Leaving academia. Or not?

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Leaving academia. Or not?

Postby Joe F. » Thu Feb 10, 2005 1:21 pm

Dear All:
I've been a lurker on this forum for a while now, and have found many of the threads very useful. While my scientific background is not in a field where many industrial job options are available, I find a lot of the concerns and advice expressed here are translatable. So I would like to ask for some advice.

I've been a postdoc for a little over a year and a half now with the goal of obtaining a tenure-track position, and I hate it: the low pay, lack of autonomy, being treated like a second-class citizen, etc. I am also starting to realize that my current position is not moving me in the direction that I want, in the sense that the projects I've worked on here do not form a coherent whole that could easily be presented as a job talk or integrated with my dissertation research. My publication record is pretty good for my stage in my field (including two papers in review, I have 10 papers) and I attend conferences and peer-review frequently, but I've never gotten beyond the long-list stage for a tenure-track job.

I've been looking for another postdoc for a while (including cold contacts, which is actually how I got this one), but in my area (and with recent cuts to the NSF budget) positions are few and far between. I also have no confidence they would be any better, and would require another expensive long-distance move.

At the same time, I have been pursuing a variety of nonacademic options, including applying for many federal jobs, congressional fellowships, and even graduate programs in policy. Finally this approach is starting to pay dividends. Specifically, I had an interview for a patent agent position with a small local law firm last week, and it went extremely well. They want this person to be around long-term, perhaps even go to law school, which (if I went through with it) sounds like it would be exciting (two of them are PhD/JDs). I also got a very good feeling from the people who work there (the whole office participated in the interview): it seems like it would be a very pleasant place to work, and I really like living in this area. They told me they would be in touch in a couple of weeks, but two days later called me back for a second interview, which will include dinner. My research has indicated that this is an amazing opportunity that I was lucky to get, and while I don't have it in hand yet (and don't want to count my chickens before they hatch), I also don't want to put off the hard thinking about these issues until after I get an offer.

Here is my problem, in a nutshell (and I feel sort of embarrassed admitting this, but it's true): I'm petrified of making a bad choice. I'm petrified of leaving the "safety" of academia for the great unknown (with little likelihood of ever being able to come back), even though I'm unhappy in academia. I wonder if I shouldn't give it two postdocs before giving up my professorial ambitions. I don't want to make a decision solely based on how much I hate my job now. On the other hand, maybe I really am fed up. When I try to think of what I'd really miss about academic life, the list is really short. (For instance, I can't say I'd miss teaching because I've never done it - I was a TA 4 years ago but that hardly counts.) When I think about reasonable hours and weekends off (I work with live animals now - ugh), real benefits, and a salary probably nearly as high as my PI's, I drool. I also worry because I may have to decide about this job before I hear about the fellowship applications, which I'd be very interested in.

I know this is a personal decision, but does anyone have any ideas about how I would go about sorting these issues out? I've been talking to (well, mostly e-mailing) friends and acquaintances (including a few I know in patent law, many in academia) and scouring the web for information. But I feel confused, and also guilty about feeling confused, and would benefit from hearing anyone's thoughts about the situation.

Joe F.
Joe F.

Leaving academia. Or not?

Postby Paul » Thu Feb 10, 2005 1:55 pm

Joe mate...I have NO doubt that you've been in situations before that needed you to step up and make a major decision- you just didn't know so much was riding on it.

Academia isn't for everyone. The issues that you list are exactly why lots of people get out. Ask yourself: where do they go? Industry? Legal? Regulatory? Teaching? There are a huge number of jobs out there that scientists are qualified to do. We just aren't too aware of it. I'm actually lucky because I have an intellectual property lawyer for a sister and have seen how much she works with, and for, scientists. Moving out of academia is a step that you sound capable of making.

Noone can tell you which job route to go but my advice would be to continue checking things out, going for the interviews and asking questions. Maybe even ask about transition issues to the scientists in these companies. My guess will be that you will quickly get a taste for whither you are excited or uninspired by the job.

Whatever you do though, it is always up to you as an individual to make a success of your decisions!

Leaving academia. Or not?

Postby Madison » Thu Feb 10, 2005 2:35 pm

Dude, good luck! I think it's very mature of you to acknowledge that this is a difficult and scary decision. I just thought I'd let you know that working as a tech spec is VERY demanding, just so you know. I have a friend who is one and works crazy hours. Now that the company is putting him through law school he is still expected to generate lots of billable hours while going to school full time. He works very hard.

