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ZeChocMoose

Still Ambivalent About Staying in Academia

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I am hoping to get some perspective from people who recently chose to stay in academia and those that decided to leave. 

To make a long story short, I am still struggling with whether I want to stay in academia or not.  I took this postdoc to help me sort out my feelings on the matter, but it hasn't brought me much clarity.  There are things that I really enjoy about academia (independence, mentoring students, being able to set my own schedule, continuing to learn/read more about the field, and conduct research on topics that I am interested in), but there are other things that I am not wild about (isolation, heavy teaching loads, grading, and students who would rather be told what to do than to try to find a solution themselves). I realize that every job has stuff that you aren't as excited about, I just can't figure out if the things that I am not wild about should be deal breakers for me or not.  

I am going on the job market again this year which I will apply to both types of jobs  - but I was hoping for more clarity in the direction that I wanted to wind up in so I can better direct my job search and make a more thoughtful decision when the time comes (assuming that I have a choice). For those who were struggling with this decision, what helped you figure it out? And is my chronic ambivalence an answer in itself? 

I have talked with ass't professors that I know about this - but all of them expressed a drive/passion for academia that overrides the minor annoyances that they face. I have also talked with people who are in non-academic jobs that love what they do, but they either never wanted to go the academic route or decided in grad school that academia was not for them.  Unfortunately, I haven't yet met people who are ambivalent like I am and still haven't figured out what to do by the time that they are a postdoc.  Any personal stories or suggestions on how to figure this out would be much appreciated.

 

 

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Have you talked to assistant professors who aren't at R1 institutions? Because I think that might give you another perspective. I have plenty of friends who have considered or did leave academia due to ambivalence. I also know others who are currently on the tenure-track but thinking of leaving for higher ed admin, nonprofit work, government jobs, or the corporate sector. TBH, I think those who are TT but thinking of leaving don't often talk about it because it's viewed negatively by so many ("OMG! How could you leave a TT job? That's the Holy Grail!" kind of mentality) that they keep their ambivalence to themselves. There's definitely some posts on VersatilePhD and the Chronicle fora about people who are TT and thinking of leaving their jobs for any number of reasons (geography, not loving the work, feeling called to do something else, two-body problem, etc.). Maybe you can browse those and read the posts of those folks?

The other thing I would say is really discipline-specific but... In some fields, there's a value to having experience in the workforce and that can be an asset if/when you decide you want an academic job. Some fields have a robust need for those actually working in the field to teach courses and bring that firsthand knowledge into the classroom (e.g., by adjuncting in addition to having a full-time job). But, in other fields (aka, much of the humanities and social sciences), being out of academia is almost like the kiss of death and you'll never be taken seriously for an academic job again. If your field is like that, then you may want to try academia first, rather than second, if you're given the option. Hope this helps!

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Thanks rising_star for your perspective.  I'll probably post over in the Chronicle forum too about this as there are more people there who are post PhD.  I just have to find/remember my log in credentials... 

I have read a bunch of leaving academia posts, but the ones I have read are either people couldn't find a TT job (and then feel forced to leave because they are tired of being unsuccessful on the market) or they leaving while in a TT job because of external reasons (toxic department, not liking the area, two-body problems, low pay).  My question felt a little different from what I seen previously because it is more about the actual work/lifestyle of academic that I am unsure that I will enjoy long-term and since I am not currently in a TT position, it's hard to gauge from the outside how much I'll enjoy the job.

On 5/29/2018 at 10:13 PM, rising_star said:

The other thing I would say is really discipline-specific but... In some fields, there's a value to having experience in the workforce and that can be an asset if/when you decide you want an academic job. Some fields have a robust need for those actually working in the field to teach courses and bring that firsthand knowledge into the classroom (e.g., by adjuncting in addition to having a full-time job). But, in other fields (aka, much of the humanities and social sciences), being out of academia is almost like the kiss of death and you'll never be taken seriously for an academic job again. If your field is like that, then you may want to try academia first, rather than second, if you're given the option. Hope this helps!

