Working at LSE: Is the great academic resignation upon us?

By Vanessa Huang

Ever-mounting university strikes have laid bare fissures in the academic workplace. The campaign has now reached a critical juncture: academics say they cannot sustain the poor working conditions and pay; universities say they have already “stretched affordability” with what they’re offering. In a UCU survey, three in five respondents were planning to leave academia over the issues of pay and working conditions. In this third article of the Working at LSE series, The Beaver looks to the sector’s future and whether a mass exodus is imminent.

Daniele Pollicino is one of many wrestling with this dilemma of staying or leaving. He’s a PhD student at LSE, researching the applications of behavioural science towards climate change, and until recently, he was convinced he would stay in academia. “I’ve always wanted to be an academic,” he says. “I kind of still do, but I’m trying to figure out what I actually want.”

Some that left have found the greener pastures they were hoping for. George Maier, a former LSE100 Fellow, now works as a senior researcher at Nutmeg, an investment management platform part of JP Morgan. He says he feels “properly settled” for the first time in his life, helped by the compensation boost that tends to come with going into industry. Maier’s job now provides a salary and pension that are “far higher” than what he received as an LSE Fellow, alongside healthcare benefits and other perks that would be unthinkable in academia.  

Daniel De Kadt, Assistant Professor of Methodology, points out that although pay is usually lower in academia, career security can be “really high” – once you’ve navigated the rough terrain and secured a permanent job, that is. He left academia to work as a data scientist at Deliveroo, only to return this January, pointing to teaching and “being able to have an imprint on people who are going to do things in the world” as one of his main reasons for coming back. Unlike in industry, where workers are “beholden to the vagaries of the market,” evidenced by recent layoffs in tech, academics are “pretty robust to economic downturns and recessions.” For some, this job security can be more important than the size of their paycheck. But often, getting to a permanent position is precisely the problem.  

It’s a “remarkable privilege of a career,” as De Kadt puts it, to be able to research a topic of interest, noting his industry job was “constrained in a very clear way.” A career so closely tied to one’s passions is, however, a double-edged sword, blurring the boundaries between work and leisure and easily leaving zero semblance of a work-life balance. And as attitudes of ‘publish or perish’ dominate the academic sphere, forcing academics to churn out as many publications as possible to advance their careers, there’s a constant nagging feeling to do more and aim higher, particularly when there’s so much personal investment in the knowledge that’s being disseminated. The standard nine-to-five in academia has become “almost impossible,” Pollicino says. “It takes a mental toll.” 

And while junior academics are facing this constant pressure to produce more work, fixed-term contracts mean that until they can secure a permanent position, junior academics are left floating untethered, wondering if their contract will be renewed and preparing to uproot their lives and work somewhere new – hoping each time they won’t have to go through the process again.

It’s this lack of stability that Catherine Reynolds, PhD careers consultant at LSE Careers, notes as one of the main concerns PhD students express: “They don’t want to see their peers who are in the private sector going on building their careers, buying a flat, paying rent without worrying about it, maybe settling down, having a family, having children.” While Maier was working at LSE, he and his partner had been trying to buy a house without any success – the combination of low pay with a fixed-term contract made it exceedingly difficult to secure a mortgage for the house they had been eyeing. Thanks to his higher salary and permanent contract, they now own the house.

This malaise is becoming increasingly salient as academic ‘quit lit’ proliferates on social media, a trend that Maier has begun to notice: “Every time I open [Twitter] now, I see long lists of tweets from academics making very similar moves to what I’ve made, or considering similar moves to what I’ve made.” Part of this may simply be due to the increased usage of social media – Reynolds points out that LSE sends a consistent 40% of its PhD graduates into industry each year – but De Kadt also highlights a shifting dynamic where it isn’t just PhD graduates, but growing numbers of mid-career academics that are starting to make the leap as well. 

According to Reynolds, some of the most common destinations for those who decide to make the switch include data science, international organisations, government, commercial research, finance, consulting, and secondary school teaching. While Maier found his transition to industry “very straightforward,” Reynolds says it “gets a little bit more difficult for PhD students [compared to undergraduates and masters students] because they’ve been encultured for longer. They’ve learned the language of higher education to a deeper level, and so making that shift sometimes takes a bit of time.” As De Kadt explains, industry work requires a big mindset shift towards being much more impact-oriented: “In academia, we worry about being right; in industry, we worry about being right enough.”

The biggest challenge for individuals from academic backgrounds may not be the work itself but rather getting your foot in the door when recruiters don’t always understand what a PhD brings to the table. Both De Kadt and Maier bypassed the traditional job application process to secure their industry roles, messaging recruiters on LinkedIn instead. “What you want to do is find tools or techniques to improve the probability of a recruiter having a call with you,” De Kadt says. “If you start to talk to someone and you’re a PhD, chances are you’re going to do reasonably well because you’ve spent your whole career talking to people.” 

For any PhD students having doubts, Reynolds advises them to carefully consider their options and take advantage of industry internships or projects for a “better understanding of the pros and cons of the different sides of the boundary” – after all, the grass might simply be greener from the other side. According to De Kadt, working in industry “gives you a new data point on which [parts of work] you actually value. Because [when] you don’t have the comparison, it’s hard to know.” Leaving academia helped him realise how much he missed teaching and the “communal intellectual environment”; his weighting of the different trade-offs eventually drew him back. 

On the other hand, Maier believes that he was holding onto the academic dream for longer than he perhaps should have: “There are good parts and bad parts, and at the time you don’t necessarily realise some of the bad parts were quite so bad.” Improvements in work-life balance, pay, and career stability have dramatically shifted things for him. “Now I can just relax and settle into the work and enjoy what I’m doing,” he says.

As for Pollicino, even though he’s still in the middle of his PhD, industry work isn’t some hypothetical scenario for him. Like many of his peers, he doesn’t have funding for his PhD, so he’s taken on work in an external research organisation as a way to pay for his degree. Right now, he leans more towards “abandoning ship,” a decision that is both a push away from the dismal prospects of an academic career and a pull towards the positive experiences he’s had with his current industry work. “I’m more inclined to just leave university, which is sad because I love the stimulating environment,” he says. “But it’s really not the same.” 

Illustration by Francesca Corno

Vanessa investigates the future of careers in academia


Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on linkedin

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

On Key

Related Posts

scroll to top