Can I get back into academia (particularly a hard science) after leaving?
May 2, 2012 9:02 AM   Subscribe

Can I get back into academia (particularly a hard science) after leaving?

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.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (3 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Sounds like you are doing the right things. You need to spin that dead-end job as research relevant. If you act like it was something that made sense for your career trajectory, others will believe it too. (I had to spin my own fore into government work as much when I was on the market.)

I'd also suggest hiring an academic job coach to help you frame your story. I used The Professor Is In and LOVED her. I think a unique case like yours would benefit from coaching and as I said, framing your work as part of a grand plan and or asset.
posted by k8t at 9:14 AM on May 2, 2012

If you can write well, science journalism is starving for people with credentials and knowledge. You can work freelance, which is compatible with having a small child and another job. And, at least potentially, you're doing educational outreach to a much bigger and broader audience than a local science museum can. MeMail me if you want to talk in more detail about how this works.
posted by escabeche at 9:31 AM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have a science Ph.D., and I have to say that a couple-year absence from my field would be a hurdle, but not a deal-breaker. If you really want to do it, I would think that the route would be to try to find another post doc position, based on your stellar previous trajectory and current refamiliarization, hopefully with somebody name-ish, and use that as a re-entry to your prior set of career trajectory options. However, you'd have to work hard (and get pretty lucky) to match your former star power.

However, if what you want is really orthogonal to the usual trajectories (i.e., not research-related, and thus pretty much not academic at all), then I have much less insight, and honestly the options and approaches are very much going to depend on the field. Sure, science journalism is the thing that everybody says to people looking for a different way to use their science credentials, but it's not even clear what that means -- the NYTimes doesn't need very many journalists, being an "editor" at Nature may mean chasing down authors to write review papers for you, blah blah. I can imagine that museum dream jobs are few and far between, but if that seems like the closest fit to your imagined slot, maybe talk to the people who are doing that now (maybe the person who got that job, or his/her colleagues) to find out what it's really like, what alternatives are in a similar vein, etc.

Also, if your life is complicated and constrained right now (partner may need to relocate in a couple years, parenthood expanding like a gas to take all your time and energy), it might be that Former Beloved Field could become a smaller itch to be scratched in non-central ways -- for example, after I quit doing research science, while I had a little free time, I found that my savvy was really appreciated by the people who record textbooks for blind and dyslexic folks, and reading those books (and describing figures! wow), made me feel like all that education hadn't gone to waste. (Not that it ever does.) But that level of "contact" might be too little for you in the long term; just throwing it out there.

Anyway, hard questions, but not insurmountable if you really decide on a direction and put your mind to it! Good luck!
posted by acm at 9:56 AM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

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