Dear Kate – May 2015 Edition

If you have a question that you would like to ask our panel of experts (GWAMIT mentors), please submit it here.  You may submit as many questions as you would like, and all questions are completely anonymous.  We will submit a subset of questions to a selection of mentors in industry and academia at a variety of ages and career levels, and post their responses on the blog.

We hope you enjoy this feature, and please feel free to use this column to spark discussion among your own mentoring groups.   

I have always wanted to be a professor, and therefore all my college internships and post-college work experience has been in research labs. After several years in graduate school, I still enjoy research but am no longer sure the stress of the tenure-track, constantly changing grant funding, and long hours will be worth it. I am torn between wanting to continue chasing the academic dream or to start preparing for getting a job in industry after graduation. My advisor won’t let me do a summer internship. How can I know which career track is right for me?
            – Overwhelmed by Possibilities
Dear Overwhelmed by Possibilities,
First of all, it seems that your question has its own answer right there….you need to try a NON-academic internship. This would have the value of showing you just a bit of what the “real” world is like, but at the same time, it adds to your resume additional experience of a different nature from the academic experience. Repeating academic internships doesn’t necessarily add value, and the different nature of the applied world is often seen as having important value to a professor’s qualifications. Take a look at  the backgrounds of professors and you’ll see this. 
Your particular field is important here as well. The “academic” track is more likely for those in math and science, whereas the “applied” world is more the destiny of engineering graduates, so this needs to be evaluated.
Kate M.
Dear Overwhelmed by Possibilities,
In any case, having a variety of work experience is beneficial from several points of view, and therefore should be considered seriously. One way to “try out” these different possibilities is to talk with people who seem similar to you and who have gone down one path or another. If you speak to a tenured professor, a professor still working on getting tenure, a professional who left the academic track, and a professional who never even started the academic track about their daily life and what they do & do not enjoy about their work, you will probably be able to imagine how you yourself would feel in these scenarios. It may also be reassuring for you to hear that people like you have had success and happiness along different paths, so your choice might be between being happy because of A,B, and C versus being happy because of X, Y, and Z.
Kate A.
Dear Overwhelmed by possibilities,
The world outside academia is not significantly less stressful than inside. Academics have obligations throughout the year, but summers as a rule are more relaxed, in a business environment- not so much. Promotions and acceleration and path up the corporate ladder are no less stressful than academia and I would suggest that if you do achieve tenure the you have virtually achieved a job for life- the real world is nothing like that. In the US we live in an “at will” employment world which means you have no security really. So first things first, don’t assume the grass is greener elsewhere rather take the time to look ahead five, ten, even fifteen years and think about what types of activities, what types of interactions, and what types of pressures you want in your day to day life. Then reverse engineer. It’s a lot easier to switch from academia to industry than the other way around. 
Kate S.
Dear Overwhelmed by Possibilities,
Here is my comment, as someone who ended up in academia, but spent some time in industry also.
Academia is not the career path that will make everyone happy, and the same can be said for the many types of jobs one can have in industry. It is important to be aware of the differences, and to think about what fits your personality and priorities. But it is also important to remember that you can always change your track in life, as you find out more about different career options, and about what aspects of a job work for you and what is a challenge. If you have questions about this, I suggest you talk to as many people as you can who have a similar background, but took different career routes. Networking events, alumni networks, and people you meet at conferences and even parties can be great resources for finding what people love and hate about each job description; after that, it is up to you to figure out where you imagine yourself. Some questions you can ask yourself is how much you like different parts of the job of an academician. The search for funding is always stressful and challenging, but if you find the experience of teaching and mentoring students especially rewarding, it may be worth it. In contrast, once you are a tenure-track professor, most of the hands-on research is done by your students. So if this is your favorite part of the job, an industry job may be a better fit. The more people you ask, the more insight you will get.
Also, remember that whichever your next step ends up being, it is not the job you will be stuck with for the rest of your life. You can definitely seek and find an industry job, and apply for academic positions if you find that is still your calling. The experiences you gain along the way will only help you. In fact, industry experience is hugely valuable in academia, both in terms of key skills you acquire (running a lab, working with diverse teams, presenting your work, getting support for your ideas) and in terms of your capability in advising future students. So if you are considering industry, there is no harm in trying it out.

I hope this is helpful!


Kate A.
On behalf of the GWAMIT mentoring committee, thank you to this month’s Dear Kate student contributor, Kate A., Kate S., and Kate M. 

If you have a question that you would like to ask our panel of experts (GWAMIT mentors), please submit it here.

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