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Academia as a career option, its social value, and alternatives

9 Post author: VipulNaik 10 March 2014 06:32PM

Many of the high school and college students who contacted us at Cognito Mentoring were looking for advice were considering going into academia. The main draw to them was the desire to learn specific subjects and explore ideas in greater depth. As a result, we've been investigating academia as a career option and also considering what alternatives there may be to academia that fulfill the same needs but provide better pay and/or generate more social value. The love of ideas and epistemic exploration is shared by many of the people at Less Wrong, including those who are not in academia. So I'm hoping that people will share their own perspectives in the comments. That'll help us as well as the many LessWrong lurkers interested in academia.

I'm eager to hear about what considerations you used when weighing academia against other career options, and how you came to your decision. Incidentally, there are a number of great answers to the Quora question Why did you leave academia?, but there's probably many thoughts people have here that aren't reflected in the Quora answers. I've also written up a detailed review of academia as a career option on the info wiki for Cognito Mentoring here (long read), and I'd also love feedback on the validity of the points I make there.

Many of our advisees as well as the LessWrong readership at large are interested in choosing careers based on the social value generated by these careers. (This is evidenced in the strong connection between the LessWrong and effective altruism communities). What are your thoughts on that front? Jonah and I have collaboratively written a page on the social value of academia. Our key point is that research academia is higher value than alternative careers only in cases where either the person has a chance of making big breakthroughs in the area, or if the area of research itself is high-value. Examples of the latter may include machine learning (we're just starting on investigating this) and (arguably) biomedical research (we've collected some links on this, but haven't investigated this in depth).

For those who are or were attracted to academia, what other career options did you consider? If you decided not to join, or chose to quit, academia, what alternative career are you now pursuing? We've identified a few possibilities at our alternatives to academia page, but we're largely shooting in the dark here. Based on anecdotal evidence from people working in venture capital, it seems like venture capital is a great place for polymath-types who are interested in researching a wide range of subjects shallowly, so it's ideal for people who like shallow intellectual exploration rather than sticking to a single subject for an inordinate amount of time. But there are very few jobs in venture capital. On paper, jobs at consulting firms should be similar to venture capital in requiring a lot of shallow research. But we don't have an inside view of consulting jobs -- are they a good venue for intellectually curious people? Are there other job categories we missed?

All thoughts are greatly appreciated!

Comments (24)

Comment author: byrnema 10 March 2014 09:31:21PM 4 points [-]

Depending on opportunities in your field, academia may provide favorable amounts of freedom, job security and impact. However, for the quintessential academic, academia is not a calculated optimization but a personality type:

It’s awesome to be supported while you learn and think, if that’s what you wanted to do anyway.


50 comments 50 words or less. #49

Comment author: iarwain1 10 March 2014 08:47:00PM 4 points [-]

I'm not as interested as others in effective altruism, although that's certainly a secondary goal of mine. My primary goal in a career was to optimize happiness by focusing on what I enjoy and am good at, namely research and deep thinking. I didn't want to go for academia for many of the reasons you mention. Instead I'm currently shooting for data science. My reasoning is as follows:

  • I enjoy programming, although not as much as theoretical research.
  • There are plenty of data science or related jobs available from the looks of it. And the pay is very good, so although that's not a primary goal of mine it's certainly a good bonus.
  • I'm making a somewhat educated guess that there are research-related jobs available for people with a data science background. A lot of research these days seems to use data analysis / big data as an input (especially in the social sciences, which is one of my favorite areas of study), so I'm hoping to use these skills to get my foot in the research door.
  • There are enough large data sets publicly available, and there seems to be enough meaningful research problems out there that use that data, that if all else fails I could probably use data science to do meaningful research as a hobby.
  • My secondary idea was to go for a career as a statistician. Good statistics are crucial for well-designed studies, and many scientists hire statisticians to help with their research. So again I could maybe hope to use statistics to get my foot in the research door, or at least to do research on the side. I'm still keeping statistics open as a possibility, but in any case data science and statistics have a very large amount of overlap, so a lot of the areas of study are the same.
  • If I change my mind and decide to go into academia after all, I can always do so in the areas of data science or statistics or some area related to those, and my previous learning will help me a great deal.

This is all pretty theoretical - I'm still in the very early stages of studying for any career. Also, I could probably have researched my options a bit better. I did talk to some people who do data analysis at least.

What do others think of my analysis?

