Leaving academia for the private sector: Seven years later

Seven years ago, I was an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Missouri-Columbia. I had tenure, excellent students, and a solid research record. I loved to write and I loved teaching. But I started to feel that I’d regret it later if I didn’t make a major career move and try something different. So after a few years of preparation, I quit and took a job as a junior-level software engineer at a startup in Chicago.

At the time, my academic colleagues were split into two camps. The first camp was made up of people who privately told me that they wish they could do the same thing. The second, much more public group, told me in no uncertain terms that I was crazy. I had tenure, after all, and at a Research-I university, no less! And if I didn’t like certain things about the academic world, surely the private sector would be much worse.

It’s been seven years now, and I finally have the experience and perspective to reflect back on this decision and assess what was right and what was wrong about it. There have been a lot of surprises and challenges along the way — some good, some bad.

It was a tough cultural transition

I had no professional experience in software engineering before I made the leap to the private sector. So I knew that I’d have a lot to learn. I did not know how much, though.

I knew I had to learn a lot of new technical skills, and I was initially focused on that. But what I did not realize — even though it’s obvious now — is that I’d have to learn an entirely new way of working and collaborating with others. Everything in the tech world is collaborative. You are working on teams, contributing to the same projects, giving and receiving feedback on the work, and partnering with non-technical people throughout the business. Unlike in academia, you’re not judged on your output as an individual so much as on how well your team is doing. The most successful people are those who empower their teams and contribute to the overall success of the company.

In my career as an academic, this was not the case. In fact, I was repeatedly warned that my work was too collaborative. I was penalized for co-authoring papers when it was time for my department chair to make salary and promotion recommendations. This was not an uncommon experience for academics. Succeeding in academia is a tricky balancing act between proving that you’re producing high-quality work as an individual, and being a good collaborative colleague. But overall, my experience was that my academic work was an individual endeavor.

This means that in the private sector, if you struggle to learn something on your own instead of asking others for help, that’s very bad. It slows down the team and it’s seen as being a poor colleague. In the academic world, it’s the reverse. You have to prove that you’re smart enough on your own, without the help of others. I struggled with this difference for at least a couple of years. In short, I overestimated how difficult it would be to learn the technical skills, but underestimated how hard it would be to make the cultural transition.

It’s interesting what’s interesting

I thought that when I started to work in a business, I’d want to concentrate on my specific job and let others worry about business goals. After all, my interests were largely technical (engineering, data science, etc.), and I had no curiosity about marketing, sales, fund-raising, and so on.

But as I got deeper into my work, it became apparent that if you wanted to have real impact, you had to know the larger context of the technical work. It wasn’t enough to be good at engineering or data science. You had to be able to explain why your work was impactful to the business, and be able to make technical decisions that aligned with the needs of the business.

To my great surprise, I discovered that business is actually interesting! Coming up with the right strategy for growing the business, collecting the right data about the company’s performance, understanding the larger challenges in the market, evaluating the competition’s strengths and weaknesses, figuring out how to differentiate yourself from your more entrenched competitors — all of this turns out to be fascinating. In fact, I usually find it to be more interesting and challenging than my previous academic work in philosophy. Personally, I’m shocked to find myself reading articles from McKinsey & Company or the Harvard Business Review in my spare time. But I often do, and they’re just as interesting as anything in an academic journal.

My strengths and weaknesses have been surprising

My academic colleagues used to assume that the reason I could succeed in the tech world was that my academic research tended to be formal. I had specialized in logic, game theory, decision theory, and other formal methods. Surely that was the reason I had a chance of doing well as an engineer or data scientist.

Although my formal academic background was certainly helpful, the other skills of any good academic are more helpful. Teaching experience, the ability to write clearly and concisely, evaluate evidence and argue for your opinion, and public speaking experience are much more important.

In a business setting, you’re constantly called upon to present your work, justify your approach, teach others (and learn from others), and so on. Universities do a lousy job of training students in these skills. But as an experienced professor, you’ll usually learn these things over time.

Tenure turns out to be nearly worthless

The major reason why some people thought I was nuts for quitting my job was because I had tenure. This is the ultimate in job security, and it’s the “brass ring” that academics spend so many years chasing. The very idea of walking away from tenure was very controversial.

At the time, my justification for giving up tenure was simple: Sure, I had job security — but it was a job I no longer enjoyed. So what use is having job security for a job you don’t want?

That was a good enough reason, but the best reason for giving up tenure has turned out to be quite different. I like to put the point this way: I gave up job security in return for career security.

As a tenured professor, you’re probably not going to lose your job (even if you are bad at it!). But if you want to move to a different university, that’s generally very, very difficult. Unless you’re a superstar in your profession, it can easily take years to make a lateral move to another tenured position. And it’s often impossible. The upshot of this is that although you have job security, you’re basically powerless to make any changes if there are parts of your job you don’t like. You cannot tell your dean or department chair that you’ll leave unless something happens, because everyone knows that for all intents and purposes, you can’t leave.

But if you’ve got good skills in a growing industry, you can easily move to a different position at a different business. This translates into the ability to create opportunities for yourself within a business or industry. You can ask for, and receive, professional development opportunities, raises, promotions, and so on. And if there are problems in your company that you can’t fix, you can leave. I was far more stressed-out about my job when I had tenure than now, for the simple reason that there was usually nothing I could do to address the problems in my department and university.

A consequence of the lack of power in academia is that your job can slowly degrade over time and there’s nothing you can do about it. Each year, I was making less money in real inflation-adjusted dollars, my health insurance would get worse, my teaching load slowly crept upwards, support for travel and research went down, and on and on. Everything about my job was very slowly worsening year after year. Sure, I had tenure. But I was locked into a job that was less attractive all the time.

Academia in the age of Covid-19

I can’t write something like this without addressing the effect that Covid-19 has had on academia. My move out of academia has spared me the pain that faculty are enduring now that the financial state of the university system is spiraling downward.

In my opinion, the pandemic hasn’t done anything to universities that wasn’t happening already. But those trends have been greatly accelerated. It’s no longer possible to ignore the direction of the university system now that it’s all happening at once instead of over decades.

At my own university (the University of Missouri-Columbia), the budget had already been cut to the bone (and deep into the bone) long before Covid. In my department’s building, the hot water had been shut off years ago to save money; faculty raises were capped at 2% or less; custodial staff had been cut; class sizes were increasing; tenure-track positions were being cut in favor of adjuncts; and there was the inexorable march toward more online education. The only group in the university that was thriving was the administrator class, which enjoyed huge raises and increasing numbers. This was all happening before the pandemic, and in fact, before the financial crisis.

Now instead of these trends being slow-moving, they’re happening all at once. Universities are facing these decisions and implementing changes so suddenly that they can’t be ignored. In my opinion, universities will never be the same after Covid-19. Faculty positions will be even less desirable than they already were, education will be done mostly online, facilities will be cut, and the administrators will be rich. But these things would have happened anyway. The only thing that’s different because of the pandemic is that they’ll happen much sooner, and much more publicly.

No regrets

I have literally never wished, for even one second, that I’d stayed in academia. My professional life is more interesting, more impactful, and more lucrative than it used to be. Based on the number of questions from current faculty I receive on a near-weekly basis, I expect that my own career trajectory will be much more common in the near future.

Machine learning technical lead, former philosophy professor, drinker of too much coffee.

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