Even if you quit and leave academia, you take the best thing with you.

My identity is strongly tied to being an academic. I work as an academic, socialize with academics, am interested in academic issues, and laugh at the academic in-jokes. If I am not an academic, who am I? This question has been lurking in the back of my mind for some time, but I am starting to feel ready to discover the possible answers.
Katherine L. Wheat on her blog “Life After Thesis”

I recently read a blog entry by Katherine L. Wheat talking about the situation in academia, the insecurity that comes with trying to pursue a career that only a tiny few can achieve, and how she started thinking about leaving academia herself.

I feel almost the same way when it comes to her quote at the beginning of this posting. I, too, identify myself strongly as being … well, not as an academic, but as a scientist. In some moments I even think that is all I am — which is probably problematic.

It is at the center of my identity and even influences other creative projects I do.

If I leave academia — what am I?

Well, I am still a scientist.

You may leave academia, but you don’t have to off your brain. You are probably pretty intelligent to have made it this far, and it’s not a matter of intelligence that you quit (see for example this posting on reasons why PhD students quit). There is also no “suck’o’tron” that removes your knowledge and your skills. And, although it is hard to notice it in the ivory-tower world of academia where this does not discriminate you from the rest of the academics, you do have a lot of very valuable knowledge and skills (Landis has a nice overview in her suggestions what to do when you are leaving the academic world, which informed this posting).

You keep what you have learned, esp. your skill-set, and that makes you valuable to other professions. Never mind the ‘absent minded’ stereotype, you have critical thinking skills/sensitivity/disposition and an understanding of science — the methodology of your discipline, the methods, the inside-knowledge of how science works as a social process.

You can not only understand but also evaluate scientific papers. If your discipline is in the news, you will probably not be swayed by simple headlines, appeals to emotion or wishful thinking and pretty rhetoric’s. If you are interested, you can even check the original studies (likely available as pre-prints on academic websites, via Google Scholar or the like). And you will probably be able to transfer these skills to some other disciplines as well.

And much, much more (see Landis’ Slides).

Note that this does not mean that you have to act all ‘sciency’ during the rest of your life, akin to the person who wants to be associated with tennis by buying all the latest tennis shoes but never plays it (okay, that was an old reference, but you get the point). No, it would even be wrong to hang on to props or obsolete manners and outward signs. It’s the knowledge and skills that count — and those are simply there, part of you, and you can use them to be more effective in the new job.

I don’t know, but I think it might be possible to think of leaving Academia not as of stopping being a scientist, but becoming something more. When you focus completely on your new job (which you should do), that knowledge and skill set stays with you for a long time and you will see it influencing your life.