How should I best use my time to transition out of academia? (I'm in math.)
January 17, 2011 2:57 PM   Subscribe

How should I best use my time to transition out of academia? (I'm in math.)

I'm hoping to transition out of academia and into a "real job". I have a PhD in math, which I got last year, and currently have a one-year position at a research university in which I teach two courses a semester; the second semester starts in a couple days. I'm finding that I don't like teaching as much as I believed I would from my experience as a TA. Since I teach two classes there is sof this job till time for research, but I lack the motivation to continue doing the same sort of research as I did for my dissertation. I remember often thinking about my research that I'd like to do something that actually applies to the real world; now I actually want to get out there.

And even if I get over these things -- academia is lonely. This is something I didn't really realize in grad school, because I hung out a lot with other grad students and I had a feeling that we were all in this together. But now I am in a new department where I don't even know who most of my colleagues are. And why should I? My job doesn't involve collaborating with them. My field is such that people's research collaborators are often far away -- you don't generally collaborate with the person in the next office. And the flip side of having the freedom to teach what I want is that I have not had a substantive conversation about my teaching with anybody since I got here. And everything I read tells me that yes, academia is lonely even for people who succeed in it.

Plus, I like the idea of having some control over where I live. I happened to get lucky and end up in a place where I very well might have chosen to live anyway, had I had a choice. But I know that I very well may not have that choice in the future. And I was never all that enthusiastic about jobs in academia anyway -- but as I'm sure some of you know, academia's kind of like a cult.

So, I have the gift of having free time, because teaching two classes doesn't take up all my time. And there seem to be three major ways that I could spend this time:

1. what I've been doing -- read lots of random books (one perk of working at a university is access to a good library), go for long walks, and generally try to enjoy myself (without spending too much money). Try not to think about the looming storm overhead.

2. work hard to develop some skill that would help me get a job. (But what? Part of the problem here is that I don't really know what sort of job I want.) This might also include actually getting some sort of job on the side, although I don't know what, or whether that's at all feasible.

3. turn my dissertation into papers. This would be relatively easy, but it would take some time. In particular I'm wondering if this would be useful outside of academia. (My dissertation has no real non-academic applications.)

For what it's worth, I'm in a pretty good financial situation: no kids, no debt, and I actually managed to put away some money during grad school; my current job pays me enough to live on. I like the geographic area I'm in but have no real ties to it and don't like that it's far from my family, so I'm willing to relocate. I'm willing to spend some time unemployed after this job ends but I'm not exactly thrilled about that idea, because I don't handle long stretches of unorganized time well. I'm 27, so I'm younger than a lot of people in this situation; I got to this point by this age by not having any real non-academic work experience, so in the job search I'm going to have to sell myself as a generally smart person who will be able to figure out how to do the job.

And on that note, say I go through with this. Will I have a chance to learn how to do my job? One of the things that's frustrating me about academia is that, like a lot of new PhD's, I never really learned how to teach, but everyone seems to assume I know how to do it, and my supposed "colleagues" don't seem to answer questions about teaching; am I just going to be walking into that situation again?

(anonymous because, well, I am not one hundred percent sure of this decision, so I don't want it associated with my name. If you think you know who I am, you're probably right; I've posted parts of this story in askme questions before. followup e-mails to toomuchtime dot mefi at gmail dot com)
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (12 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Coupla thoughts:

1. You still have to try to use your time to transition INTO academia. In addition to that fact that you're far (FAR) from socialised into your current position after a lousy single semester, you had to start looking for a real position (not a one-year) yesterday. Like, several months ago "yesterday."

2. The first year- the only year- of a one-year LTA position is not the time to be reading books and going on long walks. You have to be banging out manuscripts and, as I just said, finding work.

3. Of COURSE academia is "lonely." We are, in a way, all independent contractors but with the luxury (those of us with jobs, I mean) to be getting regular, substantial (in Canada anyway) paycheques while we bounce from project to project. Were you really expecting otherwise?

