Leaving tenure-track academia?
September 3, 2012 8:17 PM   Subscribe

Should I quit my tenure-track academic job in computer science?

I am a tenure-track professor at one of the top schools in my research area (computer science). Two years in, I'm really not sure this is the job for me. I entered academia because I love doing research, but as a professor, I'm finding that I must context switch constantly (advising PhD students, teaching, departmental and professional service, grant meetings, etc.). This means that I cannot focus on research for long periods of time. I had hoped that I'd be able to make progress despite such context switching, but I'm just not able to focus deeply enough. From talking with other professors it appears that the only way to get long periods of research time is to dedicate the hours in the late evening and early morning to research. As someone who needs 8+ hours of sleep a night, this doesn't work for me.

I'm not sure I like the non-research aspects of my job. I don't really enjoy teaching. I find advising/managing PhD students frustrating because (as is standard in CS) I need them to produce deliverables for the grants from which they are paid, yet most do not realize that they are employees in this regard and either complain about or simply avoid doing what I ask of them. In addition, graduate school isn't a very happy time for most people, and I dislike being the person who is, in some ways, responsible for my students' unhappiness.

I enjoy some of the professional service aspects of my job, but ultimately these don't really count for tenure.

I miss working as part of a team of equals.

I work almost every evening and weekend in order to complete the bare minimum that is required/desired of me. When I am not working, I feel guilty because of the pervasive "pre-tenure professors must work 24/7 if they want to get tenure" attitude. Almost all of my colleagues (male) have stay-at-home wives. I (female, unmarried) do not.

At age 33, I'm not sure I want to continue to live like this until I (maybe, if I'm lucky) get tenure at age 40. I would like to have a job that does not necessarily demand every waking second of my life. I would like to be able to focus on research for more than a few minutes at a time. I would like to get married and have a family. I would like to be happy. As a result, I want to quit and move to industry (probably a research job) however I am worried that I will regret doing so for a) the lack of freedom, b) the lack of "prestige", b) the ultimate lack of job security, d) the fact that as a woman, I will be a pretty undesirable hire in the tech industry once I reach my 40s, and e) the fact that quitting will likely preclude me from ever moving back into tenure-track academia should I want to do so.

TL;DR: Should I quit my academic job? If you left your tenure-track academic job in CS for a job in industry, do you regret it?
posted by unhappyprofessor to Work & Money (27 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
An undesirable hire as a woman in a tech company? Hm. Lots of the tech companies I'm aware of out there are falling over themselves to hire qualified female programmers.

As for prestige, I suspect more people hold people in the private sector in higher regard than they do professors.

Get out of your head, go to informational interviews with people who work in companies you think you'd like to work, etc.
posted by dfriedman at 8:44 PM on September 3, 2012 [9 favorites]

You should read Matt Welsh's essay on why he left a tenured CS position at Harvard for Google.
posted by zippy at 8:46 PM on September 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm coming at this from the perspective of someone who wanted to have your career, until I realized I'd hate it - pretty much for all the same reasons you do. Right before I got my PhD in CS (in 2010) my advisor urged me to spend some time in industry, just so I could see what was out there. I did, reluctantly, and you know what? I dig it, for many of the same reasons Matt Welsh (above linked essay) did. In academia, the focus is on getting published, with the side effect that your work may not solve any problems that actually matter to anyone. In industry, sure we publish, but the focus is more on tangible results that solve the problems we're actually having. I like that sooo much better than having to produce yet another graph comparing my technique to someone else's technique, knowing they're both pretty useless for anything practical. The hours are better (could they be worse than a tenure track assistant professor's?), the pay is better, you don't have to deal with tenure, students, and juggling about 19 different things at once, all of which deserve your full attention.

