Academia: Should I stay or should I go?
November 18, 2007 9:01 AM   Subscribe

I will finish my PhD in a few months, and now is the season for postdoc applications. Thing is, I am not sure if I want to stay and academia. Should I apply for postdocs anyways and keep my options open? If not, any Ph.D.s out there (especially physicists) who have any advice on making the transition away academia?

I do research in a field (Physics) where it is absolutely required that I do a few years of postdoctoral research (3 or 4) before I can even apply for a faculty position. While I really enjoy collaborative research, the prospect of taking short term jobs (1 or 2 years) for a few years, moving around, only to then have very little choice of where I could possibly get a faculty position, is really not all that attractive -- the jobs are few, and I'd have to go wherever they are. There is also the simple fact that there are way too many applicants for faculty positions, and very few positions, and hell, I am old (32), and will be even older when looking for a faculty position (35? 37?). Sounds kinda late to settle down and START a life.

For various personal reasons, I feel that moving half-way around the world for a temporary job would be selfish and irresponsible, even if it sounds exciting to live abroad and meet new people.

However, it is now the season to apply for postdoctoral jobs. The jobs I am applying for now have a starting date of roughly Fall 2008. I feel inclined to apply anyways, just to keep my options open, because everything is months away anyways. Is this bad form? I'd only apply for jobs I'd be interested in taking if I decide to stay in academia, so I think it is fair that I learn more about my potential choices to make an informed decision.

I plan on looking at what my options are in industry, but there is no doubt that there will be the need for some adaptation, because my area of research has close to zero direct practical applications at this time. I have skills that are transferable (both soft and hard), so I am confident I will be able to find something. Although I hear that a Ph.D. is valuable when looking for a job even outside your field of research, I have been in academia for so long that I am not sure if that is true or not. I did work in industry for a couple of years before going to grad school, but that was unrelated to what I did my research in, and it has been 5/6 years.

So, my questions:

1) Is it bad to apply for postdoc jobs even though I am unsure if I will want to stay in academia?

2) Anyone out there with experience moving from academia to industry/real world after doing a PhD on something that has little or no direct practical applications (e.g. theoretical Physics)?

Even if you don't have direct advice, but care to share your personal experiences with similar issues, that'd be greatly appreciated.
posted by TheyCallItPeace to Work & Money (15 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
If you're a theoretician, wall street has a place for you. Many of my physics and math PhD friends are there now, making 10 times what I make, not counting their end-of-the-year bonuses (and I am a physics professor). I'm increasingly tempted myself.
posted by overhauser at 9:21 AM on November 18, 2007

Oh, and it isn't wrong at all to apply for a postdoc when you aren't sure what it is you want to do. You are interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you for those things, and 'is this the life I really want for the next 2 years' is the right question to ask when you are talking to prospective PIs. Deciding that it isn't after all is a perfectly valid conclusion, and one that you shouldn't feel bad about. But it is better for you to have actually investigated things than to just decide no without looking into it.
posted by overhauser at 9:28 AM on November 18, 2007

I'm a biologist who sort of went through the same process and ultimately did a postdoc. I'm glad that I did, even though I ended up leaving academia afterward. Personally, I looked at the postdoc as a time to think about what I really wanted to do with my life, without the dissertation hanging over my head.
posted by underdetermined at 10:06 AM on November 18, 2007

Best answer: I'm a biochemist, not a physicist, but in my field it's usually easier to get a postdoctoral fellowship than an actual job. So if that's true in your area, you might apply for a few just as a "safety". In biotech, where I work, many of the larger companies hire PhDs as postdocs (which is a bit of a scam, in my opinion, but that's sort of off-topic). Anyway, maybe some big physics R&D shops might offer something similar?

As far as experience in going from academia to industry, I did that without too much difficulty even though my research was pretty far removed from what I actually got hired for. Having the basic "tools" and knowledge counts a lot more than specific experience in (my) industry, since each company tends to have its own highly specific niche and there's not that much overlap.

Since you asked for some personal experiences, I'll share my reasons for leaving academia. Basically, I didn't want to have the pressure of writing grants to keep my lab funded. Grant money was getting scarcer and scarcer when I had to make my decision, and it seemed like my thesis advisor was perpetually writing grant applications. He had several grants going, so one of them was always up for renewal, and the pressure was always on. I wrote an application for a fellowship grant myself so I saw how time-consuming the process was, and realized that writing multiple grants is a full-time job.

I didn't want to be in the position of worrying "If this grant doesn't get funded, how will my postdocs feed their babies?" So I took the easy way out and went into industry, where the business-types worry about the money.

Mind you, industry has its own problems, but I don't have to worry about money. If it runs out, it runs out, and I get laid off, which sucks, but at least it isn't on my conscience.

Also, in industry I can tell myself that I'm working on something potentially useful, which I find more motivating than pure research. As you know, research can be immensely frustrating, with weeks or months going by without any useful results, and the idea that there's a new cancer treatment (or whatever) at the end of it kinda helps me not get too discouraged. (Unfortunately, not one project I've worked on in the biotech industry so far has actually turned into a useful drug, but there's always hope for the next project, right?)