I have talked to some faculty about this - starting in a non-academic position after your PhD and making the switch to academia later on - and I have received contradictory advice.  My take on it is this is still common at non-R1s, but not as common anymore at R1s and some R2s because higher ed programs tend to be very different at R1s and non-R1s when it comes to norms, culture, curriculum, and faculty expectations.  At non-R1s, higher ed tends to be treated like a professional program and at R1s and some R2s, higher ed is treated like a social science.

This pathway doesn't make that much sense for me personally since I already have 5 years of professional experience in the field before my PhD, but I definitely can see why it works for some people and some programs actively recruit for faculty who have had higher level admin experience given their student demographics and what type of jobs their students will go on to pursue after they graduate. 

 

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19 hours ago, ZeChocMoose said:

My question felt a little different from what I seen previously because it is more about the actual work/lifestyle of academic that I am unsure that I will enjoy long-term and since I am not currently in a TT position, it's hard to gauge from the outside how much I'll enjoy the job.

My take on this is that it is largely institution-specific. I would never thrive at a R1 because I hate the publish or perish mentality, the pressure to get multi- million dollar grants (from funding agencies which are receiving more and more requests but have less available money), and the disconnect from working one-on-one with undergraduates. But at a R2 or upper to mid tier SLAC where you get to teach and do research but with less pressure on the research? I am a much, much happier person. The type of institution and how the workload is structured really matters to me (and to a lot of people). Have you thought about whether or how much of your time you'd like to spend on research vs. advising vs. teaching? That might be one way to help think about things. Another is to actually go through the interview process. I didn't realize how much I would dislike being at a R1 until I did a campus interview at one. 

From what I've seen from my friends, the lifestyle is very different from one department to the next and one university to the next. A bad chair can take a good department and ruin it, making people's working lives hell. A badly managed institution can make everyone miserable by decreasing the benefits, not giving COLA raises, etc. But, both of those are things that can be found in nearly any work environment unfortunately IME. 

Not sure if any of this is helpful... Good luck deciding! 

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Hard to compare what it would be like on the tenure track at the right institution with your postdoc without knowing what exactly your postdoc looks like. However, I will say that for most of grad school I talked a good game about leaving the academe. I'm a medical anthropologist and thought I'd like to do work with public health people or maybe NGOs. I got a postdoc doing just that and I'm not even a year in and really dislike it. Quite possibly a result of the people I'm working with but it's been a huge challenge and has taught me a lot about the beauty of not being on soft money, for example. I also was able to utilize a truly wonderful center for teaching and learning at my postdoc institution and that helped me see I really think about and like teaching and pedagogy more than I had previously thought. I was fortunate to land (what I think will be) a great TT position that I'll start this August. I can already tell you I feel far less isolated than I have in my postdoc time, which seems to be a common complaint. The bottom line for me was the autonomy and the ability to continue to do research (R1 position with a 2-2 load) in a place that seems like a great fit. There were certainly other TT jobs I applied for and even did campus visits for this year that I was less than enthused about. In this market, people operate with such a scarcity mindset that they get stuck in positions (even TT) that they really dislike or make them unhappy because they are not a good fit. Since you're someone who can potentially see yourself going both ways, I'd suggest you think more about fit with a position (in or out of the academe), as opposed to prioritizing being IN academia. My slightly more blasé attitude (and the buffer of a guaranteed second year in my postdoc if need be, an admittedly privileged position) made me more selective on the market this year. I think the things you list as concerns with academia might be non issues in the right position, so says a brand new, not yet even started, TT Asst Prof... so take it for what it's worth and check back with me in like a year haha

Edited by as72

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2 hours ago, as72 said:

In this market, people operate with such a scarcity mindset that they get stuck in positions (even TT) that they really dislike or make them unhappy because they are not a good fit. Since you're someone who can potentially see yourself going both ways, I'd suggest you think more about fit with a position (in or out of the academe), as opposed to prioritizing being IN academia. 

