Why I'm Considering Life After Academia

November 16, 2016

About a year-and-a-half ago, I moved into my first top tier research position. I abandoned being a worldwide expert in a dying subject in order to reach for a loftier goal — become an expert in a cutting edge field of physics research. I want to be clear at the top, this is not something I regret. In the last year, I've learned a ton about large scale software design, 'big data' analysis, shell scripting, cluster computing, the power of object-oriented programming, and the physics of Quantum Chromodynamics (QCD). However, this has come at a cost, which is finding out just how insane the world of academia truly is.

My graduate research was fairly sheltered from the craziness of the academic lifestyle. My advisor had a long term grant and our research group was small. We were free from the 'publish or perish' paradigm, because our research was already funded for the next ten years. We were also free of the aggressive competition that comes with large collaborations. Practically, these freedoms translated into an ability to try new things because failure did not threaten our careers. This led to an atmosphere of innovation and exploration, with the side-effect of isolating me from the harsher realities of academic life.

Upon starting at my current position, I was quickly introduced to just how much politicking being an academic required. I've seen shouting matches over 1% effects. I've seen cases where one person has purposely sabotaged another when asked for help. I've seen projects where one person who didn't do much work takes all the credit for everyone's work (and in this case was subsequently hired instead of the guy who did most of the work!). I'd describe academia as such: "Imagine you're in a room with 1000 of the most clever, driven, and cynical people you've ever met and a banquet is set out. Then the hosts turn to all in attendance and say, 'only the last person still alive may eat. We're going to leave the room for the next 20 minutes and whatever happens, happens. We only care about the results.'" The key difference between the world of business and the world of academia is in the phrase, "most clever, driven, and cynical people." Academia is comprised almost entirely of 'shark' personalities, and we've all been put in an environment where only one out of one thousand sharks has enough food to survive. Every person I work with is smart enough to ruin another's career, and when grant money is so scarce that it's literally "my career or theirs," many do not hesitate to do so.

Since I've started discussing with my friends and family that I might be getting out of that environment, I've been met with a barrage of, "but you spent the last 15 years preparing to be a physicist, why would you change now!?" It's a good question that I've been asking myself quite a lot. With that in mind, I want to sort of lay out all the reasons I'm considering changing fields.


I love data analysis and I've come to realize I don't care if it's physics or not. I got into physics because it was the first time I'd ever been able to do data analysis and extract some form of answer from a series of numbers, but the physics results are not what drives me. I love sussing out trends in the data, converting particle data into correlations and tracking down what the correlation means, writing code that simulates particle collisions and decays, and so many other topics that are part of understanding the physics, but that are not the physics itself. It turns out there are whole other fields where large scale data analysis is also in the job description. In these fields the projects are just as interesting, or even more interesting, than what I'm working on now.


When most people think of the "ivory tower" of academia, they imagine a stuffy room where folks smoking pipes and wearing corduroy sport coats have rousing debates about the fundamental truths of the universe. Each rebuttal is more wonderfully intelligent than the last. The room always smell of mahogany, scotch, and a faint-but-magnificent hint of smoke. A feeling of a raw intelligence permeates the air.

Unfortunately, almost none of this is true (I've seen many corduroy sport coats...).

The "ivory tower" is mostly filled with highly stressed folks working at unreasonable hours, defending the tiniest details of their research against attacks from other scientists who need their work to fail. It's extremely rare to find a relaxed atmosphere where ideas can freely flow. Instead, it's an environment of paranoia that a rival might steal your ideas or sabotage your work. That atmosphere can be quite oppressive. If I'm being honest, I'm not flourishing in this type of environment. Instead, I feel constantly stifled by the need to have the results yesterday and to defend my work from non-constructive criticism.

