Non-academic career suggestions for Psychology PhD
June 8, 2016 12:56 PM   Subscribe

I am considering leaving a tenure-track faculty position in Psychology in order to have a more normal life. I would be very grateful for suggestions on non-academic careers. More inside.

I know many of my fellow academics will read this and think that I've lost my mind. Tenure-track positions are nearly impossible to get, so I should be thanking my lucky stars! And in fact, I am incredibly grateful to have gotten such a good job, and perhaps I will ultimately end up sticking it out and and growing old and happy here. Only time will tell!

But I am having serious concerns. My recent move has given me the brief pause I needed to finally reflect on my lifestyle---really, for the first time since I started grad school almost a decade ago. I don't like what I see. I work 90-hour weeks. I do not take days off, ever. I eat while hovering over my computer. I have never taken a vacation. I don't have a social life (I used to see friends around campus, but now I'm in a new city, and my new colleagues are not eager to socialize - see below). My primary recreational activities are listening to music while conducting relatively mindless late-night data analyses and occassionally going to the gym for 30 minutes on my way home from work (which is actually a huge improvement and something I've been enjoying a lot).

As for my new colleagues, they look miserable. They are overworked, underpaid, terrified about staying on track to get grants, publications, tenure... Some of them talk openly about mental and physical health problems caused by the stress of their lives as professors and their guilt about failing as partners, parents, friends, etc. They know that they ought to welcome me by inviting me to social events, but they don't have time for social events.

I don't want that to be me. I love science, and I love teaching probably more than anyone I've ever known, but I don't want to sacrifice everything else to pursue those interests.

And sure, I have heard that things get easier after tenure, but (a) that's seven years from now, and (b) I've heard from other sources that, in fact, things do not get easier after tenure (less pressure to get grants and publications but more committee work, mentoring, etc.). So, I want to find out if there are options out there that would allow me to have a better life than this, and that's why I'm asking for your help.

In terms of my background, skills, etc.: I earned my PhD in Psychology from a top-ranked program (always ranks #1 or #2 in the U.S., depending on the year). I taught several courses while I was there, including a couple that I designed. I completed my postdoc at a smaller university, but my advisor is very well-known. I have a good publication record (several first-authored papers, one in a top journal) and won an early career award for my field. I have given countless talks and have organized conference symposia, a pre-conference, etc. I ran a lab (with a team of undergraduate research assistants) for around 5 years. I use advanced statistical techniques - e.g., meta-analysis. In terms of my interests, I'm passionate about women's health and sexual/reproductive health more broadly. I'm also passionate about teaching and improving scientific literacy. Damnit, I really sound like an academic!

In terms of job preferences, I am not interested in doing market research for a company. I might be interested in working for a nonprofit--In fact, I've heard that can be very fulfilling. I'm fine with not making a lot of money (and am accustomed to being extremely thrifty), as long as I can get by and have job security. I work well with others and am naturally extroverted, cheerful, communicative, and passionate about the things I spend my time on. I'm also a huge science and statistics nerd. I am a really really really hard worker. BUT if I'm going to leave academia, I am not willing to maintain my current 90-hour-per-week work schedule.

Obviously, I don't expect you to do the searching for me, but any advice on where to start, career suggestions I might not think of on my own, etc. would be much appreciated. Thank you, MeFi!
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (28 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I mean... it sounds like you've landed in a miserable department. I know plenty of people in TT positions who don't work ninety hours a week, and whose colleagues are always up for drinks at the end of the day. Have you considered holding out until you can apply to another position in a happier department? Seems like, if you love research and teaching etc, that would be the next step before throwing in the towel entirely.
posted by mylittlepoppet at 1:04 PM on June 8, 2016 [8 favorites]

The Data Incubator is a data science boot camp aimed at already highly skilled PhDs who want to transition to data science. It is free, and they will work to place you in a career you are interested in (so you can tell them you don't want to do market research).
posted by hydropsyche at 1:11 PM on June 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you can code a little and your stats is strong +1, and you like coding and stats +1 for data science. You don't need to go to a boot camp or incubator to make the transition (I didn't), but Data Incubator (NYC), Insight (SV, NYC, Boston), NY Data Science Academy (NYC) etc. are all options that are free (they make money through recruitment), and will take advantage of your PhD and provide structure and guidance. There are also for-pay schools (Metis, etc.)

