Ask the grumpies: Do I stay or do I go now, and if I go… then what?

Tired of being grumpy all the time asks:

I’m an assistant professor.  I found your blog when looking for advice on dealing with horrible departments.  I don’t like my job and have become a big ball of stress and unhappiness.  I had been looking forward to escaping during my unpaid summer months, but have been given a pile of service and administrative deadlines to deal with (still unpaid).  I’ve tried to find another job without any luck.  I may or may not get tenure.

When I read the post on one of the Grumpies quitting, I, quite literally, had the breath knocked out of me.  It had never occurred to me that quitting without a new job was something that people actually did. My husband is on board with my quitting; he even suggested it earlier this year.

I am hesitant to discuss this with anyone I know– if my department hears, I fear they will choose not to renew my contract.  I’d rather choose to leave than be forced to.  Do you have any advice, thoughts, questions I should consider as I contemplate this new plan?

We both actually have experience with this.  Not only did #1 quit recently, but #2’s husband quit a year ago (pre-tenure) without having any other employment lined up.

Neither quit happened overnight.  It’s hard to quit something that allows a lot of freedom and can’t fire you on only two weeks’ notice.  It’s even harder to give up the potential for complete job security.  Add to that the weird culture of academia where, at least when you’re new, leaving the academic track seems like failure (it isn’t!), and you get people sticking around probably longer than they should.

Sometimes sticking around works out– you can change things or go on to other jobs.  Sometimes you just need a year of leave (and you can often get a year of unpaid leave off the tenure clock to try things out– #2’s DH did that just by asking).  Sometimes it’s just delaying the inevitable.

We both know many other people who have made the jump.  All are happier for it.  We know people who were considering making the jump but with one thing or another they decided they could make it work where they were or they got a job offer at a different place and everything worked out.  They’re happier than they were too.  And we know people who are still working on making the decision.

#1’s experience of quitting was that, somewhat thankfully, it got bad enough that I felt good about leaving.  If it had been less bad, I might still be there.  Perhaps that’s where you are.  It took me a year to decide to quit.  Other people in my department also have exit plans (and every year we’ve been hiring to replace recent exits), which tells you how bad it is there.  My experience has been that quitting my job makes me feel amazingly good, but I don’t think I would have felt that way if I’d left pre-tenure.  I also have financial luxury to faff about until I figure out a new career.  And I might hate my next job, too!  (But at least it will PAY MORE.)

Also, consider this:  it’s likely you can outlast administrators.  However, consider the direction your school as a whole is going in (your department, college, university as a whole).  That was one among many clues that I didn’t belong in that particular place.  It was hard, hard, hard for me to give up an academic career– that is, until I was ready to do it.  Everyone has a different breaking point.  While you’re finding yours, save money like a fiend.  Try to stay sane.  Maybe start consulting on the side if you want to turn that into a new career.  This could be an opportunity to move to where you really want to be!  (Better work environment for husband, closer to family or the beach, lower cost of living, whatever.)

There must be something you love about academia to even go into it.  There are also things you hate.  Are they things you hate about the career, or this particular job, or some of both?  If you can figure out the particular *aspects* that are turning you into a ball of stress, you can look at adjusting them within this job or in a new job.

Things to consider:

Academia is just a job

Pre-tenure angst *read this book*.  If you feel trapped, this book will help you feel untrapped and will give you the tools you need to get to freedom, whether that includes staying where you are with an exit plan or making a big jump.  It will help you turn the risk of losing/leaving your job into a calculated risk, increasing the upside and decreasing the downside.

For the past three years or so, #2 has been talking about getting ready financially for her DH to quit, dealing with him being out of work, and adjusting to his new income, off and on in her monthly mortgage posts.   Savings and lowering monthly expenses create the luxury of being able to make a measured risk.

Are you a scanner?  As #1 says, think about what aspects of work make you happy and read up on what kinds of jobs fit those aspects.  For example, like Cloud, my husband is a scanner, so he likes shorter projects.  He likes working in groups.  He likes figuring out problems.  He needs mental stimulation.  He needs regular validation.  He’s currently getting all of these things in his current job, but wasn’t getting them in academia.