I also don't want to spend the rest of my life wondering if the next time I apply for a grant will be the time my career dies. As the pie of grant money continues to shrink, it becomes more and more competitive to get a slice. Failing to secure a grant is a career-ender for most academics. For me, stability is a very high priority and being an academic doesn't come with much stability. This leads to two trends within the culture that I find frustrating: egregious political maneuvering and an atmosphere of micromanagement. These are natural consequences of the low supply and the need to continually renew career-sustaining funds. When someone gets a grant, they must make sure that their work is highly visible. They must also ensure that their employees are constantly producing results at a breakneck rate. This shows up most strongly in the "publish or perish" paradigm that has become a staple of academia. You need to publish twice per year, even if you don't have results that are ready to publish. The idea that my career could depend on publishing as frequently as possible is the type of stressor that suppresses my creativity in problem solving in favor of rushing to put out results without any innovation.

These observations have taught me that I work best when I have some autonomy and in an environment where the atmosphere is somewhat laid back. Constantly having someone looking over my shoulder to make sure I'm producing means that I often rush ahead into the job without considering what might be the best course of action. I always meet deadlines, even if self-imposed. However, if someone else is constantly pushing forward, I find it difficult to take a step backwards and evaluate the best way to tackle a problem


To be clear, it's not that I don't want to work hard. Quite the opposite actually. I've spent more than a decade now working 10-12 hour days between school and work. If one includes the weekends that I work, the business trips where I work for 15+ straight days, the fact that I work most nights after work, etc... I'm putting in an average of 50-65 hours per week. When working as hard as possible all the time, burn-out is a real problem. I've had folks argue, "but you're your own boss! Just give yourself a day off and regroup!" In theory, this is absolutely right, but the career-sustaining pie of grants is shrinking and the only thing between an academic and unemployment is being the fastest to get to a new result. There are always other groups of researchers working on your project too, and if they get the result first they will keep their jobs and you might not. It leads to a vicious cycle of, "I need a few days off to recharge my brain, but if I take them I might fall behind."

For me, this manifests as a lack of innovation. I'm always working and producing results, but I'm never pushing the envelope of how we're getting the results. I could go through the rest of my career churning out result after result through shear "number of hours put in," but I also will be unlikely to advance the methods for producing results. I want to get back to solving deep questions with imaginative and creative solutions. I want a culture that isn't working at such a breakneck speed that innovation isn't possible. That's why I'm aiming for my next job to have an atmosphere where stepping back to evaluate problems at the big picture level is encouraged and spending time working on the framework of the problem as a whole is considered worthwhile.


I guess I may as well make this a full, honest disclosure and say I'm also considering the monetary gain and my family's future. I've always heard it said, "do what you love even if it's for less money." However, it turns out that what I love pays on vastly different scales depending on career track. In academia, my career path tops out at $75k-90k. That is quite sufficient, but that's only available if I get a full time position at a top tier research university or lab. Jobs like that are quite rare and the market is saturated. For the ~1,200 new physics PhD's granted in the United States each year, only a few hundred people retire from full time, tenure track positions. As young academics, we can't all get those positions. Instead, it's becoming increasingly common to string young academics along with temporary position after temporary position such that we're always just on the verge of our dream job.

In the industry world, it's common for folks with my skill set to find positions with six-figures as the mean salary. Sure, 'money doesn't buy happiness', but up to a certain point they are quite positively correlated. Part of learning that I love the projects as much as the physics, is understanding that it's valid to desire a position that allows my family to be comfortable and stable. It does not mean that I'm giving up on science, as many in academia seem to believe. Instead, I'm finding new places to apply scientific principles and data science skills.

Where do I go from here?

With all this in mind, I'm still at a fork in the road. I can either decide to stick with academia and perhaps spend the next 30 years fighting tooth-and-nail for just enough grant money to keep my love of pure research alive. Or I can take advantage of the current trend in the "real world" that is clamoring for more people that know statistics and data analysis. Frankly, the latter is becoming more and more appealing. Even still, the idealist and the five-year-old-that-wanted-to-be-a-scientist in me are clinging to a sliver of hope that the dream fulfilling "ivory tower" job is just around the corner.