the ones who walk away from academia
August 29, 2019 3:00 AM   Subscribe

I’m in a STEM PhD program. I'm trying to slowly phase my life into a path that combines my technical ability with my strengths in writing, art, and community organizing. How do I lay the groundwork for a life change while keeping up motivation to finish? What do I owe my advisors after I graduate?

I’m in an elite CS PhD program, with everything that comes with it. For most people in my position, this kind of life is an identity and a funnel into the Rising Star Professor Career, but I’ve been treating it like a day job. Basically I think academia is bullshit and few people know how to work on the real issues that matter. I think this job is a nice way to support the work I really care about—which lies in writing, art, and activism—while building skills that will serve me well after the PhD.

Why am I still here? First, I think the project I'm working on actually matters for the world. Second, you’re welcome to roll your eyes—but I’m so good at what I do, and force of habit, as well as the sheer amount of money sloshing around in tech, keeps me here as well. I just got two big grants for my work, and the project feels like it’s on a cusp. If I quit now, I don’t think anyone will be able to fill my role, since I started the project and it demands a very particular skillset. I feel like I owe it to my advisors, and my team, to see it to completion. I feel like I’m in a bind where part of me is really losing motivation to play the role I have, while part of me is scared to lose the freedom and autonomy of academia, as well as the stable and lucrative nature of my work.

I’ve become painfully aware that this high-powered day job is taking a huge toll on my personal life. I’m in my mid-20s and working hard is all I know. My theory is that since my field is full of money and power, it attracts boring people. I don’t like being around most of the people I meet at work, and my program is in a city that I can’t wait to move out of. I think the nature of my work is partially responsible for my completely nonexistent love life. Indulge my complaining for a sec: I’m a queer nonbinary person of color and am never gonna date a tech bro, so that rules out almost everyone I meet. So I work really hard to make and maintain relationships outside of work circles.

I maintain a life as a writer, activist, and artist, and I love the people I meet in these circles. I love their work and they love mine. I wish I had a legible reason to be around these people more. When I spend summers in cities with people I like more, in culturally- and socially-oriented contexts that I like more, of course I feel much happier! The problem is that none of my work as an artist, writer, activist, etc. pays much. I don’t quite know how to turn it into steady, paying work. I think this is a question that many people have. I know that these lines of work are all precarious, scarce, underpaid, reactive, and gig-based.

Another reason for me to stay in the program is to save money and build technical skills while I build up momentum for the next move. I have several independent collaborations going that I think could turn into something more with more time. Ideally one of those leads to some other kind of paying work that brings me closer to circles of people that I care about. Tempting as it is to up and move to Brooklyn, I want to present a clear reason to leave and a means of subsistence. For example, instead of saying “I’m quitting but I have no idea what I’m doing next," I’d love to say “this activist org really likes my work and is trying to recruit me.” But perhaps I’m just scared of drifting, and drifting would be good for me. I would welcome hearing stories of successful lateral moves like this.

Another route is to pursue another degree in another more socially- or culturally-oriented field like STS or an MFA. But I am pretty tired of academia at this point. I want to be closer to folks who are working on the ground. And, from what I’ve heard, arts/humanities academia is underfunded, overworked, and an overall thankless experience. I’d be happy to be convinced otherwise. A final route is to actually finish what I started and go into CS academia, but to use the position and power of a professor to support the kind of work that I think matters.

I should note that I’m not trying to "quit tech." I love computers and I care a great deal about being a seriously good hacker. I’m just trying to build a bridge between my communities.

No, I don’t want to show my advisors this question—it feels mildly insane to drop the bomb on them that I want to quit high-powered CS academia to become, say, an independent writer and community organizer. That would be a great way to kill their interest in advising me for the next three years. I would rather tell them a version of the truth that I maintain while slowly bending the arc of my life closer to the truth. How can I do that?
posted by transducer to Human Relations (16 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I am always surprised by the number of people I know who have demanding day jobs and also serious hobbies in their free time. You can do both. There may be other sacrifices that you will have to make -- relationships/ family or kids/ slower career progression/ physical health and exercise/ mental health -- but I came here to say, you can do both. You may need to keep your day job hours contained in order to do both, but you can.

When I spend summers in cities with people I like more, in culturally- and socially-oriented contexts that I like more, of course I feel much happier! The problem is that none of my work as an artist, writer, activist, etc. pays much. I don’t quite know how to turn it into steady, paying work. I think this is a question that many people have. I know that these lines of work are all precarious, scarce, underpaid, reactive, and gig-based.