You write like somebody who made it through his doctorate at breakneck speed and didn't have the time to get much perspective on things that seem self-evident to many people in many careers, in and out of academia. If I were to give you advice it would be that you don't really have a clue, yet, as to what academia really is, and since you're already credentialed for it, why not focus on IT (and not reading and walking and complaining) and figure out how to do it. Then determine--you're still going to be very young even 5 years from now--if you want to leave, at which point you'll have more of a CV and more networks to contemplate it.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 3:20 PM on January 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

I disagree with ethnomethodologist. If you aren't happy in academia and you were never sure you wanted an academic job, do something else. There are so many people you will be fighting with for academic positions who want nothing else and have never wanted anything else, and who love teaching.

As to what you should be doing now, I would suggest that instead of (2) you spend the equivalent time getting to know the job market so you can see how the skills you already have fit in. See a career counselor. Read all the jobs vacant lists you can get your hands on. Talk to everyone you know about their jobs (especially other ex-maths people.) Read blogs written by people in the careers you are considering. Do informational interviews. Practise application writing. Rewrite your CV and get it looked over by someone who knows about non-academic jobs.

Don't bother with writing papers if you aren't planning to continue on as an academic. I can't see how that would possibly be useful and it will suck up all your time.
posted by lollusc at 3:33 PM on January 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

I recommend this article on career change for professionals. It's based on research on what has actually worked for people who a) have a lot invested in their existing career, and b) aren't sure where they want to go or how to get there. (There's a book too, but the article is plenty to get started with.)

The general theme, which will suit your time situation well, is to do lots of experiments on the side while keeping your day job, to gradually feel your way towards a new direction. It has a message against over-analyzing and trying to find the "one right answer" by purely intellectual means.

I think could be esp important for you to use this kind of an approach because you'll otherwise probably tend to gravitate to thinking-intensive jobs which could have the same kinds of pitfalls for you as academia.
posted by philipy at 3:47 PM on January 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

I’m going to give a slightly different response as someone who completely abandoned academia..and I did this a few years after acquiring faculty appointments.

I do think ethnomethtodologist has some valid points (and you, anonyOP make the same points) – why not confirm whether you want to do this? One thing that you may want to look into is whether there as an academic teaching support center on campus – at least in most universities in the US, you could take a class, have someone observe (and give suggestions) for your class – and you may also find out about the availability of grants for teaching, which could allow you to bring interesting tools/programs into your institution and class.

Now for the leaving idea…I wish people (especially in academia) would have been open to providing other suggestions and just listening to the idea that some pple don’t enjoy it (similar to you, I did not like that I could not determine where I would live…and it was the most isolating job(s) of my life).

I would check out the Versatile PhD – you will have to poke around there, but they should have a support email group for pple who want to leave academia. Now it is meant for pple in the humanities/social science, but it is the only place that I found that providing suggestions and would at least entertain that …yes, people want out. It will probably not meet your needs forever, but it is a start.

The other suggestion (after you form a list of jobs that you would consider doing …I don’t know your field that well …can you do statistics? Wall Street?) is that you contact pple with your background who do exactly what you want to do. I did exactly this several years ago and googled “PhD” “my field” plus “desired job” plus “city that I lived in” to get names and contact info. Anyway, it was very useful and helpful to approach pple and request an info interview--remember you can email them and say that you have something in common (PhD who wants to leave and find out more about their job) and would they talk to you/email you/meet you in person, whatever, 30 minutes max and in person...people who don't want to help will ignore, others will help out (details on what I did here--don't want to type it all out again) – but it was great to find out more about the possible jobs/pay/and what I actually needed to do, especially without experience in that particular field. People even gave job leads. The time will be well spent if you leave academia because you will know numerous job title titles to search, know how to position your CV/resume (and some jobs outside academia do use CVs, and you won’t find this out unless you talk to people in that field), and even make numerous contacts. It also may recharge you if you find people that you connect with, etc.

