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Beyond Academia

A world of opportunity awaits outside of the university walls. To move forward, think outside the academic box and use technology to expand your networks.

In life, many things are to some degree down to luck, which you can neither plan for nor avoid. Why do I begin here? Well, in academia, the success or failure of a career is also, in part, due to luck. We only see the success, because we all need to be excellent, but as in all jobs, failure must be at least as common as success. Ideas fail, job interviews don’t go well, articles get rejected. Rejections can be humiliating, I know. They can make you depressed, I know. So to help me, and maybe to help you, I want to highlight my efforts in trying to move upwards and out of my academic career.

I have been very lucky. I have had my ideas funded many times. I have defined my own research direction for at least ten years. I have built collaborations and moved to live in beautiful cities. Yet, the permanent job just has not worked out. This has made me quite grumpy, most significantly for the past few years. Finally, I decided to call it a day and move on. It is not that I am bad at my job, or that I don’t publish, lack ambition, or even lack teaching experience (although I will admit that that last one is not my favourite). In the end, as perhaps many of you will agree, the academic life narrows in options and, as I have become geographically fixed, there are currently no further academic opportunities for me in the area where I live. I know that I am not alone, so I thought I would share some of my experiences of trying to change direction and find an exciting and interesting job that is outside of the university environment.

Branching out

It started on a sunny day, outside a cafe with an old friend. I was going through my usual rant about a failed interview and how life was unfair. My friend, let’s call him Bill, interrupted me and said that, one, the hiring committee were idiots to overlook me; two, I was better than that; and three, I had a brilliant degree, so should find a non-academic job that makes me happy. Nothing shocking, but it was the first time I had my career plans questioned. What Bill said made sense; I was better than the whinging mess I had become. Bill advised me to do two things: build a network of people outside of academia and join a Meetup, a service used to organise online groups that host in-person events for people with similar interests.

Building a network is hard, but is something that has helped me incredibly to see new ideas. Here is how it has worked so far: I joined the professional networking app Shapr, which uses an algorithm to suggest like-minded professionals, and started meeting strangers for coffee. It is exceedingly awkward at first, and my energy levels for it go up and down. I have not got a job through this approach, but I have gained in confidence in talking to strangers and being straight up about what I want - something that I should have done during my academic career. I also started talking to friends, asking them about what they do at work. I discovered that my friends and parents of my kid’s friends knew people from all walks of life. Through networking, I met CEOs of data science startups, managers in large firms like CGG (a France-based geophysical services company), talent investors such as Entrepreneur First, and freelancers. My narrow focus on tenure-track being the only option in life was gradually blown away. 

Going to a Meetup is rather straightforward, and it was an easy thing to do, even with my relatively small enthusiasm for meeting new people (I will never be an extrovert). I have gradually got a bit more involved in the Pydata scene, a community for developers and users of open-source data tools. This field is closely aligned with my academic background, so makes the most sense. Here there are Chief Executive Officers, Chief Development Officers, Chief Technology Officers, or whatever acronym you want; there are interesting people who run businesses in data science. In fact, this network has got me all the way to building connections with core developers of software that many of us use every day. And I think this is what I would enjoy the most, working at the boundary between Earth science and data science. To that end, I went onto the online learning platform Coursera and payed the small fee to do a machine learning course by the computer scientist and statistician Andrew Ng. I now know my gradient boosting from my convolutional networks. I have a PhD, a degree in Physics. I have a track record of bringing in funding. I am what a young business needs to develop technical tools, as well as to sell ideas and services.

Paving the way

I am not quitting or leaving academia just yet (I might still land a tenure track position), but I am paving the way for a move to a better job. Forwards and upwards. 

So, if the feeling of being trapped in an endless post-doc cycle or having come to the end of your academic options resonates with you, if you feel stuck, like nobody has your back, none of the departmental management support your ideas and you are fighting an uphill battle, then my advice is to stop. The struggle is not always worth it. Go out the front door and meet new people. You will eventually find a CEO who looks at you and says, “You are just what we need. When does your contract end?” Now that would be a happy day. 

Written by an anonymous contributor. 

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