Do not underestimate the toll that the lack of money has on your happiness and stability. Do not underestimate the perks of a cushy well-paid job. Money cannot buy happiness but it can sure help. The impact of money will only grow as you get older -- family and kids, housing, pensions, retirement, help for older family members, etc. The people I know who take up precarious, scarce, underpaid, reactive jobs, have either sacrificed something BIG (job stability, mental health, kids) or they have family support.

I would say you have many good reasons to stay on the program, even if you may not ultimately pursue the "standard" path for your future. You love computers, you love your projects, but you are not loving the "dream" that other people have imagined for you. That's fine! You can do something different later! To drop out now and not fully use your highly-valuable skills (in this capitalist world anyway) will be severely reducing your options for the future.
posted by moiraine at 3:45 AM on August 29, 2019 [6 favorites]

I'm in the humanities and I wish that more people with your tech skills would apply a CS project to something that has deep social value. Is there a way to not quit CS entirely but to redirect it into what you love and value -- say, in a post doc? You can do artful/socially meaningful/informatics or CS work as a professor in a program that has, say, a program in Social Informatics, get a job in a college town instead of a $-tech town, and spend all your time with the creative, activist, artist types who inevitably live in college towns even if they're not in academia. Or teach CS along with social issues to underserved kids who can really use it in a non-R1 institution. It is your life, and you must do what's right for you, but I think you have an amazing gift -- being good at so many things -- that could let you make a special contribution more than simply abandoning what you've built so far.
posted by nantucket at 4:27 AM on August 29, 2019 [4 favorites]

Yeah, engineering academia is filled with people who are difficult to socialize with, which is in my opinion one big reason a lot of students from nontraditional backgrounds end up not finishing. It can be pretty bleak, the problems can be very abstract and boringly inaccessible depending on your subfield, and nobody tells you any of that before you start school.

>No, I don’t want to show my advisors this question—it feels mildly insane to drop the bomb on them that I want to quit high-powered CS academia

Still, I do NOT think you should quit, and that you should tough it out and change the world for good with your degree (see the cool work of J. Buolamwini, for eg, who works to combat discrimination in AI). But if you were ever to take that step, you should really not place too much importance on what your advisors would think if you were to drop out.

PhD students tend to catastrophize about this stuff, but it's not nearly as big a deal as you think (especially at a good well-funded program where they can easily recruit smart replacements), and I guarantee your advisors (who have a million responsibilities) care a think a lot less about what their students are up to than you do about them.

Students drop out alllll the time, especially and even in elite programs. One of my friends in such a program (whose parents were actually CS professors at Stanford/Berkeley/MIT/etc and was "royalty" of sorts) took two leaves of absence and then quit completely because of her inability to cope mentally with the whole process. Your advisors have seen it all, if they've been around for a couple years.
posted by shaademaan at 5:17 AM on August 29, 2019 [2 favorites]

More charitably: I think we need more queer/non-binary PhD’s of color, and maybe you should stay. But if you stay, you have to actually be there for it, not phoning it in with thinly-veiled disgust that is probably apparent to everyone around you. I have probably visited or lived in your town, and I can promise you there are other queer radicals around, they are also avoiding the white tech bros. Even places that coastal twits snob about have local music, arts, activism, etc. Maybe you can learn a bit more about your city and see it has more than you thought.

It’s not so crazy for someone with a PhD in CS to go into a social sciences department and work on issues that matter in a way that does support real people on the ground.
posted by SaltySalticid at 5:44 AM on August 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

You could take a leave to work on a 2020 presidential campaign.
posted by bdc34 at 6:46 AM on August 29, 2019

First thought:

There is plenty of socially-conscious CS stuff that is socially acceptable to high-powered academics, depending on what subfield you work in. (Obviously less so if you work on like, PL theory or something.) You might find yourself getting pretty cynical about this work, though, because it's still subject to bad academia incentives and people often try to present an image of political neutrality ("we're just building tools to help and have no comment on the specific nature or causes of the problem").

Another thought:

How on earth are you making "lucrative" pay as a grad student? Even the richest private institutions do not pay all that well. Are you taking summer jobs with big tech companies, and is that where you're meeting all the cool activists and artists?

