My career path always seemed pretty obvious. My parents were science majors at an elite liberal arts college on the east coast. My dad got his doctorate in chemistry from an Ivy. Science was everywhere in my house: my folks got me up to see the last moon landing when I was two months old. I was inundated by Legos. When I was twelve, my grandfather and I got out his telescope and saw the rings of Saturn (so tiny, so perfect!). Consequently, I’ve been crazy about space and rockets for as long as I could remember. Twelfth grade physics class showed me that the universe had operating rules and my fascination only increased. There was never any doubt that I’d end up with a PhD in some sort of hard science, then go off and professor at someplace prestigious, followed by a stretch goal of becoming an astronaut and/or winning a Nobel Prize. It was just a matter of buckling down and working my way up through the ancient system of apprentice/master that is academia. Honestly, I never really questioned it. Perhaps I should have more.
Things went well enough: four years at a top liberal arts college, seven years in a good Astrophysics grad program, an exciting research post-doctorate position at a mountain-west research university. At each stop I was surrounded by amazing cadres of brilliant peers and brilliant teachers. I was well on my way. How else could it be? Obviously some people did other things with their lives, but aside from the parallel career structures of medical school or law school, it was all pretty mysterious. There was this nebulous “industry” that some of my peers disappeared to when they “failed” out of grad school or whatever, but I never paid it much heed. I was living the dream, or at least working toward living the dream.
Once the shininess of research (and the gravy train of research funding) started to wear off, I started teaching and found it, to my surprise, pretty great. I never thought of myself as someone who would enjoy standing in front of hundreds of students (eek!) and talking for hours at a time about subjects in which I wasn’t an expert (eeek!). It was flying-without-a-net gripping and transformative. Well, this is still on the track, right? This is a necessary part of winning the professor game; professors had to, every now and then, teach classes.
I don’t remember when it was that I finally woke up (but it was probably in about 2016). I woke up to the fact that my family and I were a couple months of funding away from living on half a salary (not zero, but not enough to live on). I woke up to the fact that I just wasn’t that interested in writing yet another proposal, yet another paper, yet another response to yet another snarky referee on a subject I’d been doing for well over a decade.
I woke to the fact that academia is abusive to the point of toxicity. With rare exceptions, to “win the game”, you need a monomaniacal dedication to your career often above all other considerations. More importantly, even with all that, you need the luck to be in the right place at the right time, with the right connections. What’s more, I woke up to the fact that non-tenure-track adjuncts and instructors are willingly abused by the academic system. Why was I, teaching 2-3 classes each semester, responsible for about 15% of the credit hours of a 30-person department… as a half-time Instructor?
Some might call it quitting the game or failing out of the system. Certainly I would have as recently as ten years ago. I don’t regret much; it was a lot of fun and I’m proud to leave behind my own small bit of scientific advancement (fifteen first-author papers). Despite never having much prior interest in teaching, I took a chance and discovered the challenges and great rewards of interacting with students on a daily basis. I have enjoyed teaching (nearly) all of the 2273 students in my twenty classes over eleven semesters and the fact that I’ve been able to guide at least some of them find life-changing inspiration and fascination certainly ranks as my proudest achievement.
But it was time to take another chance. I put together a resume (which is like a CV but shorter, right?), cataloged what marketable skills I might have (I’m really good at analyzing ultraviolet spectra), and milking what connections I had (mostly spouses of academic friends and running buddies who worked for interesting companies). It was awful, uncomfortable, unknown, and I never enjoyed any of it. But it was necessary.
After about a year of solid effort not to mention a good bit of luck, I am thrilled to announce that I’ll be starting my non-academic career next week. I’ll be starting in the R&D division at DigitalGlobe not far from where I live and play.
I don’t know if this is the right move or not, but I’m fascinated to find out, learn something new, and get out of the academic tunnel mindset. I have no idea what my life will be like in a year’s time and it’s a GREAT feeling!
I want to make clear that my Department at the University of Colorado has been very supportive and nurturing to me and for that reason, I leave with sadness. I want to recognize the mentorship I’ve received over the years as well as the work done by many of my colleagues to keep me funded and productive in both the teaching and research sides of my job. I will miss the congenial atmosphere of the department greatly. However, the University and the culture of academia in general makes it impossible for me to keep going on the current track indefinitely. I don’t see that changing in any useful timescale.
In case you’re an academic who has stumbled upon this page and somehow managed to hang on this far, here are four things I wish I’d realized a lot earlier:
§ First, it’s okay to change your mind. I’m forty-mumble years old and still doing a career I decided upon when I was 18. My priorities and interests have changed since my freshman year of college. Time to try something different. I’ve never met anyone who regretted leaving academia.
§ Second, recognize Survivor Bias. We surround ourselves with people who have “won the game” (gotten into grad school, gotten PhDs, gotten faculty jobs) and the longer we stay in academia in this narrow, specific trajectory, the more we consider it inevitable and inescapably the only possible way forward. Or the more we consider it hopeless and that we’ll never make it (c.f. Imposter Syndrome). Leaving academia is not a failure. The last thing the world needs is more physics professors!
§ Third, job ads are very discouraging but you are more marketable than you realize. A science degree (PhD or BA) shows that you are tenacious, creative, and teachable. Even though you may not have the specific skills some employer is looking for, you have the proven ability to learn whatever it is you need to know. As long as you can get past automatic HR-level screening, the tenacity, creativity, and deep, fundamental thinking you’ve developed will be more valuable than you know.
§ Fourth, networking is everything. For better or worse, this is how you get a job. Put yourself out there and grow your contacts. Be forward and proactive; even people you barely know are happy to spend a few minutes talking and helping you along your way.