors”, postdoc and Ph.D. students) and keep permanent positions for Swedes. Also, they are paying the Swedish Ph.D. graduate to be abroad while employed by a Swedish university and then hire them back as “internationals” ( I wish you success somewhere else than Sweden.

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