If so (or even if not), you might try setting your academia career goal as an industry research job at one of them, rather than a faculty job. This is socially acceptable to CS advisors, usually, and would get you to NYC (or whatever other big tech city), where you'd be at least geographically near the communities you care about.
posted by vogon_poet at 6:53 AM on August 29, 2019 [2 favorites]

Keep doing this as a day job (which was also how I did my grad program). Get to know the cool people in your city to better enjoy the next few years. Continue to work in the field (but not academia) when you graduate as a day job, and do fun stuff on the side. My approach has been to work as few hours as necessary for money so I can best enjoy my free time; "do what you love" as a job is usually not a good approach for most people.
posted by metasarah at 7:10 AM on August 29, 2019 [3 favorites]

I would welcome hearing stories of successful lateral moves like this.

How do you feel about teaching? I know some people with tech or CS backgrounds who teach tech stuff to public high schoolers. Some places that's a fancy elective, some places it's actually part of a vo-tech program, which is kind of cool as a way of reaching people who might not end up in tech otherwise. It's not direct activism, but for the people I know who do it, it's an opportunity to give kids a queer role model, to create a safe classroom for kids who might not get one otherwise, and to reach them with messages about how to respect themselves/each other and work together.

The people I know who do this don't earn what they'd be able to earn in tech, but they earn enough. And that disparity in pay seems to make it a fairly easy job to get into, if you're moving to an area where public schools teach this stuff at all.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:21 AM on August 29, 2019

For whatever it's worth, I crashed out of a CS-adjacent Ph.D program about six years ago, without completing, and my life has been night-and-day more amazing ever since. I ended up joining a well-funded research lab as full-time support staff, and had a five year run of building software to support research I was very interested in. After that, I joined a startup that I can't say much about but is also doing interesting work on a problem I care about. I have almost no regrets: sometimes it rankles that there are roles I will never have available to me, that I'm pretty sure I could do, because of lacking the credential, but on the whole I am a much happier person than I was when I was in my program. I feel like the stuff I've contributed to since then has changed the world more than anything I did in grad school -- from the program, I have one journal article with citations in the low tens. Since then, I've made specialized software that thousands of people have used to make aspects of their job easier/better, and facilitated actually impactful research.

On the other hand, I think there are some significant differences in where we're at that make me say "finishing up might actually be a good path for you" -- I actively disliked my program and my mentors, I didn't have any desire to work as faculty in the area the degree would have opened up, and I could get treated better and have a better life using the technical skills in industry. It sounds like you are much more interested in the work itself, and at least neutral on the program/management. In that case, it might be worth getting the credential just for the doors it may open someday.
posted by Alterscape at 7:41 AM on August 29, 2019 [2 favorites]

Tech, art, and activism are hardly orthogonal pursuits. It might seem that way in your context—I can imagine that CS grad students in certain cities would be kind of square. But as a professional programmer and professional artist, I can assure you, first, that there are plenty of artists and activists working in tech, and second, that some of them are using tech in pursuit of art or activism. We aren't all brogrammers.

Look, activist movements need all kinds of people, not just organizers. Activism needs tech. It's not just heroes rousing up the masses or getting arrested in the streets, you know? You have to bring the skills you have, and most folks can't bring programming skills. I work for a non-profit as a programmer. These roles exist. And radical tech collectives are A Thing (you might have to dig a little). Possibly of interest:
Public Interest Tech job board
Tech Workers Coalition

As for art and writing, I don't know what kind of work you do, but there are people doing really neat tech that's purely for the sake of art (or journalism, or music...). For examples, check out:
EYEO (conference)
StrangeLoop (conference)
Hacks/Hackers (big meetup with many chapters)
School for Poetic Computation

In short, you need to get out more. Yeah, maybe move to Brooklyn. But get your degree first, then go do something cool. Even if you're not interested in combining tech plus whatever, I promise you can find like-minded folks in the tech world. Besides, it's nice to be able to buy art supplies without worrying what you can afford.
posted by the_blizz at 7:58 AM on August 29, 2019 [8 favorites]

I agree with those who think you may yet have a path open to you in higher education. I am a design/art professor at a US university and an important part of what I do is community engagement. One of my other specialties is interactive media, as well. My institution is basically an R1.5 (you probably know that Carnegie doesn't use 'R1' style terminology anymore, so our institution is in the penultimate tier), and in a large, diverse city.