From a practical standpoint, it took #2’s husband several months to get consulting contracts and job interviews, but they all kind of hit at once, probably because of the way hiring cycles and budgets work.  He started lazily networking in May, then more seriously in September, and by November he was working in his new job.  (He did get an unsolicited offer to continue teaching off the tenure track at the university, but had no problem turning that down.)

If you quit, you’re not alone.  If you decide to stick it out, you’re not alone there either.  If you decide to stay for a while and work on a gradual exit plan, that actually seems pretty common.  You can make any choice into the right one, if you can find what fits well for you and your life.

Does that help?

And now, check the comments for thoughts from the Grumpy Nation.


Resources for PhDs seeking jobs outside of academia

In between bouts of sorting, de-cluttering, and apartment hunting, I’ve also been working on my job search. Here’s some helpful links I’ve found during my search.

How to avoid hassle during an out-of-state job search.

I might sign up for freelance editing work on  things like oDesk or eLance (any tips, readers?).  I don’t want to freelance forever, probably, but a little cash here and there might help.  Mostly I’m looking for an office job.

PhDs at Work looks interesting, but I haven’t spent a lot of time on there.  Does anyone want to investigate and report back in the comments?

Miriam Posner discusses what alt-ac (alternative-academic) jobs can and can’t provide.

There is a LinkedIn group called PhD Careers Outside of Academia, which is where I found this huge collection of links and articles for scientists transitioning to industry.  (I’ve also been checking out Ask A Manager but mostly for giggles.)


Do you have any recommendations for resources for PhDs seeking jobs outside of academia?  Specifically for social scientists or scientists who have some data skills and good writing skills, but only tiny amounts of programming skills, and nothing in biotech/pharma?  Thanks!

Your Ideal Work Day

A few years ago, get a life phd asked readers to think about what their ideal day would look like.

My ideal work day definitely does NOT include teaching or ANY emails from students.  It does, however, include research and friends.

I was at this conference when I realized I was having my ideal work day.  No students.  No student emails.  I talked to colleagues about research:  theirs, mine.  I got inspired to learn about a new statistical technique.

I saw good friends I hadn’t seen in a long time.  I ate good food.  I had time for a nap in the middle.

I met a new research collaborator and we talked about what research we do and could share.
I could choose what was most interesting to go hear talks about.  Setting my own schedule is awesome.
That is an ideal work day.


I think mine would start off with me checking my email to find a desk accept.  :)  Or an R&R from a top 2 journal.  Follow it up with a request to do something relatively trivial using my expertise for a large sum of money (like reading a proposal or giving a discussion).

These ideal day exercises aren’t so useful to me because my fantasy scenarios mainly depend on things that are outside of my control (last week was not an ideal week– the summer started with two conference rejections and a journal rejection, also our unscoopable paper that coauthor sat on for two years got scooped), and because I’m pretty happy with my life as it is and trying to optimize instead of satisfice just makes me grumpy.  It may not be a perfect life, but spending time and mental energy trying to make it better tends to make it worse and take time and energy away from things that actually help my life improve.  I remember the morning that I first heard about the willpower research on only being able to make a limited number of decisions each day, I was completely useless because I’d second guess making any decision instead of just making it, thus adding to my mental load.

Now, if I were miserable or unhappy, then the amount of time thinking about what makes me happy would be totally worth it.  A little bit of introspection might be able to make big short-term changes.  Fortunately for me, that’s not where I am right now (rejections aside).  We will see what the future brings.

What’s your ideal work day?

Strategies for not maxing out

Recently Laura Vanderkam had a post discussing yet another book written about the meme that mothers who work full-time are all stress-cases over-doing everything all the time.  You know the one that’s part of the patriarchy’s plan to keep women out of the labor force?

Rather than quitting your day-job and becoming a free-lance writer who writes articles for the NYTimes on how hard it is to be a neurotic working mother, or a book-writer or life-coach telling other people how they can quit their jobs to work part-time telling people to quit their jobs to work part-time… there are less draconian (and less MLM) ways that people can control their stress levels and time use.  This is especially true for the upper-middle-class folks that LV’s blog seems to be mostly aimed at.

