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Switching from Academia to Industry: Why Academia Has Failed Environmental Scientists

Updated: May 9

Research cannot reach its full potential if we do not address the gap between existing scientific knowledge and decision making and policy making.

In the spring of 2020, I made the transition from academia to a start-up dedicated to Nature based Solutions. Throughout my educational journey, I always aspired to find employment that would make a measurable, positive impact on the world. After receiving a bachelor's degree in Earth Sciences, a master's degree in Environmental Sciences, and a PhD in Hydrogeology, I realized that achieving this goal through academia would be near-impossible. Additionally, my declining mental health and waning motivation and self-esteem were becoming overwhelming.

Although graduate students are afforded many freedoms and support, such as flexible hours, paid leave, and a positive work environment, in reality, we are expected to work up to 10 hours a day or more, especially as we near the finish line. Failure to do so risks losing the respect of supervisors and colleagues. While we can take time off, it is usually only after completing numerous tasks, such as preparing speeches, submitting papers, writing thesis chapters, and performing menial tasks such as cleaning offices and stacking chairs.

As I progressed through my studies, I also began to question the significance of my research. Although graduate studies are meant to expand human knowledge and hone our scientific skills, I realized that no matter how innovative, useful, or detailed my work was, it would most likely accumulate dust on my supervisor's desk.

For example, during my PhD, I spent two years working in semi-arid southern India, researching topics highly relevant to the current water resource situation and the measures undertaken by the government at the time to alleviate the situation. I was optimistic that our findings would help mitigate the severe water scarcity affecting the local population. However, to my surprise, the Indian government was uninterested in our findings and boycotted interactions with our research institute because they disliked the fact that our findings pointed out inefficacies in the measures they were implementing. This demonstrated that the issue was not a lack of science, but the ineffectiveness and reluctance of decision makers to consider scientific findings, particularly when they conflict with their interests.

As Greta Thunberg has said:

Some people say that I should study to become a climate scientist so that I can 'solve the climate crisis'. But the climate crisis has already been solved. We already have all the facts and solutions. All we have to do is to wake up and change.

That is why, when I finished my PhD, I had become sure of two things: first, academia was not for me, and second, that if I wanted to have an impact on combating the climate emergency, it wasn't going to be through academia.

Fortunately, in spring of 2020, I found a job at Cultivo Land PBC, a start-up focused on "unlocking investment into Nature, at scale". The company aligns the economic interests of large corporations with larger environmental goals through nature restoration projects. Success is measured not only in monetary terms but also in concrete numbers, such as the amount of carbon captured, the increase in water resources, and animal species count and abundance. Working for Cultivo Land has allowed me to actively address the crises facing us, financed by large corporations rather than leaving the responsibility solely on consumers. Since joining the company, my mental health has significantly improved, and I have become more optimistic about the future.

To conclude, I want to say that I greatly respect the work of climate scientists, researchers and other people in academia, but, we need to face the truth: research cannot reach its full potential if we do not address the gap between existing scientific knowledge and decision making and policy making. To me this is the greatest challenge we face today as scientists, especially in environmental fields.

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