Anyway, whatever you decide now, keep in mind that it's fairly easy to go from academia to industry, but the reverse is very hard. So if you're really torn, stick it out in academia for a while longer and keep your options open. Once you jump ship into industry, you're pretty much stuck there for the rest of your career. It can be a fine place to be stuck, but you have to be ready to make that nearly-irreversible move. Good luck and feel free to Me-mail me if you want more ramblings.
posted by Quietgal at 10:24 AM on November 18, 2007

Check out the book "Put your Science to Work", by Peter Fiske. It has a casual tone, but good advice on making the transition from academia, as well as advice on pursuing post-docs and the academic career path.
posted by sevenyearlurk at 10:57 AM on November 18, 2007

I recently finished my PhD in bioengineering (more applied than theoretical physics, for sure) and have the same thoughts about academia and the grant-writing black hole. I haven't applied to postdoc positions - mainly because I'm afraid if I get an offer I'll take it as the path of lease resistance - but I don't think it's a bad idea to apply if you're not sure. Plus, it may help you with your interviewing skills, if that's an area in which you need/want practice. I'm looking for industry jobs (biotech) but if I come up empty-handed, then I'm going to look for postdocs. But that's just me.
posted by gecko12 at 11:12 AM on November 18, 2007

Probably should point out that I did, in fact, do a postdoc before I bailed out into industry. And I don't regret either move.

In fact, doing a postdoc gives you an advantage, in that it counts as job experience (unlike graduate school). If a company is looking for someone with, say 2 - 5 years' experience, you'd be eligible whereas someone fresh out of grad school would not be.

Again, good luck and best wishes!
posted by Quietgal at 11:21 AM on November 18, 2007

"1) Is it bad to apply for postdoc jobs even though I am unsure if I will want to stay in academia?"

Yes. It is VERY VERY bad. You lost a lot of time already for getting a degree which has a very limited demand. A post-doc would make you loose more time. At the same time you will have very little income during these years. Later it will look like you are not good enough to become a professor and hence want to go to industry as a second choice.

"2) Anyone out there with experience moving from academia to industry/real world after doing a PhD on something that has little or no direct practical applications"

Yes. It is VERY VERY VERY difficult. I hope that you
1. Are an American and not an immigrant and
2. That you got you PhD in one of the top 10 schools.

> (e.g. theoretical Physics)?
Besides programming you could do math modeling on Wall Street. I expect a major recession and you would be the last one to come and the fist to go. Good luck!

"Even if you don't have direct advice, but care to share your personal experiences with similar issues, that'd be greatly appreciated"

I did a PhD in one of the major US groups in my field. In Europe (where I am from) a PhD qualifies you to higher management. You could say that it is the European equivalent of an MBA. This made things for me very difficult when I tried to go to industry since in this country (US) a PhD is considered mainly acamemic and employers become suspicous when you apply to industy/finace (Why does this guy not want to become a professor? Is he not good enough?). In the few interviews I scored they asked me "Why did you apply here?". WTF!

Enjoy the comics:
posted by yoyo_nyc at 11:26 AM on November 18, 2007

Wow, yoyo. Sounds like you've had a rough time.

(I'm going on to a second postdoc at the age of 35, myself. My values are a little unusual, though, I suppose.)
posted by Coventry at 11:35 AM on November 18, 2007

Best answer: Given that you have little (if any) knowledge of what Industry (or real job world) is how can you be sure you want to do that? I think you might want to examine why you feel you do not want to stay in academia. Finishing a PhD requires a lot of effort and most people I know come out half-burned with a lot of existential questions such as yours. I suggest, unless you are 100% sure you do not want to follow the academic track, you go on for at least one postdoc. Have you considered changing your focus a bit? I did an undergrad in Physics, a masters and a PhD in Applied Physics and went on to become a climate scientist. My current research is only 30% related to what I did for my PhD.

Sounds kinda late to settle down and START a life.

Also, it sounds to me wrong, to think, that that's when life will start. Life is now. Postdocs and moving around etc are part of life. It is a mistake I think to believe that life starts when you have a permanent job at a permanent location. That might take many years to happen. Nowadays, a lot of people keep moving even if they have a tenured position, for example.
posted by carmina at 1:01 PM on November 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm in much the same position you are — finishing my Ph.D. in a realm of theoretical physics that has very little direct relevance to industry, and applying for postdoc positions.

While I really enjoy collaborative research, the prospect of taking short term jobs (1 or 2 years) for a few years, moving around, only to then have very little choice of where I could possibly get a faculty position, is really not all that attractive -- the jobs are few, and I'd have to go wherever they are.

In my view, that's really the price you pay for being in the field. You and I are incredibly lucky people, in that we have a chance to be paid to do something we love and that can't necessarily be used to turn a profit for someone somewhere. It's pretty awesome work if you can get it, but society as a whole can't support too many people like us. Hence, the opportunities are scattered and few. The only consolation is that number of people who end up with the skills necessary to do this kind of work isn't *that* much larger than the number of positions that are out there.

