The initial journey: Academia and industry experiences
As a student fascinated by the wonders of chemistry (and a very enthusiastic high school chemistry teacher), my academic journey started with an undergraduate master’s degree (MChem), and eventually culminating in a PhD from the University of Newcastle, Australia. This quest for knowledge, however, was more of a path of least resistance than a conscious choice. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my career and opted for using my PhD as a way to live somewhere sunnier and warmer than my UK home.
I think many people end up in the same situation as me by not really thinking about what they want to do as a career. All I knew was that I liked getting praised for doing well in school – now that was over, I felt kind of lost.
After acquiring my PhD, I ventured into industry as an explosives chemist. Although the work was captivating, the lifestyle – particularly the frequent visits to large, dirty holes in rural Australia – was far from what I wanted. After 13 months, I decided to return to academia, pulled by the allure of teaching again in a lecturing environment.
The turning point: Leaving academia and embracing uncertainty
Fast forward three postdocs and a change of institutions: my internal struggle persisted. I felt like a lost academic soul, questioning if academia was the right path for me. Everyone in permanent academic positions all looked tired, sad, and had an unhealthy grey colour. Working towards this felt like madness! There were so many other things that I didn’t like about the academic career path, too, from the constant fight for grant funding to the pressure to publish.
The immense investment of time and effort I had already put into building a persona as an academic left me in fear of starting from scratch.
It was in the middle of a funded 3-year contract that I decided to sever ties with academia, despite the uncertainties that lay ahead. Although I told people I knew what I wanted to do, it was all a big lie.
I had no idea but acted as if I had it all planned out.
Venture into the digital realm: Establishing a science communication startup
Armed with the intent to carve out a new path, I plunged into the field of science communication. Why this field? Well, I did a simple SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) on myself and felt like I had a lot to offer in the communication space. Working with your strengths always makes sense and I recommend every PhD student and early career researcher perform one on themselves at some point if they want to escape the academic shackles.
Realizing that most science communication initiatives lacked adequate funding, particularly in Australia, I created a startup that aimed to make communicating science easy for scientists. I secured over $100,000 in startup funding and had a growing global customer base. After two years of growing the business, I was happy about where it was all headed. Then everything changed. The advent of COVID-19 dealt a severe blow to my startup, forcing me to reevaluate my plans once more. Marketing budgets at universities were slashed and many people were reluctant to take a risk on a new business.
This period of turmoil was marked by a persistent sense of being lost, trying to clutch at various opportunities and continually reinventing myself. I needed to build a new plan and, with advice from my start up’s mentors, reevaluating what opportunities might be out there given the new situation, and working with my strengths, I eventually did.
The YouTube breakthrough: Becoming a digital educator and influencing lives
I’ve always been a confident public speaker and I saw this as an opportunity for YouTube, a platform that could allow me to leverage my experience and skills to help others. I liked the fact that, with Youtube, I could reach many people with helpful advice. I read a lot of Naval Ravikants work on leverage and saw YouTube as a great opportunity for multiplying my efforts. It started initially as a channel about sharing any experience and advice that I felt had value to someone else – startups, podcasting, and PhDs.
After a couple of months, a clear trend started to emerge: People really connected with my real and honest PhD and academic advice. The more raw the observations, the more people connected.
So, I doubled down on this topic and started to quickly grow an audience. I shared and discussed various facets of graduate school and academic life that I wish I had known about before starting my PhD journey.
An unspoken reality of academia is the shroud of protective discretion it maintains to uphold its image. Universities, in their pursuit to cultivate an ideal reputation, often suppress the authentic voices and opinions of their academics. This is where, I think, my channel presented a revolutionary shift. Before me, most YouTubers discussing academia were still employed in the system. Their continued association with these institutions prevented them from speaking candidly about the realities of academia.
I know, first-hand, of one academic who was threatened with termination after saying that “early career researchers were having a tough time finding a foothold in academia”.
As a free entity, unbound by the rigidities and apprehensions of institutional expectations, I found myself in a unique position. I was finally able to discuss the unvarnished truths of the academic journey, opening up about topics often considered taboo within the protected walls of universities. People could now see these ‘taboo’ thoughts discussed out in the open – not just in hushed office conversations.
By leveraging my newfound freedom, I ensured that my audience received a genuine, uncensored insight into the world of academia, a perspective rarely available before on platforms like YouTube.
The sense of purpose and satisfaction derived from assisting others in their academic journeys far surpassed anything I experienced before. It has not only allowed me to redefine myself as a digital educator but also to feel I’ve made a positive difference to numerous lives.
Looking to the future
Today, as I look back, I am immensely proud of the digital platform I’ve created – a place for academics seeking candid insights, reassurance, and guidance in their journey. I’m confident that by staying relevant with new technology, speaking with academics and their challenges I’ll continue to provide value to my viewers.
Many PhD graduates are not aware of the value they can create outside of academia and are scared by the perception of failure from leaving. But with more and more PhD graduates and fewer permanent academic positions, getting over this mental block can provide you with a new sense of purpose and direction for your career.
My experiences have allowed me to shatter the silence that once enveloped the truths of academia, unmasking the realities and fostering open conversations that had been long overdue. And while I take immense pride in the recognition I’ve gained, it is the ability to impact lives, guide aspiring academics, and contribute to the transparency of the academic world that gives me the most satisfaction.
Every PhD graduate has the same potential – it just takes a little bit of bravery to realise it.
Author Bio: Dr Andy Stapleton is a Youtuber providing actionable advice to demystify academia and PhDs.