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Getting to the Root of Academic Staff Resigning

5 min read

Thaís Roberto
Academia is where the world's brightest minds come together to manifest knowledge. However, recently universities have seen scholars leave academia to work in industry instead. Their reasons are diverse and complex, but some patterns can be found when looking at their testimonies. We take a look at what is driving them away and what universities can do to help halt their top staff resigning.
Mid-career professionals
According to research conducted by Nature, the trend of academia making the move to industry work is more common among mid-career professionals: a 2021 survey found 37% of mid-career researchers claim to be dissatisfied with their current position. The top reason cited by the scientists was the unfavorable outlook for career advancement, followed by the lack of time they dedicate to research.
Another reason for dissatisfaction is the stagnation of salaries across the sector. In 2020, only 38% of surveyed academics reported having a salary increase in the past year, as opposed to 51% in 2018. Further, 9% of respondents reported having their salaries decreased, primarily due to budget cuts at their respective institutions.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also changed the reality of the industry. New jobs and the possibility of working from home have strengthened the incentives for scholars to switch to the industry. Nick Golding, business development director at The PIE Exec Search, says, "We've seen candidates being offered 40% to 50% increases in salary, with many candidates considering several offers at once."
The freedom for negotiation in the industry is one with which universities can hardly compete. Golding adds: "We have seen bidding wars for some candidates adding up to 20% on the original offer. In these types of negotiations, inevitably private sector companies can be flexible with their offer, while public universities lose out because of their rigid pay structures."
Support groups and online resources
The decision to switch careers drastically isn't one to be taken on impulse. The need for guidance and support has resulted in several online support groups and resource centers created by and for scholars interested in leaving academia.
The Professor Is In, an academic career consulting organization founded by Karen Kelsky, created the Facebook group The Professor Is Out - a "mutual support group for academics who are moving on and moving out." Since its creation in 2020, the group has gathered over 25 thousand members and hosts over 300 new monthly posts.
In addition to private forums and Facebook groups, the #LeavingAcademia on Twitter is constantly updated with announcements by professors, updates from former scholars who have already transitioned to a new sector, and industry job postings. Not every researcher feels comfortable sharing their reasons for leaving their jobs online, but some testimonies help paint a clearer picture of why many seek a career shift.
What academics say
Scott Peters, an education professor at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater, said in an interview the lack of innovation and incentive for change pushed him to search for a different path. "There are so many things in academia that are designed to prevent work from getting done - everything from program revisions to the peer-review publication process. Every time I had an idea for a project or something innovative, the first thing that came up in response were all of the barriers and reasons why it couldn't happen. That always really bothered me."
An open document created by The Professor Is In collects testimonies from over 400 scholars from different subjects and countries who have detailed their reasons for leaving their academic careers. Burnout, low salaries, and a toxic work environment are some of the most common themes. Many contributors also describe cases of bullying, sexual harassment, and racial discrimination from their peers and superiors.
While for some, the reasons for frustration come from feeling generally unsatisfied with their career, others have had traumatic experiences. A social sciences professor shared that her reasons for leaving academia were, ‘Stress and illness due to chronic stress and overwork. Multiple instances of sexual harassment at conferences. Multiple miscarriages and my state passed a heartbeat law. I worked 80-90 hours a week, became chair, and saw that there wasn't much I could change and things were only getting worse.’
How should universities act moving forward?
The COVID-19 pandemic may have aggravated some issues that have driven researchers out of university, but most of these problems aren't new. An overwhelming workload, unrealistic expectations for the output of published works, lack of institutional support, and a discriminatory environment have plagued academia for decades.
No professional sector is free of shortcomings - after all, they are products of the flawed society in which we live. But what appears to push the frustrated scholars away is that these institutions don't seem invested in changing their harmful structure any time soon.
Some institutions have already taken the first step: Rutgers University has launched the Future of Work Task Force, a program committed to implementing new flexible work arrangements and caregiver support for Rutgers employees. Still, until all universities reassess their policies and what their staff need to thrive at their institution, professors will continue to grow increasingly frustrated with the academic world.
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