The non-academic job search (Part 0)-Deciding to leave

26 Oct

Hi!  Pregnancy this time around has been kicking my butt, but I’m hoping as second trimester goes on that I’ll start feeling better and posting more/being more of an upright person.  Here’s the post, which is a mishmash of thoughts from the past year.

If you missed Part 1 of this, that doesn’t matter because it comes after!  But here’s the link just in case you wanted to see it.  I spend that post talking about the steps I took after deciding to leave, but realized that lots of people are in the position that I’m in and might want to know how I decided to leave mathademia, which has been my happy home for years (sometimes larger than I’d like to admit).

A mentor of mine from my undergraduate days wrote a fantastic piece about going from his tenure-track job to working for Google; I recommend the whole thing.  He talks about money, time, intellectual challenge, and committee work as his factors. Here’s an excerpt:

At the time, my assessment of the private sector  vs. academia was pretty bleak: Your salary is higher, but the price you pay for that is longer hours at a mind-numbing job with a micro-managing boss. But it turns out, things aren’t actually that extreme. In fact, there are a lot of nice things about the private sector, that make the comparison much more subtle, even if you take money completely out of the picture.

When I started seriously thinking about my future, I gave him a call and asked for advice on leaving academia and making the decision.  He strongly suggested picking up this book, which I also highly recommend:

This book made me turn from despairing and feeling like a failure to hopeful and inspired- it’s full of stories of people with Ph.D.s who went on to do other non-academic things, and concrete advice for turning a CV into a resume, etc.  I read this book before the other ones (parachute, in transition).  I also talked to as many non-academic math Ph.D.s as I could (or really, just the ones I ran into, which is a surprising number of people!  We’re everywhere!) about their transitions and how they chose their lives.

A lot of applied math or stat people are fine.  They do, in general, big data/data science and program and make lots of money (also, pure math people who know how to and enjoy programming also make lots of money and are fine).  I’ve heard of one particular data science fellowship specifically for master’s/Ph.D. students, and I’m sure there are others out there.  Also my friend Jeremy definitely does something with data now and is very nice and helpful and I’m just volunteering him now to talk to my blog readers (and point you toward his blog if this is something you are interested in).

That hopefulness really buoyed me forward, as did reading Jesse’s second blog post on this topic.  Here’s an excerpt again contrasting mathademia with non-academia:

In the end, the process of getting a non-academic job can be long and complex. At the beginning, it feels completely hopeless, but the more you learn and the more non-academics you talk to, the better it gets. And here’s the kicker: There are a lot of jobs out there where the supply and demand dynamics are completely the opposite of academia – where employers are desperately seeking qualified applicants. Once you find your way there, and see what it’s like applying for a job where you’re NOT one of 500 applicants for a single position, it’s completely worth it.

I ended up writing a big board of pros and cons of staying in academia- the biggest con for me is the moving/not having a choice of where to live and raise my family.  But plenty of academics successfully have families, so this con might not be as big to you.  The biggest pro is research/choosing what problems to work on, but that definitely did not outweigh the lack of control in where to live.  Of course my situation is a little different because I have a relatively immobile spouse (lots of professors seem to be married to other professors, doctors, or lawyers rather than high-power financial software developers), and if he wasn’t in the picture maybe my pro/con weights would be different.

Anyways, I agonized over this for a few months, reading that book, thinking about what people said.  One former post-doc, now software developer, told me he hates that he works “for someone else’s dream” vs. when he did his own research.  I guess that’s why they pay him the big bucks (or, y’know, at least some bucks).

When I did an ethnographic research project in Vietnam in 2009, one mathematician told me “what do I need money for?  I travel, I do what I love, I eat well, what would I spend more money on?”  My advisor told me about an exchange he had with a family member, where they asked him if he would do his job even without the money.  He said yes (though probably less of it).  It’s a theme I’ve run into a lot with mathematicians: mathematicians really, REALLY love math and/or teaching.

Back in 2012, I watched a video of an old friend of mine teaching a lesson about logarithms.  She LOVED teaching (and math).  Here’s a great minute-long clip.  You can tell just by watching how much she LOVED teaching.

Thinking about her, and the Vietnamese woman I’d spoken to those years ago, I just couldn’t compare my passion for these things to theirs.  Not to say that you have to be super passionate about your job (sometimes a job really is just a job), but if you have the luxury of making a choice, why not be a little picky?

I had to wrestle with feeling like a failure for not going into academia (this is a real thing) even though my advisor and others explicitly told me that I am not at all a failure for not following their path.  Eventually I had to listen to myself/the advice I’d been given a long time ago: “Swim in your own lane.”  I even say this at the beginning of this video.

Anyway, it’s a long and personal journey, and as a Ph.D. friend in industry once told me, “the hardest thing about leaving academia is deciding to leave academia.”  I can’t say I agree wholeheartedly with that yet (I still don’t have a job for next year), but I can definitely say that it was hard, and I’m around for you if you want to reach out and talk to me about it (contact info is all over this blog).



7 Responses to “The non-academic job search (Part 0)-Deciding to leave”

  1. bf October 26, 2016 at 2:01 pm #

    Would you be okay if I shared this with my students? Not mine in the math genealogy sense: all of them at my institution.

    • yenergy October 26, 2016 at 3:34 pm #

      Oh that’s great I would be delighted if you shared it! Thanks!

  2. bf October 26, 2016 at 2:06 pm #

    Oh, and best wishes for pregnancy #2!

    • yenergy October 26, 2016 at 3:34 pm #

      Thank you! I hope it gets better soon and I start gaining some weight!

  3. Jake October 26, 2016 at 4:59 pm #

    Math phd here who’s been in industry for 15 years and: it’s fine. I will say than when my last couple places have been hiring math phds, the critical thing that comes up is “can they write production-like code”, but I’ve interviewed plenty of math people who have had careers not doing much programming beyond matlab.

  4. j2kun October 26, 2016 at 10:15 pm #

    Okay! Here I am, ask away if you like programming 🙂

  5. pdhorn May 16, 2017 at 7:18 pm #

    I just came across your post. I left a tenure-track position in math in January 2016. I think your friend is correct that the hardest part in leaving is deciding to leave. It took me years to decide. How are you finding the work-life balance in industry?

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