You have definitely nailed my number one concern especially since the search process for academic positions start earlier than non-academic positions and I may end up with an academic offer that's okay, but not great, but expires before I can go on the non-academic job market.

Last year, I did get an offer for a TT position when I was ABD, but I didn't think it was the best fit for me personally.  Some faculty from my PhD program suggested that I take it and work my way up to a more "preferred" dept once I got a couple more years of experience under my belt.  I think I am too risk adverse for this advice though especially since I have seen people who have tried to do this and failed - and they now seem kinda miserable and stuck. 

I am crossing my fingers that I can stay strong and only accept an offer if I think it is a good fit.  I'm a little concerned that my resolve will start to waiver if it is late in the spring semester/early summer next year and I am still job searching...  (It is unlikely that I can extend another year in my postdoc.)

On 5/31/2018 at 6:54 PM, rising_star said:

My take on this is that it is largely institution-specific. I would never thrive at a R1 because I hate the publish or perish mentality, the pressure to get multi- million dollar grants (from funding agencies which are receiving more and more requests but have less available money), and the disconnect from working one-on-one with undergraduates. But at a R2 or upper to mid tier SLAC where you get to teach and do research but with less pressure on the research? I am a much, much happier person. The type of institution and how the workload is structured really matters to me (and to a lot of people). Have you thought about whether or how much of your time you'd like to spend on research vs. advising vs. teaching? That might be one way to help think about things. Another is to actually go through the interview process. I didn't realize how much I would dislike being at a R1 until I did a campus interview at one. 

Research makes me the most happy so I think it's a R1 for me or maybe a R2 that is well resourced. Some R2s (I have learned) have R1 expectations for the number of pubs that they expect each year and given their high teaching loads (3-2, 3-3, 4-3) that makes me really leery. 

Since higher ed is a graduate-only program, no SLACs for me.  I have worked at a SLAC in higher ed admin though and I really liked the culture and small community vibe. I could see myself doing admin again at a SLAC if a non-academic research position doesn't materialize.

Edited by ZeChocMoose
Clarity - missing some key words in a sentence

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48 minutes ago, ZeChocMoose said:

I am crossing my fingers that I can stay strong and only accept an offer if I think it is a good fit.  I'm a little concerned that my resolve will start to waiver if it is late in the spring semester/early summer next year and I am still job searching...  (It is unlikely that I can extend another year in my postdoc.)

This can definitely be tricky to navigate. One thing to consider is whether you would (apply for and) take a one-year or multi-year VAP position in the spring/summer if you haven't found something. Personally, that's the route I took when I was completing my PhD. I didn't love that institution for a variety of reasons but, I also didn't see it as a place I was stuck at (whether as VAP or TT). I had a multi-year VAP so I had a lot of security and the ability to be selective on the market (as @as72 talked about above), which I used to my advantage. I'm now in a position I like more but which still isn't a perfect fit. I don't see this as a dead-end because I know I can (and will) go on the job market (in academia, sure, but probably beyond it too) again if and when I need to.

YMMV obviously but, if it helps for context, I was making these decisions as someone in a long-distance relationship with a partner still in grad school but with no non-four legged dependents. I was definitely worried about ending up unemployed since I didn't have a partner to rely on but, I also prioritized my own happiness. Once I realized I wasn't happy in the VAP job, I went back on the market. I actually turned down a position while a VAP because I didn't think it would improve the things I disliked about my job. Being able to be choosy is a great position so hopefully you can find a way to position yourself that way some time soon. Hope this helps!

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I actually made the decision to leave academia and pursue only non-academic jobs during/after a postdoc. To be completely transparent, I went into grad school thinking I didn't want to be an academic, and graduate school made me consider becoming a professor. I was still unsure what I wanted to do by the time I was finishing up, so I decided that taking a postdoc would give me some time and experience to decide. I had a pretty great postdoc but I decided that academia was not for me. I currently work as a UX researcher at a technology company and I have zero regrets about leaving academia.

