After experimental psychologists leave academia, how satisfied are they with their new careers? And how do the positives and negatives compare to their experience in academia? Our respondents, introduced here, shared the upsides, and the downsides, of pursuing a non-academic career.
If there’s one thing academia is known for, it’s for the pursuit of a “life of the mind”. Compared to that, how do non-academic careers match up in terms of satisfying people’s intellectual curiosity?
According to our respondents, the biggest source of intellectual satisfaction in their new careers comes from being able to tackle challenging and interesting problems. For example, Katherin Livins observed that “I did a PhD because I wanted to work on interesting problems, and I get that just as much in industry as I did in academia.”
For those respondents in research positions, problem solving may still take the form of posing and testing hypotheses, as it did in academia. For example, Nick Gaylord shared: “I work for a company that runs a platform for data labeling and enrichment, and one of the things I work on is quality assurance to prevent people from scamming jobs by doing careless work. Generating and testing hypotheses about behavioral patterns that distinguish them from other users is really rewarding.” Those respondents whose new careers don’t involve primary research reported that answering challenging questions for clients or co-workers feels akin to conducting research and is equally satisfying.
The big change from academia is the source of the questions or problems to be solved. Mike Winograd noted: “the difference is that before, I could choose what I wanted to study whereas now the questions I answer are coming from another source.” This source—a client, co-worker, or supervisor—might ask questions different from those you’d choose to pursue if left to your own devices. But attitude is important here—it’s not like academia doesn’t have its share of chores. Katie Rotella sees it like this: “there are always projects I need to do that are less stimulating, but I feel like this is somewhat like departmental service that my academic friends have to do.”
For some, having a new source of questions and problems can be liberating. For example, in Eric Taylor’s case, he abandoned “the expectation that you are doing something intellectually unique and pioneering all the time. And then funny enough, you find yourself doing things that you can bet most people in the world are not doing. And that ‘most other people’ denominator now is in the 100s of thousands (other people who are in a similar position), whereas before it was in the 10s (other grad students and profs in similar labs). This expanded context increases the perceived innovativeness of what you do.”
Another benefit of questions and problems coming from external sources is that solving them typically leads to immediate impact. Anita Bowles shared that “compared to academia, my current job provides me with specific questions and constraints that help me to guide and focus my research efforts toward answers immediately useful to my colleagues.” Likewise, Katie Rotella explained that “relative to academia, I feel like I get much more satisfaction in seeing real-world impact of my research, including immediate implications for the business and long-term benefits for our consumers and patients.”
As mentioned earlier, when we examined the motivations of those who leave academia, some respondents were drawn to a non-academic career because of the diversity of problems they get to work on, which helps fulfill their intellectual curiosity. “I always felt like a generalist when I was in academia, I was never tied to one specific research topic,” Maria D’Angelo observed, and now “my current job also allows me to explore different questions about human behaviour in an applied context.”
Another positive for intellectual curiosity is that, outside of academia, psychologists may have more resources available to support their work. Livins gave some examples of the new resources available to her: “I can run a 2000-person repeated measures study in a matter of days, process data on high powered machines, and fund necessary hardware quickly and easily (we needed an eye tracker a few months back, so we just bought one—no grant writing).”
One downside is the expected pace of work in non-academic careers, which may limit curiosity for curiosity’s sake. For example, Bowles acknowledged that “I wish I had more time to read and think, but I am constantly challenged to solve problems and apply skills and knowledge from my academic experience to my current job tasks.”
Another downside is that working with a diverse set of co-workers may make it harder to learn new techniques. Gaylord explained that “sometimes I wish I had more chance to learn new technologies or do more math, but a downside of working for a startup is that you don’t have as many colleagues with similar skills sets to collaborate with.”
For those whose new careers consist of translating, rather than conducting, research, the challenges are slightly different. Ryan Dewey conceded that “it’s sometimes tough to keep up with academics because I’m not always discussing research design and theory.” On the positive side, “the tasks of translating research and theory into useful frameworks for artists, curators and architects has been intellectually satisfying and it means I get exposed to a lot of intriguing people, projects and ideas.”
The most important determinant of intellectual satisfaction seems to be attitude. Brock Ferguson recounted his shift after leaving academia: “initially, I think I felt like my new path was not as intellectually satisfying as academia. But then I realized that I could actually make things intellectually stimulating if I took a different approach to them. I approach marketing problems like any research problem, devising mini-experiments and using statistics to optimize our strategies. This has made a world of difference and made me realize that intellectual stimulation is more in the approach than the content being studied.”
For the most part, respondents agreed that while constraints on their work are different to those in academia, they’re not any more severe. D’Angelo noted that “in my work my constraints are based on what projects are relevant to the business, while in academia my constraints were based on funding.”
The two might not be that different after all. Livins argued that “while we often talk about academics being able to ‘study whatever they want’, I feel like the academic reality is actually much closer to what you can experience in industry. All research needs to be funded by someone and if an academic isn’t working on something that a granting agency or university feels is useful then it likely isn’t going to get done. It’s the same at a company.” Gaylord agreed: “in some ways it’s more constrained in that it’s dictated by current business needs. But realistically, freedom in work in academia is not so different—it’s constrained by grants, by faculty expertise, and the like.”
As for freedom to pursue new ideas? “Your domain is restricted to the topic of your workplace, but within that I find that business leaders are actually very receptive to ideas,” Eric Taylor observed. If presented in the right way, even the pursuit of basic research may be supported. Livins explained that “I do need to further company interests—there needs to be a ‘business case’ for any project—but my company understands that sometimes answering basic questions can help to build more sophisticated products in the long run.”
Freedom to pursue ideas increases with career advancement. For example, Winograd acknowledged that “at least at first, I didn’t get much say into the projects and clients I was staffed on. As I’ve advanced, I have been able to specialize more.”
Since psychologists are the local experts in their domain, they’re trusted to lead the direction of their work. For example, Rotella indicated that “I’m focused on certain topical areas relevant to our business, but given a really wide latitude for driving my own research program. I’m respected as the expert in what I do and therefore trusted to steer in the right direction.” Likewise, Stefania Mereu observed: “I lead a team, so I have a lot of freedom. I also have a lot of constrains, but within the constrains I have the thought leadership to be trusted to lead the project the way I think is most appropriate.”
Salary and job security
Are respondents satisfied with their salaries? In brief, “very :-),” as one answered.
As far as job security, non-academic jobs fall somewhere in the spectrum of jobs available in academia. Livins explained: “academia offers a level of job security unmatched almost anywhere else—if you get tenure. The reality is that many academics go contract-to-contract for years, and may never find a permanent position. My job security is obviously less than a tenured faculty member, but much higher than adjunct facility.”
Job security at the individual level varies from that at the field level. “At the individual job level, it can be low,” Gaylord reported. A company he worked for previously folded on 3 days’ notice. However, “at the field level, it’s great. If I lost my job today I’d have a new one by the end of the month, probably a lot sooner.”
The level of security can vary. As Livins noted: “this is a dial I can turn. If I wanted the risk/reward profile of an “early start-up”, then my job security would go down because those companies often have short financial runways. However, if I wanted to spend decades somewhere extremely safe, then I could try to get into one of the big tech giants.”
Finally, those who have their own business face a different set of issues. “Well, I’m never going to fire myself,” Ferguson, who currently runs two companies, joked, “but you never know how market conditions or clients’ needs could change, and that’s scary for any entrepreneur.” “I definitely don’t take it for granted,” he continued, and tries to be “smart enough financially to withstand the ups-and-downs that a tenured professor would in most cases not have to think about.”