As for being female: I doubt it matters as much as you think. I can tell you that at my company within my speciality, we're desperately in need of people with a certain skill set. Right now, if you knew the stuff we needed you to, you could be a purple extraterrestrial with hooves and we'd hire you. Job security is always a factor, of course, and it's one of the biggest reasons my professor friends put up with the crap. I'm about your age, and I worry about it too - male or female, how much longevity can engineers expect? However, with the track higher education appears to be on, I submit that you're not necessarily safer in academia. Tenure doesn't help you if your whole department gets cut, and I predict that with tuition and the student loan bubble and the massive federal/states budget crisis, higher education is going to get hammered a lot before all of this gets evened out.

But here's the biggest thing: you seem really unhappy with your job. You can't have the life you want if you stay, and you know exactly what you have to look forward to. (And of course it doesn't necessarily stop once you get tenure!) Sure, it's scary away from the lofty view from the ivory towers, but there's interesting stuff happening out here in the real world, and besides, you hate it where you are. Come find something interesting to do!
posted by captainawesome at 9:25 PM on September 3, 2012 [7 favorites]

Similarly to Matt, another prof writes about why he left. Also for Google.
posted by canine epigram at 10:11 PM on September 3, 2012

There are plenty of good reasons to think seriously about leaving academia, and you've hit on many of them, but in reading your post I was struck that some of your laments are about things that you are likely to have to deal with in "industry," as well. For example: balancing the demands on your time and attention is likely to be an issue wherever you go, particularly once you start a family.
posted by Good Brain at 12:10 AM on September 4, 2012

I'm a pretenure 33 year old female academic - although not in CS. I'm always happy to chat on this topic.
posted by k8t at 12:18 AM on September 4, 2012

I share a lot of your concerns. Here's an idea - take a sabbatical for 3-6 months and go work in industry. It'll give you first hand experience of the situation. I'd also like to point out that if you enjoy research but none of the other responsibilities of a tenure-track CS role consider a good industrial research lab (e.g. Microsoft Research). Finally, if you might potentially consider the UK, PM me.
posted by gadha at 1:24 AM on September 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

Seconding gadha. Going to work for industry isn't the academic career killer in CS that it might be in other professions if you want to keep your options open.
posted by pharm at 1:57 AM on September 4, 2012

My off-the-cuff impression is that teaching and advising PhD students are the "fun parts" of being an academic, so if you don't like those... But maybe that's not completely fair. Do you really dislike those things? Or is your general lack of stress preventing you from enjoying them? FWIW, I really like David Patterson's comment on the Matt Welsh post linked to above. Industrial researchers are excited by building great things that millions of people use. Academics are exicited by training the next generation of computer scientists. Which describes you?
posted by sesquipedalian at 5:11 AM on September 4, 2012

I'm not in CS although have some CS connections. Some high-level observation of both worlds ...

- Tenure-track/tenure involves a huge amount of work, including plenty non-research work. The more senior you get, it seems to be my impression that you get more and more committee work, unless you get a stellar grant that keeps the Dean at bay. Being an academic is about being an academic, as much as it is doing research.

- Academic jobs leave you free to structure/schedule your time somewhat more loosely - for instance three months 'off' over summer. You're still working, but on your own schedule (i.e. not necessarily 9-5).

- Industry jobs you can clock off from at 5, and leave them at work.

- Academic jobs might pay better, but it might be worth having a lower salary in industry, in order not to go to service committees/meetings all the time ;)

- Academic jobs have more flexibility in terms of time, but the U will find plenty of ways to fill that up (e.g. baby-sitting RAs).

Not sure what your field/speciality is, you might also consider government agencies that do computationally-intensive research, especially (at the moment) 'Big Data' research. In my (limited) view this can offer the best of both worlds.

My off-the-cuff impression is that teaching and advising PhD students are the "fun parts" of being an academic

If you are at a top U, with high-quality doc students, that can be the case. Plenty of other schools will compete to recruit/accept relatively mediocre doc students to do grunt work on projects (which they then don't want to do).

Last random thought: What's your personality? - being a bit showy and competitive definitely helps in academia. If you prefer to work on your own, this might be a bit of a disadvantage (others will probably disagree with me though).

