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After PhD and a year of postdoc in mechanical engineering, I accepted a position of a scientific editor with a publishing company. The pay is decent but not great. I have been working in the new role for the past 9 months.

So far I have been finding the job quite interesting though not as enjoyable/stimulating as a industrial research (which I did during postdoc) or my research during PhD.

A part of me wants to explore this career option to the fullest. Being a publisher or project manager/data analyst/strategy director for the publishing company. Acquire skills for making progress in my career (PMP, scrum master certificate, study data science, etc).

On the other hand, I miss being relevant in research and academic fraternity. An industrial research scientist position will be a good middle ground between academia and my current job. However, there are not many permanent R&D industry jobs in the country where I live. And I don't see myself as an academic at the moment. I am just not smart and hardworking enough to be one.

This is making me feel that I have chosen the easiest option. I should have struggled a bit more before settling with the current prospect. I am probably harming my potential by not seeking postdoc positions or applying to tenure track positions.

I am not sure what career decision I should take. Staying in my current role longer would make transitioning back to academia or research impossible. Also, though I enjoy research, and might get a position in future if I try for it long enough. I don't know if I have it in me to keep struggling.

I feel judgmental tones from my PhD colleagues or other friends when they hear I am not doing research at any capacity and working as a scientific editor. This makes me feel "lowly", "unaccomplished" and "settled" with my decision.

Is it normal to have such thoughts after leaving research and academia?

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    "I feel judgmental tones from my PhD colleagues or other friends when they hear I am not doing research at any capacity and working as a scientific editor." They are not friends, they are a***holes.
    – EarlGrey
    Mar 8 at 16:27
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    "I am just not smart and hardworking enough to be one." Hardworking is just the other side of exploiting. You do not realize it now, but 10 years down the road, when only a minimal percentage of your "friends" and colleagues will have a research or even academic position, they will see things differently.
    – EarlGrey
    Mar 8 at 16:29
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    "I miss being relevant in research" do you mean objectively (i.e. could you see your publications having an impact, people inviting you to spend periods abroad) or for your inner being (i.e. working for "progress", instead of for a for-profit company)?
    – EarlGrey
    Mar 8 at 16:38
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    @EarlGrey By being relevant in research, I meant by carrying out and publishing research. Satiating my own intellectual curiosity and making an impact in the scientific community while doing so. Recognition as a decent researcher is something I will miss too. Mar 8 at 16:52
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    A case of "crying all the way to the bank"
    – RedSonja
    Mar 9 at 12:01

9 Answers 9

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Yes, it is normal to feel conflicted after any major life decision. You gain some things and you give up some things. There is a phenomenon called Buyer's Remorse that is related to this. (I bought the Ferrari, but I shoulda got the Lambo.)

Your friends have made different decisions and are evaluating you based on that, rather than on your needs. Hopefully you can remain friends, but it is unfair of them to judge.

Your life is what you make of it. Try to base such big decisions on whether they are right for you, not on externalities.

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Guess what? Those feelings of a missing limb don't go away.

I left academia in 1990. I joined industry. My income has gone up substantially. Since 1990 I have had exactly 2 days unemployed. And that was because I chose to have two days between jobs when the company I worked for was bought out. Most of the time the work has been interesting, if somewhat mundane compared to what I did my PhD in.

But the world does not need many people doing topologically massive gravity. So my thesis did not get me a job in academia. Explaining to the guy who interviewed me for a job in industry that "long hours do not scare me" got me a job.

A few years ago, one of the profs at a local university suggested I apply for an academic position. They have been having difficulty attracting qualified individuals in the specific field of my work in industry. If that suggestion had come in 1992 or 1993, I would have been massively happy. But it came in 2015. When my income had reached a point that would be equivalent of quite a senior prof. And I had an established career. With about 100 calculation reports in the document database of the company.

But my teeth hurt when I gritted my teeth and said no. If I didn't have a mortgage then, I would been severely tempted go back to fresh-caught prof wages.

The path not taken is always a pang. Anybody with more imagination than last year's sneakers has felt this. If not for academic career passed by, then for something. A passed up lover, a passed up trip somewhere, that lottery ticket you didn't buy. Any opportunity passed up is going to make you wonder.

