Saturday, February 15, 2014

How quickly should you leave academia?

I was asked to comment on the blog post Get a PhD—but leave academia as soon as you graduate by
Allison Schrager. She completed a Ph.D in economics at Columbia University and now works in the financial industry. It is worth reading and pondering. Overall, I like the post for a number of reasons, but would add some qualifiers.

Schrager nicely highlights
  • The reality, painful to many, that only a very small fraction of Ph.D's will end up as tenured faculty.
  • Adjunct teaching positions [part-time faculty and short-term contracts] are a career dead end.
  • The value of a good Ph.D, both in terms of the educational value and the enjoyment that it can provide.
  • The unfortunate fact that some faculty have the view that industry offers second-rate careers and soft intellectual challenges. Yet her experience shows this is far from the case.
  • Most Ph.D programs prepare people poorly for looking for jobs outside academia.
  • The transition from academia to industry can be difficult and painful.
The post is actually not as rigid as the title suggests. She actually says
"If you don’t graduate with a solid academic job or compelling post-doc, give up on the dream as quickly as possible."

Aside: Allison Schrager also has two other nice posts that I enjoyed reading and recommend:
Confession of an Ivy League teaching assistant: Here’s why I inflated grades
I was skeptical but now I’m convinced: Math matters 

Here are my qualifiers.

Ultimately these questions are very personal. You need to weigh up your own personal values and goals. Different people will make different decisions and they should.
It isn't one size fits all. Unfortunately, it is human nature to want validation for our own decisions. Consequently, sometimes people will basically say "you should do what I did".

Don't just assume the grass is greener outside academia, as I argued in a post, Should I change jobs?

Consider the value of quitting.

The situation in science is quite different than in economics and the humanities because of the common availability of postdoctoral positions. For science, I think the question is more should I leave academia after zero, two, four, six, or ten years of postdoctoral positions?
Again, I don't think there is a universal answer. It is personal. But, you do need to be well informed and realistic.


  1. I find it very hard to see how Schrager's experience could resemble that of the "average" PhD student. She studied economics and finance at an Ivy League university, and became a public policy pundit based in New York, which I would have thought is an absolutely typical sort of career for someone with that educational background. How many people who do such degrees, *don't* end up as part of the Wall Street / Ivy League ruling-class nexus of think tanks / media / high finance?

  2. Having moved from academia to industry and back, I can say that it very much depends on the type of job and the person. For example, a theoretical physicist may struggle to find interesting/satisfying problems to work on in industry, whereas an experimental physicist may suddenly have all the great equipment that was not available at university. If you decide to leave academia, be prepared to accept that it is potentially very different, and that you may have to find other things besides work to fill your life.