Not that it matters, but you may be surprised and find jobs and a QoL that you enjoy more …on the outside, but the only way to find out is to step outside the fish bowl. I’m really glad that I did, but YMMV. You may try to talk to people who live in your area who are not involved in academia, just to get another perspective --sometimes pple on that versatile list do meet in person to provide support and brainstorm ideas. Good luck.
posted by Wolfster at 3:52 PM on January 17, 2011 [4 favorites]

Unless you are 100% committed to getting a non-academic job, you need to get (a) paper(s) from your dissertation submitted as soon as possible.

This doesn't really answer your question, because as an academic I don't know how to transition out of academia. However: (1) the first year in academia is sucky. It gets easier. (2) it also sounds like you've ended up in a crappy department. I often have conversations with colleagues about teaching-related issues. Although their research interests are not the same as mine, I hope to develop some common research areas with colleagues, in addition to collaborating with folks far away.
posted by leahwrenn at 4:46 PM on January 17, 2011

I have been going through my own academia identity crisis and have found this book called "So What Are You Going to Do with That?": Finding Careers Outside Academia extremely reassuring. It is written by two English PhDs, and many of the examples are from people in humanities fields, but I think the advice would be helpful for those in other fields two. It has advice on networking, turning a CV into a resume, and identifying skills you have developed in academia that translate into non-academic settings.

A similar question has been percolating in my mind, so thank you for asking this.
posted by apricot at 5:02 PM on January 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm in the middle of a similar transition, and do not yet have a burgeoning non-academic career to show for it. But my suggestion, based on my experiences so far, would be to get any kind of non-academic work experience you can get your hands on. If you're a VAP, it might be unseemly for you to take another job on the side; in that case, get volunteer work experience. See if your favorite local non-profit could use some help with data entry or site cleanup or event management.

The purpose of getting work experience is not primarily to build up a resume (though that might turn out to be a favorable side effect). The purpose is to expose yourself to other work environments, other co-workers, and other applications of your talents.

Right now, all you know is academia, specifically the mathematics niche. Putting yourself in other work environments will help you get a better sense of what else you might want—or not want—to do every day. I've been paying close attention to the career stories of ex-academics I know. Almost universally, the story goes like this: I took dumb little Job X to help pay my way through grad school. I enjoyed it, and did well at it, and got promoted to Job Y. Eventually I realized I'd rather keep going in this career than in academia, so I made the leap to full-time Job Z. You're out of grad school already, but go find Job X. If you hate it, fine, you've learned something; take note of what about it you hated, leave it, and find a different Job X.
posted by Orinda at 5:56 PM on January 17, 2011

I know someone in NYC with a degree in Physics who was recruited by a financial firm. Not sure what hiring situations are these days but apparently math backgrounds (esp PhDs) are desirable in some financial sectors. For modelling or forecasting? I'm not sure.
posted by bquarters at 6:19 PM on January 17, 2011

I don't have a lot of good advice to offer on your overall situation, but as someone who has made the transition from academia to 'industry' with a phd (in a completely different field), I will nth the suggestion that you get your papers out. If it's merely a matter of submitting what you've already done the research and mostly written up for your thesis, it is totally worth getting those publications on your cv, even in industry.

other former academics in industry will recognize that papers represent peer-reviewed (and therefore, peer-approved work). and that will give you a boost over similarly-qualified applicants *without* papers. perhaps it is not as big a deal in math as in some other fields to not publish at least one paper during your doctoral work, but it definitely can't hurt. as part of my jobs since leaving academia, i've written some sbir grants to the nih. i know that i was valuable as a supporting writer to grants with more senior scientists as the PI, but when I wrote as the main PI, one of the criticisms included the fact that i had no first-author papers (this was in the gap between finishing my degree and my thesis advisor submitting my paper). so yes, papers do have value beyond academia.

and as a side benefit, who knows? maybe going over that old work will rekindle a little spark on an old question you couldn't answer previously, and give you the impetus to get back into research, at least for the rest of your short term as an academic. good luck!
posted by Tandem Affinity at 7:17 PM on January 17, 2011

The market is rough for someone whose qualifications for employment are best described as "a generally smart person who will be able to figure out how to do the job." Do you have any idea how many people who fit that description every bit as well as you do are accepting service jobs that barely pay the bills these days?

