The Future of Higher Education: A few scenarios

In my previous life as an academic philosopher, I specialized in game theory. In particular, I was interested in how the behavior of groups changes over extended periods of time. Being an expert in game theory changes the way you think. It’s certainly shaped how I think about the future of academia. And it hasn’t made me an optimist.

When you’re a game theorist and you notice some social trend, such as changes in voting patterns, or movements in the economy, you almost reflexively ask a few simple questions.

  • Are these trends self-reinforcing? That is, we wonder whether this behavioral pattern make it more likely that the same behavior will continue, or even deepen.
  • Is the trend countered by some other force? For example, as prices increase, demand will decrease, which will push the prices back down over time. We wonder whether some other dynamic will cause the trend to slow down, stabilize, or even reverse.
  • Is the pattern short-term or long-term? If it’s a short-term pattern, then it may have been caused by a recent event, and that gives us some reason to think that it might go away over time.

The state of higher education in the United States (I don’t have enough experience with other countries to say anything about them) has been experiencing a number of disturbing trends that have been noticed by anyone who’s paying any attention at all. These trends include at least the following:

  1. Very fast increases in tuition at all levels, which greatly outpace inflation.
  2. A diminishing number of tenure-track and tenured faculty positions.
  3. An increasing reliance on short-term positions such as adjunct or visiting professors for meeting a university’s teaching needs.
  4. Diminishing state support for public colleges and universities.
  5. Increasing numbers of administrators relative to both students and faculty.
  6. Lowering faculty salaries and increasing administrator salaries.

I could go on. What bothers me as a game theorist is that all of these trends point in the same direction, they are long-term trends, they reinforce each other, and there is no countervailing force working against them.

To see what I mean, let’s consider why faculty salaries are going down in real, inflation-adjusted terms. The reason is not, as my former colleagues were fond of claiming, because of the financial crisis of 2008. The financial crisis certainly didn’t help, and it probably accounted for some temporary downward pressure on salaries, but this trend was well-established long before 2008. And furthermore, if it had been caused by the financial crisis, it should have reversed by now. But of course, it hasn’t.

Why are faculty salaries going down? Obviously, the diminishing level of state support is partly to blame. But why hasn’t the decreased contributions from the state also had the same effect on administrators, college sports (which is greatly subsidized by taxes, contrary to popular opinion), or additional student amenities on campus? The reason is that the lack of state funds is only one reason among many.

The main reason is the availability of cheaper labor in the form of adjuncts and other temporary positions. Adjuncts are paid a criminally low wage for crushing workloads, and are more easily kept in line by administrators because they fear for their jobs. Faculty pay and the number of adjuncts are intimately related.

Furthermore, as faculty pay goes down and the number of adjuncts goes up, universities get used to having fewer faculty positions. This creates a glut in the available labor force, further driving down salaries. If you get a job as a faculty member, you have virtually no bargaining power to negotiate salary or benefits because there are literally hundreds of other highly-qualified people lined up to take your job if you don’t want it.

When there are fewer faculty, it becomes easier for administrators to take advantage. Tenured faculty form a de facto labor union. They should have tremendous negotiating power as a group because of their job security. But in practice, they don’t. Part of the reason is that there are fewer of them. Like any business, the best way to undermine a union is by bringing in non-union employees. The more of them a business has, the stronger the negotiating position of its leadership and the weaker the position of its union. Just as CEOs and other executives can get away with giving themselves huge salaries at the expense of their workers, university administrators can do exactly the same thing. And as administrators become further emboldened, the pattern just becomes amplified. They have a strong enough position to increase tuitions, lower salaries of everyone else, hire more adjuncts, while simultaneously giving themselves raises.

So what happens next, not just over the next few years, but over the long run? There are a few scenarios, which I’ll briefly discuss.

Scenario 1: Improvement and stabilization

In this scenario, universities manage to claw back some of their funding, the number of faculty positions increases, the percentage of adjuncts decreases, and tuition stops increasing. Imagine that the condition stabilizes somewhere at pre-2008 levels.

Personally, I find this the least plausible scenario. It’s very pleasant for faculty and students to imagine that our universities’ terrible state is a temporary result of poor economic conditions, but there’s no evidence to support this. And if these problems are not the result of a temporary condition or isolated sequence of events, there’s no reason to think it’s going to reverse course.

Scenario 2: Universities stabilize in a bad state

As pessimistic as I am, it’s still not reasonable to think that universities will continue to go downhill forever. The downward trends have to stop sometime. So perhaps things continue to get worse for a few more years and then the downward slide comes to a stop.

I think there’s some truth to this scenario. The downward slide into oblivion will definitely end somewhere. The question is whether it ends before an actual crisis occurs. By “crisis”, I mean economic or military crisis. Without a viable university system, the economy will experience a terrible series of shocks. Universities are responsible for building an educated workforce, maintaining an informed citizenry, and for keeping our research pipeline filled with people capable of continuing to work on the hard problems we face. These needs are already not being met, but it hasn’t caused irreparable harm to the economy yet.

If universities stabilize before this happens, we’ll end up in a bad, but not catastrophic situation. But again, the question is why they would stabilize without some countervailing dynamic causing them to stabilize. Personally, I don’t see this happening.

