Career in Academia vs. Burn out in a Business Consultancy Job: Hey Academia, maybe you’re doing something wrong, too!

I had an interesting conversation a short while ago with someone I knew pretty well during my studies. Given that this person is also in Academia, we talked about Academia and alternatives to a career in Academia. Especially careers outside of Academia struck a chord:

It’s pretty depressing when Academics talk about work outside Academia. In their minds, anything but the university or a “prestigious institute” is a step backwards. It becomes pretty surreal when Academics talk about how jobs like business consultancy burn out people after a couple of years — if they work in a department that has an insanely high attrition rate. In the last couple of years, seven out of nine post-docs left, some to similar jobs, but most quit university. Only one person moved along and got tenure and nobody knows why. And I’m pretty sure the trend does not stop here. And don’t get me started on the PhDs who quit without finishing.

I mean, at some point you just wanna stand up and say: “Maybe your working conditions aren’t so hot either. Maybe there’s a reason for your high attrition rates. Maybe it’s …” but then you snap out of it and realize that you did adhere to the old saying of:

“An employee who does not give feedback is not a good employee.”

and you did give feedback yet nothing did change. A 30-45 minutes long monologue by a supervisor regarding why the things are the way they are, until you realize that feedback is only “good” if there is only a simple, short-term push necessary (five minutes or less) or when nothing needs to be changed at all.

And so you mind your own business and watch peoples scientific careers, including your own, go down the drain. And you just cannot understand how anyone can be surprised if people quit. Even people who do excellent work quit after years without recognition, after being used and exploited. And you wonder how some Academics — with the highest educational degrees possible — can sink a whole department so blindly.

Despite being a very depressing conversation, I think this person has a point. In some cases, the only difference between business consultancy (in the stereotypical “you’ll burn out within a five to ten years” sense) and Academia (as it is today in many university departments) is the much, much better payment in business consultancy and the much brighter outlook for follow-up positions after you burn out.

It might be common for Academics to sneer at jobs outside Academia, but I think they should put down the stones. Their tower might be made of ivory, but its got more than enough glass on its own.

2 Comments

  1. Hello. Thanks for the blog and this article.
    If you know a person that’d made the transition from academia to consultancy it’d be great if you could ask for insights or for an interview. This would be helpful for many of us seeking career possibilities…
    I am really curious about the burn-out. Academia also requires long working hours, but probably consultancy bring a higher level of stress. I am wondering is the difference that big and shocking from someone coming from academia, or they are just bragging about it.

  2. This is a very specialized question, but I can ask. Personally, I think that the level of stress depends on the person and the job, not on either of them alone. Academia is high risk in investment in research questions, consultancy probably has a lot of time related stress. Depends on what is the better fit. I’m just fed up with the attitude of some Academics that Academia is the one and only and everything else is a fall from grace. But perhaps things are changing now that the “I quit” letter has become a thing.

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