What helped me figure it out was actually my experience in my postdoc. There were a couple of red flags that I kept my eye on throughout my experience; the long and short is that I just didn't enjoy the tasks that academics spent a good deal of their time on, and the sacrifices one has to make for an academic career were dealbreakers for me. I hate writing scientific journal articles in the jargony language we're required to use; I wanted to spend more time communicating science to non-scientists. I hated the long lead times for pretty much everything in academia; I wanted a more fast-paced work style, and for my research and expertise to have more immediate impact on something that someone was going to use. I didn't like the solitary nature of the work; I wanted to work on a team where I got to interface with other people every day. I wanted a little more structure to my work days. And I wasn't really fond of writing grants. I didn't mind writing the justification and description of my research; what I hated was laboring over six pages of text for eight months. In my current job I might dash off six pages of text in a day.

I also wanted to have more control over where I lived geographically (I did my postdoc in a small college town to test out if I could do that for a career. I could not, or rather, I did not want to) and I wanted a better work/life balance (in academia, I felt like I had to spend most of my waking hours working in order to be good enough to get a TT job and grants and publications for tenure).

For me, how I figured out what were dealbreakers and what were minor annoyances was for me to be really introspective and think deeply about how I really felt about my work days as a postdoc, not what I was willing to get through for a paycheck or what I was tolerating for now because I had to. When I closed my eyes and imagined myself in a dream job, what was the first sort of image that came to mind? What were the things that frustrated me day in and day out about my job as a postdoc, and how many of those were things that I would only do more of an as academic? When I really, clearly imagined being a professor - because as a postdoc, other than being a VAP, I think that may be the closest you can approximate the role and get to observe what TT professors are doing - did I see myself enjoying the tasks I'd do every day, or dreading them? I realized as time went on that I was filled with a sense of dread when I thought about being on the tenure-track. To me, it looked like six more years of spinning my wheels waiting for something to happen, waiting for my life to finally be settled and to begin, and I hated that feeling.

*

The level of independence that you have in a non-academic job depends a lot on the job, but I think academics commonly imagine far less independence and autonomy than non-academics actually have. While my general area of work is assigned to me, I have some say in what I get assigned to, and I have pretty much complete autonomy to manage the priorities and research that I think needs to be executed in the area - provided it serves the business's goals. I can't go off and do some theoretical research that has no bearing on our business, but frankly I have no desire to do that anyway; I want my work to have product impact.

You will always learn and read more about your field. That doesn't stop because you're not in an academic position. I'm a researcher in my non-academic position, so I actually do end up reading a lot of (academic) research in my field (my company even has a library with subscriptions to Academic Search Premier and such). You're still constantly learning - it's just that sometimes the learning is less explicit and happens in different contexts. I also definitely conduct research on topics that I am interested in - they aren't the one I imagined doing research on when I started graduate school 10 years ago, but they are no less interesting. (Caveat: I work in video games research, so...)

I do miss teaching and mentoring undergraduate students, but I have found different ways to scratch that itch. My managers are pretty awesome and have helped place me in opportunities where I can mentor more junior peers. I have kept a toe in academia by serving on grant panels at the NSF that have to do with graduate education (and I get to meet some really interesting academics and tell them about my job, which is fun!) I also volunteer in my spare time to mentor college-bound high school students. Many non-academic jobs also offer you the ability to teach as an adjunct or work with college students, depending on the type of job. I could also adjunct a class, if I wanted to; I just have decided that I like the amount of free time I have.

And oh, my, the free time. I haven't had this much free time since college. GLORIOUS. Sometimes I actually have time to get bored.

Edited by juilletmercredi

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I was pretty ambivalent too. Just finished my PhD last May. I'm currently a freelance proofreader and looking for jobs at software companies. I'm kind of open to doing a post-doc or adjunct position, but I'm not really interested in tenure track anymore. I just don't enjoy the publish or perish culture, constantly applying for grants, and all else that academic careers entail. I also really wouldn't want to advise grad students and all that. It's like, I just went through this whole process as a grad student myself. The last thing I want is to go through that whole process again, over and over again, from the other side of the advisor's desk. No thanks! 