Recovering academics tend to like the structure of these schools. You don't need a school or bootcamp or anybody's permission to make this switch. Search Linkedin or AngelList or wherever for jobs as a "data scientist" or "data analyst" and see if you already have the skills. If you don't, none of them are so hard or obscure that someone with the intellectual independence a PhD requires wouldn't be able to figure out how to acquire them.

Ask around your department/professional network. You probably already know ex-psychologists who are now working as data scientists.

Data Incubator has a ... mixed reputation in the data science community (weird application process, sleazy pyramid referral scheme, apparent focus on fintech/banking which may not be your thing).
posted by caek at 1:27 PM on June 8, 2016 [4 favorites]

You're not alone. I seriously am wondering if I wrote this question in a fugue state and just changed the discipline. My plan is to push through for two more years and then start looking for a TT job at a teaching college rather than at an R1. It's a shame because I'm told I'm a damn good researcher but I'm exhausted and lonely. Our disciplines are similar in that there are lots of practice focused masters programs out there. A switch to one might be exactly what we both need.
posted by sockermom at 1:47 PM on June 8, 2016 [5 favorites]

I have a colleague with a psychology PhD (and an MPH, I believe) who found very fulfilling work in healthcare as an administrator/manager/educator. She works at a teaching hospital, so she gets to liaise and do work within the university, do research with think-tanks, teach students and healthcare providers, travel to conferences, etc. If you're interested in women's health, you might find a sweet spot spreading out into research in those areas as well. Feel free to MeMail me if you would like more ideas about that sort of work.
posted by stillmoving at 1:59 PM on June 8, 2016 [4 favorites]

There are private sector research jobs that are not market research. I have a Ph.D. in a social science. I work for a private-sector company that does social science, health science, heath behavior and clinical trials research. We work on contracts for the Federal government and also on grants we win (just like academics!). We work a lot (maybe 50 hour weeks?) but not crazy hours like academics. We have respected and valued career paths that do not depend on publishing, but are encouraged to publish if we want to. Some of my co-workers are world-famous at what they do. Most are not. But they are all really, really good at research.

In terms of environment, my work is highly collaborative, and I am always working as part of teams. I have friends at work. I have colleagues that are really fun and really smart. But more importantly -- I have friends outside of work, and time to pursue hobbies and passions that are unrelated to my work.

My company is not the only private sector research company. MeMail me if you'd like a list.
posted by OrangeDisk at 1:59 PM on June 8, 2016 [5 favorites]

Also, I forgot to add: if you really do like teaching, you can always moonlight a class or two here or there. Put personally, I find that mentoring junior staff scratches that itch for me. Another possibility is to become a high school teacher -- the pay might be better, but the workload would be more manageable.
posted by OrangeDisk at 2:00 PM on June 8, 2016

I've had a related experience and would be happy to chat about it via MeMail.
posted by Halo in reverse at 2:26 PM on June 8, 2016

Psych PhD can transition to UX Researcher at any of the big tech companies, but you might still be working 90 hour weeks... might depend on the team though
posted by raw sugar at 2:30 PM on June 8, 2016

I was going to suggest Chicago's Data Science for Social Good fellowships, but it looks like you'd be overqualified. Still could be worth talking to them about what kinds of non-profits or government organizations might be a good fit.
posted by une_heure_pleine at 2:42 PM on June 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

The answer will depend somewhat on the discipline of psychology and it'll be easier to leverage the research skills than the teaching skills into a living wage, I think. Feel free to memail me if you want to bounce ideas off of someone or just have a sympathetic ear. Our backgrounds and interests are very similar, but you're a year or two ahead of me.

