Why I left academia for industry

Last week, I was in Washington, DC for the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union, the world’s largest geoscience meeting. There were ~30,000 attendees from all over the world and from different institutions across academia, research labs, and industry.

In catching up with friends, many of whom at this stage are assistant professors or on their 2nd or 3rd postdoc, I was reminded why I left academia. I’m happy for my friends who have permanent positions (as permanent as these things can be), but their struggles confirmed why I now work in industry.

When I first started thinking about working in industry, I had no one to turn to for advice. Like most grad students in planetary science, I had been exposed only to people who stayed in academia/research. Typically, those who leave academia become disconnected from their community and are not visible to students as role models.

As a result, students only see the academic success stories and are conditioned to believe that that is the norm. Compounding the problem, many academics (usually senior professors) are judgmental of the people who opted to take a different career trajectory. It results in an ugly feedback loop that maintains a stigma associated with leaving academia.

I want to break this stigma by describing my own motivations for leaving. I didn’t have anyone to turn to who could validate my feelings, so I hope that I can do that for someone else.

Leaves b/c leaving

Leaves b/c leaving


1. I didn’t want to teach or rely on soft money.

Being a professor never held an appeal to me, and in planetary science, that basically leaves the rare civil servant position or, more likely, soft money. Soft money is a euphemism for positions reliant entirely on external funding sources. It requires spending much of your time writing proposals simply to make sure you have a salary and maintain your institutional affiliation.

Kicking off and sustaining a career off of soft money is no easy feat. I’ve seen the toll this has taken on early career friends and colleagues—the uncertainty about funding, the stress of proposal deadlines, the heartbreak of not being selected, the loss of career development opportunities when there’s no funding to support travel. This was not a game I wanted to play.

2. The internalization of failure due to proposal rejection is unhealthy. 

Another aspect of proposals that drove me away was the internalization of failure that many scientists feel when their proposal is rejected. I’ve seen plenty of Facebook or Twitter threads of planetary scientists reporting whether their proposals were selected, and the crushing disappointment expressed when they’re not. This mentality is unhealthy and a contributor to stress (and by extension, mental health).

I’ve mentioned this to mid-career faculty who gave me a blank stare and seemed surprised by that perspective. I believe that they developed a thick skin towards the rejection and in doing so, forgot the stress of being an early career scientist. I don’t think the internalization of failure is limited to early career scientists, however. I’m sure this is particularly common among soft money researchers.

In contrast, when job bids in industry are not selected, the reaction is more along the lines of “well, better luck next time.” There’s no feeling that this is a direct reflection of the team’s abilities—business is business. I’ve experienced this firsthand, and it’s certainly a healthier perspective.

3. “Publish or perish” is toxic.

“Publish or perish” is the unofficial slogan of academia. Without a solid publication history, your career will be stymied and doors will be closed to you, regardless of your abilities as a scientist. I understand the desire of quantifying success (e.g. through an h-index) but reject the hypothesis that it represents whether you’re actually good at what you do.

This is a great article that outlines the negative consequences of this mentality on scientific fields. For example, it devalues high-quality teaching (which doesn’t bring in money to universities like strong publication histories do), leads to the proliferation of low-quality journals, and causes a rise in unethical practices such as “salami slicing” (splitting single projects into a maximum number of papers), plagiarism, and fraud. The article doesn’t even address the resulting stress on scientists.

Recently, an associate professor told me that a brilliant friend of mine who applied to be an assistant professor in his department “wasn’t faculty material” because this person had too few publications. Why should their capabilities as a scientist be boiled down to their quantity of work and not its quality? I left that conversation feeling disgusted, and it underscored the toxicity promoted by “publish or perish.”

4. The publishing framework exploits scientists for corporate profit.

It’s not just the overinflated importance of publications that bothers me; it’s also the framework within which papers get published. The system of scientists reviewing papers unpaid for billion-dollar corporations’ profit is exploitive to scientists, who are already strapped for time and funding. Elsevier has 35-40% profit margins; it’s not like they can’t pay reviewers for their time.

Plus, why should the burden be on scientists to pay extra from their grant money for their papers to be open access? Paywalls prevent the taxpayers who funded the research from accessing the work; no one without a journal site license can afford to pay $30 every time they want to read a peer-reviewed paper.

While participating in the peer review process is an objectively important service to the scientific community, the only people who profit monetarily from it are the shareholders of Elsevier, Springer, Wiley, and other massive corporations.

5. Papers are not sufficiently satisfying work products.

Papers are the culmination of years of work. When each of my first-author papers was finally accepted, I felt relief like I imagine many do, simply because the process was over. But I didn’t really feel satisfied or fulfilled. They didn’t feel like a tangible work product (the option to print them out notwithstanding), but rather something that would most likely end up in a scholarly black hole, never to be seen or cited.

I’d rather have a work product that has tangible results and/or an observable impact on a problem. For example, although Planetary Resources never made it to the point of building an asteroid prospecting spacecraft, there were detailed mission and spacecraft designs (visualized in this video) that began with me and another person brainstorming ideas on a whiteboard. I found deep professional satisfaction in seeing a mission concept develop from my work.

6. I prefer project breadth to depth.

Years of work are typically invested in a particular science question before results are seen. By the time I defended my Ph.D., I had grown bored and tired of my projects. My postdoc research was quite different, and I enjoyed the shift in gears (and the fact that I was involved in a NASA mission). However, to establish yourself as an expert, focused, long-term effort on narrowly defined scientific questions is required.

I’ve realized since leaving academia that I’m more of a generalist when it comes to planetary science. When I was in research, I was interested in many different topics but couldn’t see myself dedicating my career to a single one or two. I didn’t have specific questions that were fueling a passion for research; I wanted to be able to work on very diverse projects for shorter periods of time. I’ve found that in industry.

I suspect that some reading this part might want to point out the diversity of their academic research. I understand how different sub-disciplines within a field can seem. But since leaving academia, I’ve worked on projects involving not just planetary science (asteroids, the Moon, Enceladus) but also remote sensing instrumentation, agriculture, earth science, copper mining, and spacecraft engineering. That’s project diversity.

The fact is, I would rather not feel like an unselected proposal is a reflection of my quality as a human. I would rather work on short projects with deliverables whose impacts feel meaningful. I would rather have a problem handed to me that I can then run off with and solve by applying the skills and perspective I gained through my academic training. I would rather work on a diverse suite of projects on timelines shorter than my career. I would rather deal with the insecurity and excitement of a start-up than the insecurity and stress of soft money.

I would rather work in industry than academia.

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