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I did my PhD and 1 year postdoc in mechanical engineering from a top 20 world ranking school. Though it took me longer than others to get my PhD (5.5 years), I published 5 first authored papers there. Subsequently, during my postdoc, I published one first authored and two co-authored papers.

I think I have a decent research CV. I have fair chance of getting a tenure track position in a low ranking university in North America or something in my home country.

For the past few months, I have been working as a sales and support engineer in a company that makes high-end scientific equipments. I don't do research, but I help other researchers setup the equipments in their labs, troubleshoot issues with their million dollars equipment and work towards selling products to different universities in North America.

The job is decently paid, full time remote with good working hours. I might have to visit few sites in the future but at the moment it's completely remote. You can say that my job is of a highly qualified customer support, where the customer is university, scientists and academics. So, I do get to use my PhD research experience in understanding the challenges faced by the clients.

I am somewhat enjoying my new role. There's lots of growth within the company and I can move to management in the future. However, back of my mind, I feel that I am doing something wrong. Since I have done a PhD, I should work in a research field. I should work as a research scientist in industry if academia is not my thing. I should try for tenure track position as that was my goal during the start of my PhD. Being a scientist was my childhood dream, I should not let it go.

However, I am not finding any appeal in research anymore. Even though I am sure I can be successful in my field, I don't enjoy it anymore. I like doing research but the aspects of writing a paper, grant, teaching, lack of technical skills in many areas makes me loose interest in the career path.

Is it wrong to not have any research ambitions?

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    If it's wrong, then I've spent 45 years being wrong. I enjoyed doing my PhD, and I'm glad I did it, but I never intended to remain in academia and I have no regrets about going into industry (as a software engineer, not a researcher). If everyone who did research remained a researcher for ever, how would research ever benefit anyone? Jan 28 at 21:18
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    On this website we are not concerned with ethical questions whether something wrong or not, bad or good. We can help with whether something is professional, and helping you achieve your specific goals Jan 28 at 23:47
  • @DanRomik: Your claim that it is related to Stockholm syndrome is totally wrong.
    – user21820
    Jan 30 at 6:28
  • "I am not finding any appeal in research anymore" or "I like doing research". Do you really mean "I am not finding any appeal in the bureaucracy of research anymore"? If so, then join club.
    – RonJohn
    Jan 31 at 6:11
  • @MichaelKay "If everyone who did research remained a researcher for ever, how would research ever benefit anyone?" - simple, by not having everyone on this planet doing research :)
    – Lodinn
    Jan 31 at 17:25

9 Answers 9

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The short answer: no, it is not wrong.

From what I can gather from your question, you started your PhD around 8-10 years ago. That is a long time, and a lot of things can change on the way, including your outlook, your amibtions and your goals.

You have a great job that you like where your PhD experience comes in handy. A lot of people with PhDs end up working in the industry, for various reasons. One is the sheer number of PhD holders compared to the relatively small number of professor positions. I attended a talk a while ago, where the speaker revealed that in Switzerland, the number of professorships is about equal to the number of people that complete their PhD every year - yet a professor keeps their position for many years, making it impossible for every PhD holder to get tenured. See also this related question for more info on this specific aspect.

So you are definitely not alone in not following a research career after PhD. If you love what you do now, keep doing it!

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It might seem "wrong" after spending many years in academia, where one often looks downwards at industry as a place where one cannot do real research or where people go for the sake of earning lots of money. Neither of this is true, but, more importantly, many of the people getting PhD and even doing a postdoc do not end up being professors in academia - there are simply not enough professor positions.

Thus, leaving academia for industry may be both rational and intellectually/emotionally fulfilling. Moreover, the chances of finding a job in industry are usually decreasing with gaining postdoctoral experience - not because of the experience itself, but because these people are considered less adapted to working in industrial environment.

Finally, my own observation is that in Europe there are less expectations from the PhD to continue in academia - in fact, doing a PhD in Europe is often just a step towards finding an employment in industry, and a year of postdoc is done to finish one's research project or as a temporary employment before securing an industry position.

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  • That's true. But my job is not related to industrial research as well. I am just a glorified sales support for a high-end scientific equipment. That makes me bitter about my own self and ambitions. My friends are working in research labs, as tenure track positions, doing amazing things. While I am not capable enough and motivated enough to work in these jobs.
    – carterjack
    Jan 28 at 13:56
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    The goals are: fulfilling your dreams, doing something useful for society, becoming financially secure, etc. Doing research is not a goal in itself, and is not the only means of achieving it. It feels a pity to leave something, to which oen dedicated a decade or more of one's life... but this is the only way to try something new. And academia is not the only place where intellectual ability matters. Jan 28 at 14:11
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There is nothing wrong with wanting to redirect your life at any point. But, it is also possible that you have a severe case of burnout at the moment. This comes to many people somewhere along the line. Academics coming out of intense programs are pretty prone to it.

It might be helpful to talk to a mental health professional about what you are experiencing, just to reassure yourself that you are making good choices.

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It had better not be wrong; otherwise there is an inherent structural imbalance. At least when it comes to academia. In academia, the supply of new Ph.D.'s far outstrips the demand for tenure track professors in North America. Competition for these jobs is very fierce.

