Why I Left Academia

TLDR: scroll here for the pretty interactive picture.
Over two years ago I abandoned my post at the University of Washington as a assistant research professor studying quantum computing and started a new career as a software developer for Google. Back when I was a denizen of the ivory tower I used to daydream that when I left academia I would write a long “Jerry Maguire”-esque piece about the sordid state of the academic world, of my lot in that world, and how unfair and f**ked up it all is. But maybe with less Tom Cruise. You know the text, the standard rebellious view of all young rebels stuck in the machine (without any mirror.) The song “Mad World” has a lyric that I always thought summed up what I thought it would feel like to leave and write such a blog post: “The dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had.”
But I never wrote that post. Partially this was because every time I thought about it, the content of that post seemed so run-of-the-mill boring that I feared my friends who read it would never ever come visit me again after they read it. The story of why I left really is not that exciting. Partially because writing a post about why “you left” is about as “you”-centric as you can get, and yes I realize I have a problem with ego-centric ramblings. Partially because I have been busy learning a new career and writing a lot (omg a lot) of code. Partially also because the notion of “why” is one I—as a card carrying ex-Physicist—cherish and I knew that I could not possibly do justice to giving a decent “why” explanation.
Indeed: what would a “why” explanation for a life decision such as the one I faced look like? For many years when I would think about this I would simply think “well it’s complicated and how can I ever?” There are, of course, the many different components that you think about when considering such decisions. But then what do you do with them? Does it make sense to think about them as probabilities? “I chose to go to Caltech, 50 percent because I liked physics, and 50 percent because it produced a lot Nobel prize winners.” That does not seem very satisfying.
Maybe the way to do it is to phrase the decisions in terms of probabilities that I was assigning before making the decision. “The probability that I’ll be able to contribute something to physics will be 20 percent if I go to Caltech versus 10 percent if I go to MIT.” But despite what some economists would like to believe there ain’t no way I ever made most decisions via explicit calculation of my subjective odds. Thinking about decisions in terms of what an actor feels each decision would do to increase his/her chances of success feels better than just blindly associating probabilities to components in a decision, but it also seems like a lie, attributing math where something else is at play.
So what would a good description of the model be? After pondering this for a while I realized I was an idiot (for about the eighth time that day. It was a good day.) The best way to describe how my brain was working is, of course, nothing short than my brain itself. So here, for your amusement, is my brain (sorry, only tested using Chrome). Yes, it is interactive.

12 Replies to “Why I Left Academia”

  1. Why I want to come back to academia.
    There seem to be a natural relationship between physicists and software development. I started my career in physics in prolific group oversees which produced a publication a month in serous journals like Phys Rev and then I came to US to do a PhD here. When I graduated, I faced the uncertainty of funding because the cold war ended. Not wanting to take risks with my green card, I took a job as a software developer for my adviser’s company utilizing my math skills very well. I was thinking that if I will have something really important to say in physics I’ll come back.
    Fast forward through 3 software developer companies, I learned the inside and out of every aspect of software development and management. I was responsible for development software worth tens of millions of dollars in recurring revenue, I managed 3 development groups in 3 countries at the same time, I managed millions of lines of code. Now with this came an unexpected side effect. I earn a sizable salary. Also it happens that now I have very important things to say in quantum mechanics.
    First when I tried to came back to physics, nobody took me seriously but this is gradually changing. The big problem however is that I cannot get a salary to match the software career salary right away. Increasing salary is like increasing entropy: irreversible process. Given my long term financial commitments (mortgages, college expenses for my kids) I cannot take a pay cut and start as a post doc someplace.
    I do want to come back to academia because I am working on very hard problems and they started producing amazing results. They sure beat any job satisfaction in the software world by orders of magnitude. But I am trapped in software development by my current high standard of living.
    So my advice for you is DON’T DO IT.

  2. Hmm, I was hoping for more about your departure from academia. I have fantasies about leaving, but the prospect of having a 9-5 schedule, having to wear clothes other than jeans, and not being completely free during the summer just seems too much. More disposable income and different challenges though… “Mad World” is great, as is the whole of “The Hurting.”

  3. Loved the interactive graph!
    Regarding the rant: if you’re worried that it’d be “run-of-the-mill boring”, why not just focus on the less run-of-the-mill bits? (I.e., publish the diffs.)