Comment author: Gimpness 11 March 2014 12:53:14PM 0 points [-]

I work at a University as a research assistant in the Biology Department and I am currently studying part-time in a masters of Biostatistics. One of the main reasons (apart from enjoying it) why I began to take statistics seriously was due to a) most of the PhD students lack of knowledge of statistics and b) complete and utter ugh-fieldness in having to do statistics.

I think your reasoning is good (though that just maybe cause it aligns with mine) just don't forget how many companies/corporate jobs there are for data-science now especially when the money seems very good. I have come to the opinion that going into academia via the "traditional" route is flawed and most definitely not for everyone (see shminux's comment) i.e. PhD -> then madly applying for very competitive (depends on field but mostly true?)post-doc positions ->even more competitive faculty job -rinse repeat. Perhaps that's just my hesitance as it seems to be a path of continual narrow specialization with unequally increasing competitiveness.

Comment author: Wei_Dai 11 March 2014 07:08:42AM 3 points [-]

See this comment of mine. While it was posted as a "ridiculous munchkin idea", it's essentially what I did, and seems to have worked out well at least for me. So I suggest adding "self-supported independent researcher" as another alternative to your list.

To answer one of your questions, I considered going into academia, but didn't for a number of reasons (some of which are just personal, but I'll mention for completeness).

  1. I don't like to teach, and many academic positions require teaching.
  2. I didn't want to have to follow academic writing conventions, instead of just communicating in whatever way I thought best.
  3. I once submitted a paper to an academic conference (after taking the trouble to follow academic writing conventions), and it was rejected with comments from reviewers indicating a complete lack of understanding. It seemed pointless to let my ideas be "peer reviewed" by random anonymous reviewers instead of writing directly to people who would most likely understand and be interested in it.
  4. If I went into academia my livelihood would depend on either having a steady stream of new and publishable ideas, or being able to fake that. I couldn't see how to ensure the former, and was unwilling to do the latter (not just for ethical reasons, but also because it seems like a more tedious "day job" than other options).
  5. Going into academia would mean less freedom to choose what topics to work on, at least until much later, and I was unwilling to wait (or again, consider academia as a "day job" while I work on my real interests).

What I ended up doing was working for a couple of Internet startups in succession, and taking a year off in between to develop a software product which I handed off to a partner to sell and to continue developing. I was hoping that one of these would make enough money for me to "retire". Eventually my stock options in the startups proved worthless but the software product started earning enough money that I could quit my job.

BTW, since you are advising high school students and undergrads, I suggest that you mention to them that they can start being independent researchers before they graduate from college. For example I came up with my b-money idea (a precursor to Bitcoin) as an undergrad, and was also already thinking about some of the questions that would eventually lead to UDT.

Comment author: mushroom 14 March 2014 05:41:18AM 0 points [-]

Do you have thoughts on the degree of risk involved, or on conditions that would reduce risk?

Many people endorse goals that lead naturally to "make money, retire and do X".

Comment author: Wei_Dai 15 March 2014 08:08:29AM 2 points [-]

Do you have thoughts on the degree of risk involved, or on conditions that would reduce risk?

Do you mean 1) the risk of not making enough money to retire, or 2) the risk of failing to make progress on your chosen topic, or something else?

For 1, I'm not sure what the start-up stats are, but as you can see my personal experience was one success out of three tries. Looking back, I think what I did right was to diversify, not put all of my eggs in one basket, and what I could have done better was to choose employers based more on a level-headed analysis of their business prospects rather than just how cool their technology was. (Although to be honest I'm not sure how to do the former, so I'm glad I don't have to anymore. :)

Also, I should note that while I was hoping to quickly make enough to retire, I was also saving most of my regular income aside from the stock options so that I could do early retirement even if I wasn't able to "get rich quick".

For 2, I think the key is to pick a topic that you're really curious about and that's important but neglected by academia/industry/government for some reason (so there's more likely to be low-hanging fruit for you to pick). I'd also suggest striking a balance between being persistent and being opportunistic, but again that's easier said than done and I don't know what practical advice I can give here. Oh, almost forgot, it helps to find or build an online community around your chosen topic.

Comment author: diegocaleiro 11 March 2014 02:05:26AM 3 points [-]

I'd just like to provide a cultural difference information that I have consistently noted between Americans and Brazilians which seems relevant here.

To have a job and work in the US is taken as a de facto biological need. It is as abnormal for an American, in my experience, to consider not working, as it is to consider not breathing, or not eating. It just doesn't cross people's minds.

