Erik Ramsgaard Wognsen

Thoughts & technology

Leaving Academia

Last fall, I had been at Aalborg University for nine years: One year in electronic engineering, five years studying software engineering, and three years doing a PhD in computer science. The first six years as a bachelor and master’s student were relatively straightforward and satisfying. The last three years formed my introduction to the academic world.

Being a PhD student in computer science does not mean you are a student of computer science at a high level. Well, you are that, but first and foremost, you are an apprentice of academia. The distinction is important because, while I love computer science, academia is, it turned out for me, not great.

I left the university before having finished my PhD, to work at a private company as an IT consultant. I managed to finish my thesis concurrently with my new job, and I have now defended it successfully. But the last half year has also helped me see more clearly my motivation for switching jobs. It can be summed up like this: Now, I go home from work most days feeling a sense of accomplishment. Before, I came home from work many days with the feeling of having failed.

Research is hard. It’s hard because you are trying to do something that has not been done before. There is no recipe that guarantees success, because if someone could tell you what to do, you wouldn’t be doing research anymore. Research is hard because a lot of the time you feel lost and stupid. This is normal, I was told. But knowing that it is normal does not magically make it feel good.

Purpose

The question then is if there is something else in the job that makes it worthwhile and keeps you motivated. According to behavioral economist Dan Ariely, two of the key motivating factors at work are the feelings of progress and purpose. Progress is generally slow in research due to its nature. You will fail a lot before stumbling upon something important. So what about purpose?

Ideally, research should be about the noble goal of adding to the pool of human knowledge. Cure the proverbial cancer. But doing something significant in research takes decades and even then is not guaranteed to happen. And that leaves us back at the slow progress. So how about the feeling of purpose in the shorter term?

This is where my new job really became a contrast to research. On the grand scale of things, my work as an IT consultant is fairly insignificant. But on a smaller scale, it is significant: Someone (the client) is actually going to use what I am building for them. This is in contrast to academia, where I feel that very few people read my work, let alone use it for anything. Making something that others use, want, and care about feels great. Submitting a research paper for publication and getting grumpy reviews back months later does not.

Of course, the work I do as an IT consultant is not guaranteed to be used. The client may change their mind and drop whatever project you are working on. But since they ordered it and are paying good money for it, they are likely to want it. In academia, conferences and journals are more important and prestigious, the more submissions they reject.

Feedback

So what if you instead look for purpose in the very short short term – hours and days? In presenting a small new idea, or new section in a draft, and having your collaborators see it and comment on it? Here, academia also disappointed me. Getting feedback on my work was not always easy. Meetings could be fitted into busy schedules a few times a month, and you would be lucky to get an email reply without sending several reminders.

Unlike the inherent hardness of research, feedback in the short term is somewhat within your own control because you can influence who you collaborate with. But I still think my experience is fairly common.

In my new job, feedback is not something I get a few times per week – it is something I get a few times per hour. Everybody’s busy, but we take time to help each other. In general I liked my colleagues at the university, but I feel more like part of a team now than I have ever done as a PhD student.

To top it off, I also feel much more valued now because my time is treated with respect. And of course it is: Every hour I am not doing billable work is missed income for the company. And so, getting equipment, booking travels, getting expenses refunded — everything is laughably easy compared to the university.

Just a Job?

One might object and say that travel booking and emails are irrelevant; that work in academia is about grander things. Indeed, a faculty member who joined the research group I was in complained that the PhD students were not dedicated enough; that we just treated research as “a job”.

I think if you work on a topic that you care deeply about, then indeed you can push on in spite of the slow progress. The feeling of ownership is a strong motivator.

I was not strongly dedicated to my PhD research. When I couldn’t get a PhD position within my favored topic, I settled for what I could get right here, right now, rather than looking for other options. In hindsight this was a mistake. But I’m not the only one who made the mistake. And perhaps academia as an increasingly competitive institution could benefit from having work done by “research technicians” following the lead of a principal investigator. At least, that could solve the current situation where far more PhDs are produced than there are permanent positions available for.

But to keep us technicians happy doing what is partially someone elses research, we need to be treated exactly as a employees doing a regular “job”. And to be motivated to do this job where real successes are occasional at best, the working conditions should provide the day-to-day work satisfaction. And of course no matter your motivation to tackle long-term research problems, dealing with bureaucracy is no fun.

How to Succeed

I do hope that the work I have done during my time working in research has made a dent, and I am thankful for the good experiences I have had. But I would also like others considering doing a PhD to think about why they want to do it. I thought that because I was a good bachelor and master’s student, I would be a good PhD student. And perhaps I was good for my co-authors, at least I have been told that. But being a PhD student wasn’t good for me.

I think, for academia to be good for you, three things are crucial:

  • You should have a clear goal that is enough yours that you feel ownership of it and therefore motivation. If your research project is too much somebody else’s idea, you may lose this important source of motivation.
  • When that is said, you should also work with people who agree with your goal, and who you enjoy working with. If you collaborate with people you do not strongly enjoy working with, you will miss regular morale boosts that help keep you going in spite of the many failures you encounter.
  • You need to be either highly confident or productively stupid.

Perhaps someday I will get an idea for a research project of my own and find the right place to pursue it, but for now I’ll happily develop “mundane” business software that people use in the “real world”, as we used to say at the university.

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