advice for academic refugees
Recently I met a new coworker, a now-former professor who left academia. Like many, he seemed wounded by the experience. This is his first private-sector job.
I have to give him respect: he left willingly. He had a plum position, and he was years away from tenure review. It’s hard to walk away from a place like that after a lifetime of striving. But he was unhappy, and he’d grown disenchanted with his research agenda, and didn’t enjoy the labor itself anymore, and it was degrading his ability to enjoy his private life; so he quit. Not everyone is brave enough to do that.
When I was talking to him about onboarding and getting acquainted, I realized I was speaking to a more-accomplished version of my past self. There are certain pernicious behavioral patterns and outlooks that are instilled in a graduate student. Over the coming weeks I’ll do my best to shepherd my coworker into the private sector and help him overcome what’s been done to him; but today I had only a half hour, and was constrained by professional norms, and could only touch on the surface.
Recognizing that many of you may be in a similar position to my coworker—or worse, for those of you who are still locked into the system and might want some perspective from an apostate—I offer some thoughts about what unspoken norms typify academic environments, how they’re maladaptive in the private sector (and just about everywhere), and the ways in which one can more-successfully transition to a happy life as a corporate drone.
Academia is Not Good for People
Earlier today I encountered a recent lesswrong post, screencapped here:
I appreciate the poster’s honesty and self-awareness, and I think the points he enumerates here are a great distillation of what academia’s social environment does to people, or what gets exacerbated in people of a certain neurotype.
There is nothing morally wrong with these traits per se but I want to highlight that they are not just unpleasant to experience; they are inimical to functioning in a business environment and you would do well to divest yourself of them as quickly as you’re able when you make the leap.
I break my advice into four main points.
No One Thinks You Are Dumb
Academia is curious in that performance, both relative and cardinal, is evaluated explicitly and sometimes publicly; you develop a reputation quickly, and making errors especially in a classroom or seminar setting can be humiliating. Academics for their part tend to lean into this by playing the “let’s see how quickly I can destroy this entire presentation” game. While this is probably effective at incentivizing academics to identify errors in their work, it also leaves them massively risk-averse and concerned with their audience’s perception of them.
My experience in industry is that no one gives a shit. Write up an analysis on time; be straightforward about your claims; make the limitations of the analysis very clear. People might argue with the outcomes, but if they do it’s not because they think you’re an idiot: it’s typically because they see a specific problem with your reasoning, or because they would prefer the results might be different. Typically you’re the most-capable person in the room in the context of your job class, and your coworkers tend to respect this by default.
Apart from any remaining anxiety and fear around perceptions of your intelligence, which you should abandon as quickly as possible, the biggest failure mode here is wasting time on perfectionism.
In school it can make sense to spend huge amounts of time trying to craft an analysis into a perfect gem of a paper to preclude any possible criticism from yourself or from others. In industry, though, no skeptical journal editor will review your work. It’s going to be a bunch of PMs and engineers, who will take you at your word that the analysis is what you say it is. They may have critiques, and good ones, but they will tend to stem from domain knowledge rather than a deep familiarity with the statistical properties of an estimator. And getting a good critique from a coworker is fine—there’s no penalty for this if you haven’t shipped yet. Just go back and fix it in five minutes, and be glad you didn’t spend three days trying to anticipate the error.
I’m not suggesting you be sloppy or dishonest, but coming from academia it’s likely that you are biased toward risk aversion in a way that makes no sense in a business environment where you are more likely to be judged on the basis of your output than on your technical sophistication.
No One Cares That You Are Smart
The flip side of the fact that everyone assumes by default that you’re capable is that no one cares that you’re smart, and you should not waste your time, or their time, trying to demonstrate that you are.
Major failure modes include:
Writing for an academic audience, rather than plainly and directly for an audience of sharp non-experts;
Using the most esoteric methods available to show that you’re familiar with the methodological subtleties of a given problem (rather than to get an acceptable answer to a salient question). Unless you’re presenting to specialists, no one cares whether you’re using Huber-White standard errors or bootstrapping; they just want an answer that can inform a decision.
Once again, I’m emphasizing the importance of being honest with yourself about the ROI from pursuing any given degree of sophistication in your methods, and in conveying results to your audience in an appropriate language and timeline. You don’t need to signal brilliance; you need to generate good-enough results quickly.