If anyone has insight above and beyond "Protestant ethics and the spirit of capitalism" let me know about it, I've been waiting for the "why?" for years.

So yeah, let me remind people that you can spend years and years not working. that not getting a job isn't going to kill you or make you less healthy, that ultravagabonding is possible and feasible and many do it for over six months a year, that I have a friend who lives as the boyfriend of his sponsor's wife in a triad and somehow never worked a day in his life (the husband of the triad pays it all, both men are straight). That I've hosted an Argentinian who left graduate economics for two years to randomly travel the world, ended up in Rome and passed by here in his way back, through couchsurfing. That Puneet Sahani has been well over two years travelling the world with no money and an Indian passport now. I've also hosted a lovely estonian gentleman who works on computers 4 months a year in London to earn pounds, and spends eight months a year getting to know countries while learning their culture etc... Brazil was his third country. Oh, and never forget the Uruguay couple I just met at a dance festival who have been travelling as hippies around and around south america for 5 years now, and showed no sign of owning more than 500 dollars worth of stuff.

Also in case you'd like to live in a paradise valley taking Santo Daime (a religious ritual with DMT) about twice a week, you can do it with a salary of aprox 500 dollars per month in Vale do Gamarra, where I just spent carnival, that is what the guy who drove us back did. Given Brazilian or Turkish returns on investment, that would cost you 50 000 bucks in case you refused to work within the land itself for the 500.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 11 March 2014 07:46:13AM 4 points [-]

I'd guess people are not aware that other options exist. They see it as a choice between (a) having a job, and (b) unemployment and poverty. The examples you said are not widely known; most people would probably have problem inventing them.

Some examples feel short-sighted. Do you want to be a vagabond all your life? If not, how difficult it will be later to find a job when you write "vagabond" as your previous experience?

I don't know what is typical in USA (there is always a chance that what I see online are just selected extreme stories), but I got an impression that in USA employers pay a lot of attention to your previous jobs. For example I remember people asking in web fora how should they explain at a job interview a one-month gap between their two jobs, as if that were a huge red flag. In Slovakia, my job history has a few gaps and no one asks me about that. (Well, I try not to make it too obvious, so in my job history I only write years, not months and days.) So the difference could be that in USA the employers will punish you for having made unusual choices in the past; in such case making an unusual choice is very unwise unless you want to keep it forever.

Living as a boyfriend feels immoral. We may have emancipation for women, but emancipation for men is nowhere in the plan yet; and probably will never be, because for economy it is better this way.

Working only for a part of year seems great, but it is an option only for people who (a) can make significantly more money than they need, (b) are not dependent on one employer, which might not tolerate them the long vacations, and (c) have enough financial discipline to prevent their expenses growing proportionally to their income. Most people who can do this are probably in IT; but most people in IT probably don't have the skills necessary to do this.

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 12 March 2014 06:57:10AM *  1 point [-]

Some of these examples seem to boil down to "it's possible to convince other people to support you, while providing nothing much in return". If rejecting such lifestyle options is a "Protestant ethic", then color me Protestant.

Other examples you provide are more like "if you aren't picky about the lifestyle you want, or where to live, then you can support yourself on less". Fair enough. Most people are more picky than that. For example, I like indoor plumbing, and can think of very little that I would be interesting in spending much time seeing in other countries. (Note: I have been to a total of 10 countries in my life.)

The reason Americans consider working a de facto biological need is that things people want and need cost money, and jobs are how you get money. There are exceptions to both of those rules, but to imply that the rules are thereby false in the general case is quite silly.

not getting a job isn't going to kill you or make you less healthy

This, especially the latter part, is ridiculous.

Comment author: Jennifer_H 11 March 2014 05:36:01PM *  2 points [-]

Graduate student in medieval literature, here - so possibly the most seemingly impractical career choice ever, especially given my competencies in physics/math, but here are some of the main reasons:

  1. Research, research, research - and the appeal of my own specific field, Anglo-Saxon/Old Norse literature & linguistics

  2. Teaching - I do in fact enjoy lecturing and leading discussions. A great deal of theatre training has translated into ease and competence when speaking to large groups.

  3. Relative flexibility and freedom - when working as a TA and a substitute lecturer, I have loved the freedom to set my own schedule (for marking/prep/etc.), outside of specific class times.

  4. While in grad school, and afterwards if I manage to get an academic job: guaranteed support while I spend my time reading and writing and learning, which is what I'd want to do anyways.