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On 9/15/2018 at 2:19 AM, Arcadian said:

I was pretty ambivalent too. Just finished my PhD last May. I'm currently a freelance proofreader and looking for jobs at software companies. I'm kind of open to doing a post-doc or adjunct position, but I'm not really interested in tenure track anymore. I just don't enjoy the publish or perish culture, constantly applying for grants, and all else that academic careers entail. I also really wouldn't want to advise grad students and all that. It's like, I just went through this whole process as a grad student myself. The last thing I want is to go through that whole process again, over and over again, from the other side of the advisor's desk. No thanks! 

My two cents would be that there is really no point in doing a postdoc if you are not interested in a TT position.  The pay is lower than what you would get at a non-academic research position and how the experience is viewed by industry really varies wildly from my experience.  Also as a postdoc, you would wind up doing a lot of the things you don't like: trying to quickly publish, apply for grants, and be embedded into the academic culture of the department, etc. You might not have much student contact though - I guess that would depend on how the postdoc is set up.  

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On 9/16/2018 at 8:59 AM, ZeChocMoose said:

My two cents would be that there is really no point in doing a postdoc if you are not interested in a TT position.  The pay is lower than what you would get at a non-academic research position and how the experience is viewed by industry really varies wildly from my experience.  Also as a postdoc, you would wind up doing a lot of the things you don't like: trying to quickly publish, apply for grants, and be embedded into the academic culture of the department, etc. You might not have much student contact though - I guess that would depend on how the postdoc is set up.  

I would add a reason why you want to do a postdoc -- to learn a particular knowledge/skill set/technology(ies) that you 1. expected to excelled at after your post-doc career, and/or 2. cannot learn after your post-doc career.

I chose to do a second postdoc elsewhere -- to learn a particular skill set that I have been wanting to learn, and couldn't learn in my 1st postdoc (too many complicated reasons involved). Though I still have this goal to pursue a TT position, I'm also OK to go into industry (in fact, I applied to industry positions while I was searching for my 2nd postdoc and received a few offers).

There's also industry postdoc for those who want to consider TT position while making some greens and gaining industry experience. Besides, that network that you can build through industry postdoc would be extremely valuable for non-academic career and prepare your profile for industry jobs.

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The caveat I would add, though, is to make sure you really can't learn that skill set in an industry position as you go along. If you know you want to go into industry, often you have time - or it's baked into your position - to learn skill sets that you don't already have, usually with the company's time and money. You'll be making way more money and gaining useful experience while learning that skill set. Sometimes a postdoc is the ideal way to do this, but sometimes you can do it on the job, so consider whether the skill you want to learn is something you really need a postdoc for.

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On 9/16/2018 at 10:59 AM, ZeChocMoose said:

My two cents would be that there is really no point in doing a postdoc if you are not interested in a TT position.  The pay is lower than what you would get at a non-academic research position and how the experience is viewed by industry really varies wildly from my experience.  Also as a postdoc, you would wind up doing a lot of the things you don't like: trying to quickly publish, apply for grants, and be embedded into the academic culture of the department, etc. You might not have much student contact though - I guess that would depend on how the postdoc is set up.  

Hey, just wanted to follow up on this. Indeed, I ultimately agreed with your assessment and decided to take an industry job. Everything is going great so far, and I've never been happier! I'm definitely happier now than I would have been if I had stayed in academia, lol.

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On 2/9/2019 at 2:17 AM, Arcadian said:

Hey, just wanted to follow up on this. Indeed, I ultimately agreed with your assessment and decided to take an industry job. Everything is going great so far, and I've never been happier! I'm definitely happier now than I would have been if I had stayed in academia, lol.

Awesome!  Congrats :)  It is great that you found a job that suited you and all is going well in your new position. I am hopeful that I will be in a similar position soon.

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9 hours ago, ZeChocMoose said:

Awesome!  Congrats :) It is great that you found a job that suited you and all is going well in your new position. I am hopeful that I will be in a similar position soon.

Thanks :) Let me know how your search goes.

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