Are you still a scientist if you leave academia?

A perspective to help with an identity crisis


5/26/20244 min read

After leaving academia for a job in tech almost 10 years ago, I went through an internal battle that a lot of PhDs go through when they make the transition: a crisis of identity.

My particular path was pretty unique, but the experience of this crisis was nearly identical with other PhDs that made the switch and those that were thinking about doing so. To sum it up in one question:

“Am I still a scientist?”

This is an intensely emotional and personal struggle and can last a long time because it goes to the heart of how you see yourself.

As someone with a PhD, not only did you spend 5 or more years of your life getting that degree, but in the process you likely tied a lot of your identity to BEING a scientist. Also, you probably associated being a scientist with the environment you were in. Leaving that environment can bring up some doubts.

Some of these feelings are self-induced, but a lot of it comes from the culture of academia.

  • Academics are largely insulated from the rest of the world.

  • They’re made to feel like their path is a “calling,” as if professors were born and not made.

  • There’s a strong implied sense of legitimacy, as if only experiments done in a university and then published in a high-impact factor journal are “real science.”

Deconstructing an academic myth

This is the end of the heartfelt, important messages at this point, so feel free to stop reading if you’ve already gotten value out of it.

This last part is just about poking some holes in the idea that academia owns the practice and practitioners of science.

Take a moment and think about the groups that fall under the umbrella of “academia,” or sit adjacent to it.

“Academia” refers to a system made up of institutions like:

  • Educational organizations like universities, which are businesses that happen to make a lot of money through sports

  • Publishers like for-profit journals, who make money from professors without paying them

  • Governing and grant-funding agencies, among other entities that write the science rules and decide what science gets money

This is a system that was created to put structure around science and govern its activities.

Humans decide what degrees (like PhDs) should exist, what skills should be taught to them, how they should be evaluated, and what their work should look like, down to the formatting.

Academia is a system built to mass produce science and science practitioners.

It wants — but does not have — a monopoly on science.

The first PhD was awarded in the US in 1861. It’s kind of a new thing.

Here are some names you might have heard of: Michael Faraday. Charles Darwin. James Joule. Galileo Galilei. Isaac Newton. Leonardo Da Vinci.

They’ve contributed more science to the world than I have. Honestly, they’ve probably contributed more science than the combined efforts of everyone who will ever read these words. All without ever getting a PhD non-honorarily.

If they can remain in the minds of societies as scientists centuries after their death (with no one arguing otherwise), I’m hoping you can see the silliness of ascribing the ownership of the scientific identity to a community these titans of science weren’t even a part of.

woman in gray long sleeve shirt sitting beside boy in orange crew neck shirt
woman in gray long sleeve shirt sitting beside boy in orange crew neck shirt

Let’s break down what being a scientist is!

It’s a combination of 3 things, and they are not equally important:

  1. Job title

  2. Skills & Activities

  3. Mindset

First, let’s tackle the title. Let’s be honest here, job titles don’t mean very much. There are plenty of jobs across all sectors that have the word “scientist” in them. Research scientist, data scientist, food scientist, you name it. And if I may point out, “Professor” is not one of those jobs. Titles are just a way for others to quickly get a sense of what your deal is. You can still be a scientist without having it on a business card. And I bet there are people with the title of scientist who never published a paper or ran a study.

Next, let’s talk about the things you can do and do regularly. Regardless of who pays you to do it, are you asking critical questions? Are you gathering data, and then synthesizing the mess into a meaningful bit of new information? Are you finding ways to experiment to determine what is possibly true and what is hopeful BS? Are you overseeing and guiding people who do those things? Sounds pretty sciency to me.

Lastly, let’s talk about what should be the most central part of your identity: Mindset. The lens through which you see the world. Do you take in the outside world with intense curiosity? Do you frown at answers that are too easy and think critically about how to find the truth? Do you get excitement from discovering and sharing that new understanding with others? Even if you take your PhD to go mop floors, if you maintain this mindset you could still identify as a scientist because you think like one, you share the scientific values, and if you wanted to you could easily take on a “scientist role.” It’s just not your day job at the moment.

Even if you switch to a career where you’re not actively using the scientific method, you can still bring the scientific mindset and values. And there’s no rule saying you can only be defined as one thing.

You can be many things; life is additive.

It’s sort of like if you spent 5 years training to be a dancer, but then went on to work as an accountant. Does being an accountant erase your identity as a dancer, even if you stop performing on stage?

Your biography would likely include both “dancer” and “accountant,” in addition to much more important roles like son, daughter, sibling, parent, or mentor.