#beyondAcademia: Gratitude, surprises, and ambition

Today’s post, the last in this week’s digital event on “What is it like to be an experimental psychologist working in academia?” is a combination of gratitude journal, book of secrets, and five-year plan.

We asked our respondents, introduced here, what they most appreciate about their new career, what surprised them most about having a non-academic job, and what ambitions they have for the future.

Gratitude journal: What do you appreciate most about your current job or career path?

For our respondents, one joy of working in a non-academic career comes from collaborating with a diverse set of co-workers. For example, Mike Winograd expressed appreciation for working “with a lot of extremely intelligent people from a wide range of backgrounds and diverse perspectives.” To successfully work together as a team, colleagues trained in different fields need to respect and trust one another’s expertise. As Anita Bowles shared: “I appreciate that my coworkers respect my expertise and the time I have invested into learning about subject matter important for our business.”

Another reason for gratitude is the diversity of work that respondents do. Winograd noted: “I’m always working on a few different projects simultaneously and start new ones every few months. It lets me use a wider variety of methods and answer more diverse questions than I did in academia.” Working on new projects also means constantly learning: learning a new subject area or a new technique that’s necessary to successfully complete the project.

Because non-academic work is applied, respondents also appreciate getting to see the real-world impact of their efforts. As we’ll discuss in future posts on considerations for choosing a non-academic career path, people typically choose to pursue a career that is aligned with their core values and vision for the future. Seeing the impact of their work can therefore be very personally rewarding. For example, as Anita Bowles noted: “I appreciate the opportunity to use my research skills to assist with the development of learning software.”

Finally, a non-academic career can feel like having “the best of both worlds.” As described in yesterday’s post about job satisfaction, leaving academia doesn’t mean having to leave behind the “life of the mind”. And, there are many lifestyle improvements. As Winograd described it: “I am constantly learning and being challenged while getting paid at a level that affords me a very comfortable lifestyle and the ability to travel and enjoy living in a big city. For the most part, I get to leave work at work (although I do regularly have long days or have to answer emails in the evenings) instead of knowing there is always more reading, analysis, writing, grading, or course preparation I could be doing.”

Book of secrets: What was the most unexpected thing you learned about having a non-academic job?

One big surprise for respondents was just how much they enjoy their new non-academic careers. While some had initial apprehension about their new path, it was quickly dispelled. Katherine Livins explained: “I don’t miss academia at all (I think I expected I would, but was ok with the tradeoffs I foresaw before making the switch). I actually can’t imagine going back now.” Likewise, for Bowles, “the most unexpected thing about a non-academic job is how much I enjoy it. Every job has its pluses and minuses but, for me, working outside of academia is a much better fit for my interests, personality, and preferred work environment.”

Respondents were also surprised at the flexibility with which their interests, which had previously seemed so specific and stable, could be redefined. Nick Gaylord explained that he didn’t expect “a reframing of what really interests me. In grad school, I would have said I was interested in the role of domain-general decision making processes in language comprehension. Actually, what I’m interested in is finding cool patterns in messy data, and using those patterns to answer meaningful questions. When I look back on my time in grad school (and even earlier), I recognize now that most of the things I did were just specific manifestations of this more general interest.”

Five-year plan: Is there room for promotion in your job? Where do you see yourself going from here?

We asked respondents to think about what was next on their horizons. Is there room for them to advance in their jobs? And, if so, will they need to switch roles as they advance, for example, by moving from a technical to a managerial role?

Most expressed confidence that there was a clear path forward. “In data science (and engineering) you typically start as an “individual contributor”, then over time you can advance into senior technical roles or people management. There’s almost always room to grow both directions,” Livins explained. Stefania Mereu has already “made the switch to a managerial role, but you can thrive and advance as an individual contributor. You just have different titles, but comparable pay rate.” How high one can advance while staying on the technical track varies between companies and industries. For example, Katie Rotella noted: “where I work, you can continue to be promoted in the technical track until one step below the executive level, so there’s a long career you can have in the technical track and no stigma in staying there.”

Nevertheless, respondents agreed that management skills become more important as you advance. And eventually, there will come a choice between taking on a managerial role and not advancing any further. Here’s how Rotella explained it: “eventually you need to make the choice between staying in the technical track vs. moving to a more managerial/strategy role. This is similar to me to staying a professor vs. moving into administration (e.g., dean)—the money is better but you are moving away from being hands-on with science.”

In companies that are actively growing, there’s more flexibility to define your role with time. Maria D’Angelo noted: “my team is relatively new and is growing, so there is a lot of room for me to define my role and how I will advance with more experience.”

There were two cases noted by our respondents that make advancement more difficult: working in a startup, and working in a company without a clear evaluation structure. Nick Gaylord explained the situation for startups: “there may be room for promotion, but in startup land, advancement is more likely to come from a change in jobs as opposed to staying inside one company, because the organizational structure is usually very flat.” As for the other case, one anonymous respondent explained: “at a previous company, the path was there but the opportunities were lacking due to the structure of the company and how performance was evaluated.”

What’s next for our respondents?

Many expressed wanting to stay with their current company or in their current career path but to increase their level of responsibility and leadership. Other respondents’ ambitions included becoming technology leaders and starting their own businesses.

For those who already have a business, the hope is to take on a bigger picture role in the future. Brock Ferguson, a co-founder of two companies, “would like to grow our team so that I’m doing more leadership and big picture stuff, and less tinkering on small-ish problems.” Meanwhile, Ryan Dewey, who runs a consultancy business, is soon publishing a book based on his work, which he hopes will lead him to larger and increasingly interesting projects.

No matter what, respondents are hopeful for their future. “The sky is the limit,” Mereu summed up.

Leaving the academic career path after steadily pursuing it for years can feel scary. But as this week’s posts demonstrate, life on the other side of the transition is good.

In the next set of posts “How do you find a new career outside of academia?”, which will be running in the near future as another digital event, we’ll explore the practical side of this transition and share advice on how to choose a career, find a job, and stay strong through the process.

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