Blithe Rocher

Not your average engineering manager.

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I'm leaving academia

Though it may come as a shock to most of the people that know me, my career as a scientist and academic is effectively coming to a close. When the time came to apply for the tenure track academic positions that I had prepared my entire academic life for, I let it slip by without taking action. This is extremely out of character for me so I thought I would write a post to explain a few things.


For anyone in academic circles, it's no secret that there is an abundance of PhDs and a shortage of academic positions. I suppose I learned this during graduate school even though all of the people I knew had no problems getting jobs after graduation. I knew that only a few "cream-of-the-crop” people could get academic jobs. I believed that by being the best, having the best resume, and making connections I would be able to get one of the few prized tenure-track academic positions.

When the time came to apply to tenure-track positions, I realized that even the best PhDs are susceptible to the lack of available positions. In my case, liberal arts schools often only have one tenure-track physical chemist employed in the entire chemistry department. In order for a position to open, a very specific person has to retire.

That's not to say I couldn't get a job. Departments often compensate for a lack of tenure-track positions (due to budget crunches) by hiring adjunct faculty to fulfill teaching requirements. For those unfamiliar with the term "adjunct," imagine working full time at a job that requires a PhD and has no benefits (insurance, 401k, etc.).

Additionally, there are some positions available where older faculty have retired. A qualified person willing to move anywhere in the world should be able to find a position somewhere. For those with families, or other location restrictions, moving to another country or to a remote location is not an option. At the very least, it is not a desirable option.

During the job search, I found myself questioning my career choice. As a smart and highly educated person, was this really the best way to use my talents? Would I really be happy teaching away from my friends and family? Would fulfilling this career goal be enough for me for the rest of my life? Was there a better, more financially rewarding, and gratifying option?

Working through grad school taught me that I could do anything if I put my mind to it. I want to make sure that I am using my mind in the best way possible for myself, my loved ones, and for the world. I no longer believe that academia or science is the best use of my talents.

If not academia, then what?

In the mean time, I started some web development side projects (Ruby on Rails) and I've become pretty good at it. The huge demand for programmers (particularly women) has made me consider this as a career option. Within a few years (or maybe even the first year) I would be making more than I would as a tenure-track professor.

Even though my programming career is still relatively young, I think that I might find it more gratifying than science. The ability to imagine something and then create it from scratch on a short timescale is extremely empowering. I love being able to solve challenges on a daily basis that have a direct, visible result. I love being able to say “I built this.” Although I’m proud of the science that I’ve contributed to the world, I see programming as a way to have a more accessible, tangible impact.

I'm excited about the culture outside of academia and the opportunity to work with a variety of smart people. I’m looking forward to working in teams with fellow creatives who haven’t spent an entire lifetime learning about science. I also see this as an opportunity to learn more about different subjects like business, design, and management.

One of my favorite parts about the prospect of becoming a professor was the idea of being able to positively contribute to the world by teaching others. Luckily there are lots of opportunities to teach in tech and programming, so I don't feel like I'm losing that aspect.

What's Next?

This summer, I plan to start with an entry-level web developer position and work my way up. I know that I can be a hell of a developer one day and I plan to use my life experience to get there as efficiently as possible.

I realize this is pretty crazy after getting a PhD and it's very out of character for me. I have thought about it a lot and I see this more as a lateral move rather than as starting over. There are a lot of opportunities outside of academia and, for me, this move will be more beneficial than forging ahead on a career path that I chose in high school. I believe it will be more gratifying, offer more flexibility, and be more financially rewarding. I make this leap with no regrets.

This will be a huge change for me but I'm looking forward to the possibilities. The future is bright.