Now, my friend absolutely loves this, but he is getting a little burnt out in his 3rd year of law school, and can't wait for it to be over. I don't think this position is likely to entail resonable hours and weekends off - this is something you should clarify with the firm before you accept the position.

Leaving academia. Or not?

Postby Ken » Thu Feb 10, 2005 3:00 pm

If you are looking for a postdoc anyway, and are interested in trying out industry, why not consider an industry postdoc? The pay/benefits will be better than what you get now, and you will get the exposure (not to mention the coveted "industry experience") as well as build some contacts.

There is some belief that you can't go home again (back to academia), but I think this is more because people don't want to go back to academia.

I have as much or more project autonomy as anyone in academia. I never have to settle for the second best experiment; we have the money for me to always do the best experiment with the best equipment.

Plus, the terms "business development" and such get thrown around a lot in academia, and I think you will get some semblance of what these things mean postdocing at a company, even if you don't work directly with these aspects. You will get to see what non-bench jobs there are.

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Leaving academia. Or not?

Postby MPB » Thu Feb 10, 2005 3:20 pm

Joe, my situation was very similar to yours. After 2 or 3 years as a post doc, I felt that I was not getting where I wanted to go. I decided to do a second post-doc, which was definitely a mistake for me, and may be a mistake for you as well, if you can stay in your current lab. You are clearly in a place where you can be productive and publish papers, and moving to another post-doc is a crap shoot and might hinder your productivity. Having recognized the problem with your research not telling a coherent story, can you try to address that where you are, rather than moving and likely making your research even more disjointed?

I decided to leave academia, and since doing so, I've known many other PhDs who did the same thing. There are career possibilities out there, and I have described my own experiences in some other threads. Most people that I have talked to do miss being involved in research and miss being around very smart and motivated people on a daily basis. But overall, I think most of us would say that our quality of life is better. Madison is right though about law offices; I have known people who have worked in law offices, and everyone (not only the attorneys) works very long hours.

Ultimately I think it comes down to how you feel about science. Do you have the passion for research and the dedication to excel that a top-level athlete does? Do you live to pose questions and design studies to answer those questions? If you do, then you might feel bad after leaving, because it is very, very difficult to get back in if you decide to leave. If you don't have that passion and committment, your struggle will likely increase over time, because the road just gets harder and harder the farther you travel it.

Another option, between tenure and quitting, is trying to find a non tenure track but career scientist job. I had one of those myself, and have known plenty of people who have done them. There are good things and bad things about them, but that is probably an entirely different discussion.

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Leaving academia. Or not?

Postby J.J. » Thu Feb 10, 2005 4:16 pm

I second what Madison says-patent agent hours can be really demanding (about 10 hours in the office for every 8 hours billed, billing expectations are around 1800-2000/year, everything unrelated to client matters does not count as billable. But, I LOVE my job. And, I never get too bummed about the hours, because I think how much it would suck if I were making a postdoc salary but working the same hours.
There's no going back to the bench from here, but there are other great career transitions (tech transfer, in-house IP department, business development, science policy, etc.) that will be available in the long term.
I have never regretted my decision-not for a second. I like the people I work with and I like my clients and I like the work.
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Leaving academia. Or not?

Postby CT » Thu Feb 10, 2005 5:04 pm

Hi Joe,
I just wanted to put in my two cents as a fellow traveller. I feel like I'm struggling with many of the same issues. What I read in your post (and maybe I'm projecting here) is that academia is ok but a bit like swimming up a creek without a paddle. There are benefits but there's a big But. I feel the same way. I find myself asking "Isn't there something better for me?" but being very afraid about leaving the comfort of the nest.

Right now what I'm trying to do to sort these out is to make a lot of lists and do a lot of writing about my aspirations and think about what things I value in my life. This sounds all touchy feely etc, but I'm finding it better than many of the exercises that career changing books recommend. It helps me break through the mental blocks I've put up about 'other' careers. The other path I'm taking is to do informational interviews about different kinds of careers in order to give me more ideas about what else I would like to do. Sounds like you're way ahead of the me on that front.

