Leaving Academics

For academics, mid-winter is a reflective time of year. It was about this time, 3 years ago that I wrote an article reflecting on my own move to industry. Perhaps it’s because this is the time when academic jobs are choosing their applicants. So there is great anxiety wrapped up in “will I have a job come September?” Perhaps it’s because we are 1/2 way through the school year and those papers aren’t written and we have a new crop of confused and needy students.  Or perhaps it’s because it’s dark and cold and oppressive outside… and, ya’ll, it’s just SO snowy this year.

For me, this year in particular, I have many friends who are talking about leaving academics. Women mostly. Scratch that, they are women completely. I think this year is a confluence of political depression and the magic 5 year mark.  We’ve all been done with our PhDs for about 5 years. 10,000 hours we’ve spent in our respective careers; me in Industry, them in Academia. Though, to be fair, they have probably spent more hours on their careers than I have. And how far did it get each of us?

In this way, I get this very personal view into the leaky pipe problem. I see individuals making choices about their life and their adorable newborns and their priorities. I coach individuals as they make their transition into Industry. And I have come to a few conclusions.

For one, I think there is a messaging bias in Academics. While I was in academics, I was bombarded with the message that life outside academics was worthless. Simply bombarded. Not one of my professors enthusiastically agreed with my choice. But why would they? They chose to stay in academics. Almost by definition, they would not coach someone to leave academics. It’s also counter productive for a professor to coach their students to leave. The professor’s success is measured by the success of their students within academics.

Secondly, as one begins to leave the academic campus, it feels like she are falling off a cliff and she can never go back. Because, like, no one ever does! There are very few examples of individuals who went to Industry and then returned to a good position in Academics. Initially, I thought this was evidence that it wasn’t possible. Somehow being in Industry soils you to the purity of Academics. It’s a one-way trip! Be extra sure you want to make that choice because there is NO GOING BACK. But now, 5 years later, I have a different theory to explain why no one returns to the ivory tower. It’s because people do not want to!

Academics requires a brutal commitment level. It’s like being a professional athlete (the odds are about the same). Except, that you almost never get to win a game, but somehow you have to keep trying. It’s hard. And so, the decisions feels like a choice: “Quit” or “Don’t quit”?  I disagree with this framing. In Industry, we have these phrases for people who want to change jobs. You can either be running from something you hate in your current job or running towards something that you’d like in your new role. The Quit/Don’t Quit framing means you can only run from Academics, but you can never run towards Industry.  But what if Industry is actually a super lovely place to be?

Turns out, for me, Industry is a good place to be a balanced adult. I work during the day and spend time with my family at night and on weekends. I am happy. Even the most academically minded colleagues I have out here in Industry balance their desires by doing independent contracting for the government or some other more “academic” activity. I don’t know anyone who has retroactively wished they stayed in Academics. But if that’s you, then please let me know! I would love to learn why you feel this way.

Lastly, I have seen that the decision to shift from Academics to Industry is deeply personal but almost always influenced by a desire for improved mental health. Just recently, the BBS ran a tragic story about a professor who committed suicide because the load was too great. The first two elements: the messaging bias and the one-way trip combine to make it feel like there is no way out. No other options. I believe that the mental toll of being in academics cannot be understated. And finding a path towards a (hopefully) more balanced life, is always personal and unique.

Another, more positive, very personal change that influences people are babies. Babies! Nature just published a statistic that >50% of women leave STEM fields after their first child. Now this study wasn’t just about academics. But I think it raises an important point.  Mother’s brains physically change after birth. [Boston Globe, NYTimes] I literally think differently than I did pre-baby. I have observed a rapid adjustment in my priorities. I just don’t care as much about some things which used to be vital to me. I’m not a totally different person, but just epsilon different enough that I make some different choices. I can understand how someone who was very committed to their academic career could change course once they spend time with their newest family member. There is just some things, for me, which feel more important, more critical than throwing myself at a wall to maybe, possibly, grow the collective human knowledge by an infinitesimal amount.

So, in conclusion, if you are someone who is in Academics who is thinking about moving towards Industry, then take comfort. You are not alone and your feelings are valid. Have some tea and start thinking and learning. (I have some resources collected here that might help you.) Read about other’s journeys and the process of building a LinkedIn profile. You are exceptionally good at learning and understanding new ideas. I have every confidence that if you want to try Industry for a while, that there is a company out there that would love to hire you.



About Samantha from SocialMath

Applied Mathematician and writer of socialmathematics.net.
This entry was posted in Business, data science, Family and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Leaving Academics

  1. Dr. O says:

    Left academics in 1972. No regrets.

  2. photoscientist says:

    Left academics when I graduated out of college. Now I am free to learn on my own and on my own terms.

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