Scenario 3: Crisis and federal intervention

This is what I think will actually happen. Eventually, it will become apparent that the United States will lose its global leadership position without a viable university system. To an extent, of course, this is already happening. But we still have the luxury of living in denial for quite a few more years.

Eventually, this state of denial will become impossible. The only actor powerful enough to reverse the downward spiral will be the federal government because there simply isn’t any other entity with the economic and political power to do so. This will be precipitated by a crisis or by the sudden realization that a crisis will soon be upon us.

This may sound overly dramatic, but there’s excellent precedent for exactly this scenario. I’m referring to the Soviet Union’s detonation of a hydrogen bomb, followed by the launch of Sputnik. The United States was shocked by the first and humiliated by the second, and it caused a huge investment in education — especially science education. Science became a highly respected field that we encouraged children to study, and huge federal investments were poured into education, research, and other grants for universities. There’s no reason this couldn’t happen again. Just as the federal government poured billions of dollars into the economy following the financial crisis, billions would be poured into the economy — and into higher education in particular — if we were shocked into action.

Place your bets!

Personally, I believe that such a shock will occur, although I can’t possibly predict when or what form it will take. The game theorist in me is pretty confident that we’ll continue to chip away at higher education, followed by some crisis that causes federal intervention on a huge scale. There are mechanisms in place already for getting dollars from the federal government into universities — those mechanisms include the National Science Foundation and, more importantly, the Pentagon; they also increasingly include the National Security Agency and the rest of the intelligence community. So if you want a picture of what universities will look like in a couple of decades or so, imagine a world in which university priorities are determined by federal institutions like those.

Why Do Academics Feel Trapped?

When I quit my job, I got a lot of reactions from my fellow academics — mostly from other tenured associate professors, but also from people who were at earlier stages of their careers. Not a single person in academia told me that I was making the wrong decision. But a surprising number told me, “I wish I could quit, too.”

The “I wish I could quit” response from academics is puzzling to me. If you’re an academic, you can quit. Quitting a job is one of the simplest things a person can do. Of course, the real issue is fear.

You might think that this fear would be mainly found in the humanities or other “impractical” areas where there’s no obvious post-academic career path. And indeed, I did get this response from a number of faculty in history, philosophy, and other departments that have bad reputations for being divorced from reality. But I was surprised that I got the same response from people in computer science, engineering, and other technical fields. Although it’s unusual to have a colleague in the private sector who has a PhD in philosophy, people with advanced degrees in computer science, physics, engineering, etc. are vastly more common. For example, at the startup where I work, there are five engineers (out of about forty total) with PhDs in the sciences (plus me, with my philosophy PhD).

It’s completely illogical for someone with a PhD to believe that a new college graduate is qualified to get a good job in the private sector, but the people who trained that student are not. It’s also completely illogical to think that people with PhDs have nothing to offer the private sector, when universities frequently create private businesses based on work done by their faculty — businesses in which the faculty often have leadership roles. If you step back from academia for a moment, it becomes clear how absurd it is that people with PhDs feel trapped in academia.

The problem is low self-esteem, and it has two distinct sources.

The first is the belief that one’s worth is determined by how much money a person can command in the labor market. People think of themselves as successful, intelligent, interesting, and even moral based on how much they are valued in the market. They blame themselves when they are treated poorly by the labor market. Failure to compete effectively in the marketplace is assumed to be a failure on the part of the individual. In fact, it’s often a symptom of systemic injustice or at least inefficiency in the market.

The symptoms of this bizarre belief are a lack of outrage and a resigned acceptance of whatever the market provides. When I was a faculty member, I was astounded by the lack of outrage over the terrible treatment of faculty and the incredible resources that were squandered by administrators on their own salaries and their own idiotic “pet projects”. Last year, for example, my former Dean received a twenty percent raise from his already very substantial six-figure salary, while faculty raises were virtually nonexistent, and graduate students were being threatened with having their health insurance taken away (and trust me when I say that my former Dean was not a superstar who added tons of value to the university). The salaries of faculty and administrators have been on two totally different trajectories for years, even as administrators incompetently drive universities into the ground. But faculty rarely object, assuming that they deserve only what the market gives them. And at this point in time, the market is very unkind to faculty and students.

The second source of their low self-esteem comes from how narrow their world becomes after having spent years in academia. When you are an academic, you are surrounded by other academics day in and day out. Merely by virtue of having received a PhD, or gotten a stable job, or having received tenure, you’re already much better off than the vast majority of people who attempt an academic career. You can’t help but think that you’re lucky to have any kind of academic position at all, when so many highly-qualified people can’t get one. So it’s almost offensive to suggest that you deserve even more, when there are thousands of people who would do anything for your job.

If academics could expand their horizons, it would become obvious that they are generally being treated terribly. We live in a society where it is normal for someone with a PhD to work as an adjunct instructor for wages that hover around the poverty line, with no health insurance, and no job security. The most fortunate who actually get one of the increasingly scarce tenure-track positions are seeing their teaching loads increase, their salaries decrease, and the protections of tenure eroded. But so long as they only compare their situation to that of other people in academia, they will think of themselves as lucky, and not — as is actually the case — simply the most well-off of a group that’s being treated unjustly by administrators and politicians.

