Illustration by Kalle Wolters

PhDs leave the uni behind

Science is fun, but not that much fun

Illustration by Kalle Wolters
Most PhD candidates start their academic careers full of vim and vigour. But four years later, half of them want to leave the academic world behind. Why? ‘Everyone acts as though it’s completely normal to sacrifice so much.’
By Douwe Grundel
24 January om 11:26 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 24 January 2024
om 11:51 uur.
January 24 at 11:26 AM.
Last modified on January 24, 2024
at 11:51 AM.

She remembers exactly when she realised it. Molecular microbiology PhD Alka was walking down a hallway at the Linnaeusborg with one of her lab colleagues. They were talking about their careers and their futures when her colleague made a casual remark. ‘He said that the cleaners on our floor looked happier in their job than most young researchers.’

It was like a switch had been flipped in her head. It wasn’t the first time she’d realised that researchers who’d successfully got a post-doc position didn’t necessarily seem happy. It caused Alka to ask herself whether that’s what she wanted. Did she want to go on to a post-doc position? Did she want to become an assistant professor? Move up to become a full professor?

Alka is one of many PhD candidates who once started their thesis full of vim and vigour. But just like nearly half of the PhDs in the Netherlands, that’s where her academic career will end. Not because she isn’t good enough, but because she’s done with academia. The PhD Survey the UG held in 2021 showed that only 53 percent of PhDs want to continue a career in the academic world. The other half wants to do something else or isn’t sure yet.

Why is this?

Performance pressure

‘I started my PhD track because I love doing research’, says Alka. ‘I could see myself doing it for a while.’  

Alka studies extremophiles: single-celled organisms who live in circumstances that would kill most micro-organisms, such as the single-celled ones that live in the boiling hot springs in Yellowstone Park. But interest in her field isn’t the problem. ‘When you discover new things, you’re the first person to see it. You run into some really weird stuff.’ But now that the end is in sight for her, she knows that academia isn’t for her. 

It’s just assumed that academics always work overtime

Marieke is experiencing something similar. She started a PhD track to study the Scholten business family from Groningen, but she is now looking for something else. She’d obviously heard about the many temporary contracts people got and how hard it was to maintain a consistent career at university. But she just really wanted to dig through historical archives to read letters and other documents. ‘Perhaps I fell victim to a kind of utopian wishful thinking’, she says.  

For Ervin – none of the PhDs wanted their surnames included in this article – doing a PhD in political philosophy was mainly a practical choice. ‘It’s not like I dreamed of being an academic when I was little or anything.’ But when he had the opportunity to do a PhD, he took it. Where else would he be able to thoroughly study modern protest movements like Occupy? 

But now that they nearly finished their thesis, they want to leave the academic world behind. One big reason is the intense pressure to perform, when they don’t get much in return.

Failed research

After clearing the thesis hurdle, they still have to manage to get a postdoc position. After that, they need a tenure-track position that could ultimately lead to becoming a professor. ‘You have to prove yourself through publishing articles’, says Eleonora, who makes elements to construct synthetic cells in the lab. ‘You either take that next step or you stumble and fall.’

That wouldn’t be such a big deal if all you had to do to succeed was skills and hard work. But as they found out, academic research can easily fail. Such things are entirely outside their control.

There are so many smart, talented people who are burnt out

Alka worked for months trying to create a mutant version of extremophile. She used a method that worked fine on a different organism. But hers just kept failing. ‘I just reached this breaking point. I couldn’t imagine the project being useful to anyone.’

A meeting with her supervisor made her realise everything wasn’t lost, she’d also come to know that ‘seeing something new happen is a time-consuming process’.

Eleonora’s research didn’t go according to plan, either. She was working on a way to grow the cell membrane for her synthetic cell. While the enzymes she injected into her cells did start producing phospholipids – the cell membrane’s building blocks – they weren’t being absorbed correctly. ‘In science, you end up trying ten different things and nine of them don’t work’, she says.


In spite of all this, PhDs are still expected to finish their thesis in four years. And while no result still counts as a result, this rarely leads to great articles in renowned journals. ‘You need something that grabs people’s attention and sells copies’, says Eleonora. ‘It’s partially a matter of luck. In an ideal world, negative results would be just as valuable as positive ones. I would be fine with that.’

The work stress also began to affect the PhD candidates. It’s considered perfectly normal to work nights and weekends, just to achieve those fabled results. In the UG survey, 76 percent of PhDs say they work more hours than their contract stipulates.  ‘The job is everything. It’s just assumed that academics always work overtime’, says Alka.

‘You work your entire butt off and still run the risk of not having anything to show for it’, agrees Marieke. ‘Everyone acts as though it’s completely normal to sacrifice so much.’  

On top of that, their stress isn’t always taken seriously. Many academics compare a PhD track to a starting position at a prestigious company. ‘Some jobs make you go through this incredibly taxing year-long process’, says Marieke. ‘You know: you don’t see your family as much and you work sixty hours a week, but after that you’re solid. You’ll have a permanent contract and security. But it’s not like that at university.’

She sees the effects of this all around her. ‘There are so many people who went home because they were burned out. They were all smart, talented people who were genuinely driven to succeed. That worries me.’

Temporary contracts

Finally, the PhD candidates have an increasing need for a stable life, but the temporary contracts often force young academics to keep relocating. 

Having to move every time is hard. Starting a new life is a lot of work

‘I’ve seen colleagues who struggled to maintain relationships, not just romantic ones, but also friendships’, says Ervin. He was born in Albania, grew up in Greece, and moved to Germany for his master’s degree. He does his PhD in both Hamburg and Groningen. If he decides to continue in academics, he’ll probably have to move countries a few more times. ‘Having to move every time is really hard. Starting a new life is a lot of work.’

Marieke doesn’t want that, either. ‘I moved from Leiden to Groningen, that was enough for me. I don’t want to have to build a whole new network and get used to a new place.’

But none of the four PhDs regret the past four years. ‘I’ve learned so much’, says Marieke. ‘I attended conferences, I met great people, and I was able to work on research that I still really enjoy doing.’

Different job

However, it’s time to find something else to do for a living. Alka has already found a new position: she’ll be working for a scientific publishing company.  

Eleonora has finished her PhD but is still looking for her next opportunity. She wants to do something that has a positive impact on society. As such, she’s been checking out NGOs and government organisations. ‘It was a little scary at first and I had trouble imagining myself in a completely different work environment. But now that I’ve talked to people in similar positions, I can see myself going for it. I’m looking forward to it.’

Marieke hopes to still do something historical, but she knows how difficult it will be to find a job in the field. ‘There are so many jobs I don’t even know exist’, she says, hopeful. ‘But it kind of feels like wishful thinking. There just aren’t many jobs where I can do that. Fortunately, I still have a year to think about it.’

Ervin is also still looking for something else. ‘I want to put what I’ve learned into use’, he says. ‘I’m interested in large organisations, NGOs, think tanks, and more.’