Overall, I think academia and industry are equal, and suited for different personalities.

Best of luck!
posted by carter at 5:28 AM on September 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

- Industry jobs you can clock off from at 5, and leave them at work.
- Academic jobs might pay better, but it might be worth having a lower salary in industry, in order not to go to service committees/meetings all the time ;)

I've been with my current IT company for almost 26 years now, and from what I have observed, at your level, you will most likely *not* be clocking off at 5.

On the other hand, industry compensation generally outpaces academic compensation by a significant margin.

It sounds like you would be a better fit working with other seasoned CS professionals in a company that appreciates your skillset.
posted by apartment dweller at 6:02 AM on September 4, 2012

Tenured CS prof here. I totally understand where you are coming from. I was at a top-25 CS research university for the first two years of my career, and it was by far the very worst two years of my life. My solution was to move to a different university - one that is a top university but not top in CS. I think I am different from you in that I enjoy teaching, so I was able to find a place that was a better fit, but it definitely had a demonstrable negative impact on my career. More importantly, though, it had a major positive impact on the rest of my life, and while I occasionally have twangs of career regret it was absolutely the right choice.

The hard part of changing is that there is so much focus as a grad student on getting a top-research university position that if you give it up people think you are either crazy, lazy, or incompetent. It is really hard to get across that you are just unhappy - how can you be when it is a dream job? But you are absolutely correct that the job you trained for - doing research - is not what you have to do as a professor. If you are not happy with what you are doing now, then it is likely that you will never be happy. As you go on, with the exception of sabbaticals and summers, you will not have time to be the primary researcher unless you get so much grant money that you can buy out of all teaching, which may or many not be possible depending on your institutions policies. This is different from being miserable from overwork - if that is the case, it gets better, way better, and makes academic great for the eventual flexibility you have.

I don't have a good answer for you because there is no good one. You know what an academic job is like, and you don't like it. Would you be happier in industry? You might or might not. You get to choose your research problems now, and you may not in industry. I know people who left academia and now spend all their time trying to get people to click ads (though this makes them happy as they make much money if they do this well). If you go to industry, it will be difficult to move back to academia at the level you are at now, though you could likely move to a lesser-ranked university eventually, should you be able to keep publishing. All that being said, most academic research goes nowhere. It gets published, counted up for CVs and tenure cases, and then ignored. Entire research areas fail to match a market need and disappear. If you want to have an impact, then you are less likely to do so in academia.

I can't tell you how to choose, but if you just want someone to talk to who chose to escape that life, memail me and I'd be happy to arrange to talk to you about my experience.
posted by procrastination at 7:02 AM on September 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

I've been with my current IT company for almost 26 years now, and from what I have observed, at your level, you will most likely *not* be clocking off at 5.

You're right in many ways, but I do think that depends on who you work for. I've been in positions where there were applied CS people in the shop, this was the norm.
posted by carter at 7:49 AM on September 4, 2012

Academic jobs might pay better, but it might be worth having a lower salary in industry, in order not to go to service committees/meetings all the time ;)

This is simply not true. at all. With my experience and skills I could make 4x my salary in industry but am still ambivalent about leaving academia for all the reasons OP has outlined above.
posted by special-k at 8:38 AM on September 4, 2012

Again that may be true, but again it also depends who who are and what your skills are, and what the market for those skills are. OP is not necessarily going to see a 400% salary increase by going to industry. Say a CS prof on average gets 80k-95k pre-tenure, maybe a 20k-30k bump on tenure (yes I know I am generalizing but these are not unbelievable figures to work with).

A 400% increase would get up to 1/2 million; that's a pretty serious salary.
posted by carter at 9:04 AM on September 4, 2012

Also - an academic salary is technically a 9 month salary. So if you get good at grants, you can add 2 months of summer compo, and give yourself basically a 22% increase.