It’s getting to be a truism that our economy demands people with advanced educations. This is quite true, and the economy rewards the most well-educated workers, even as other workers suffer. Keeping this fact in mind, it’s almost Orwellian that the very people who provide the educations, and who themselves have the highest levels of education, actually feel trapped.

The major impediment to a life outside academia isn’t a lack of “real-world skills” (whatever those are), or the right kind of education, or a lack of “practical” experience (whatever that is). Nor is it a lack of information about how to write a resume or interview for a job. Those obstacles are either imaginary, or they can be eliminated in an afternoon. The real impediment is low self-esteem caused by internalizing a perverse set of values.

Fear of Being a Beginner Again: How to Cope

For me, the most difficult thing about changing from an academic career to a career in tech was giving up my persona as an expert. And I suspect that fear of giving up one’s status as “expert” is an important reason people don’t leave academia more often. Like anyone who had been in academia for nearly as long, I’d amassed a lot of highly specialized knowledge. A peculiar feature of the ivory tower is that you end up knowing a lot about very little, but you live your life surrounded by that single topic. Even if you’re an expert in something quite obscure, you probably end up teaching it fairly often. You attend workshops on it, and you correspond with the half-dozen or so other experts. And so, you end up living as an expert, expecting others to defer to your opinion, and being able to speak authoritatively at a moment’s notice.

I moved from my niche in academic philosophy to the much wider world of the tech startup. Friends and acquaintances frequently commented that “this would be easy” for me because I’d been programming for a long time (ever since I was ten), and I already knew a lot. Fortunately, I knew enough to realize that this was not going to be the case. There is a world of difference between programming as hobby, or on simple one-off personal projects, and being a software engineer on a professional team, with responsibilities to clients. I did not know what I didn’t know, and the learning curve was very steep.

Fortunately, I landed in a very supportive environment with colleagues who were always happy to teach me new skills. So I learned more in that first year than in any other time I can remember. But even despite being so fortunate in my new colleagues, it was a sometimes difficult adjustment. For the first time in twenty years, I was learning an entirely new vocabulary, skill set, and methodology from scratch. To someone who’s used to having others defer to his expertise, this is a jarring experience. Adding to the cognitive dissonance was the fact that many of my colleagues were the same age as my students. This was a big role reversal for me.

I had to get over a lot of bad habits when I left the relative safety of the ivory tower. Most difficult for me was getting into the habit of asking for help. I’d spent my career as the only person with my particular skill set (formal logic, game theory) in an academic department. So there was literally nobody to collaborate with, and nobody to learn from. I had a very deeply ingrained habit of assuming that I had to do everything on my own, without benefiting from the experience of others. Obviously, this does not work in an environment that’s the exact opposite of a typical academic department. In a tech startup, everyone absolutely must work together, or the business will certainly fail. And as a beginner with virtually zero experience, it would have been especially inappropriate and counterproductive to do things on my own. To be perfectly honest, I made mistakes caused by my previous bad habits many times before I started to get into the right habits.

Try to find a supportive environment

Personally, I think this is the single most important piece of advice I can offer on transitioning out of academia. If you don’t have a supportive environment, you’re likely going to experience a lot of unnecessary pain. When evaluating whether to join a specific organization, try to discover during the interview process whether it’s a supportive place to work. You can find this out by asking questions like, “How do you get new employees up to speed?”, “How do your teams function on a day-to-day basis?”, “What’s your process for evaluating whether a project is going well?”, and so on. Gear your questions toward understanding what their work lives are like on a day-to-day basis. Personally, I like to ask at least one or two similar questions to different people in the organization to see if their answers cohere. I say “cohere” rather than “match” because people with different roles will certainly identify their problems and methods somewhat differently. But if it sounds like different people are describing totally different organizations, that’s a serious warning sign. A truly collaborative environment will foster general agreement about how the group functions, what challenges they face, what their plans are for the future, and so on.

Stay intellectually curious

In theory at least, you went into academia in part because you’re an intellectually curious person. Learning about a new career should be fun and intellectually satisfying. Your new colleagues ought to be a wealth of new information.

Speaking for myself, I found some aspects of the private sector much more interesting than I had anticipated. My father had been in sales and marketing, which is part of the reason I had always assiduously avoided anything having to do with sales or marketing. But when I started working at a tech startup, even though I was a software engineer, sales and marketing were very important to my work life. When our product was marketed or sold in a particular way, it was up to the engineering team to ensure that the customers were satisfied. I found myself on many phone calls with clients, trying to work out how to meet their business needs. Shockingly, this turned out to be very, very interesting, even to a former academic philosopher.

Be forthcoming about your strengths and weaknesses

It’s okay — and even quite desirable — to start a new career with very little experience and with lots of gaps in your knowledge. As assumption I’ve bet my career on is that my experience as an academic has value that outweighs my relative inexperience in software engineering. If you really take that assumption seriously (which you should), then you should feel confident about being totally up-front and honest during an interview process.

For example, during my own interviews, I was asked a couple of times about some technical issues that I had literally never heard of before. It was clear from the context that these were not normally considered difficult questions. So, after stammering for a few seconds that felt like hours, I just came out and said that I had literally no idea how to answer. But then I elaborated about how I’d go about approaching a problem that was so novel to me — where the reliable sources of information could probably be found, for example. I took a guess (and said that it was a guess) about what other technical issues might be related, based solely on the words in the question. And I also just came right out and asked what these things were. This turned out to be the right approach. Interviewers want to get a sense that they know you a little better by the end of the interview, and being forthcoming about what you don’t know is a way to make that happen.