I decided years ago that this is really what I want to do, that academia is the best place for me, and that I'm going to pursue this avenue for as long as I can. This means, as you said, that I'm aiming to do a postdoc or three before trying to get a tenure-track professorial job somewhere. I'm aware that each step is going to be difficult, but for me it's worth it.

So really, that's the question you have to ask yourself: is it worth it for you? Are you willing to make these sacrifices in order to be able to spend your life teaching undergraduates and doing collaborative research? If you're not sure that that's what you want, and that you'd be willing to jump through these hoops to get it, then... well, I suppose you could always apply and put off the decision at such time as you have an offer in hand, but that's not too far from now either. Don't underestimate the amount of effort to search for listings, arrange for letters of recommendation, write a coherent statement of research interest, write cover letters, and so forth; it's taking up at least half of my time already, and I haven't even sent in half my applications yet. (Also, isn't it rather late to be just starting to think about this? The majority of the applications I'm sending are due in less than two weeks.) You're going to have to make a decision pretty damn soon in any case. If I was in your position, I'd spend some time now thinking long & hard about what you want to do before putting in the (significant) effort to apply for jobs that you're not even sure you want.

I hope I don't sound too berating in what I've said here; feel free to contact me via private message or e-mail if you want to retaliate or ask for further advice.
posted by Johnny Assay at 1:16 PM on November 18, 2007

Best answer: "1) Is it bad to apply for postdoc jobs even though I am unsure if I will want to stay in academia?"

Not at all. You're not required to take something that's offered and who knows what will pop up in the meantime? The only downside I can see is the time it will take to apply, though you might find yourself going through that process and having a realization that you do/don't want to be in academe more strongly than you felt at the outset.

"2) Anyone out there with experience moving from academia to industry/real world after doing a PhD on something that has little or no direct practical applications"

Yes, me. And several friends of mine. My PhD was in Political Science and I currently work in the mobile phone industry. I have a friend with PhDs in Astronomy who works in the software industry, another with a PhD in Literature who works in the video game industry . . . and so on.

I wouldn't listen to yoyo_nyc's less than upbeat assessment of the situation. You've proven that you're smart and talented and persistent and a hard worker--if you want to make the transition to the private sector you need to network and learn how to market yourself. That's not hard.

You should begin thinking about the skills that you've learned, which are ultimately independent of your discipline. I'm guessing you know how to manage projects, build models, and have had to learn a range of IT-related skills just to do your research. Don't underestimate what you know and how valuable it is to employers. As someone who now hires people, I know one of the things I look for is a candidates ability to explain their skill set. Google "functional resumes" for a start.

Good luck and keep your chin up. I'd be shocked if ultimately your initial worst case scenario wasn't a job where you were making more money with less stress than an entry-level, itinerant academic gig.
posted by donovan at 1:30 PM on November 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

i'm not sure what your exact field is, but you might consider working at a national lab. berkeley, for example, is a nice place to live. i don't mean a postdoc at a national lab, i mean a full-time permanent staff scientist position. they pay very well, and you'll have some degree of creativity/flexibility in what you work on. (though not as much as in academia.)
posted by sergeant sandwich at 2:45 PM on November 18, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for all the feedback! I really appreciate it.

I agree that thinking that life will start only after I settle down is not right, but it is hard to to think that a lot of things end up staying on hold until that time. The uncertainty is, after all, much greater than at an industry job. That puts a pretty big strain on family and personal life, so the sacrifices end up being not only my own if I don't put certain things on hold.

After thinking about it, and reading what was written in response to my question, I think the reasonable thing to do is to continue with the applications. I need to find out more about these positions before making a decision, just like they need to find out more about me before making an offer.

But keep the answers coming! I'd like to hear what people in similar situations have considered/decided and why.
posted by TheyCallItPeace at 3:36 PM on November 18, 2007

my boyfriend (age 33) was in his 2nd year as a postdoc in math this past spring when he finally decided to take a sabbatical to decide whether he really wanted to stay in academia. he'd spent the last couple of years wondering if he wanted to stay in academia for the following reasons: he couldn't stand his advisor, he was getting burnt out, there was a lot of competition, he would most likely end up having to teach and work in whatever university town (usually small and unappealing to him) in which he was offered a faculty position, he wanted to spend more time with his family, and he wanted to get married and start his own family (and the chances of finding the right girl in said small university town seemed rather slim).

he's applied on a couple of occasions in the past couple of years for finance jobs (making a ton more than what he was making) and have been offered a few but in the end couldn't decide whether that was for him either. he still hasn't ruled it out entirely though. so he's taking this year to spend time with his family (who all live in a city he loves but has never been able to spend as much time in as he'd have liked) working with his hands and being a little creative in the family business. he'd love for this endeavor to be profitable enough to allow him to stay here and make a good living for him and, in the future, a family. he does miss math and definitely misses teaching (and would love to be offered an opportunity to teach a class at one of the local universities) but he doesn't miss the other parts of academic life, but he hasn't ruled out going back to it either, so it's good that he has options.
posted by violetk at 4:57 PM on November 18, 2007

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