  4. As one of your former advisees, this is actually really interesting to poke at. Personally I think I’m well out of academia – I was probably never going to be happy as faculty (at least not in quantum computing/CS theory), but I could have easily spent another 3-4 years in grad school figuring that out if I hadn’t hit a decision point when I did.
    I’d also be interested to read the bigger “leaving academia” story. While CS/physics grad school isn’t overall the same kind of trap as, say, a PhD in English (which is probably only something you should do if you’re very, very good, and if someone will pay you to do it), it’s still a major commitment that’s not a good fit for a lot of people. Few, if any, of the students I started with in 2007 have graduated, and even fewer have academic jobs. Many have left academia entirely. So when I talk to people who are in grad school or considering it, it’s hard to really know what to say. Success rates can be high or low depending on how you define “success”. I currently work on a software team that’s full of PhDs (in CS), most of whom are quite vocal about the fact that they probably could have skipped the whole dissertation thing and pretty much gotten the same benefit from the experience.

  5. Did graph isomorphism burn you out? I think you were doing good work, for what it’s worth. I’m sure you still are. I ask because you left out the other obvious option, of working at an industrial or government research lab. There are quite a few out there, including Microsoft outside Seattle and even now Google.

  6. Thanks for the kind words John. Part of burning out was certainly the frustration of spending a lot of time working on problems I considered important (graph isomorphism among them, I’d also include self-correcting quantum memories as another) and not making significant progress. I think when you work on these problems and you meet lots of very smart people you start to question whether you stand a chance. Plus it is particularly heart wrenching to work on these problems and think you’ve found a path forward only to realize that you don’t. These are part of my character weakness, no doubt. Burnout doesn’t mean you don’t care about what your working on, at least for me, it meant that I needed a break from the emotional roller coaster. Also, at least for the first year after I left, I also still spend a portion of my free time thinking about the problems I care about.
    You’re right that I didn’t seriously consider research labs. This was partially a conscious decision: if I was going to try something new, it seemed that a research position at one of these institutes, or a large company, would have not been healthy (if you’re burned out, continuing to do the same thing seems like a bad choice). I never even applied at Microsoft 🙂 (I once got rejected for a postdoc there, and when you look at the people they hire, well…. I don’t have a fields medal 😉 )

  7. Thanks for this extremely sincere picture from your brain. This is better than any page-long post.
    What did you use to do the network?

  8. As one who left Academia close to two decades ago I would say this… It is good to move around and do different things. I left Academia because I got frustrated. I had, at a very young age, already discovered plenty, published some, found some good enemies, and built a huge stock of unpublished results. It was time to leave or I would just get grumpy. I did a simple demographic calculation. I looked around the department and asked myself this question: “What is the Bell Curve for Expected Retirement Age?”.
    The answer I came up with (in 1994) was: 2012!
    That gave plenty of time for me to get on with life and learn new things. The simple truth about Physics (and Science in general) is that there is so very much to fix that none of it will get fixed until we get a change of the guard.
    That is happening now, so things will improve. However, the entire Academic research model is broken so it will not happen in Academia. It will certainly happen, and will be driven by Academically trained persons, but it will not be in the Ivory Tower.
    Don’t worry, be happy about that… the age of the MooC, the blog, the self-published and self-organized research community is the way of the future.
    The Academy is properly a state of mind, not a job, a place, or a title.
    If you like researching new things, being paid well, respecting the manifold areas of life you can never fully master then be happy in commerce and industry.
    It is not a bad place and you could well make several fortunes.
    Also, you should rest assured that much of the Academic orthodoxy will be swept aside in five years time by a new generation. Discovering new things has never been easier!
    Almost nobody in the orthodox Academic sphere is even trying 😉

  9. Seeing clearly what is going on in the head of my 6-year-old often makes me realize we adults behave the same, just with more cover-ups. For example, she is pretty good at justifying her actions, like “I ate the candy because I didn’t want Di-Di (her brother) to get cavity”. One such episode gave me the inspiration that perhaps many of the paper reviews I’ve seen, looking so professional and well reasoned, were merely justifications of emotions. That may very well apply to reviews I wrote (but I never say “not of general interest”) …
    Thus perhaps the “why” question isn’t as meaningful as one would think. What you say now tells more about what you are now, not the subject of the question. To use the language of our field, you were “measured” in making that decision and once it was made, you were permanently changed so what you said about the past you isn’t as much about the past you than about the current you…. So, why not just move on; you are enjoying what you are doing and that’s the only thing matters, isn’t it?
    There are clearly pros and cons for academia and most of us have options now and then. Life is a N=1 experiment but we have to roll dices along the way. It’d be too hash to ourselves (but clearly hard to resist) to base our mental states on the outcome of the dices. I’d be happy if I roll them gracefully. Analogy: If we only have CHSH to play, no reason to blame ourselves if we fail. The important thing is to play that cos^2 pi/8 strategy, in which case even if we fail, the output bit is still golden (perfectly random).
    Even if we don’t play optimally, we still get high smooth min-entropy that can be made into pure golden bits. So to the young and the hopeful, roll your dices and find happiness either way.

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