Don’t go for perfection; iterate instead

When changing careers, your number one priority is to learn as much as possible, as quickly as possible. When you’re given a project to work on, the worst thing you can do is finish it before asking for feedback from others. If you do, then you’ve got only one learning opportunity, and it’s at the worst possible time — namely, at the end of the project when the deadlines are now upon you.

Instead, you want to have as many learning opportunities as possible. So you should think of your job as iterative. This means that you do some chunk of your current task, and then you choose a natural stopping point to check whether it’s on the right track. You assume that everything you do will end up being revised several times before it’s done. Basically, your personal work should have a “work, test, revise” cycle with as tight a feedback loop as possible. The more times you can go through that cycle, the more you will learn. You will also be demonstrating that you care about others’ opinions (which you should!), that you take their input seriously (which you should!), and it will improve the quality of the end product while avoiding any unpleasant surprises.

Work should be fun

If you’re an academic, you should enjoy learning. Switching careers provides huge learning opportunities. If you think of your new job as a big laboratory filled with fascinating experiments, and your new colleagues as potential partners and mentors, you can have a great deal of fun while providing a lot of value to your new employer.

Should You Stay In Academia?

Most of the people I speak with about leaving academia have already decided to make the leap. But not all have. A significant number of people are trying to decide whether they ought to stay on their academic career path. Some are in grad school; others are on the academic job market; and some have already held faculty positions in one capacity or another. For some of these people, I end up suggesting that they stay on their current path. Personally, I think that teaching in higher education is a really important job that needs good people. Academic research is also equally worthwhile. And despite the dismal state of higher education in the United States, it’s still possible to carve out a very satisfying existence in the ivory tower.

So here, I want to discuss some of the reasons why one might decide to stay in academia, despite all the negativity that you’ll find on this site (and elsewhere). I’m gearing this discussion to people who aren’t already well-established with a secure academic position.

Reason 1: You just love it

If you absolutely love what you’re doing, you’re good at it, and you can’t imagine a satisfying life without being a part of higher education, I say, “Go for it!”. Some of my former graduate students and undergraduate students who are bound for grad school fall squarely into this category. They can’t get enough of the subject, they happily spend almost all their free time studying and writing, and there’s nothing else that makes them nearly as happy. Especially if you’re relatively young, and you don’t have lots of commitments to other people, you should do it.

Of course, you should do it with your eyes open. Don’t let your love for the field blind you to the fact that success in academia is probably more difficult now than it’s ever been. Imagine that you pursue the next stage of your career (job-hunting, going to graduate school, going up for tenure) and you fail. In such circumstances, ask yourself whether you would be able to sincerely say, “I’m still glad I invested the time and effort — I loved the experience and it was worth it.”

Reason 2: You’ve got everything going for you

I’ve known a few graduate students who were in this situation. They were in excellent schools with top-notch reputations; they had already been quite successful (perhaps by publishing a lot of high-quality work in prestigious venues); they knew the “right people” and could get glowing, enthusiastic recommendations; and they were politically well-situated so that they would have the inside track to a desirable job. These people exist, and if you are one of them, then why not keep going?

The trap here, however, is that I’ve known far more graduate students who believed they were in this position, but weren’t. Usually, they were working with an advisor who was considered some kind of “big shot” in the department, but who was actually much closer to average, and who wielded far less influence than the students thought. Another trap is the charismatic, well-positioned advisor who is perfectly capable of giving his or her students a lot of help, but chooses not to. In some scientific fields, there’s the concept of faculty who “eating their young”, referring to the senior faculty who mentor their students only to undermine their careers later. The moral is that you should be very conservative when evaluating your own relative advantages.

Reason 3: It would be nice to succeed, but you don’t have to

I’ve also known plenty of people in this situation, perhaps because academia tends to attract people from more affluent backgrounds. If you’re independently wealthy or have a very good fallback career, then there’s little risk to pursuing the next stage of your academic career. You’re under no pressure to get an academic appointment or to do well in graduate school. Again, why not give it a shot?

Reason 4: You are comfortable with making a transition later

When I was considering whether to go to a PhD program, one of my professors asked me to name ten other things I could do if graduate school didn’t work out. Her advice was that I shouldn’t go unless I’d be happy doing something else, and if I was comfortable with the idea of suddenly stopping and changing careers.

I generally agree with that advice. If you don’t fall into the other categories, but you’d be okay with making a sudden and severe career transition, then academia poses little risk to you. But in my experience, there are very few people like this. Most academics I have known are extremely emotionally invested in their career path. They tend to identify themselves primarily by their field of study, and it’s terribly difficult for them to stop thinking of themselves that way. It also seems to me that this attitude becomes much more firmly ingrained in people the further down the academic road they go. Speaking for myself, despite the fact that I was very unhappy in my academic job, didn’t ever feel like I “fit in” with my field, and was plotting and scheming my way out it for years, it was still surprisingly difficult to make the adjustment.