Clinical/counseling- Work for a VA or academic medical center (although I've heard conflicting reports about whether that's better or worse than a psych department), go into private practice

Social/personality/human factors- Go to tech places like Facebook, Oculus, etc. This would be more of a UX role like raw sugar mentioned.

Industrial/Organizational- Do business consulting. My guess is, if you're I/O, you already have a clear sense of this option.

Community- Work for an evaluation consulting firm. Emstar Research comes to mind- there's one more that I'd have to think of. Nonprofit work would also be a good fit.

Probably most disciplines-
*Go the private research institute route, like Urban Institute, West Ed, Westat, RAND, Mathmatica Policy Research. There are smaller ones around the country. I've heard good things about the quality of life at these spots but you sacrifice creative control.
*Try to find a federal job- search for “research psychologist” or “research scientist.” Look for postings on the websites of federal research institutes/grantmaking agencies like NIH or NIJ. The CDC would also work. I've seen a few posting for researchers in military contexts. Federal jobs have the benefit of being strict 40-hour work weeks.
*Apply for an AAAS fellowship to get policymaking training for scientists

Have you read The Professor is In? It's mostly geared towards TT stuff but the last few chapters are about quitting and doing something else. The author did just that and she's very validating about it, and has some practical tips for how to frame your skills. She's in the humanities, so some of it doesn't fully transfer, but it might be interesting to you nevertheless. She also does one-on-one consulting for an hourly fee through her website.
posted by deus ex machina at 3:59 PM on June 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

Whoah, looking at the Data Science for the Social Good page above, it looks like they hire full-time mentors who appear to do exactly the mix of things you love. Not sure if they only hire them for the summer or if they keep them on year-round.
posted by deus ex machina at 4:07 PM on June 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

Have you considered academic librarianship? The last several subject librarians hired at my university's library are PhDs, don't have the library degree. Data skills are in demand. You'd still have the nice benefits of a university community and would be able to teach and work with students, but not so intense as being a teaching faculty member.
posted by sk932 at 4:12 PM on June 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

I might be interested in working for a nonprofit

Well, you got me pegged. I wasn't tenure track, but was in an academic research career in epidemiology/toxicology at a glamorous institution whose work environment gave me my first exposure to the toxic mess American academia has become.

I freelanced in science writing until the economy crashed in 2008, then I took a position out of desperation at a well-known activist nonprofit org that had a scientific division (a division I'd never heard about). I was a member of said org, and its ideals aligned perfectly with mine. Eight years later, this is the most fulfilling work I've ever had. I'm still very busy, and work/life balance takes effort anywhere, but I have never, not even for a moment, looked back longingly on the musty halls and labs I abandoned. I feel very justified, in fact, because the work I've been doing for the last eight years in the nonprofit sector is work I would have had to have waited years, maybe even decades, to direct on my own in the traditional lab environment I left.

To each ones own, and I hope your situation improves, but finding a close-to-your-heart nonprofit in need of your services... well it might give you a kind of fulfillment that I don't think is possible in academia.

posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 4:37 PM on June 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

In case you haven't already seen this, here's an article that was popular a while back:
7 year postdoc
posted by Metasyntactic at 5:18 PM on June 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

A few ideas:

1. You sound like you are very good at both research and teaching, but that your passion may actually be for teaching. Maybe you should look for adjunct or tenure-track jobs at schools where you are on hard money? Not all adjunct jobs suck - there are some where the pay is OK and the time requirements are quite modest and under your control.

2. I agree with other commenters that perhaps your department just has a bad culture. Maybe there are other R1 departments you could move to? Only do this if you LOVE research and committee work and merely LIKE teaching.

3. Are you perhaps projecting a bit? Maybe the other faculty doesn't invite you to fun because you are working 90 hour weeks and are a grumpy stress-basket? Maybe you are actually working much harder than your peers and suffering needlessly (and setting a bad example to boot)? Is there any way to get a neutral party to give you a reality check?
posted by soylent00FF00 at 5:23 PM on June 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

I say this as a tenured professor in psychology.