  5. Environment - I love the university environment, because it allows me to connect with (and learn from) researchers in so many different fields, not only my own.

  6. I haven't been as concerned about effective altruism as many here, but helping students develop critical thinking, writing, analysis, and communication skills is definitely important to me.

  7. I believe, based on my experience thus far, that I do have the ability to be competitive on the academic job market.

Other related career options that I will be prepared for if academia doesn't pan out: editing, publishing, writing, journalism, library science, translation, teaching ESL. I also work in professional theatre (as an actress & stage manager).

(Convenient timing - I just posted, yesterday, some of my thoughts on this to my blog. Feel free to read if interested: http://merelyinquisitive.com/2014/03/10/why-graduate-school/ )

Comment author: somervta 10 March 2014 10:50:03PM *  2 points [-]

Your link to the detailed review is malformed, you need to remove lesswrong.com from the front: http://lesswrong.com/info.cognitomentoring.org/wiki/Academia_as_a_career_option

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 11 March 2014 12:02:43AM 1 point [-]

Fixed.

Comment author: VipulNaik 11 March 2014 04:30:18AM 0 points [-]

Thanks! I was away from LessWrong for quite a while, so it was great you fixed it in my absence.

Comment author: jsteinhardt 12 March 2014 04:24:35PM 3 points [-]

LessWrong has a relatively strong anti-academic bias, and I'm worried that this is reflected in the comments.

I work as a PhD student in machine learning, and yes, there is a minimum bar of intelligence, perseverance, etc. below which doing high-quality research is unlikely. However, in my experience I have seen many people who are clearly above that bar who nevertheless go into industry. This is not to say that their choice is incorrect, but on balance I think the argument "don't go into academia unless you'll be one of the smartest people in your field" does more harm than good. It also seems to me that the effective altruist movement, in particularly, mostly overlooks academia as an altruistic career option, even though I personally think that for many intelligent people (including myself), working on the right research problems is the most valuable contribution they can make to society.

If you go into a field like mathematics or theoretical physics, yes, you're unlikely to make a meaningful contribution unless you're one of the best people in the field. This is because these fields have basically become an attractor for bright undergrads looking to "prove themselves" intellectually. I'm not trying to argue that these fields are not useful; I am trying to argue that the marginal usefulness of an additional researcher is low barring extraordinary circumstances.

In other fields, especially newer fields, this is far less true. Machine learning has plenty of low-hanging fruit. My impression is that bioinstrumentation and computational neuroscience do as well (not to mention many other fields that I just don't happen to be as familiar with). This is not to say that working in these fields will be a cake-walk, or that there isn't lots of competition for faculty jobs. It is to say that there are huge amounts of value to be created by working in these fields. Even if you don't like pure research as a career option, you can create huge amounts of value by attaching yourself to a good lab as a software engineer.

It's also worth noting that "doing research" isn't some sort of magic skill that you do or don't have. It's something you acquire over time, and the meta-skills learned seem fairly valuable to me.

Comment author: XiXiDu 12 March 2014 05:34:39PM *  1 point [-]

Machine learning has plenty of low-hanging fruit.

How do you know this? Have there been a lot of findings made by a lot of people without any indication that this stream of discoveries is slowing down? When I looked up e.g. Deep learning it seemed to be a relatively old technique (1980's and early 90's). What are some examples of recent discoveries you would describe as low-hanging fruits?

Comment author: jsteinhardt 13 March 2014 06:47:11AM 0 points [-]

It's worth noting that deep learning has made a huge resurgence lately, and is seeing applications all over the place.

There's tons of active work in online learning, especially under resource constraints.

Structured prediction is older but still an active and important area of research.

Spectral learning / method of moments is a relatively new technique that seems very promising.

Conditional gradient techniques for optimization have had a lot of interest recently, although that may slow down in the next couple years. Similarly for submodular optimization.

There are many other topics that I think are important but haven't been quite as stylish lately; e.g. improved MCMC algorithms, coarse-to-fine inference / cascades, dual decomposition techniques for inference.

Comment author: shminux 10 March 2014 07:26:26PM *  3 points [-]

My standard advice to aspiring physics and math researchers is basically the same as to aspiring performing or visual artists: don't do it unless you cannot stand the thought of not doing it (is 4 negatives a few too many?) and are better at it than almost everyone you know. Actually, the situation is even worse for budding researchers. Getting to where you want to be (say, a faculty job with enough time for research) is at least as long, as hard and as stressful and almost as expensive as becoming a doctor or a lawyer, but there are far fewer jobs available and they pay less. Engineering/programming/business is generally a better alternative if you are technically minded, and Masters degree is probably as much as you will ever need. Or maybe education, if you are into that.