We make a lot of money, but my parents did not (and my mom’s dual working parents did not). Still, they were able to spend on things that were important, and one of those things that was important was hiring people to drive my sister and me to places we needed to be during regular working hours when my parents had to work. A college student can take kids to the dentist. Like my grandma always said, “Hire good help.”

Many schools now offer after school care and even before school care.  Most of my colleagues partake of this offering in the local publics, and the after school care at DC1’s private school is so popular that the SAHM complain that their kids want to go to after school care instead of going home with mom.  That extra two hours that you don’t have to worry and you can just pick your kid up when the work-day is done are well worth the $50-$200 we pay every month (depending on the month).

Meal planning can take more mental power than it should, especially when you’re tired and hungry and exhausted from a day at work and need to recharge with food before you can think about food.  Having quick healthy cheap food routines is important. I have a bunch of these standard meals memorized, and the microwave has made things even faster.

The reason I have these standard meals memorized is because from an early age I was taught to do chores, and I started cooking the occasional meal by myself at age 7. Kids can chip in and take off some of the burden. My six year old is in charge of things pertaining to hir. Sometimes ze forgets to bring hir homework or a jacket (or to wear dress clothes on full-dress day), but that just reminds hir next time.

I don’t have to be everything all the time. I can even delegate the mental load for things as my children get older. And they can handle that. Kids are more capable than many of us think.

What are your strategies for not “maxing out”?

On the importance of networks

Most jobs are found via networks.

DH found his new job via networks.  At the time he accepted, another member of his network was urging him to come out for an interview so they could give him a counter-offer.  People who know DH academically know he does good work and is responsible and amazing.  They’re willing to go to bat for him with bosses or to hire him directly as a telecommuter.

Scaring up new, local, networks had been much more difficult for DH.  He met people at happy hours and networking events.  He tapped linked in and asked former colleagues to introduce him to people.  But it didn’t get very far.  Maybe that’s because the job market here is different, or maybe it’s because the new people DH has met have no real reason to trust he’s high quality enough to go to bat for him.

But why do our older networks have these opportunities?  DH and I both went to elite graduate schools.  We also went to an elite high school.  (Our colleges were elite too but for some reason we’re not as networked there, not sure why not.  I bet my college roommate could get me a job if I needed one… but she also went to my grad school.)  Our friends have done really amazing and lucrative things with their lives.

The advantages from our high school, in particular, weren’t as obvious when we were younger.  But now many of our friends are millionaires and entrepreneurs (also professors and doctors).  They help each other out.  Heck, one guy buys up companies so he can hire his friends to work at them.

It makes me wonder about my kids… I have no desire for them to leave home for high school, but perhaps a gifted and talented high school experience will serve them well in their later years.  Well, that and DH’s family has a long history of marrying their high school sweethearts.  Maybe we should send our kids away to an academically talented boarding school for high school so that their later life will be more connected.

Have you ever tapped a network for job opportunities?  Where did you meet those people?  How did it work out?

Ask the grumpies: Is having a singular focus a bad thing?

First Gen American asks:

What advice do you give people who are singularly focused beings and do you think there is anything wrong with that? For example, I was recruiting this week and there are some students who have never worked or done sports. All their focus was always on academia. I have known some folks like this and although they are forced to change focus over time, it’s always singular. The transitions are often difficult but they become workaholics or super moms lying on the sword for the sake of their singular focus. (transitioning to retirement is often very difficult for these people). I am the total opposite so my opinion on this is skewed so I would like a more rounded view on the topic.

The third part of this question is, do you think its just how a person is wired and there’s no sense in fighting it? If we didn’t have folks like that then there would be no Olympians because I can’t imagine swimming 5 hours a day like Phelps for like 1/2 your life.

Hush talks about this a bit in her post on Amy Chua.

My dad told me that college was not vocational school, and that I should take one class just for fun each semester.  I am a big believer in a strong Liberal Arts education, and students lose out tremendously when they focus too much, in my opinion.  Sports in school are over-rated.  Sure, it’s nice to learn teamwork, sportspersonship, etc., but you can learn that on the math team or something.  I tried sports and found out that a) I am terrible at them; and b) they are not fun, they hurt, they make you feel gross physically, and I hated interacting with the other kids.

