Academia is an ecosystem of universities and research centers whose primary purpose is to conduct scientific research, expand the boundaries of human knowledge, create new scientific content, and educate a new generation of scientists.
Academia was traditionally seen as an ivory tower: a monastery of sorts where you can only build your career if you join at an early age and stay loyal and committed for a lifetime. Now, the boundaries between academia and industry started melting. Today, companies often diversify and strengthen their R&D departments by collaborating with universities and running joint PhD programs. Furthermore, individuals who spent many years in industry and developed successful careers there, and are often willing to conduct a full- or part-time PhD as a part of their self-development.
An academic career is a combined research/teaching position within an academic institution (as opposed to, e.g., an R&D department in a company) with an intention to spend the majority/the rest of the professional life as an active researcher (rather than, e.g., a Lab Manager, or a professional Grant Writer). This typically implies a necessity to get promoted to a PI at some point—although, in some countries, there are also other possibilities such as becoming a Senior Postdoctoral Researcher.
You might be asking yourself, “Even if my personality profile fits the academic lifestyle, and I fancy spending a few years of my life investigating an interesting research subject, is this really an option for me? Isn’t academia only suitable for geniuses who were training in one narrow discipline since early childhood?
The answer is, “No. Not anymore.” The numbers of PhD positions and PhD graduates have been steadily growing since a few decades (Schillebeeckx et al., 2013), and this trend is most probably not going to change any time soon. You certainly don’t need to be an Einstein to land a PhD candidate position. If you ask successful professors with an impressive record of scientific discoveries, they will tell you that what brought them so far in academia, was their personality, namely diligence and persistence, rather than an inborn talent or an IQ. As Thomas Edison liked to say, “Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.”
Furthermore, academia adjusts to the new reality. Today, instead of working on a shear survival, the developed society is occupied with multiple other interesting topics of global interest. Therefore, the scope of research topics that you might potentially study, morphs accordingly. Namely, you no longer need to be into probability theory, particle physics, biotechnology, or agriculture to pursue a PhD.
Today, reputable universities also launch PhD programs oriented at, e.g., sociology of the today’s entertainment culture, social media and their impact on society and industry, or other actual societal problems such as, e.g., high degree of insecurity and depression among the young Z generation employees. If you are passionate about any topic related to society and public good, there is a good chance that there are PhD programs that might accept you. Or, that you might write down your own research proposal and get public funding from one of multiple international open grant programs.
Having that said, the number of full time faculty positions is growing much slower than the number of PhD candidates jobs (Schillebeeckx et al., 2013). Therefore, if you take a decision to try, it is better to keep expectations low and assume that you are not going to stay in academia for the rest of your professional career.