Personally I would still consider accepting a lower salary that included less meetings and more research in the trenches though ;) because that is what I like doing with my life. This is a personal reflection/decision but it is also a data point for OP.
posted by carter at 9:23 AM on September 4, 2012

Say a CS prof on average gets 80k-95k pre-tenure

I work at one of the top 3 research universities. Starting pre-tenure salaries range from 65-75 at best. Non rockstar *, senior tenured folks make about 120-140 after a while in the job. An undergraduate who worked in my lab makes 70k at his consulting job after two years. So for the kind of experience and skillset that academics have, the salary (given the workload) will always be lower than industry. Being in industry comes with other possible sources of revenue such as bonuses which do not exist in academia.

A 400% increase would get up to 1/2 million; that's a pretty serious salary.

Didn't say that was the norm. Just a specific (and unusual) comparison in my particular case.


Since I struggle with this on a daily basis, here are some possibilities. I don't know what particular area of research you work in but I collaborate with several CS professors on various bioinformatics projects. A few of them have nice academic appointments (senior research scientist types) with no teaching or mentoring responsibilities. It is possible to get well paid research positions with organizations like NOAA, USGS where you will essentially be doing research with a bunch of peers. Sure, you'll have to work on one or two deemed necessary as part of your job but you are free to bring additional funds to work on your own projects and even have postdocs. Im sure there are similar organizations that might fit your research so look into it.

In additional to industry research branches like Microsoft research many other corporations have research divisions that are looking for folks like you.

* Although most folks who get tt jobs these days need to be some level of rockstar, depending on the university, in this case I mean folks who are in the National Academy or have won major awards. Those folks tend to have salaries outside the norm
posted by special-k at 10:53 AM on September 4, 2012

Being in industry comes with other possible sources of revenue such as bonuses which do not exist in academia.

And not to make this solely about money, but there are opportunities in academia that are not present in industry. Grant funding for 3 summer months can be a 25% raise; in some schools grant funding can also buy out of teaching classes, reducing workload. Consulting is a possibility - most academic contracts allow one day a week, and your summer time can be your own. And when you have a good reputation in a relevant area it is possible to get expert witness jobs, primarily for patent litigation which pays exceptionally well: $200-$600 an hour or more, plus expenses, depending on the case and testifying experience. Most outside work is best left until post-tenure, of course.
posted by procrastination at 1:53 PM on September 4, 2012

You should post this question to the TT chronicle forums as well.
posted by lalochezia at 2:24 PM on September 4, 2012

special-k: "I work at one of the top 3 research universities. Starting pre-tenure salaries range from 65-75 at best"

I studied CS at a public state university. The budget publishes salaries, and names names. Even the newest CS prof was very nearly pulling down six figures, in a part of the country not renowned for being expensive. Either your data is misleading, or the top 3 research universities are competing on brand not wages.
posted by pwnguin at 5:37 PM on September 4, 2012

I am a CS professor many years in. I also went through periods of doubt. I am now very happy. When I am unhappy, I make the job what I want it to be.

You must be just starting your second year, given the academic calendar. I suggest that you are better described as one year in and that it is very early to declare the first year's experience is what it is going to be like for the rest of your career. Or that if you aren't happy now you'll never be happy. That's just not true.

There are many advantages to being a professor that aren't available in other careers. First of all, you get to select the problems you are working on. They don't need to make anyone money. They don't need to fit into the engineering choices of a broken or legacy production system. They don't need to be justified by the product development team or help the sales dept. They don't need to work for people clicking on ads or some bullshit. They don't need to be ready next week because they are needed to justify a round of funding or stock price. Sure, some of your work might be forgotten, but some of your work will not be forgotten, and will be influential. The ones that aren't forgotten will be things you will be proud of. And, not all industry products are influential. Many products and many whole companies go down the tubes. Joining industry does not ensure influence; I completely disagree with Welsh. Also -- have you ever had a bad boss or bad team member? Ruins almost every day of your job. You have no boss now and get to pick which colleagues to work with, what a joy that is.