There is another option. Just... stop working 90 hours a week. Limit yourself to 40 a week, or if you can't help yourself, 50 hours a week. No more.

These things will happen:
- You will become much more efficient with your time.
- You will still publish, get grants, and go to conferences, just not as much.
- You will enjoy them a lot more than you did when you were massively stressed all of the time.
- You will have time to care about teaching and to do a good job with it, for its own sake.
- You will have time to get to know some of your colleagues and students.
- You will have a life outside of your work.
- You will sometimes sleep in without guilt.
- You will sometimes take entire weekends off, go to the beach, go on hikes, maybe even join a sports team or resurrect a long-buried hobby.

These things will also happen:
- You will publish less, get fewer grants, and -- most difficult -- your ego will feel a huge pang when you hear from or talk to your friends from grad school, or when you see all the people who are leading the field and going to conferences and you just aren't, at least not as much.
- Maybe you won't get tenure. But if you're thinking of quitting your job anyway, who cares? You'll have had seven good, fun years in which you taught and enjoyed it, and did research that you wanted to, and then if you don't get tenure, you can go do something else then. Look at this like the awesomest seven-year-postdoc and take the pressure off.
- Maybe you will get tenure. In which case you got tenure doing a job you loved that you made your own.

I've done this, more or less. It's surprisingly hard, but not for the reasons you think it will be. Ego is the hardest. I also came from a top-1 or top-2 program (maybe we even came from the same program!) and it's really hard sometimes seeing many of my peers having more "success" -- higher h-indexes, more press, more publications -- than me. And it's hard to be constantly saying "no" and feeling always behind, because limiting yourself to 40 hours a week involves a lot of that. (In fact, I've been dealing with some career stress recently because with my recent promotion I've had lots of new responsibilities and I've not been good about drawing lines the way I want to be; your post was a good wake-up call for me).

But I'm very glad that I'm limiting my hours in this way. Because I do love teaching and I love research. But I also love that I can close my browser and shut off my email, and literally nobody else in my life cares about my h-index or my scientific status. And because I have eked out the time to make a life, I have a life to go to. I go home and kiss my kids and all they care about is that I'm there and happy to see them.

It's totally possible, within academia, to make the job what you want it to be. Hard, but possible, and totally totally worth it. I think more of us need to realise this because the more people who stay in who work 90 hours a week, the more that is the expectation. And that is an insane expectation. It's not necessary to work that much -- it is in fact counterproductive to work that much -- and to do good science.
posted by forza at 5:46 PM on June 8, 2016 [21 favorites]

Oh, and in case this wasn't clear. I started limiting myself to 40 hours a week about five years before I got tenure. I got tenure anyway. I'm not at a top-flight institution -- that was also a conscious choice to preserve my work-life balance -- but it's still research-intensive, and I think most people here work more than I do (if their complaints are anything to go by).

Point being: this is advice that I myself followed back when I was in your shoes, and I'm really glad I've done so.
posted by forza at 6:35 PM on June 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

Jumping in to say that while a teaching-heavy job may be right for you, especially if you like teaching, it has its frustrating moments, and varies widely from college to college. It is not the utopia some make it out to be.
posted by redlines at 6:39 PM on June 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

I was getting ready to right what forza wrote. This past spring, I received confirmation of tenure at a research-intensive, doctoral, large, public, urban university. Prior to that, I was tenure-track for three years at a regional public institution in a different state.

Once the official word was given that I received tenure, lots of my colleagues said "Oh, we never had any doubt! You did great!" However, no one said much of boo during the six years I worked toward this moment. So, I deduce from this that people are really, really nervous to ever talk about tenure, which is part of what contributes to the super toxic culture around it.

I really want to emphasize something forza wrote : to try to work 90 hours per week is deeply counterproductive. I would challenge you to keep an hourly log for one week, maybe two. Write down what you did at the end of each hour. Are you really productively using all ninety of those hours?

