Thursday, June 21, 2012

Pondering Beyond Academia

On Twitter and in blog comments, BabyAttachMode has started an interesting conversation about if those who left academia regretted doing so. I've been thinking a lot about careers and "what next" lately, and the more I think about, the more I want to spend at least part of my career away from the academic research environment. There are a lot of reasons for this.

I'd like to have kids, and not feel so guilty about taking a reasonable length of time off for maternity leave. I know in my current situation, I'd be expected to at least be working from home within two weeks. My boss has no kids of his own, and some of his previous students have done just that, so that's what he expects. Not that I'm planning on any right now, but things happen.

I'd like to earn closer to what my husband makes. And that isn't going to happen in an academic postdoc. In a national lab, it's much more plausible, but many labs aren't near somewhere he could work. Also, there is some totally awesome research happening at the smaller labs like PNNL.

I miss working with people on projects that can be completed. Open-ended questions are interesting, but I miss being able to say I'm done with something, and mean it (see: project that won't die). I liked having a final product that I could point to and say I contributed to that part, over there. It's the part of me that identifies as an engineer instead of scientist.

Unlike most grad students I know, the majority of my friends are *not* in graduate school. I have my belly dance friends, my craft night crew, and I married out of the ivory tower. It helps keep me sane and grounded, and remember that there's more to life than papers and grants (like Brave coming out! The hair algorithms! Squee!) It also shows me how borked certain things in my current academic environment are. The only professor in my department who regularly seems happy are the 2 old guys who are || this close to retiring, and our two young Russian hot shots, who I'm pretty sure are a) crazy and b) rolling in grant money. And because they work all the time, it's not like they're miserable from 9-5 and then go have a life. This is what they do. Is it any wonder that the longer students are in graduate school, the less likely they are to want to pursue an academic career (can't find the article to cite)?

I'm also very lucky to have family that will understand and support either decision, with a very solid knowledge of what every option entails. I've got an aunt and 2 grandparents from academia, an uncle from the national lab system, and parents in a tech industry. When I was an intern at GiantEquipmentManufacturer, my boss had his Ph.D, as did his boss, and 4 of the 5 other people in our little group. Not only that, but they had degrees from all over the academic and geographic map.

Of course, the grass is always greener. But I can't help noticing that the grass over here is awfully brown lately.


  1. I think you bring up a lot of good reasons to want to work outside academia, except for this one:
    I'd like to have kids, and not feel so guilty about taking a reasonable length of time off for maternity leave.

    As you know I have a baby and I was blessed with an understanding advisor. I took 13 weeks of maternity leave and worked a little during my leave but only because I wanted to work (just sitting at home with a baby proved to be quite a challenge...). But even though I also know examples of less understanding advisors (like yours apparently is), I don't think that should be a reason for women to not have children/to leave academia, because by doing that things will never change. Looking back, those 13 weeks are really not that long. I think the academic world needs a mentally change when it comes to women having children and that's not going to happen by walking away.

    1. If I weren't already considering leaving academia, it wouldn't be a reason alone to do so. However, given my current environment, having kids would be incredibly challenging and unsupported. Industry has significantly better maternity leave, at least in my field. Any professors with children are either tenured, or have a stay-at-home spouse. The few graduate students with children also have stay-at-home spouses, or else were back at work very soon. My advisor got annoyed when my coworker had to take a week off to recover from being hit by a car... Even when I took a 10-week internship at one of the big name national labs, my advisor nagged me for data, more than if I'd actually been there. So right now, I'm very pessimistic about the whole concept, at least in the grad student/ postdoc phase of things.