The Upshot

I think these are pretty good reasons to stay in academia. There are plenty of bad reasons, too. Basically, the decision comes down to a cost/benefit analysis. But the analysis is very difficult because so many of the costs and benefits are psychological, and it’s so easy to think that you understand how you’d react in various situations, but be totally wrong. The one piece of advice I always give people is that they should allow themselves a lot of time to make this decision, even if they feel a great sense of urgency about it. If you think you need to make the decision right now, give yourself a couple of months. You can only make a reliable judgment about such personal issues if you’re very calm and deliberate when you do so.

From CV to Resume

I am frequently asked how to write an effective resume when the vast majority (or all) your experience is in academia. There are many guides out there about writing a resume, and I don’t want to add to that vast literature. But I’ve never seen anything that explains why resumes are so different from vitae. Because nobody bothers to explain this, I’ve found that academics have a hard time adjusting to the resume writing process, which causes them to make needless mistakes.

Let’s think about vitae for a moment. Every academic field is a bit different, of course. But no matter what your area, there will be a very specific set of sections to your vita: education, publications, talks given, grants received, courses taught, service assignments, and references, for example. Furthermore, little or no explanation is required in those sections. Your audience already knows all about your field, knows what to expect in a vita, understands what’s entailed when you’re teaching a class, and probably even knows which journals, conferences, and publishers are the most prestigious. This, of course, is why vitae are basically lists divided into sections.

Now imagine that you had to write a vita that would be read by someone who didn’t understand all of these facts about the nuts and bolts of academic life. Suppose you had taught a large freshman level intro course, with a few teaching assistants who ran the discussion sections. To another academic, you’d just tell them that it was a big intro course, and they’d be able to fill in a lot of the details.

But this is not true for someone outside academia, even if they have a college degree. “Large lecture course” could mean almost anything. Sure, students at your university know what “large” means. But someone reading your vita, who went to a different kind of school, might not. But even your own students rarely, if ever, really understand what goes into teaching a course like that. You wouldn’t want your students to be in charge of evaluating your work experience without someone providing a goods explanation of what you’ve really had to do at your job.

But that’s who is going to read your resume. Even an intelligent, college educated person who really wants to understand your experience could be totally misled by the description “taught large lecture course”. And I’ve deliberately chosen teaching as an example because that’s the one part of an academic position that people have the easiest time relating to.

Consider another example. Let’s say you’ve published a paper in the highly prestigious “Fancy Journal”. You and your colleagues know that Fancy Journal has a really low acceptance rate, that it’s read by everyone in your field, and so on. But what does a layperson know about this impressive accomplishment? Nothing. So, quite naturally, they try to relate it to something they have some experience with. This means that they have no reasonable choice except to equate it with blog posts, trade publications, Newsweek, and so on. These assumptions obviously diminish your qualifications.

I think it’s safe to say that teaching and publishing are the most relatable aspects of an academic job. But they’re useless or even detrimental as experience on a resume unless they’re explained. If grant writing is part of your experience, then you’ve got something even more mysterious on your vita/resume.

This is why it’s crucial to switch away from a vita mindset to a resume mindset. Someone reading your resume wants to know what you’ve done, and what it says about your skills. I guarantee that if you do not explain your experience on your resume, you will cause a lot of frustration for anyone reading it. Explaining your work will feel awkward because you’ve never had to do it before; you’ve always had an audience that understood the vocabulary and already had a very similar work history. People often tell me, “I feel like I’m just bragging on my resume, and I feel like I’m being obnoxious.” My advice is this: get over it! By explaining the skills necessary to do your academic work, you’re doing your reader a favor. If you don’t, you’re wasting your reader’s time. In fact, you risk making your reader frustrated and angry.

Soon, I’ll write a follow-up post about how to translate your academic work experience into language that’s appropriate for the private sector. But in practice, what I’ve found is that this step is pretty easy for most people, once they’ve gotten past thinking of their resume as just another vita.

Don’t Always Play to Your Strengths

It’s no secret that most people who succeed in academia do so by focusing their attention on one thing. A couple years before I went up for tenure, the Chair of my department told me that I had probably published in too many different areas (ethics, logic, game theory, philosophy of science, etc.). The sad thing about his statement is that he was probably right. It’s harder to gain a reputation if your efforts are spread out across different disciplines, and so you quickly learn that specialization is the right strategy. Find something you’re good at and do it all the time.

I had several plans for leaving academia, but it took several years before anything finally worked. One of my early failures taught me that sometimes playing to your strengths and specializing can be fatal.

My plan was to escape from academia was pretty clever, if I do say so myself. I came across a job at an interdisciplinary center that was funded by a federal earmark. The job’s title was “Research Professor”. The position was being established because the center had a mandate to establish interdisciplinary research projects, and to write grant applications to support those projects. It was totally fascinating to me, and right up my alley.

At the time, I had tenure at the University of Missouri, but I really hated that job. So I took an unpaid leave to go to this center. My plan was that this government work would provide me with valuable skills and experience that I could leverage into another career, perhaps in consulting. If it didn’t work out, I could resume my previous job. It was a good plan, in part, because it carried minimal risk.

I really liked the people I was working with, and I thought they had a very good chance to really accomplish something unique and significant. My research went very well; I started bringing together some other people to start writing grant applications; and there was preliminary interest from the right people in government. But six months into my job, I was informed that my contract wouldn’t be renewed. And the blame was laid firmly at my own feet.