However, it’s not like I can really talk here.  I have been singularly focused on becoming an academic almost since I knew what one was.  (Other childhood dream jobs:  scientist, rock star, astronaut, spy.  Oh wait, I *am* a scientist!)  I pretty much always knew I wanted to be a professor, but strangely, I changed my mind on what I wanted to be a professor of.  In college I changed my major several times, always thinking I would have an academic career though.  And now I do.  So I am a little bit useless on the career exploration front.

#2 never wanted to be a professor because her mom is a humanities professor and she had many crazy colleagues.  It took a while for #2 to realize that some disciplines veered more towards crazy than others, so she made that decision near the end of college.  At the same time, #2 is pretty focused on academics and only did extracurriculars before college because her mom made her.  (I’m also a well-rounded and cultured person because my mom thought that was important.)  That doesn’t mean I don’t have hobbies though, just not ones that would go on a resume straight out of college (“Watched 50 anime series with friends”).   I don’t *think* I’m a workaholic (though some of my colleagues say I am… they’re just slackers), if I am one I’m a pretty piss-poor workaholic.

I’m also not sure what’s wrong with being a workaholic if that’s what makes you happy.  So long as you’re providing value and not destroying the economy in your day job.

We’ve already covered the mom thing.

Why should a person have to retire?  I mean, sometimes you’re forced to retire, but you have plenty of time to learn how to change focus then.  Why borrow trouble?

Umm… a singular focus can be fine.  It can get you far.   So I think that last part of the question is accurate.  People who do great things tend to be both talented and singularly focused.  More power to them.

So I guess my advice to singularly focused people would be:  Are you maximizing your utility subject to your budget constraints?  (That is, are you happy doin’ what you’re doin’, considering your circumstances?)  If so, more power to you!  If not, then sure, allow yourself some more exciting hobbies.

What does the rest of the Grumpy Nation think?

Ask the Grumpies: Alternative realities, alternative futures

First Generation American asks

My question for folks who are smart is this: Do you ever wonder what life would have been like doing a completely different career, or going to a totally different discipline. Do you think you’ll pursue a second career at some point? What would it be in? With average intelligence people, maybe they don’t have those options…they know what they’re good at and they have to go a certain way, but with smart people, the options are limitless. I almost went into medicine. I often wonder what my life would be like and who I’d be married to if at all. I think my standard of living would be about the same, but I’m not sure about quality of life and if it’d be better or worse.

#1:  One thing to note, even people of average or below average intelligence can become smarter.  Intelligence is fluid and hard work can increase it.  I see this with my students, especially in the area of math.  With enough effort they start getting it.

We have one set of friends who we envy.  One spouse has the same degree as my partner, the other is doing something I could do easily.  The live in paradise where they own a house on which they were able to put 40% down.  They had maternity leave, paternity leave, and were able to cut their hours after each child was born.  Why did we go to graduate school?  That’s 6 years we could have been earning and saving and living someplace not miserable.

Will we pursue a different career?  My partner probably will.  As for me, I don’t know.

#2:  More and more I wonder this after my Friday of hell…

Seriously though, I really have been wondering.  I still like academia but our recent external program review called our working conditions “shocking”.  At least I’m not crazy, it really is this bad here.  But what else would I do?  the academic job market is for shit.  Maybe I would try to do something with writing and editing, freelance.  Of course that would be hard, and not a lot of money, at least not for a while.  I have hobbies but I don’t want to make them into career choices.  Does “dreaming of moving to a real city” count?  ‘Cause I’ve been doing some of that recently.  Honestly, I should look more at this question.  Perhaps something to do some internet searching on over break.

I have always wanted to be a college professor (well, after I went through the stages of wanting to be an astronaut, mad scientist, etc.), and the academic lifestyle really suits my brain.  There aren’t any staff positions I want though, and I’m not very good at being a freelance grant-writer or statistical analyst.  I could do some of each of those things, but I can’t have my retirement depend on them.  Hmmm.  Sorry I don’t have a better answer!