Most of all, I'm following two pieces of advice. First of all, bear in mind changing careers is not something you do in a month. It took a long time to decide to be a scientist and actually get into grad school (take fist step to becoming a scientist). Expect it to take a long time to change careers. This has helped me feel less pressured about it, which I think increases my chances of making a thoughtful decision. The second piece of advice, given to me by my mother who decided to go to law school in her 40s, is that you can't make a wrong decision. You just make a decision that leads to another. There are people in science who make it back from the non-academic side, for example. People often move jobs in the non-academic world. I find these things help take the pressure off the decision, which I think will ultimately help me make a better decision.

Hope this helps!

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Leaving academia. Or not?

Postby A. Sam » Thu Feb 10, 2005 6:52 pm

Hey Joe,

All the thinking and worrying in the world will not give you all the answers. There is no such thing as a risk-free moment when the one true correct path is clearly illuminated for you. At some point you just have to make a decision and go with it. Lingering too long suspended in indecision is worst thing to do because no matter which path you choose you'll make the best of it; you're doing that right this second. Even if it turns out that you hate being a patent agent for example, you'll still have made the right decision to try it because there was no other way you were going to find out.
A. Sam
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Postby Val » Thu Feb 10, 2005 10:39 pm

Joe F. wrote:

> I've been a postdoc... and I hate it: the low pay, lack of autonomy

You are an underling, and therefore it will never happen that the boss will care about your best interests and about increasing your employability. In fact, almost everyone in their early career gets low-pay low-responsibility job like you. What you are probably doing you pester your boss with requests for better projects which will develop your employable skills etc. Boss reacts to your request -- he may say yes or no. You will never receive everything you need.

Why not become proactive. Instead, make the boss come to you and have him suggesting good projects. Arranging such situations and "training" the boss takes time (a year ? two ?), which you might not have in your postdoc. However, this seems to be the only way by which people get good projects which serve to advance their careers.

The strategies of "training the boss" are numerous. Some people take textbooks home and in their free time they study the new programming language or the theory of the phenomenon they are working in the day job. They put the extra effort, and solve the problem. They casually give the solution to the boss making the impression that they just started doing it and quickly came to the solution. They do not demand recognition for this work. They observe what kind of work their boss needs done, and do it unconspiciously. They do it several times. At last, the boss comes to the realisation that the person can solve the real problems, and that he (boss) does not feel insecure about giving the problem to the person. Boss starts coming to the person and give projects to the person requiring only the outcome. How you do it is up to you. You get a budget for it. This is what you wanted, is not it ?

> got job offers... petrified of making a bad choice

You should realise that none of your choices will be perfect, and any picked one will disappoint you in some way. In the real world, you have a choice between a bad position and a slightly worse position. In other words, whatever choice you make, it will be wrong. So stop frustrating, and take a plunge. You will never know if the job is good until you start working in the job.

> I would go about sorting these issues out? I've been talking to

You are doing it right. Talk to the people. Dave Jensen would say that you should talk to the people who are couple of years ahead of you in career. Find such people in your prospective place of employment or in a similar organisation, and ask what their problems were. Thus, you will make a dive into your new job informed about the potential pitfalls ahead of you, and what is the mechanics of advancing your career in that setting. After you have talked to the relevant people, a realisation will down at you which job is the right choice for you.

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Postby Zoe » Sun Feb 13, 2005 8:33 pm

Hi Joe

I'd just like to say that you are most definitely not the only one going through such a dilemma! I am just nearing the end of the 1st year of my 1st postdoc and am very confused myself. I think my first biggest mistake was starting this job and not having finished writing my thesis - trying to read about 2 different topics at the same time and just getting bogged down. That meant that I couldn't take a break after the thesis writing which i think is vital.
However, i am where I am but in addition to all of your issues such as low pay etc, what i find quite hard is the lack of human interaction. I know there are collaborations etc, but realistically you can go through an entire day in the lab without having a "need" to talk to anyone at all. Now of course in every job, you have to do your own work on your own - but I believe there is more human interaction on a more general level.
I think I want to be in a position where I am involved in a team, managing people, being managed - answering to deadlines, making deadlines etc, and yes, that is in essence a grouop leader, but I'm not sure I have the drive to get there through the years of bad pay and bad hours....

Anyway ,sorry to hijack your post slighty - I totally understand all the reservations you have about leaving and not leaving and it's good to know that we are marketable in other fields than just research!

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