It took me quite a while to figure out what mistakes I had made. There were several, but the root cause of most of those mistakes was that I had played to my strengths. I was a good researcher, and I was especially adept at finding opportunities to conduct interdisciplinary research that had a technical component. My plan, when I started, was to begin a specific research agenda. At first, it would largely be done on my own because the center was still very young and unknown. There were no other research faculty there, and the university didn’t have much of a reputation for research. But I was confident that I could quickly — in under six months — establish a credible piece of research and start recruiting other faculty to contribute. I was very up-front about my plan, and the relevant administrators and faculty agreed that it was the right approach.

I had never been able to pursue an agenda that was so well-suited to my own interests and abilities. Unfortunately, that was exactly the problem. It was so tempting to immerse myself in that work that I neglected other work that was equally important.

In my case, there were several other aspects of the job that weren’t explicitly stated in the job description, but which any reasonable person would have been aware of immediately. One of those aspects was establishing and managing relationships with administrators and with other people outside the university — in this case, especially with people in government. But I’m not as good at that sort of work as I am with research. So, for the most part, I neglected that aspect of my job. Unfortunately for me, that turned out to be at least as important as the research component — probably more so. In short, because I’m pretty good at research, I concentrated my efforts there to such an extent that it made my research efforts irrelevant.

I made plenty of other mistakes, too. But they all fell into the same pattern. I did what I was good at, and I didn’t do what I wasn’t good at.

This sort of mistake could be made by anyone. But I think it’s especially likely to be made by academics. As academics, we’re rewarded for concentrating on what we’re good at, to the neglect of everything else. Our efforts are very narrowly focused, sometimes by formal requirements such as tenure criteria, but often by informal expectations. For example, if a faculty member were to publish non-technical trade books in addition to his or her “real” research, they’d likely be seen as being “not a serious scholar”. Doing outreach, or giving too many talks to non-specialist audiences typically has the same effect. Many academics strategize endlessly about how to minimize the time they have to spend on anything other than their core work; I was certainly no exception to this rule. Outside interests are frowned-upon, especially if you’re not already well-established in your field.

And this pressure to concentrate on one thing you’re good at continues for literally decades of one’s career, from graduate school at least through tenure, and typically much longer. This is something that makes the transition to the private sector so challenging. We have to break ourselves of this pattern, and it’s very difficult to do so. We have to become comfortable doing things that are outside our wheelhouse, because very few organizations are able to tolerate someone whose contributions are too narrowly focused. This means being willing and able to learn new skills, even ones that are not any part of your job description. It means being comfortable making mistakes and asking for help from people. And especially it requires working well in a collaborative environment, despite the fact that many academics are routinely penalized for doing too much collaboration (especially pre-tenure).

In my opinion, the need to break out of one’s comfort zone and become willing to perform necessary tasks that don’t play to one’s strengths is a major challenge for academics who want to move into the private sector. But in the right environment — that is, one in which you’re actually rewarded for doing what needs to be done — those habits can be broken.

Taking the Right Risks in a Career Transition

There are real risks to changing careers, and leaving academia is no exception. This is especially true when you have very little tangible experience in whatever field you’re transitioning into. For example:

  • You might suck at it. Not everyone is good at everything, and even very smart people are lousy at lots of things.
  • You might hate it. The realities of a job might not match your expectations. A profession that looks appealing from the outside might turn out to be drudgery.
  • You could end up in a terrible work environment. The profession might be a good fit, but you could find yourself working with a bunch of jerks. Or you might end up working in a dysfunctional, failing organization.

There are good ways and bad ways to manage the risks that come with making a career transition. The bad ways are in either extreme. On the one hand, you might avoid taking any risks at all, and stay in a mediocre situation for the rest of your professional life. On the other hand, you might leap straight into a totally different career with no forethought at all. Total risk avoidance is stupid, but so is taking unnecessary, reckless risks.

The middle path is the smart path. You should definitely take risks, but they should be manageable and recoverable. Think of your career the way you’d think of making a financial investment. Simply putting your money in your mattress is dumb. So is investing everything you own in a reckless gamble. Ask yourself the same questions you’d ask when considering whether you should put your money into a particular investment:

  • Is there any reasonable chance that this is a losing investment? If so, can I afford to lose whatever I invest?
  • How do the risks compare to the potential rewards? Should I be willing to take a larger risk for the sake of a larger potential reward?
  • Will I be able to limit my losses if the investment goes south, or am I committed to the worst case scenario if things turn out badly?

When making a career transition, you’re not investing money as much as you’re investing time. The time that you spend comes at a cost, namely an opportunity cost. Just as there is a wide range of ways of investing money, so too, there is a range for investing your time.

The right way to proceed in a career transition out of academia is to find ways of investing your time that maximize reward and minimize risk. At first, the rewards are unlikely to be financial; rather, you should aim to learn as much as you can. Acquiring skills, experience, information, and personal connections are the rewards. The risks are the ways in which your extracurricular activities might adversely impact your academic career.

For example, I made a deliberate decision to spend a lot of my free time learning about entrepreneurship and technology. This came at the cost of my research, and it lowered my productivity somewhat in my academic work. I think that was a really good risk to take. The downside was very small, and there was a lot of potential to learn some very valuable skills (which I did). I made little or no extra money during that time, and I probably lost out a little bit on merit-based raises in my academic position. But overall, it was a good deal. And if I had ended up learning nothing useful, it wouldn’t have been a disaster.