And even non-tenure track positions are hard to come by. Many people find they have to work at several universities to work full time. These part time positions are becoming more common as universities try to save money.

Even if you could somehow get a position, you still have to spend a great deal of time writing research proposals and begging for money. Getting research funding is by no means a sure thing. And if you are unfunded you won't get tenure.

I have been working nearly 20 years now in a field that is not the same as my Ph.D. area. The pay is good and it feeds my family. The position itself is reasonably secure and I don't have to spend most of my time chasing for research money. It works for me.

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You're finishing a PhD in mechanical engineering. The whole point of engineering is to do useful things. In your new job, that's exactly what you're doing.

How much of your PhD research will ever find a use in the real world? I'm an EE with a Master's degree and 30 years industry experience. I see literally hundreds of research projects from universities that will never go anywhere because they are impractical for one reason or another. Nothing is better for an engineering professional than real world experience.

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    The fact that a lot of research is done in vain, is misguided or is useless does not really reflect on whether one should or should not have the ambition to perform proper, meaingful research.
    – einpoklum
    Jan 29 at 21:52
  • Presumably if you're in engineering, then you want to develop solutions that are useful. If this is the case the high volume of impractical research is completely germane.
    – billmcc
    Jan 30 at 14:59
  • But your research doesn't have to be useless. Or are you saying that you are unable to tell whether your research will have any use?
    – einpoklum
    Jan 30 at 17:13
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When I was in academia there was a vibe that if you left academia you had somehow failed.

I left academia 8 years ago and am much happier and (ironically) freer to pursue various intellectual pursuits, such as writing and learning about different things.

Academic jobs are just jobs, regardless of the vibe senior academics create. If you are not fulfilled you should look for a different job.

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If more often than not you wake up neutral or positive about going to work, then you are probably already better off than most people.

Don't be fooled by the notion that is easy to pick up in school from some academicians that academia is somehow "better" or on a higher plane than industry, and that there's a boolean choice.

The reality is that there is a continuum1 between the two, and if we are lucky, we can get ourselves to some point where we are comfortable for a while.

I always tell people that a job/position needs to have at least one of the following to be good for you, and if you've got at least one and don't want to move at the moment, be happy with it:

  • money
  • learning
  • fun

It sounds like you like your current activities, and have acceptable compensation, so you've got at least two of the three, and I have a strong hunch that you are learning from your customers' applications, so you might have all three!

You've got time to explore this further

This means that you've got (plenty of) time to think about this, and explore your thinking further.

  • Do your own feelings suggest that you are missing something?
  • Have you internalized someone else's viewpoint?
  • Have you gotten so good at your current responsibilities that you're getting a little bored or unchallenged and would like things to be hard/challenging again?

Tell me more about this continuum!

However, I am not finding any appeal in research anymore. Even though I am sure I can be successful in my field, I don't enjoy it anymore. I like doing research but the aspects of writing a paper, grant, teaching, lack of technical skills in many areas makes me loose interest in the career path.

There is plenty of research going on in industry!

Does your present company have a research division? If so, what do they research?

Do your customer's companies have research divisions? If, so what do they research? Does anything sound interesting?

Can you go to a library and pick up some back issues of trade magazines/journals (not the academic type) and read feature articles or news items about state-of-the-art work?

Does anything sound interesting, something you'd like to? Did you see something that piques your interest?

If it's no, no, no, no then keep doing what you are doing: solving customer problems and learning, save your money, and think about how you might best change your career in five or ten years.

If there's a yes in there, then dig further and explore how you feel about it, and wonder if there is a career move that might make sense.


1with probably more than one dimension

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We can't tell you what is wrong or right. I think in this case, we can only share our personal experiences which would vary from one person to other. So in the end, the choice is yours obviously.

First of all, it's totally fine to miss the academia and research in its essence. It's also totally normal not to feel motivated to do any research after getting a PhD or postdoc. These are common traits shared by many people.

You said being a scientist was your childhood dream. So I must ask this: during PhD or postdoc era, did you really feel that you are living your dream? Did you say to yourself then, this would be something that I want to do for the rest of my life? A rough comparison between how you felt then and how you are feeling now, might give you a good idea about whether you are in the right path.

And one last thing; as I said, it is totally fine to miss the academia's atmosphere. That is part of what makes us human. When we move from one situation to another, there are some memories left over that might make us feel good or bad. It's like when we are adults and miss the joy of childhood (or something like that). By the way, you can still do research in your own time. It's not like the only source of knowledge is in the academia. Most of the abstract materials used by researchers are also available for non-academic people. Yes you might miss the labs and their equipment, but if you are motivated enough you can still find a way.

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Like some others have already said there is nothing wrong with you choosing a job that your enjoy doing. Also I would like to add it is perfectly normal for you to doubt your decision given how much you spent on your studies. From personal experience I graduated from my PhD degree in 2010 and went to industry straightaway. That was the choice I made. Being in industry for the last 11 years has shown me as someone with a PhD my main skill is to learn new skills. That is what many years of staying in academia has thought me far more than the filed I was studying in! I use that to the maximum in my career now and anything new I want to learn. I promise you whether you stay at your job or pick a new one. This is the most important thing you will be good at learning new concepts and acquiring new skills. And that my friend is gold!

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