Can I get back into academia (particularly a hard science) after leaving?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (3 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I got my PhD in a hard science about six years ago. I don't want to say what it is - it's a small field, and I'd like to stay anonymous. My PhD work was in a very dynamic, exciting field, and subsequently, I got a postdoc at a prestigious institution, working with someone who is well respected. I was making a name for myself. I was on track to do good things, could easily have gotten that tenure track position part of me always fantasized about.
Except there was another half of me who fantasized about staying in the town where I went to grad school, getting a "real job" and settling in. I was burnt out. Burnt out for many reasons, some better than others. Some were very real, and others I think I let myself believe because it felt safer just giving up the academic career track.
So I left. A position opened up in a friend's research group at a government contracting company, and I took it. This was in the town where I went to grad school, and my partner and I were excited at the prospect of going back. It was a completely different field, same type of analytic work, but different subject area. There is no industry related to my PhD field, so to leave academia means to leave the field completely. I thought I'd be happy at this place, but it wasn't as good as advertised, and I quickly realized that it was a dead end job. (Yes, it seems there are some dead end jobs that require a PhD.) Last year, due to government budget cuts, our work was slashed by half and I was put on furlough. I came back on after a couple of months, but work has been shaky and I've been frantically looking for a job ever since.
I have done a lot of soul searching during the course of this job hunt. And what I've come to realize is that I miss my old field. But I'd like to go back on different terms, go into more an educational and outreach role, rather than vying for the tenure-track position at major research university. I started thinking about this because I was on the short list for an amazing position in my old field at a nearby science museum, which sadly I didn't get. I was so excited about that job prospect, and was so surprised that I got that far, even though I'd been out of the field for years.
To help me get back on that career path, I started working part time with my old group from grad school, just ten hours a week, but something to put on a CV, and a venue to get back into research. I've reached out to some of my old collaborators, and networked with some important people who have all been supportive. But I'm starting to get discouraged. I don't know anybody who's been able to successfully do this--transition back after leaving. I feel like if I wanted to go back, I'd need to go back to school to get a new degree, maybe in science education, and start all over again. Ten hours doesn't seem like much, but it is taxing on top of a full time job and taking care of an infant.
There's another part of this. I actually found a job, a very good one! Not in my PhD field, this one's not even in science, but it's lucrative, and in a really interesting new field. I'm lucky to be going from the brink of near-unemployment to finding a job so much better than the one I have now. I would have plunged in and started applying for jobs in my old field now, but my partner is in grad school, so I'm stuck in this area until summer 2013. And other than that museum job, there simply are no jobs in my old field for me to apply for here. And really, do I want to go from making oodles of money in a cool new field to doing something like adjunct work? If that's the best I could do, I don't know if it's worth even bothering.
I have a new baby, my time is precious right now, and I worry I'm wasting my time trying to get back in. And I worry I should be focusing more on being really awesome at my new job, rather than splitting my time between the two pursuits. Is it possible to go back? Have people done it? If you're in academia, what percentage change would you give my prospects of getting back in? I know that this also depends on how hard I'm willing to work. I could quit my job, go to work for my old advisor for basically free for a few years, and that could be a stepping stone to doing better things. But that's sacrificing a lot, and that still doesn't guarantee the kind of career I'd want.