The good news is that this is easy. Academia is characterized by well-trodden problems, hashed over for decades, and negligible novel data for resolving them. Industry is by comparison a mass of green field areas of inquiry with large budgets, minimal bureaucracy, and ample data. No one is going to stop you from deploying some fancy-ass model if you can do it quickly and get interesting results, but nine times out of ten opportunity cost considerations should lead to you choosing to simply plotting some lines that directly answer a question. This is not “sophisticated” but it is “fast and efficient” and most importantly it “works.”
Just Talk To People
People in business are somewhat more extraverted than in academia, but there are more important reasons that you should feel good about just approaching them and talking to them.
It is literally their job to talk to you and answer your questions where it’s relevant to work. If they get mad at you for reaching out that’s on them.
It is also literally your job to talk to other people about work and if you’re not talking to people you’re missing out on essential information.
Asking people questions directly is often the fastest way to solve a problem. Your employer would rather you solve a problem by asking someone a basic question and getting an answer in five minutes than by spending two entire workdays trying to grind out the answer.
Many systems are poorly documented and the only way to get information is by asking someone with direct knowledge of that system.
No one is going to think that you are dumb for asking a basic question and you need to get the answer anyway. Your performance is being evaluated but it’s on the basis of your output, and if you can improve your output by bothering a coworker for help you will be rewarded accordingly. In meetings, asking a basic question is often great because typically you are not the only person in attendance who lacks context.
Some people in industry do have strong personalities and they can be hard to deal with at first if you’re more retiring. The good news is that developing a strong personality is partly a matter of practice, and it can be turned on or off; and dealing with such personalities where your interests are hypothetically aligned is a good learning situation. Remember going into such conversations that you’re probably speaking from a position of authority in your job class, and it is expected of you that you fulfill your role, even where that involves standing your ground when someone is trying to bowl you over; and further that you are empowered to do so in most cases.1
If it helps, you can view encounters like this as exercises in interacting with a social obstacle in such a way as to realize an end, rather than a normal “human” interaction. You can also talk to your manager or coworkers about how to handle such interactions in advance.
Finally, just communicate openly with your manager. A virtue in the workplace is fast feedback; they should be giving you a rundown of what they think you’ve done well or poorly in regular meetings, and how to improve on mistakes. If they don’t, make sure you ask for this feedback. If something is going wrong, communicate about that too. It’s very easy to come from an environment where you talk to your advisor perhaps every month or so and continue to hole up on a project, but this is terrible for staying engaged with your team.
Just Do Things (or Don’t)
School tends to train people to inhabit a state where they passively wait for assignments. That can happen in industry but the norm is for a group of people to identify a problem or opportunity and move quickly to solve or take advantage of it. Over time, you’re not going to do well if you don’t adapt to this new environment and become proactive about seeking things to change and charging ahead on them.
I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t clear major projects with your manager, and for larger initiatives you’ll have to convince people to pitch in with you. But, by and large, the onus is on you to use the local knowledge you develop to seize opportunities as they arrive and make progress on improving things rather than waiting for a task to be assigned to you.
A corollary is that you have control over what you’re working on and more often than not you can decide to stop doing it if a better use of your time exists. Some deadlines are hard, but it’s often the case that a given project becomes stale and should be deferred or even abandoned to take advantage of a higher ROI option. Prioritizing work in this way is a major skill in itself and the best way to speed its development is, as usual, clear communication with your manager or coworkers.
Conclusion: It’s Not Just Industry
Having run through some core areas in which academia is poor preparation for life generally, I want to make a closing point that the scholastic foibles I’ve discussed are also culturally-bound antipatterns in daily life. In the spirit of industry-optimized plain communication, I leave you with bullets:
You can choose to identify as things other than “smart” and you will probably be a better person for it as well as functionally smarter. Find some other value to signal.
People are not your professor or advisor. Just talk to them. Maybe they yell at you for impertinence but so what? They probably don’t have any power over you and the alternative is spending your entire life a wallflower.
You don’t need to ask permission to go to the bathroom and you can seize opportunities of your own volition rather than waiting for them to fall into your lap like an essay due a week from Friday.
Is some project or effort no longer worthwhile? Are you realistically never going to finish it and just experiencing anxiety about your ongoing commitment but you said you were gonna do it so you have to?
There’s a certain amount of subtlety about this and learning where exactly your authority ends is an exercise in developing judgment. That said, if you’re coming from academia, you’re probably going to be prone to err way too far on the side of getting rolled.