This is part 2 of a 3-part series of interviews I conducted with seven philosophers who went on to a non-academic career after obtaining their PhDs. For more background on these philosophers, the work they currently do, and the reasons they left academia, see part 1: How and Why do they end up there? This part will focus on the realities of having a non-academic job.
One of the main attractions of an academic job, especially one of a tenured academic professor, is the autonomy (intellectual and in terms of time management) it provides. However, there are downsides as well: the increasing pressure to churn out publications (which some of the respondents already alluded to in part 1, lack of support, and isolation lead to mental health problems in some academics. So how do philosophers with experience in academia and outside evaluate the work atmosphere?
How does a nonacademic job compare to academia?
How does a nonacademic job compare to an academic one in terms of climate, opportunities, work-life balance? Most of my respondents compare their current work very favorably with their experience in academia. Nonacademic work is more result-focused than academic work, which relies on metrics of what individuals achieve, rather than what a team can produce.
Ian Niles (a senior ontologist at Microsoft) writes “Academics in general and philosophers in particular need to learn to subordinate their egos and their intellectual interests to the charter of the organization that they work for. Academics tend to be rewarded for working independently and for the quality of their ideas (irrespective of any execution of these ideas). In industry, however, employees need to work as part of a team in furtherance of the mission of the organization. This may sound obvious to some, but it is a lesson that has taken me (and others with a similar background) a long time to learn.”
Zachary Ernst (software engineer at Narrative Science) finds the management at his start up company much more supportive than the management at the universities he worked for “The environment in a healthy startup like Narrative Science is totally different. Everyone knows that we'll only succeed if we're faster and better than the competition, and everyone has a major financial stake in the business. So the leadership is very supportive of any ideas that help us be better. That having been said, resources are always tight, so we all have to make tough decisions about what to pursue and what not to pursue.”
Several respondents mentioned that the workload, although high, was more manageable, especially because their work seemed to have more of an immediate, widespread and positive impact.
Ian Niles, for instance, says, “Overall, I much prefer working in the software industry to working in academia. I like the challenge of trying to keep up with researchers who have Ph.D.'s in computer science and have an engineering orientation, I like the fact that the work that I do has an impact on millions of users, and I like the mobility that the software industry affords”
Carl Baker (statistician at the house of commons library): “The main noticeable difference in workload is not a matter of quantity but of quality. Rather than working on a piece for months at a time and never knowing until much later if anything will come of it - a process that I found very frustrating and demoralising - I now am able to see pieces of work to completion on a far more regular basis. This makes the workload feel more manageable, in my opinion - as an academic it's hard to escape the feeling that at any given hour of the day there is always more I could and should be doing. This feeling gets tiresome.”
Nate Smith (Quality Assurance Engineer for a network security company) offers a similar response, saying that although this does not necessarily generalize to everyone, his experience of time management in academia and his current job are very different:
“I never felt like a I really had a day off in grad school. There was always something more to be doing, always another paper I could be working on, another talk to prepare, another dissertation chapter to write. It was difficult to ever really relax. I think some of this might have been self-imposed, but it was how it always felt to me. I felt like I could never fully enjoy non-academic activities. My current job doesn't make me feel this way. There are certainly always things I could be doing, new technologies to figure out, more tests to write, but somehow it's not the same. I think in academia there was a constant pressure to stand out and be exceptional, because this is what was required for me to get a job, and, I was starting to worry, what would be required if I ever wanted to change academic jobs, or get tenure. Standing out and being exceptional is good for my current career, too, and I do try to do that, but it's also fine to just be satisfactory. I'd still have a job. It takes a lot of the pressure off and makes it feel like I have more time to embrace other interests.”
Respondents had divergent feelings about the teaching. Some of them, like Zachary Ernst, miss the contact with students, while others, like Emilie Prattico (independent consultant), had a more ambivalent attitude. “Teaching tended to be repetitive, which consulting never is. While I thoroughly enjoyed (and later missed) the special student-teacher relationship, the fact that philosophy was often a requirement for undergraduates, and that they were not familiar with the discipline from broader aspects of the culture, could sometimes make teaching rather arduous, and its rewards not easily attainable in a quarter or in a semester. In addition, there was a real customer culture amongst students in the US (Which was very different to what I had experience in high school in France and later at Oxford). As a teacher, this challenge could be stimulating but it was also dispiriting at times, since what one can do in one semester to change these perceptions is not enough. As a consultant, especially in sustainability, on the other hand, I find a lot more motivation my clients. I understand that the economic dynamic is different and that this may have something to do with it. But I think it is mostly because once a project is sold, it is pretty much a given that we are all on board for a shared goal, even if we might have different understandings of how to get there, for instance.”