Have you looked at more technologically-minded art and design programs, for instance? I haven't looked at your portfolio of work but my graduate alma mater, the Stamps School of Art & Design at University of Michigan, is very technology-focused. I wonder if you could develop a role for yourself as a 'creative technologist,' such as John Marshall or Heidi Kumao at the aforementioned Stamps School. I imagine you could also find similar creative, tech-using people at Carnegie Mellon or MIT or CalTech or several other institutions in and out of the US.
posted by Slothrop at 8:37 AM on August 29, 2019 [3 favorites]

I think everyone else has better answers than me, but you might want to check out this person: She's on twitter as well.

She does great work that utilizes the extremely rare and valuable skill that you and she have. I think, if you are not this person (you're not, right?) it would be nice if you could contact her and discuss your plans, because its difficult to seek advice from someone who has not been there and who's just not on the same level.
posted by catbird at 9:31 AM on August 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

Treating your PhD like a day job -- and it sounds like one you do well -- sounds incredibly healthy. I get that you don't like where you live. How long til you're done? Is it possible to stick it out and then focus your job search on Brooklyn or another city with the arts scene you crave? I also wonder if you work in tech or higher ed in one of those cities if you might find a few more interesting people at work. In any case, it sounds like right now you have pretty healthy boundaries between work and non-work, and a lot of folks in higher ed struggle with that. This seems like a strength rather than a problem.

Could you use a higher paying job as a way to mentor younger, queer folks of color? And spend your outside-of-work time engaged in activism and arts-related projects? There might be a brilliant path here.
posted by bluedaisy at 10:18 AM on August 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

A final route is to actually finish what I started and go into CS academia, but to use the position and power of a professor to support the kind of work that I think matters.

I want to provide some ideas supporting this plan. First of all, with the way the academic job market is in CS right now, you have a large number and a wide range of options in academia. If you are doing quality, impactful work at a top school, you will be able to get about as many offers as you are willing to do interviews for, right now. There is a huge imbalance in PhD supply and CS professor demand. And it's important to recognize the range of options you could choose from.

For example, in my experience, small liberal arts colleges have a lot less of what I consider bullshit (according to my personal values, anyway) than R1s do. At a SLAC, you would have, relative to an R1:
  • Far less research and publication pressure.
  • More teaching expectations.
  • Less exposure to CS/tech people and far more exposure to academics from all other areas (on account of the small size of the departments and the liberal arts ideals of breadth and interdisciplinarity).
  • Arguably (some will disagree) a lesser, less stressful workload overall, offering more opportunities to explore interests outside of CS research and CS teaching.
A community college would offer a different set of expectations and opportunities with a different balance. A small state school would be different yet again. And so on.

And as location appears to be important to you, you can find academic institutions in just about any type of hamlet, village, town, city, or megalopolis you desire.

The near guarantee of a well paid, stable position if you go the academic route should not be discounted. I think there is a ton of value in establishing yourself in a position that pays well (even if not at the big-tech-company level) and has incredible job security (if you pick an institution where tenure expectations are in line with the work you want to do) when it also provides flexibility and self-direction for you to pursue your interests in and outside of work. Basically: you can put yourself on a solid platform that lets you do exactly what you want to do.

In short, I guess my message is that you can "quit high-powered CS academia" without leaving CS academia, and you may find a lot of value in that path.
posted by whatnotever at 3:17 PM on August 29, 2019 [3 favorites]

If you stay in academia, you could effect a lot of change, if you were driven to do so and not distracted by the shiny baubles that the profession counts as status markers. for example look at Greg Hampkian's work as a forensic scientist and justice seeker.

I would implore you; if you stay in fulltime tech/academe, look back at this question every 6 months and if you feel the same, make sure your mission isn't being diluted by age and compromise too much.
posted by lalochezia at 5:44 AM on August 30, 2019

Have you checked out Recurse Center? It's a pretty amazing programming retreat that you can attend for 1, 6, or 12 weeks. I ask because it's a pretty diverse community for programming both demographically (they offer scholarships for folks from traditionally underrepresented groups) and occupationally.

You'll meet your fair share of people who've worked at Google and the usual start-ups, and you'll also meet some amazing visual artists and musicians, activists and free software folks, and people who've found their way into programming from a variety of really cool backgrounds. There is generally an ethos of open-ness and collaboration, and there's a pretty great online component to the community which persists even after you leave. I think seeing the variety that can exist within the field might be really helpful for you, but either way it's a delightful way to spend some time working on projects with a diverse group. My time there was really, really good for me, though YMMV. Feel free to ping me with questions.
posted by taltalim at 6:25 AM on August 30, 2019 [3 favorites]

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