Why I (think I) Didn’t Succeed in Academia

I’m not too embarrassed to admit that I just finished a 16-session therapy with a psychologist, after making the difficult decision to leave academia. For many of us 2020 was a brutal year. I personally was already spread out quite thin before the pandemic and now when COVID forced me to switch my courses from offline to online and back, it resulted in an even higher workload. But parallel to that, the physical distance the lockdown allowed (or forced) me to take provided me with a perspective with a bit of distance. These two factors lead to my decision to leave my position somewhat overworked and with a bit of a depression.

The therapy that came after that taught me a lot about myself and now I am at the point that I have come to the conclusion that leaving my job was actually a good thing. In hindsight, the match between the job and my personality was less than perfect. The thing is, people succeed in academia. Similarly, I have been and can be successful in industry. So it really is the combination of characteristics of the job and my personality that did not match. In this post I’ll share my reflection, starting out with a description of the characteristics of the job, after which I’ll explain the mismatch with my own personality and finally I’ll continue why my current position is a better match. 

Job Characteristics

A career in academia could well be the most difficult career path out there. To succeed you really have to give it your all and even by giving it your all there is no guarantee you will succeed. There are a couple of characteristics that make it different from almost all other jobs. 

I think the biggest difference is that it is so multi-faceted. As an academic your main output is your research and your teaching. And while we all try to combine research and teaching, by using our research as basis for our lectures, but also by having master thesis students contribute to your research, this is already a difficult balance to strike. That in itself is already a lot to take on. But on top of that, academics have to find funding. This requires spending a lot of time and energy on writing long applications for your research ideas, which is yet another skill that you have to possess.

And all of this costs a lot of time and energy. On top of everything, in order for these efforts to be successful, you spend a lot of time marketing yourself. Academics try to make a name for themselves and get picked up through conferences and social media. This gets you better collaborations, more favorable reviews and all other things to make it easier for you to succeed. An acedemic has to balance all of these activities, they cannot just be windowdressing and slack on their research, or just focus on their research and slack on their teaching. You need to find that balance…

Furthermore your efforts are super compartmentalized. For different aspects you report to different people. Your board of examiners is the institute that asks you about your teaching, your head of department is who you report to for your research. Both have different interests in you and your work. So it becomes your own challenge to find the balance and ensure that you perform well enough on all facets. 

Another characteristic of an academic career is how long-cyclic it is. Regardless if we’re talking about courses, grant proposals or publications, your work takes weeks or even months from start to finish. While that itself can already be challenging, on top that, the feedback or outcomes you receive based on your efforts takes another long time. For papers, grants and courses you only get the result or outcomes or feedback after months of reviewing or only after you have taught the course. 

And the feedback you receive is very direct. Something you have worked on and put your entire soul and identity in gets evaluated and scrutinized by someone. It becomes very difficult to not take the reviews personally. And this is amplified by the fact that the output you deliver is quite intangible. Sure, an academic paper is a tangible, measurable artefact, but it is not really what you create. It is a manifestation of the knowledge you create. Similarly, course evaluations are manifestations of how well you managed to teach your students something. And something can be said for the way academics are being evaluated. Does the objective way of measuring correspond to the intangible nature of the output? 

Yet another characteristic is the solitary nature of your work. Already at the end of your PhD you possess a unique set of knowledge, which makes it hard to find people that will fully understand what you do. At best, you find colleagues that complement what you do. And it is almost impossible to find colleagues that complement what you do in your own country, let alone your own university. These collaborations are typically international, so all in all, your direct colleagues are not really involved with what you do, despite the fact that you are working in a university. This creates quite some solitude. 

And finally the thing that I was quite surprised by is the mismatch of your work goals. To advance in academia you really need to develop a good research portfolio, but good publications hardly bring anything to your university. The primary source of income that you contribute to as faculty is your teaching. Even having grants accepted and hiring post-docs or PhD students does not bring anything to the university, other than a marginal amount of teaching capacity. So you are not really contributing to the goals of your employer. 