About working in his current environment in the public sector, Carl Baker, who had also experience as a postdoctoral fellow, notes “The main difference in climate has been the switch from enclosed offices to an open-plan office working space. This actually seems to me to be an improvement in collegiality and climate, as opposed to the "lone scholar" academic office model. My expectations were that it would be much harder to concentrate and that there would be more disturbances - but this isn't really the case”. His job is one that provides flexibility and room for creativity “I'm lucky to have an employer that allows flexible working and so forth. One of the key things that this job has in common with my postdoc is that -- on top of my everyday responsibilities -- there is lots of room for creativity and pursuing work and topics that interests me. This is an important kind of flexibility, I think -- the ability to set one's own agenda to a certain extent. I think this is one of the things that people value about academic work, and I've been lucky to find another job with this feature.”
Zachary Ernst “In terms of climate, collegiality, and work environment, my current position is vastly superior to what I had as an academic. There's really no comparison...Work load is hard to compare. I work 9-5 (actually closer to 8-6), and longer if necessary. Hours in a startup can be quite long at times. I'm probably working longer hours on average than I was as an academic. But the irregularity of research, teaching and other miscellaneous responsibilities (like advising) make it hard to tell for sure.”
Claartje van Sijl (self-employed counselor) thinks academia and being self-employed is very similar in the autonomy and flexibility one has. She adds “Maybe being self-employed is a little bit more family friendly compared to academia regarding the scheduling of symposia, colloquia and the like, especially if you include the necessary networking during drinks afterwards. These events are often planned at the end of the work day, so as an academic and a parent you always end up juggling dinner and bedtime. Compromising your family for networking opportunities happens more often in academia, if you ask me, but that may very well be due to the nature and scope of my self-employed work."
Is there anything about academia that our respondents miss?
Ian Niles “I don't miss grading papers, I don't miss the egos, I don't miss the navel-gazing, and I don't miss the nagging question of "what I'm expecting to accomplish in a discipline where the best minds in the history of western civilization have failed to resolve a single issue in 2,500 years of reflection and discussion?...The only thing I miss about academia, and it's a big thing, is deep, foundational discussions about the world. I have lots of stimulating discussions with my industry colleagues, but these discussions are generally focused on creating or enhancing complex artifacts - engineers tend to be very pragmatic and to shy away from the "big questions". Other than that I don't miss academia.”
Zachary Ernst “There are downsides, of course. The most obvious is intellectual freedom. As a tenured professor, I could spend my research time pretty much however I wanted. This is definitely not true in the private sector. Although I do have a good deal of input into what projects I'm working on and how they're done, my workday is pretty much driven by the needs of our clients. For a lot of academics, that would be a deal-breaker. But fortunately, I happen to be very interested in this work, so it doesn't feel like I'm giving up much.”
This other thing called “money”
Money was an issue that came up during several interviews.
Ian Niles “It may sound crass, but I also really appreciate the compensation in the software industry, not because I care very much about buying and owning things, but just because it means financial security for me and my family.”
Zachary Ernst “Then there's this other thing called "money", which philosophy professors don't like to talk about. I'm not getting rich in the foreseeable future, but my salary is much better than it was as an academic. By the end of my academic career, I was making less (in real inflation-adjusted dollars) that I was when I got my first tenure-track job. This is extremely unlikely to happen in my current job, but it's become normal in academia (even though many faculty don't want to admit it). And if the business succeeds (which I think it will), there will be large financial rewards for everyone who helped build it.”
Claartje van Sijl “It is rumored that you need at least 3 years before your own company starts turning out some revenue. That seems to be true, if all goes well this third year of my being in business, but still: this endeavor has not made me rich, financially speaking. The perseverance I developed while doing my PhD comes in handy at this point”.
Nate Smith: “the starting pay for assistant professors is, frankly, pretty pathetic considering how much we invest our educations to get these jobs. It's all well and good to be an 18 year old undergraduate saying "the money doesn't matter", but of course it does.”
Later this week, I will post the last installment of this interview series, which fill focus on transferrable skills and words of concrete advice for philosophers who consider a nonacademic career.