Comment author: lincolnquirk 11 March 2014 08:20:07PM 1 point [-]

Here's my experience: I started a Ph.D program in computer science (focus in systems and/or programming languages and/or certified programming). I took a few classes in those areas which were really fun and reasonably challenging. I also started research, which was boring, but it was only the first semester and I wasn't working on my own project.

Then I got an offer to co-found a startup that I couldn't refuse, so I left my Ph.D program after one semester and went to do startups.

While I was reasonably happy with my life in academia for the time I was there, I have been generally (though not always) more self-satisfied with my work in startups. I currently expect to make a greater impact with my work on startups. The only way I could imagine work in academia being more impactful is if I were working on a research project whose fruits I expected to be directly used by people doing impactful work (top candidate would be making a certified programming language that could be used to build and prove a Friendly AI correct). I could definitely see myself heading in that direction but progress felt very slow -- that even with very good use of time in my PhD program, I am not sure would have advanced my skills enough to do a good job at succeeding at such a task. Whereas I feel like I'm making really fast progress towards startups that will succeed.

Comment author: diegocaleiro 11 March 2014 02:52:53AM *  1 point [-]

Due to information hazards risks, I recommend that Effective Altruists who are still wavering back and forth do not read this. Spoiler EA alert.

I'd just like to provide a cultural difference information that I have consistently noted between Americans and Brazilians which seems relevant here.

To have a job and work in the US is taken as a de facto biological need. It is as abnormal for an American, in my experience, to consider not working, as it is to consider not breathing, or not eating. It just doesn't cross people's minds.

So yeah, let me remind people that you can spend years and years not working. that not getting a job isn't going to kill you or make you less healthy, that ultravagabonding is possible and feasible and many do it for over six months a year, that I have a friend who lives as the boyfriend of his sponsor's wife in a triad and somehow never worked a day in his life (the husband of the triad pays it all, both men are straight). That I've hosted an Argentinian who left graduate economics for two years to randomly travel the world, ended up in Rome and passed by here in his way back, through couchsurfing. That Puneet Sahani has been well over two years travelling the world with no money and an Indian passport now. I've also hosted a lovely estonian gentleman who works on computers 4 months a year in London to earn pounds, and spends eight months a year getting to know countries while learning their culture etc... Brazil was his third country.

Oh, and never forget the continues here as a post since it was getting large

Comment author: IlyaShpitser 11 March 2014 12:30:18PM *  0 points [-]

Scott Aaronson had a post somewhere where he said a few years in the PhD program is sort of like a high IQ Peace Corps -- you have fun and help make the world better, and even if you then move on to another career, it is time well spent.


If you actually want to do an academic career, I think the outside view is useful -- find people in your cohort, and talk to them/look at how they did.

Comment author: James_Miller 11 March 2014 12:41:28AM 0 points [-]

For those considering academic jobs first talk to several professors in your field of interest to find out the requirements to get into a good graduate school and the job prospects for new Phds.

Comment author: buybuydandavis 10 March 2014 07:32:42PM 0 points [-]

You should consider an academic career like a professional sports career - lots more people on the university farm teams than ever will make it to the pros. A quasi academic career is the part time lecturer, full time consultant/entrepreneur route. There's a lot of professional value in association with a university.

Comment author: chaosmage 11 March 2014 11:50:20AM -1 points [-]

Among the jobs with similar intelligence requirements, academia can seem surprisingly non-competitive. Researchers are relatively free of pressure, ostensibly because low stress helps with complex thought. That has disadvantages: Lots of people are bullshitting their way through, and you meet many colleagues who are not good at getting stuff done (well). Networking is more important than in many other careers, the conversations are better, and once you're really good at something specific, you work for a salary that's a bit low for your IQ percentile, but fairly reliable. Of course if you never become really good at something specific, you're fucked.

The closest alternative I can think of is public service, where again pressure is low, some people are very impressive but most aren't, you work for low but stable pay, you're contributing to the public good fairly directly and the only thing that's more important than knowing who's good at what is other people knowing what you're good at. The difference is that if you never become really good at something, you might not be fucked.

Comment author: IlyaShpitser 11 March 2014 12:27:48PM 3 points [-]

Researchers are relatively free of pressure

Heh.