Important as these issues are, in this article I want to talk about the opposite bias – pretending that the academic track is always the best option for young researchers, or that leaving ends any hope a researcher has of making a mark on their chosen field. As Dame Athene Donald, University of Cambridge, said during the launch of RoRI: "I hate the fact that many supervisors see their students leaving academia as a failure. A few more MPs with PhDs might be a good thing."
In many cases, those departing academia are making a rational and exciting choice. They might be going on to set up a business, to work in government or to carry out research in the private sector. Dr Hancock’s analysis also showed that almost half of those leaving academia still take up a research role. I am one such case and I wanted to share my story in the hope that it might reassure those who want to pursue other paths.
I completed my Master's degree in Chinese Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in 2003. I loved the subject, but SOAS didn’t have a programme that could fit the interdisciplinary area I wanted to research for my PhD – the influence of Han and Tang dynasty Daoist practices on modern Chinese martial arts. Tackling an area like this cuts across no fewer than five disciplines: sinology, anthropology, history, philosophy and religious studies.
My supervisor suggested some other universities in Germany, the United States and Taiwan. But I soon found that, for all the love that funders and research policy wonks have for the concept of interdisciplinarity, on the ground there are some serious structural problems for academics wanting to pursue this path. None of the universities mentioned could quite cater for what I wanted to research. For example, pursuing the university programme in Taiwan would have forced me to strip out the anthropology element and restricted my study to the textual analysis of Chinese manuscripts.
A couple of years later I completed a second Master's degree in philosophy, thinking it would help me get onto a PhD programme if I refocused my research idea more on the philosophy of martial arts. I applied again for a PhD position. Once again I was rejected.