Popping the Bubble: Leaving Academia for a Shot in Industry
I mention in a few places on this site that I'm a human capital consultant - that's a relatively new development. Up until 6 months ago I was a full time PhD student and had been for more than 3 years, coming in directly from my undergraduate work. The decision to leave my program early was a really difficult one for a variety of reasons, and I know that a lot of my graduate student friends struggle with the same questions that I did:
"Where do I belong?"
"What can I do that lets me use what I've learned in ways that I think are important?"
"Am I a sellout if I look for industry jobs instead of academic ones?"
"Are they going to really value me there?"
But perhaps the biggest question only comes after you've made a decision, one way or the other:
"Did I make a mistake?"
That's a hard question to answer. I've thought a lot about it. To me that questions is the opposite of the imposter syndrome that PhD students constantly struggle with; instead of being convinced you aren't good enough to be where you are, you start scrambling for cues that signal that you should turn back to where you know you are competent and (hopefully) valued.
What I've realized recently is that PhD students, for some reason, seem to think that they have an exclusive corner on this issue. As if the lines between a career in academia and a career elsewhere are so crystal clear, and so fragile, that the experience of taking a risk to try something different is unlike anything people who aren't PhD students could understand.
After a short few months on the "outside" of the ivory tower, it's abundantly clear that we do not have exclusive rights to these stresses. Our environment, though, conditions us to think we do.
Living in the Bubble
Graduate school is a weird place no matter how you look at it. The dynamics among your peers, within your department, and between you and your graduate advisor exist within this tiny bubble that is in many ways removed from reality. You can't get away with answering your email once a month in the real world - you can in grad school. You can't sit for hours on end reading and thinking about basically whatever you happen to find interesting in the real world - you can in grad school. And most people will HATE you if you take every sentence they say or thought they have and try to boil it down into bite-sized theoretical pieces for them ("Let's unpack that" should be a banned phrase globally) - in grad school, that's the norm.
And that's the environment that you need when you're a 1st year PhD student, trying to absorb mountains of scientific literature and theory while balancing expectations of producing your own research, working with the faculty on their research, teaching courses, and everything else that comes with the territory. But that environment clashes pretty dramatically with what 99% of the rest of the world experiences day to day, and over time the lines can begin to blur.
Fast-forward to year 4 or 5 in your graduate program. You have now been living in this artificial environment for a significant portion of your adult life and the lines aren't blurry anymore. In fact they are crystal clear, because aside from any imposter-type feelings you may have you are more than likely very comfortable and familiar with your current lifestyle. You know how to "do" graduate school.
But now is also the time when you are expected to make *early* career decisions. I'm stressing early career because that's a concept I haven't seen discussed in most doctoral programs, the simple fact that a career represents a long, long time. Instead, the grad-school pressure cooker makes you feel that if you don't make exactly the right decision at exactly the right moment you will be resigned to a life of mediocrity and regret. Does that sound familiar?
Popping the Bubble
I struggled with these emotions and concerns. And I noticed that at the first sign of adversity in my new role I was scrambling to force myself into answering those questions:
"Did I make a mistake?"
"Is it too late to go back?"
"What am I supposed to do?"
But what I have noticed after stepping outside of graduate school is that these are questions that don't actually have answers, at least not answers that are productive. And they are not exclusive to PhD students. Everyone, particularly young professionals, is trying to land in the place they were "meant to be", and go through periods of dissatisfaction and self-doubt.
The critical difference I've seen between the two groups (grad students and non) is that, for current and former graduate students, these questions are treated as a thought exercise rather than stems for practical decisions. I personally spent so much time arguing with myself and trying to think my way into the right answer that I didn't stop to give my new environment an opportunity to teach me something. When I would bring up these concerns to my friends and colleagues their usual response was some form of: "How could you be thinking about making the wrong decision? You just got here." I was so focused on how different and unexpected my experiences outside of academia were that I was failing to recognize the value I could get from being uncomfortable.
It's a little ironic to come to this realization because the big selling point I had used when talking to faculty and other graduate students about my transition to industry was that I could "learn more about myself and my goals be leaving grad school than by staying". Now the desperate-for-success graduate student I was trained to be was actively preventing me from learning anything.
But I needed to recognize that. I needed to have those moments of panic. Because after a while I realized that the only way to answer the questions and combat the doubts and proverbial "grad-school-guilt" was do have the experience of being outside of the bubble. I can't think my way to the answer; it requires experience that I don't have yet. But I will eventually, and much sooner than I would have if I hadn't made the decisions that I have.
Will I spend my entire career in consulting or industry? I don't know. Will I at some point in the future make a transition back to academia? I don't know that either. But to other PhD students who are struggling to decide whether to venture into industry I say don't focus on whether or not you've made a mistake. Instead, focus on the fact that you made a decision, and embrace all of the change and learning that can come from it. Be a scientist with your own life. It will take time to see if the experiment succeeds, but you'll answer more questions by trying than you will by second-guessing