I thought I would write about something that I haven’t spoken about before, which is thinking about leaving academia and moving into industry. I have a PhD and I currently work in academia. I have a skill set that is in demand in terms of things like statistics, data science, AI, and a bunch of other buzzwords that you may hear. I sometimes think about leaving academia but there are a bunch of reasons that I decide not to. These include flexibility, security, travel, and teaching. If I am honest, the list also includes fear, stubbornness, and a sense that academia is public sector work that is not only meaningful but also of social value.
Covid-19 has upended a number of things about University work that make it increasingly less attractive despite at the same time making it painfully obvious why we need research universities to do things like develop vaccines, study the (unequal) effects of pandemics on different social groups, run experiments on basic guaranteed income, etc. Some people say that that the negative job effects have just accelerated what was probably going to happen anyways. Almost all of the things I really like about my job (job security, travel, F2F teaching) are likely to either go away or be much less assured. This and my partner losing his job left me thinking about and applying for some jobs in industry, where the pay is notoriously better and conducting research also still possible.
From sending out a number of applications (maybe say 20 as an estimate) I got two call backs so far, but I thought I would tell you about my experience. They were both with big companies (> 10,000 employees). Both jobs had a job title that was something like principal researcher / lead applied scientist which I am trying for because I am more than 5 years out of my PhD.
I had an initial conversation with a recruiter for a specific job. This person / company / team was looking for a 🦄. The recruiter wanted someone that was both a top engineer, someone that had management capabilities, and also someone that had deep domain knowledge about the specific industry the project was for. Also, as it was a senior position, they wanted someone with a tonne of experience. I didn’t even make it to the interview because the recruiter told me that many had passed the behavioural interview only to fail the technical interview. They were having problems filling the post. I wonder if they will ever find someone. The project sounded interesting but I am not a unicorn.
I applied for a data science research job that actually fit better my profile (though not entirely). I had an initial interview with someone on the team that I would be working with. This person walked me through my CV and background and training and also asked me to do a coding exercise. The coding exercise was small and not hard. I was then invited to a second round of (final) interviews. I found the words final-interview to be a bit misleading when given the schedule. The first round seemed more like screening and the second round actually 6 independent interviews spread over a couple of days. I found the interviews relatively difficult because on the one hand, you would be chatting in a friendly way, and then, on the other hand, the interviewer would then press you for technical information at a relatively deep and detailed level. These interviews covered everything from knowledge of SQL queries, research designs, model decisions, accuracy, etc. There were also behavioural questions, questions about mentoring, conflict resolution, etc. There was also another technical interview coding exercise which was a scenario question where you had to role play a consulting exercise, figure out the departments research requirements, come up with a research plan, simulate synthetic data, and run the analysis with built in findings (the interviewer told you want they wanted to see).
I finished the interview really not knowing whether I did a good job or not; whether they treated me with kid gloves or not. As it was my first interview in the private sector I think it went okay. I also left the process also not sure if I wanted to move or stay. I also talked to 6 men and 1 woman during this whole process. I thought that was also interesting. As I mentioned, I am not sure how I felt about the whole thing. Given the financial uncertainty at the moment, it seems crazy to not try. Is anyone else thinking about changing industries at the moment? How do you evaluate whether its a risk worth taking?