**special note: all of the images on this post have been created by Dall E. My own hand-drawings would likely be just as strange.**
Yes, the title of this post is correct. It is not backwards. There are those out there who might be wondering about moving from industry to academia. Yes I know, usually it is the other way around, and for good reasons:
– academia is less financially rewarding;
– academia can arguably be more stressful (but this is dependent on a lot of factors);
– there are simply a lot more opportunities in industry and hence it is easier to find a role there.
I know all of this because I went from academia to industry once before. After my postdoc I interviewed for a few roles in academia before applying to industry. I was being picky about location, and so this limited me to only a handful of academic opportunities, only one of which was tenure-track. After receiving an offer to do a second postdoc, I thought about the prospect of making the same amount of money I was currently making, having to move, and then having to go through the entire job search process again in barely more than a year, and moving again. None of that was appealing to me, so I looked at the number of open industry roles in the fields of statistics and data science in the SF Bay Area, which was close to my preferred location, and quickly found there were literally hundreds of open positions that would pay more than twice what I was being offered. So, I turned down my second postdoc offer, and thus began my career in industry.
I pretty quickly found my first data science gig. I climbed the ladder, switching companies and jobs incessantly in search of higher pay, better job titles and more responsibility. It was exciting. I was learning a lot of new technical skills, new soft skills (just as important, and not to be forgotten), and new domains. But, I always kept my eyes out for new academic job prospects, in search of that perfect teaching opportunity that would lure me back to the Ivory tower. I really loved being an academic – it was fun to always be learning something new, and I was good at it. If I could be a student forever, I probably would. University campuses, and college towns, are still my favorite places to visit. There’s something comforting about it for me. I knew that I would go back someday, but the money issue kept me from doing it right away.
Eventually I signed on to teach an evening data science course to get some teaching practice, and to see if it was something I still enjoyed, all while keeping my cushy corporate gig. I did enjoy it, but then our second daughter was born, and the pandemic happened, and spending the time to prep, teach and grade on top of doing my full-time job became too much. So I stopped teaching after a few semesters.
I told myself, and others, repeatedly, that maybe I would work in industry into my 50s, and then “retire” early and go back to teaching as a lecturer or adjunct. I’d get my personal fulfillment later, and my financial fulfillment now. The problem was, that by the time I was about 40, I found myself wishing that my 50s would come more quickly. That is an odd thing to wish for. But I knew what it meant: it was time for a change.
I first started by looking at data science gigs at other companies, in other domains that I hadn’t tried before. Maybe now would be the time that I would spend 40 hours a week practicing leetcode problems so I could finally land one of those big tech jobs and call myself a Noogler or Metahead or…Apple employee. But I quickly realized that although the problems that I would be solving at another company would be different, they would still be serving the same interests – the Almighty $$$$. And so I started looking at changing professions. Instead of being a data scientist, maybe I could be a baker, or a data journalist, or an artist. None of those choices seemed plausible. I like baking, but not getting up at 3:00AM. I haven’t created any art in years. And journalism is hard.
Looking back, I’m surprised that it took me nearly an entire year to figure out what I should do: instead of trying to learn how to do something completely different, I should go back into academia now as a tenure-track teaching professor. When I saw some open positions at nearby universities, I decided to have a long chat with my wife about the idea of cutting my salary in half so that I could be doing something that just might make me happier. We crunched some numbers to ensure we would not live in poverty. Note that my wife does not work in tech, she works in elementary education, and makes the elementary education wage. What helped make our decision easier is that we had a fair savings to use as a buffer, and our retirement accounts were healthy enough for us to feel comfortable that we won’t be a burden on our kids when we are older. After all of this, she was on board. And thus began my career in academia, again.
I was very fortunate to land a position that I was well-suited for, teaching as part of the Master of Science in Data Science program at the University of San Francisco. My industry experience and desire to teach and mentor were a good match. I consider myself very lucky that this position was available at just the right time in my life. COVID actually helped here – the Great Resignation caused by the pandemic that affected so many companies and schools around the country had given me an opportunity to grab a spot that would normally be either much more competitive or completely unavailable.
If I had different ambitions, such as doing research at an R1 rather than teaching at a SLAC, I no doubt would’ve had a more difficult time finding a role. I haven’t kept up with my research, haven’t published in years. My industry work was applied work. There was absolutely no reason for any university to believe that I could suddenly start publishing multiple papers a year and bring in grant funding. This is where I can see that, unless you’ve had a role in industry where you continue to publish, making the switch to academia for some could be very difficult.
I’ve been an Assistant Professor now for about one month. It has been an adjustment. I no longer have the structured schedule I had in industry. My day doesn’t start at 8:00 and end at 5:00. My to-do list doesn’t usually have deadlines written next to each task. My calendar is not an endless block of meetings. I don’t have a manager prioritizing my work, and telling me when I should be done. I’m no longer creating widgets, or worrying about how I’m adding or driving value. I no longer have to say things like “driving value”. And I don’t have to hear others use the word “leverage” anymore, unless they’re talking about linear regression.
I do have things that need to be done by certain times. When I teach my first course, I know that it will be stressful and consume my time and energy, leaving little for research or service. I also have other duties that I do for the program when I’m not teaching. But my time, for the most part, is fluid, and my tasks (research and service), for the most part, are up to me. It is weird, but it feels good to be back. It’s stressful, but it’s a different kind of stress. It’s not the same stress of fighting fires at a company when a customer is unhappy or when a machine learning model suddenly breaks and starts predicting garbage. It’s not the same stress I had as a manager (which you can read about it my previous post here).
With time we will see how my outlook changes. Maybe academic politics will prove to be worse than office politics. Maybe as I get older and more crotchety I’ll start saying things like:
“Those darn students, they just don’t know how to behave like we did in my day. They’re so entitled. We didn’t stare at our phones in class, or argue with the teacher about our grades when I was in school. No siree. Buncha whiny cheaters, all of ’em.”