Transitioning to a Second Job After Leaving Academia: Lessons Learned So Far

After two years in a really great job, I’ve decided to move on to a new position in a different company. This gives me the chance to reflect a bit on what I learned about the post-academic professional life, and I’d like to share those reflections here.

I was unbelievably fortunate to land a great job with excellent people after leaving academia. Especially considering how little I knew about finding the right job, I was really, really lucky. That experience has taught me quite a lot about what to look for in a job when you’re making this transition.

A little background will put these notes in some context. I landed a job as a software engineer with a fast-growing and dynamic startup, Narrative Science. The business is very unique — we have a system that takes quantitative data of virtually any kind and creates English-language reports about that data which highlight the most important and interesting features. When you consider the deluge of information that needs to be put into a human-readable, understandable form, it’s pretty clear that the potential impact of such a system is enormous.

When I joined, the company had about a dozen engineers. Now, two years later, there are about forty (and the number is growing). As you would guess, the nature of the work has changed a lot during a time of explosive growth like that. It feels like the business has moved out of adolescence and is becoming a grown-up success. I’m really proud to have been a part of that, and it’s very satisfying to be able to be able to point to my own modest contributions to that growth.

My decision to accept a job offer from Narrative Science was guided largely by a single goal — to learn as much as possible, as quickly as possible. Toward that end, I looked for startups that were past their initial rounds of venture capital funding, because that’s typically a growth stage, when the business is evolving very quickly. Additionally, a startup at that stage will never have enough people to do all the work that’s necessary; and that’s useful because it increases the chance that a single person will play multiple roles in the company. This affords everyone the chance to learn an unusually diverse skill set.

I got that experience by working at Narrative Science. Within the first year, I’d touched almost every part of the technology stack in some capacity or other. And just as importantly, I got to see how decisions were being made with respect not only to engineering, but also with respect to the business. Our CEO is unusually forthcoming and accessible, so major business decisions were shared throughout the company. Any dynamic startup that’s attacking tough problems and disrupting industries will also make some mistakes, and it’ll have to spend time figuring out the best strategy in a new market. I saw a lot of those mistakes; I understand many of the reasons for them; and I got to play a part in implementing course corrections when necessary.

But what was most important for my own professional growth was that I landed in a company with smart, generous people. Given how little I knew, I wouldn’t have lasted a week if I’d been working with people who weren’t very generous with their time, and equally patient with a newbie like me. Problems that would have been incredibly frustrating and demoralizing were much more tolerable in a supportive environment.

(By the way, if you’re very cynical and you suspect that I’m white-washing my experience at Narrative Science, go ask my former so-called “colleagues” in academia if I’m afraid to burn bridges. Let’s just say that I’m not known for pulling punches.)

Having benefited from my first post-academic job, I’ve got a much clearer picture of what to look for in a career transition like this. And I’ve also got a good picture of what’s not important. Basically, I think it all comes down to learning and professional development. Particularly if, like me, you’re not terribly young (I was 41 when I resigned my faculty position), you’ll want to be learning every second. In no particular order, here are a few questions you should ask yourself when considering a potential employer for your post-academic career:

  1. Is the company doing something interesting? If you’re going to dive into a new career and make an all-out effort to learn everything you can, you’d better be involved in an endeavor that’s interesting to you. If you’re not, then you’ll never be able to muster the energy you need.
  2. Are your new colleagues pleasant, smart, and generous with their time? As a newbie, you’ll be working with more experienced people, and you will be making a lot of demands on their time. You’ll be asking a million questions every day, and you’ll also be making a lot of mistakes, some of which will require help from your more experienced co-workers to clean up. If your new colleagues aren’t happy to be helpful, you’re going to suffer.
  3. Does the leadership appreciate your background? Every employer in the known universe will say that they value diverse backgrounds and experience among their employees. A small minority actually do. Luckily, this is easy to spot. Just find out about the backgrounds of their current employees. If they’re too similar, then you should think very hard about whether you’d actually be a good fit. Also, think about what they do when they interview you. If they’ve just got a bunch of stock questions that they ask everyone, then you should be skeptical when they say that they like your unique background.
  4. Are they flexible in reassigning people who express a desire to work on something new? A smart employer will jump at the chance to give their employees more experience. But a lot of employers are not smart. It’s easy to find out from people who interview you whether they’ve been given the chance to work on different problems across the company.
  5. Do they put their money where their mouth is? Virtually every employer will profess exactly the right values. But few will spend real, foldable money on keeping to those values. If, for example, they claim that it’s important to them to hire women into technical roles, it’s perfectly fair to ask what concrete steps they’ve taken to do that. And those steps had better include spending some money, because that’s how you tell what they actually value.

What’s not important? Anything that doesn’t help you learn. Realistic salary differences won’t help you learn anything. The weather in the city the business is located in won’t help you learn, either. The name recognition of the company is also not relevant. I started this career transition with the assumption that I should be focused exclusively on learning as much as possible, as quickly as possible. And for the first time in my life, I’ve found that I was right about something.