I came from an industry background before joining academia. I worked as a designer in an ad agency environment. The people at the ad agency who worked crazy overtime and had the most rah rah attitudes very often stayed late because they couldn't focus during the day. They couldn't make a strong task list at the start of the day and then stick to it to finish it. I was married, however, during my entire professional career (and still am, to the same person), so when 5 o'clock came, I wanted to go home and spend time with my wife. So, I made a good task list each morning and then finished it.

When I got to graduate school, for visual art and design, I was known as the guy who came in every morning at 8:00 or 8:30 and left no later than 6:00. I sometimes worked on Saturday, but never seven days a week. So, that's 60 hours maximum, and honestly, in a 60 hour week during grad school, I probably spent some of that time griping with other grad students.

So, I get to my second tenure-track job at the same time my daughter is born. I am moving from a regional public to a large, research-intensive position. I looked at my daughter and my wife and made a promise to myself - if I get to my deathbed and they say "Wow! You were an incredible professor!" I will have utterly failed at life. If, instead, they would want to say "You were a great husband and a great father!" then I have succeeded.

So, I sometimes work 50 hours, but pretty much never more than that, and like forza, I did that every year before tenure. I don't take summer off, like some of my colleagues, because I prefer to keep to the work habits I first established as a design professional - have a strong sense of what you want to accomplish each day, and then stop when it's time for dinner. Work most of the year and perhaps take four weeks a year off.

I am a Fulbright Fellow, have been accepted to international art exhibitions with competitive acceptance rates (<4>
So, I really agree with the idea that if you're thinking of quitting anyway, why not try working 40 hours per week for awhile?

PS - I read the linked article that some people suggested about treating tenure as a 7-year postdoc and it has some really terrific advice. At both places I have been on tenure-track, people gave some really well-meaning, but nonsensical, advice, particularly to try to meet a bunch of people so that somehow, magically, people would "know" me when they saw my tenure case. I never asked people to elaborate, but having been through the process and having overheard lots of people describing tenure case conversations, I don't see how it could happen that because I once had coffee with someone in department such-and-such that later that person will just stand up and pound their desk and say "We're giving this person tenure, dammit!"
posted by Slothrop at 7:07 PM on June 8, 2016 [5 favorites]

I don't think the text window likes my "less than" sign. It keeps corrupting any of my paragraph that comes after the point where I mention a "[less than] 4% acceptance rate." The rest of my comment is : "and I have had articles published in international journals in my field. It is possible to have success as an academic and work normal hours."
posted by Slothrop at 7:12 PM on June 8, 2016

I would respectfully suggest that if it's the hours that are getting to you, and you really are working 90 hour weeks regularly, you might consider simply working less. I am a TT faculty member in the physical sciences. No one I know personally works that much. I very much doubt that I could pull 12.9 hours per day seven days a week in which useful work is getting done. My maximum during the semester is 55 hours/week; less in the summer, and my average is not more than an hour or two less. I structure my life such that I can't do more: I catch the X train home and once I get there, I've got stuff to do. My friends who are parents are even stricter about this than I am.

I find this forces me to be more efficient; I still think about work all the time, but not working all the time allows me space to have wider ranging thoughts. On the weekends, I only read papers as a matter of principle (I love reading the literature, perhaps more than I should).

You may feel that I am not playing at the same level as you, and that may be true. For reference, my collaboration of 6 publishes roughly 5-8 papers per year, sometimes more, sometimes much less. We are 3 TT PIs at three institutions (no senior people), a postdoc, and two grad students. I have one major grant from one of the usual suspects in my field. I write ~3 grant applications per year. I go to 2 conferences or so; I give 1ish colloquia per year. So, I'm not a superstar, and I never will be. But I am self aware enough to know I'm too dumb to worry about trying to be a member of the National Academy, or winning a prize my parents have heard of, or even publishing in journals with one word titles (well, OK, I do try that last one from time to time).