Second, as you grow into this job, you'll be able to make it your own. Most departments don't need you to be the best person ever in all aspects of your job (research and teaching). They want you to pick the aspects that you love and do well at those. Few industry jobs let you pick what works for you. In one year, it might be you don't have handle on making this academic job as you want it to be. Give it another year or two.

Third, tenure isn't as bad once you are a few years in. Before you get going and have a pipeline of students and projects, it's more like the beginning of training for a marathon. The goal seems unreal and impossible. But with steady training, running 1 mile turns to running 2 and 3 and so on. But if you run a 5k and ask if you could also run a marathon, the answer is always no. Cut yourself some slack. Talk to people who have gone through tenure. Most will admit that it's daunting but once they got tenure, they were surprised at how much they were their own worst enemy during the process. There is no specific bar for tenure and so almost no one is immune to that stress.

And having that pipeline greatly increases the time you have to think deeply. During the first year, there is such much that you are building up, it's tough to just think. But I would organize your weekly schedule around that need if it is most important to you. Have fewer meetings by telling everyone that you won't be meeting them every other week (a whole week to think!). Have fewer students. Teach two-day-a-week classes instead of three-day-a-week classes. Demand more TA support from your dept. Turn down service requests. If you are ready to quit then you are ready to say no to people ahead of that.

Having students succeed, move on to their own career, and thank you for it, is something that you can't do anywhere else. And you probably haven't seen that in one year. Also, I am a much better advisor now than I was, and for that reason I like advising better. You'll get better too.

Few jobs/careers are as flexible as being a professor. Many times I've changed my mind about just what I want to do in this job, and i've been able to do it. Go on LinkedIn and look at the resumes of professors. Most work other places while being a professor. See if people in any other career have similar resumes (unless they are on the board of another company). It's not the professors are able to work two jobs -- they put their college on hold. That's amazing in terms of flexibility/job security.

In terms of family, many, many people (everyone?) struggle with that. Most departments have very good maternity/paternity policies. The leave can be a semester and even longer in terms of teaching release after the leave. Often tenure clocks can be flexible with maternity leaves (can be delayed or not, depending on candidate's choice). What non-academic job is going to do that? Most non-academic jobs would not make having a family/career balance easier.

Have you asked for mentoring? You should really be able to talk with colleagues --- pre and post tenure -- about these issues.

My suggestion is figure out what you want. If your university can't provide that for you (not enough teaching, not enough research, etc) then find a different one. But I would also try to determine if leaving for industry would solve these problems before you leave, as it's hard to go back and forth.

Other things:
--- I don't agree that most people are unhappy in grad school. Grad school was the best time of my life. I loved my advisor. Maybe you need different students. I don't work with students that don't work. Life's too short.
--- If you don't enjoy teaching, I don't have an answer to that. That's really a show stopper. Is it that you don't like teaching or that you don't like how it takes away from your time to do research? have you organized classes around your research topic? that is usually the advantage of working at a school that is top in your research area. Have you considered that maybe you want to focus on graduate or undergraduate teaching and there is only one you don't like?
--- While you can't get tenure from professional service alone, if it makes you happy, then fuck it, just do more of it. It will lead to success if some way.

Too long, but I hope some of this is useful.
posted by about_time at 5:50 PM on September 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

special-k: "I work at one of the top 3 research universities. Starting pre-tenure salaries range from 65-75 at best"

First, all universities pay on 9-month salaries, and in CS (and almost all sciences) there are grants available (NSF, DARPA, industry, etc) that pay the other three months. So when you see a salary of $80k/"year" that's really a $80/9*12= $106k/year job. New faculty's summer's are paid by the department for the first couple years while they are trying to get grants that pay summers. Faculty can also work for industry during the summers for similar or higher amounts (visiting Microsoft Research in Seattle, for example).

Second, here's some actual data on salaries collected yearly by the CRA. The latest year (see page 14 table N1) shows that Assistant Professors are making between $82k-$99k/9-months. Hence, all are making six figures on an annual basis.
posted by about_time at 6:01 PM on September 4, 2012

I stand corrected. Seems like CS folks make significantly more than the ones in my field. I'm in the state of CA where salaries for public employees are publicly searchable. These are 12 month and not 9 month salaries.
posted by special-k at 6:11 PM on September 4, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for the fantastic answers, everyone! Lots to think about here.

