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.


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Raising a Neural Net

I’ve been a little busy over the past year or so. You see, I have been creating the most advanced neural net known to mankind. It took me 9 months to code it and get it just right. My husband helped to provide some of the code, I provided the rest. As often happens, we repurposed some of the code from people we trust. It’s basically open source. Almost anyone can do it. Compiling it wasn’t the most fun I’ve ever had… There were some late nights, and I definitely lost some sleep. But my neural net turned out really cute! I lucked out. I didn’t plan for it, but it has dimples!

Now that she is here, I’m training my model. It will take a long time to train. 18 years by some accounts. Maybe more? I often wonder if the training time depends more on me training it well or its implicit structure?  It has many layers and a variety of activation functions. There is definitely drop out automatically encoded. By all accounts, it’s very sophisticated. The only  major downside is that I have to feed it all its labeled and unlabeled data manually.

When I put together my training data, I think a lot about ethics and values. I want my little neutral net to eventually make good decisions and be kind to other programs. It’s not so easy to build an unbiased model. Because I’m creating the training set, it’s up to me (and my family) to teach it well. Luckily, it’s not a one and done situation. If, in a few years, I learn that my neural net has learned to hit other neural nets, then I can ramp up the training data to try discourage that activity. But, I guess ultimately, it’s still a black box. I’ll never understand exactly why it made each decision!

Having a human neural net makes me think differently about how I might train my digital neural nets in the future… Meanwhile, my neural net woke up from her defragging and sleep processes, so I need to go. I get to go to stack more soft blocks so she can collect more unlabeled data about gravity!

Posted in Communicating Math, data science | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Are you masculine enough to be a trusted leader?

I’ve been a woman mathematician in Industry for almost 5 years. I have Malcolm Gladwell’s requisite 10,000 hours to be an expert.  Throughout my experience, I have struggled to gain the trust of my more technical colleagues. It’s not a new problem for me, but, upon joining Industry, a new wrinkle to this puzzle has presented itself: Do I want to be trusted as a technical individual contributor or as a leader? I like both options! I am capable of both options. And, as a result, I waffle back and forth between the options.

Every time I’m on one track, I think fondly about how the grass is greener on the other side. I think, “Gosh, I miss sitting quietly at my computer and writing code.”  Or I think, “Man, I wish this project was better managed so my good work was used more!” On the whole, I have chosen to lead people. Because without a good leader, the technical work doesn’t get used. And I came to Industry so people will use my work instead of having the work live primarily in a journal article somewhere.

But, do ‘leading’ and ‘doing’ have to be so separate? In some companies, the two development tracks are presented as something which can be done together. “You can lead people AND write code!” they say. But in my experience, any leader who does this effectively is working 80 hours week. Spending 40 hours on technical contributions and 40 hours on leading people. And, ultimately, when time is an issue, an individual must decide which is more important to them: leading people or doing technical work.

And, based on some new research, there are other reasons to believe that these two options are NOT options which can be taken together. M. Teresa Cardador & Brianna Caza interviewed more than 330 engineers over the last 4 years [HBR article]. Taken together their conversations show that technical folks view managerial roles as undesirable. Teresa has done previous research on the prestige hierarchy of this highly technical space. Our culture teaches us the hard skills we need to be technical capable are separate from the soft skills that make us good with other people. What’s more, we “also learn that these skills are gendered, with the [hard skills] viewed as more masculine, more revered and higher status; and the [soft skills] viewed as more feminine and lower status.” So, as I move into leadership, do I have enough technical skills to be seen as trustworthy on technical topics? Am I masculine enough to be trusted? Without that, my value to the company is seen as lower than the individual contributors because I’m using my “feminine” skills to get work done.

“It seems like these things, these skills, these traits that I’ve honed for a very long time…one might label as soft skills maybe…are not really the kinds of things that get rewarded as much on day to day. Or are being recognized.” – Cardador & Caza

This quote is from the article, but I could have easily said the same thing.  I know many people who agree with this statement. Being a leader is a burden and is ‘less valuable’ than being a technical data scientist. Devaluing leadership isn’t really a problem, until you layer in the gender bias. Cardador & Caza found in their study “that while some women pursued these technical supervisor or management roles based on their preferences, some were also mentored into these roles.” So, women are getting pushed into these roles despite their other preferences.

“When women disproportionately occupy roles that are less valued or unwanted, it can reinforce stereotypes about female engineers being less technically skilled, make them feel less respected, and create the illusion that they are not a ‘real engineer.’” – Cardador & Caza

And that’s exactly how the choice feels to me. Do I want to be a “real data scientist” or do I want to be a leader of data scientists? I find leading to be more personally fulfilling and, I believe, leading makes me more valuable to my company because I will insure the work of the non-leaders finds its best use case. I spent decades of my life politely fighting with men to make them see that my hard skills are just as advanced as the men’s skills are. I spent these years metaphorically saying, “I’m masculine! I’m one of the guys!” But now, with a choice to serve the greater good and use the skills that are really underrepresented in tech (social skills), I am undermining all that credibility I built.

The perception is tough to shake. Cardador & Caza talk about resilience of women in tech. Mostly it’s about staying true to oneself and ignoring the peer pressure. It’s being able to say: “everyone else will think I’m making the less prestigious choice. And that’s OK.” But honestly, I can’t decide if it is OK, because if I lead, then the individual contributors will perceive that I’m more feminine and approachable and therefore less technically capable. And if the team I lead doesn’t believe me to be capable, then I will have a harder time leading the team effectively. And I don’t know how to solve that puzzle… So, the question remains: Do I appear masculine enough to be trusted?

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