I think you've misjudged your situation if you see this year as giving you "the gift of having free time." It's quite true that no one actually teaches academics how to teach and everyone seems to assume you somehow just know how to teach but it does seem very much as if you're throwing away precious time that you could be using to prepare material for publication or seek out the instructional support professionals at your university who are there to help you learn all the latest resources, techniques, bells and whistles for teachers. Or you could be seeking out activities and organizations outside the academy that might inspire an interest in other things or even just working out or training to run a marathon, which would at least be an energizing physical contrast to years of primarily intellectual activity. Spending a semester reading, taking walks and feeling lonely seems to me pretty out of touch with what your reality probably demands just now.

Teaching is about teaching people. If you are not interested in the students and taking them from where they are to where you need them to go by all means available to you, you won't find teaching much fun at all. It's mostly slogging along and the spark comes from the times you can outsmart them into learning something or the times they outsmart you by learning something in spite of you.

Most people I know in academia start out by playing their hand well enough to get a tenure-track position at the kind of institution they aim for, then they put in the requisite hard time to get the tenure award and promotion, then they network for the next rung. A rare few who stay committed long enough to become genuinely distinguished professors are passionate about their field and their students; they add something to their field and to the lives of their students and colleagues. It can be rewarding in that way but teaching is basically a service job.

Your math specialty could be valuable in another field but you've got to figure out what field that might be and how to package and promote yourself there. Some of the teaching skills and presentation bells and whistles might even help you to in that endeavor. There is no time to waste, however, because the lead time to find and secure such a job is possibly even greater than that for publication. For example, if you don't have something lined up right now for next year, you could well be looking at unemployment next fall.

From my observations, the world of 'real jobs' is a whole lot tougher and more brutal than many people who have spent their lives in academia imagine.
posted by Anitanola at 11:23 PM on January 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm in a very similar position to the OP, but the only thing I'll add is that it's no longer true that academia is less tough or brutal than 'the real world,' if there is such a distinction any more. I'm from the humanities, and I mostly want out because there just aren't any positions for brand new PhDs like myself any more.

That said: yes you should publish. If your diss was worth writing it's worth making public. Try to find mentors. No one will teach you how to teach, but you can talk to people you respect about how they go about it. Be assertive. Our sector is becoming increasingly, and frighteningly, casualised, but your department still owes you a degree of professional development. Go to conferences. Talk to people. Find ways to feel less isolated in your field. Even if you still want out at the end, at least you'll have built a professional profile for yourself.
posted by nerdfish at 2:19 AM on January 18, 2011

it's no longer true that academia is less tough or brutal than 'the real world... sector is becoming increasingly, and frighteningly, casualised

Another article: The Disposable Academic - Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time

It's been a long while since I was in academia myself, though I've had some contact with what's going on in univs one way and another since.

You hear people saying academia isn't the real world. You hear other people saying life in big corporations isn't the real world, or life in government agencies isn't the real world. By the time you exclude everything that supposedly isn't the real world, there isn't a lot left. Leastways not that you'd want to work in given any choice in the matter.

The real world is approx 7 billion people, you can't generalize about it too much. Some parts of if are brutal and tough, other parts might seem a breeze compared to academia. There are certainly plenty of jobs where a math PhD caliber person can make good money without feeling intensely pressured, and can go home in the evening and forget about their work if they want to.

If working in a more social environment, being able to put down roots in a place of their choosing and doing something that produces more tangible results than research are what's important to the OP, they should be able to find something that fits.

FWIW, many math PhDs of my generation (old enough to be your supervisors) happily work in things like computing, management science, statistics, finance. And a few, but the minority by a long way, are still in academia.
posted by philipy at 8:08 AM on January 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

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