To clear up a few points:

I can't take a sabbatical. (Sabbaticals are only for tenured faculty only.) I can take an unpaid leave of absence. However, doing so is typically frowned upon by my department and could count against me if I were to decide to return from my leave and go up for tenure.

I already earn a six figure salary. The fact that I might be able to earn more in industry is not important to me.

I'm heavily overcommitted, so taking on side projects or consulting isn't really feasible in the foreseeable future.

I'm starting my third year, not my second.

I haven't worked in industry before. I'm not sure how to determine whether industry would be a better fit for me without trying it out. But, as people have noted, it's hard to move back and forth between academia and industry, so it's best to be pretty certain before making a move. Catch-22 situation, really.
posted by unhappyprofessor at 6:39 PM on September 4, 2012

So to follow up: I don't know any junior professors who weren't miserable the first two to three years. It is an incredibly stressful time. There is so much to figure out, and so much pressure to produce and to fit in to your new department. I can give you some advice to help make it through, though, incase you are overcommitted more than fundamentally unhappy.

First, you have to learn to say no. This is the hardest thing for junior faculty to learn, but it is ok. People in your research community and department will ask you for your time, and because you want to make a good impression you will say yes. This is the wrong approach. You should say no to everything by default, unless it helps you with your research. It is completely appropriate to say "I am sorry, I really appreciate the opportunity, but I am way too overcommitted and just don't have the time to help with that." This is hard to do. You should turn down reviewing requests, unless it is a paper in your area you would like to see before it is published. You should turn down program committee requests unless it is one of the top conferences in your area. You should turn down committee logistical requests, such as local chair or publications chair or publicity chair. You should not advise students on projects unless you see a clear, high-quality publication as a high-probability result.

Second, you need to protect your research time. The best way I have seen to do this is to pick one day a week and don't come to campus. Work from home, work from a coffee shop, whatever you like, but if you are on campus you will be spotted and interrupted. Say you teach Tuesday/Thursday. I would pick Monday as a day to work remotely and do nothing but research. Do your teaching, grading and office hours on Tuesday and Thursday. Have research meetings and advising on Wednesday. Friday schedule other stuff, as needed (we have faculty meetings on those days). When you are working on research, only check your email 3 times a day, and only respond to very urgent things.

Third, get help. Research help comes from colleagues, professional help can come from your department, and personal help you can pay for. Find a friend from grad school in your research area. Work on papers and grants together. Since you are at different institutions, you are not competing for tenure against each other, but all joint publications will count for each of you. You might end up contributing more or less on each paper, but it makes the research load more bearable. In your department, ask for resource, as about_time says above. Make sure you are not prepping new courses, but teaching the same ones over and over so you have less prep work - with the exception of research seminars where you can identify and attract good students. In your personal life, pay people to handle some things for you. Get a house cleaning service. Get an online personal assistant. Trade some money for time. You don't need to use all that time for research, but it will free you up to take care of yourself and get some downtime, which you also need.

Good luck in whatever you decide.
posted by procrastination at 6:01 AM on September 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

I used to be a CS acedemic, and teaching (and interacting with) students was one of the fun parts of the job. The rest -- politics, committees, random shit that untenured faculty always get -- convinced me to leave.

At some point I'd like to teach again, but for now industry is doing a fine job of keeping me happy.
posted by phliar at 4:06 PM on September 5, 2012

This may sound harsh, but academia needs fewer people who hate teaching (and haven't been adequately prepared to do it, which would make it more rewarding for the teachers and less generally terrible for the students) and want to focus on research (which is definitely an important calling). If there aren't grants etc. that will let you focus on research, find another position that will let you do it. Best wishes.
posted by wintersweet at 12:24 PM on September 7, 2012

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