When a small risk pays off, it puts you in a better position for the next one. The experience helps you evaluate your new situation. And you’ll have acquired skills that will positively impact the next risk/reward calculation that you’re faced with. For example, I ended up picking up a lot of coding skills during my first risk-taking experiments. This meant that I had a better chance of getting some kind of technical job later, which is a potentially better risk because of the much greater potential payoff.

For an academic, there is a wide range of very attractive risk-taking opportunities. These provide opportunities to learn a lot without giving up much. Here are just a few that I can name off the top of my head:

  1. You could take a course offered through your university at a reduced (or zero) financial cost. If you want to learn to code, see if you can do it without having to pay full tuition. Often, a faculty member will be happy to let you simply sit in on the course informally. When I was a professor, I frequently let motivated people come to my class. The risk here is just a little bit of your time. The payoff is that you could acquire some valuable skills. That’s a good deal.
  2. You can offer your services collaborating with someone in a different field, or with someone who has experience you’d like to acquire. For example, you can find someone who’s doing a grant proposal in an area where you have very little experience. Offer to help in exchange for the opportunity to soak up whatever knowledge you can. This can have a lot of value to the project, especially when the university is trying to establish interdisciplinary partnerships across traditional boundaries. Simply by virtue of being an outsider and attaching your name to the project, you could be quite useful. Basically, think of yourself as creating your own internship. Again, there’s very little cost, and a large potential upside.
  3. You can offer to work at a business part-time for very little or no money in exchange for the experience. Business all over the world are desperate for motivated, intelligent people. This sort of arrangement could be a huge benefit for everyone.
  4. You can get work in an organization that does something you’re interested in learning, and offer to lend a hand on projects you want to learn about. For example, you could get a non-technical position at a business that does technical work. It can be pretty simple to work out a deal where you’ll contribute to a technical project in addition to your normal job duties, with the understanding that you’re looking for the opportunity to learn.

The theme throughout all of these scenarios is that you’re looking for low-risk opportunities to learn. Once you’ve got one or two of these experiences under your belt, you’ll find it surprisingly easy to start discussing full-time, professional opportunities with potential employers in the private sector.

 

Why Leave Academia?

In my experience, there tends to be an assumption that the only reason to leave academia is because one couldn’t get a job, get tenure, get into the right graduate school, and so on. Of course, those certainly are good reasons to leave. But for my own part, I had tenure in a Research-1 institution, a decent (by academic standards) salary, and a good research record. I liked my students, enjoyed teaching, and generally I found my research satisfying. But I couldn’t stand the job any longer. Here are a few reasons why.

Money

That’s right, I said it. Money was a major reason I left academia. I know that as good intellectuals, we’re supposed to be above such crass concerns. But I agree with Nietzsche that these values exist to serve the powerful. How convenient that administrators are permitted to care about the size of their salaries, but faculty are not! When I left my tenured job in 2013, I was making almost 15% less in inflation-adjusted dollars than I did when I got my first tenure-track position in 2003. That doesn’t include the loss of value in my benefits, health insurance, and so on. Those losses were quite substantial. And I had a quite good research record, excellent teaching evaluations, and so on. So the loss wasn’t due to any kind of performance issue.

When I became a junior-level engineer, my base salary jumped by about a third, my health insurance was vastly better, and I got stock options. And this was not a particularly high-paying job because it was with a small (but growing) startup.

The fact of the matter is that academics are human beings. They have families to care for, and interests outside of their job. Meeting their obligations, caring for their families, and pursuing other interests all require money. Eventually, I realized that I simply couldn’t afford to remain in academia; and I know I’m not alone in that regard.

The poisonous atmosphere. Academia is notorious for having the political dynamics of a snake pit. Of course, there are plenty of exceptions, but in my case, this was especially true. The political machinations, back-stabbing, illegal discrimination and harassment, and so on were eventually unbearable. Everyone treated everyone else terribly, and the only way I kept some semblance of sanity was by detaching myself from the department almost completely. I stopped going to meetings, assiduously avoided all my colleagues, met with students in other buildings on campus, didn’t attend talks, and stopped participating in any committees. My self-imposed exile from my department followed years of fighting and conflict, which I couldn’t stand anymore. Finally, I decided that life was too short for this kind of environment. Again, practically every other academic I speak with has some set of stories that are comparable to my own, so I know that my former department’s environment wasn’t terribly unusual.

In stark contrast, I’m extremely engaged with my current employer. I enjoy collaborating with my new colleagues, and I even go to meetings I’m not required to attend! The difference is that my current environment is both supportive and sane.

The sinking of the university

I firmly believe that American universities are becoming increasingly corporatized, and that this is destroying the quality of higher education in the United States (I can’t speak to the situation in other countries because I don’t any experience). Administrations are bloated and radically overpaid at the expense of students and faculty. Resources are going to campus amenities instead of infrastructure. Education is increasingly seen as merely a ticket to a job after graduation, which greatly harms every department, but especially departments in the humanities. Students are being squeezed economically both by skyrocketing tuition (that seems not to result in any increase in the quality of their education) and by a growing list of increasingly expensive and mysterious “fees” (such as “lab fees” for courses that don’t have labs, as happens at my former university).

