Three Bad Reasons to Stay in Academia

A lot of people who ask me for advice about leaving academia are worried about their chances of succeeding outside their current career path. But some of these concerns are due to fears that are always unfounded. Here are a few.

I’m too old

The people who tell me that they’re worried about being too old all have one thing in common: they’re very young. Usually, they’re in their mid- to late-twenties. I transitioned out of academia when I was forty-one, and I’ve never been made to feel that my experience (which I have only because I’ve been alive for a couple of decades longer than most of my colleagues) was anything other than beneficial to my employer.

I’m pretty sure there’s only one reason why people feel that age is an issue in making this transition. It’s because — especially in technology — we idolize a small group of people who all made breakthroughs when they were quite young. Mark Zuckerberg, for instance, started Facebook while he was in college. Michael Dell started Dell Computers out of his dorm room. But these people are famous precisely because they’re unusual.

If you’re interested in transitioning out of academia, you’re probably not going to leap straight into founding a technology startup. But even if you are, most successful startups are not founded by people in their twenties.

Smart employers won’t be phased by the fact that an applicant isn’t in his or her twenties. Employers who won’t consider someone older than that are not the employers you want to work for, anyway. For one thing, they’re breaking the law by discriminating on the basis of age. For another, they’re dumb.

I don’t know how to interview for non-academic positions

I’ve been through my share of academic job interviews. One reason they’re so incredibly stressful is that you only get a chance to interview a very small number of times. If you’re lucky, you could get two or three job interviews in a year (most people on the academic job market get none). This means that if you screw up an interview, you’re in a very bad situation. The stress is made worse by the fact that there’s usually a specific season for the academic job market. In my field (philosophy), the initial round of job interviews is at the end of December each year. Screw them up, and you have to wait another year to get another chance.

In the real world, things are different. You can interview for a job, screw up the interview completely, and do another interview in a few days or a couple of weeks. Interviewing becomes a process you can learn from. You can iterate — do an interview, screw it up, learn from your mistakes, and screw up the next one a little less.

When I first interviewed for a technology position, I messed it up in every possible way. To my surprise, the next interview was quite similar, and I had somewhat better success. A couple of interviews later, and I was able to get a second (and a third) round of interviews every single time. Recognizing that it’s okay to mess up an interview takes a lot of stress away. Interviews are no longer your “one and only” chance for a job; they’re an opportunity to learn how to get a job. (I have a post on how to interview)

Even if I get a job, I could get fired

Getting fired from a job is really unpleasant and stressful. But as academics (current or former), we need to keep this possibility in perspective. In academia, if you lose your job — perhaps by failing to get tenure — your career is often irreparably harmed. If you fail your dissertation defense or qualifying exams, you’ll end up in a situation that’s difficult or impossible to remedy.

Academia is a stunningly harsh, unforgiving environment. The private sector is significantly less so. People who lose their jobs in a skilled profession outside academia are much more able to bounce back. The vast majority of people in the private sector have lost a job for one reason or another. Therefore, when you subsequently apply to other jobs, there’s a pretty good chance that the person who’s reading your resume will have been in the same position as you.

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