My Personality

Admittedly I did not know myself that well. But what I learned after some 20 sessions of therapy is that I am not very confident. More specifically I think I might not be resilient enough for an academic career. I often take criticism of my work very personally. Similarly, if I do not receive acknowledgment I am working in the right direction, I get anxious. At the same time I am a bit of a perfectionist, which lead to me being too anxious to ask for feedback on things that I feel aren’t finished yet (which is basically everything). And finally, I realize I’m not really a lone wolf. I really enjoy working together with people, having my ideas challenged, challenging other people’s ideas and coming to a common solution. 

And what makes matters even worse is that my standard coping mechanism when things start going awry is to 1) become avoidant and 2) work harder. When I experience pressure or stress, all the negative characteristics amplify each other, resulting in a negative downward spiral. I stop asking for feedback and thus do not receive confirmation and start working too hard and have quality suffer and receive more criticism. Through all of this I experience more anxiety, which leads to declining performance, which leads to more anxiety… Ad burndownium.

And this was not an ideal match. I think I do not have the (rather high) minimum of resilience and confidence to work in an academic career where work is long-cyclic work and you need to maintain a direction for several weeks or months on end with little to no feedback. Also I think I was questioning my decisions in the difficult balancing act an academic has to perform too much. Finally, having a bit more resilience or confidence would allow me to recover a bit more quickly from criticism. And criticism is something I did run into. Any academic runs into criticism: the success rate of papers and grant proposals is around 10-20%. If you’re good. So 80-90% of your efforts will lead to rejection and/or criticism that you have to manage. 

Why my current job is a better fit

In my current job I am reshaping a team of analysts (with tools of the trade SQL and Excel) into a data science team (tools of the trade: Python and Power BI) in Obvion, a Dutch mortgage provider. And even though I am only 5 months in I have the idea that the fit is much better. 

Moon by NASA at unsplash.com

I have a mix of short-cyclic and long-cyclic goals. In terms of short-cyclic goals, our team has to deal with issues in reports that need to be handled within weeks, days or sometimes even hours. Whether it is a change in specification of suppliers of data, or a new request for a data delivery or dashboard: there are tasks with a clear deadline and a clear solution. On the long-cyclic side of things, I am working on roadmaps for our team and department spanning 2-5 years, which feel quite similar to the publications I used to write. I find thinking of the moon shot, or the goal of where I want our team to be in 5 years and making a plan and splitting that up in smaller steps is really exciting.

At the same time, work is less abstract. The short-term tasks have quite a clear, well-defined solution space. But also the long-cyclic goals such as my roadmap has to be more down to earth than my academic papers ever were, as it has to actually become concrete in terms of resources required and the benefits it brings. 

And of course having a team spirit is nice. I really enjoy chatting with the people I work with. Having people to exchange thoughts with and to challenge ideas or have ideas challenged is really terrific. It is also refreshing to talk with direct colleagues, as well as people in departments your team collaborates with and the departments your team works. This is completely different from academia, where you’re mostly surrounded by peers; everyone’s an academic in the end, just more or less experienced and with more or less responsibilities. Right now I truly enjoy the diversity in goals and motivations and backgrounds of my colleagues.

It is also less multi-faceted, but not uni-faceted. The cool thing is that my background allows me to work alongside the team, so if I want I can lose myself fully in the operational side of things. At the same time I am in the position to create a strategy and think of how to best put the team to work in our organisation.  

Finally the alignment is also great. I still run into the situation that I need to convince people of the merit of the roadmap, but it is nice to know that the people I discuss with also have the same end goal: improving the performance of our organisation. There are no weird situations in where I work my ass off to deliver something that does not really help Obvion.

So to conclude, while I thought I was in the right place at Maastricht University, in hindsight this proved to not at all be the case. I’m not entirely sure if this reflection of mine is helpful, as everyperson and position is different. I also realize that it might not be a standard reflection on the industry versus academia debate. But I do realize that if I would’ve somthing like this a couple of months into my career as faculty or maybe before my start, I might have done things completely different. So I am just throwing this out there for the next Mark…

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