Academics have three options: (1) live with it; (2) fight it; or (3) get out. It seems to me that more and more academics are choosing to get out.

Lack of impactful work

I definitely felt that my work, despite having been published in “prestigious” venues, had virtually no impact in my field. And it certainly had no impact whatsoever outside it. I’ve known people who love their research so much that they’d be satisfied even if they knew that nobody else in the world would ever read it. But I wasn’t one of those people. I wanted to change the way that people approached certain problems, and I wanted my research to have a positive impact outside of academia. This was very unlikely to happen even if my career was very “successful”.

The opportunity cost of academia

It’s a truism that every opportunity we pursue comes at the cost of other opportunities we ignore. An increasing number of academics are starting to realize that there are other opportunities for meaningful work that’s rewarding, both intellectually and financially. There’s a huge shortage of skilled workers with good analytical and communication skills. And the cost of starting a company with an enormous potential upside is smaller than ever. As those opportunities increase, the cost of remaining in academia increases as well. Speaking for myself, this was by far the most important reason I left.

How to Interview When You Don’t Have Job Experience

One factor that seems to block people from taking the first step toward a life outside of academia is the fear that they’ll fall on their face if they’re ever lucky enough to get a job interview. This fear is unfounded, for a number of reasons.

First, as I’ve remarked elsewhere, interviews in the private sector aren’t like interviews in academia. If you can get one interview in the private sector, you can get many. And this means that if you do fall on your face, you have the opportunity to learn from the experience and do better next time. This isn’t really true in academia, where the number of interviews you can count on getting is so tiny. So if you can change your mindset to see interviews as learning opportunities, a lot of the stress will go away.

But more importantly, it seems to me that many people worry about a very specific scenario happening. You apply for a job, even though you lack many of the specific qualifications. But you manage to somehow get an interview despite your lack of experience. Then, during the interview, you’re peppered with questions that could be answered only by someone with that exact experience that you lack. You stammer and apologize for a few uncomfortable minutes or hours, and walk out humiliated.

This is an easily avoidable scenario. But in order to avoid it, you have to effect a small change in the way you think about yourself and your qualifications. When you interview for a position in academia, you are expected to be an expert in your field. Presumably, you’ve studied, taught, and conducted research in your area of specialization for years. Thus, it’s perfectly fair for an interviewer to expect that you know a great deal about your chosen area. If it turned out that you couldn’t answer basic questions, you’d (justifiably) be in trouble.

The worry that you’ll fall on your face during an interview outside academia comes from projecting that scenario from your academic experience. Academics unconsciously assume that they’ll be expected to display the same level of specific expertise in any profession. But this is simply not true. Which is not to say that you can be an idiot and nonetheless succeed in an interview; but you have to succeed in a very different way.

No rational employers will waste their time interviewing someone if they’ve already ruled-out the possibility of hiring that person. Assuming you’ve been honest on your resume (which you always should be!), an opportunity to interview is a solid indication that the employer sees something valuable in your experience. And if you lack specific experience in that industry, or in that profession, it’s an indication that you’ve got some quality that potentially outweighs your lack of experience.

Assuming you find yourself in this scenario, you already know a good deal about the employer and your potential role in that organization. Unless the employer is actually stupid (in which case you don’t want the job, anyway), you know at least these things:

  1. They think you have the ability to be trained on the job.
  2. They think that you may have other skills that are valuable, but which might not be specifically mentioned in the job advertisement.
  3. The organization has some need, or needs to solve some problem, that could potentially be addressed by someone like you.

You have two tasks during the interview. First, you have to find out what those skills are that they’re looking for. Second, you have to confirm that you’re the kind of person who can be trained, and who therefore is worth the extra time and effort that such training would entail.

Let’s take those in turn. How do you find out what the skills are that they’re looking for? This is pretty easy — prior to the interview, you do your homework. Look up any news articles about the company; check out their funding history if they’re a startup (using a service like CrunchBase); ask around. Then, when you actually have the interview, you come right out and ask them, point blank. I’d usually ask something like, “What are the needs that your group is trying to satisfy with this role?”, or “What are the major problems your group is facing right now?”. These kinds of questions can lead to a very natural and informative conversation about the job. Furthermore, they’re almost guaranteed to teach you something interesting.

How do you convince them that you’re the kind of person who can be trained? Well, assuming that you are the kind of person who can be trained, you have to let them get to know you better. If you’re an academic, you’ve probably got two qualities that are in high demand: (1) You’re smart enough to learn quickly and independently; and (2) You’re intellectually curious. You demonstrate that by showing genuine (not fake!) interest in the business and its problems; you make it clear that you see the position as an opportunity for professional development; and you come right out and say that part of the appeal of the job is the opportunity to learn. Demonstrate that you’ve already taken the first steps by doing your homework prior to the interview (e.g. by researching the company’s history), and use your academic experience as evidence that you’re the kind of person who enjoys learning.

In conversations I’ve had with my colleagues in the private sector, we’ve often weighed the strengths and weaknesses of many different job candidates. The consensus has always been that a lack of experience can be outweighed by other skills that are much more difficult to train. You can train someone to program in C++, but you can’t train them to be intellectually curious, smart, collaborative people. As an academic (or former academic), your task is to convince a potential employer that you’ve got the right set of skills — namely, the ones that can’t be trained.

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.