But, none of the TT people I work with put in more than 60 hours in a week on a routine basis. All of us are (now) at top ranked R1s or SLACs.

If you love teaching, research, and deeply care about following your nose, you're in the right place. I don't think you need to or should be working that much to be successful at it. I could be wrong, though.

What if I don't get tenure? Then I don't. In the intervening five years, I will continue to work on my exit strategy. I've heard this strategy referred to as the seven year postdoc. I'm ok with it.
posted by q9f9A at 7:15 PM on June 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

Where are you? What area of psy are you in? I am looking for a you to fill my previous position. Caveat, the pay is crap, but I promise you 40 hrs/wk plus relaxed culture. Memail me.
posted by Gyre,Gimble,Wabe, Esq. at 9:00 PM on June 8, 2016

Does your city / town have a community college that isn't a research university? In Canada we have universities (degree) and colleges (diploma) and with your cred you can teach at a college. Or a friend of mine is an academic chair for a highly regarded technical college.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:00 AM on June 9, 2016

I'm a Tenured Assoc prof here who had a rough-ish ride.

PLEASE read slothrop's and forzas advice before quitting. What's the worst that can happen if you do less (like 55hrs week), but still-high-quality work? You leave the gig? BUT YOU INTEND TO LEAVE ANYWAY AT THIS RATE. Don't quit just yet. Give it 2 more years at a reduced work rate!

ALSO if you say "I have 7 years to" this is your first year (?). So, you have new course preps (always crushing), you're learning how to be effective in a new institutional culture, you don't know the useful people who can help you, you still carry the baggage of having prestigious institutions and PI's take the load for you..... and you probably assume you have to be as rawly individually productive as a PhD or postdoc (which simply can't be true as a PI).

These things change and get better!!!

Some practical advice

i) See if you can get multiple preps of the same course assigned in future teaching assignments. At the very least - minimal - new preps till tenure. Also grading assistance is HUGE in this. A grader is cheap but opens up time for you to do scholarship/grantwriting. Your teaching has to be good - BUT NOT PERFECT.......course prep work expands to the time you allow it.
ii) Learn to say no to things. It's tough, and as a TT professor, you have to dance with people, but you simply can't say yes to everyone. Committee work in particular. Limit yourself.
iii) Do you have any ongoing medical issues? Get them sorted. TT life is rough on people, and you simply can't work at a high level with ongoing untreated medical conditions.

Also post this question to the Chronicle Forums. there are lots of links about burnout and what to do about it.

Good luck. We are rooting for you! Memail me if you want support or more advice.
posted by lalochezia at 7:24 AM on June 9, 2016

I cannot add anything more to the wonderful advice from our fellow academics you've already gotten. This -- end of year, exhaling -- is a natural time of year to take stock. And given what you describe, you'd be insane if you didn't consider bailing; so congrats on sanity and perspective.

But: the first year is the toughest, for sure; really, would you expect otherwise?

There are some great blogs out there, Tenure She Wrote especially, to get other perspectives here. Seek help and mentoring, especially outside your department, but even, carefully, within (they just spent a boatload of money to hire you; they don't want to lose that investment).

I'm of the 'get tenure while being sane' approach, and it's gone reasonably well (but ask me next year). Best wishes -- my bet is that you can turn your job into what you want it to be.
posted by Dashy at 8:58 AM on June 9, 2016

One idea for a private sector career option - I work in corporate training and have heard that psychometricians are in demand.
posted by see_change at 9:23 AM on June 9, 2016

I'm a former neuroscientist who quit my 4-year postdoc and am now a medical writer. I work for a medical communications agency, and most of our work centres around presenting data from clinical trials, creating patient education materials, creating health economic models, and helping to write manuscripts, abstracts, and posters. I've found my background very useful and the job is fulfilling enough without having to have your entire career hinge on your results. You get to do the things you enjoy without having your skin in the game. If you enjoy communication, really give it a try. There are a lot of places that employ people with our skills.
posted by the_wintry_mizzenmast at 2:37 PM on June 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

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