Don't think that way. Your life is what it is. It is what you have made it. You have choices HERE. You have decisions HERE. Make those the best way you can. You can become somebody in your current job. The amount of work, the difficulty of the work, the grind, is similar in industry to academe. You have to apply to some upper-manager for funding instead of a granting agency. You can still be creative and productive.

And yet, I'm still on Stack Exchange trying to answer questions in my former discipline.

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  • Just want to say that I really like this, '...If not for academic career passed by, then for something. A passed up lover, a passed up trip somewhere, that lottery ticket you didn't buy. Any opportunity passed up is going to make you wonder.'
    – bashity
    Mar 24 at 14:02
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First: the chances to transition from a PhD to a permanent research position are increasingly small. You are just anticipating the choices that 99% of your colleagues and friends will have to take.

If you had a time machine and you would propel yourself 5 years in the future from now, you would see how very few of these colleagues and "friends" are helding a research or even an academic position.

Second:

academic fraternity.

vs

And I don't see myself as an academic at the moment. I am just not smart and hardworking enough to be one.

Hardworking is just the other side of the coin of exploiting. People under exploitation and hardships tend to form a closed circle, negating the deep pain they are being inflicted. Have a look at the behavior of people being part of religious sects (you can find many academic references).

The reaction of your colleagues and "friends" is the classical reaction of sect-members to the voluntary exit of one member.

I do not want to state that all academics or all the academia world is like this, there are many decent people ... but surely not the majority.

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    support informations about academic being more oftenly people withpotential underlying mental issues: nature.com/articles/d41586-021-03761-3 But there is a definition for what OP is going through: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religious_trauma_syndrome
    – EarlGrey
    Mar 8 at 17:08
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    @Magicsowon Military in the modern times are just the end-product of nationalism, idealism and messed up histories... as well as the mix-up of the definitions of homeland with country with nation... it is a mess that I would not touch with a 100foot pole. So back to your question, yes it is religion, also in the military.
    – EarlGrey
    Mar 9 at 11:57
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    While I agree in spirit, are you really suggesting that 99% of PhDs won't be able to get a permanent academic job offer? That seems insanely high.
    – Kimball
    Mar 9 at 13:51
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    Re: "Hardworking is just the other side of the coin of exploiting." Wish I could upvote this a 1000 times. I a constantly stunned by how many posters on this site implicitly or even explicitly try to justify so many postdocs and other PhDs in research or academia being exploited worse than what any IT tech or software dev with barely a BA/BS would put up with. Mar 9 at 16:17
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    @RBarryYoung unfortunately, instead of having 1000 academics thinking alike and upvoting (1 upvote each would be enough), I am left with the pleasure of few individuals understanding such a deep philosophical concept :)
    – EarlGrey
    Mar 9 at 22:01
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As someone who left academia and was begrudged by peers for having done so, I deeply sympathize with you. For context, I have left research in physics after my Ph.D. for a job as a programmer in a completely unrelated field, which had just a requirement for a Bachelor degree in any IT-related field.

This is making me feel that I have chosen the easiest option. I should have struggled a bit more before settling with the current prospect. I am probably harming my potential by not seeking postdoc positions or applying to tenure track positions.

I have struggled with the fact that I had "thrown away" five or more years of my life just to leave and start anew, and that I was considered "lesser" because of that. I originally thought about it as a complete failure to hold up to my original goal of becoming a full-time researcher.

I needed some years to overcome that feeling, realizing that my current occupation, while not as prestigious, has given me other things I was desperately in need for (i.e. a more decent sleep schedule and some stability in my life) and that those research years weren't wasted, as my Ph.D. experience helped me overcome a lot of stuff my job threw against me.

I don't know if answers from personal experience are okay on this Stack, but I would suggest you to try to focus on the positive aspects of your current situation and on how your path led you to this point w.r.t. the tools that you have gathered and you are still using. It's not "the easy way out", it's a life choice that happened to work well for you.

If you are happy with your current job, you don't need to care about what your peers said about you (even if you will probably keep mulling about it). If they can't accept it or just look down on you, probably they weren't good friends in the first place.

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    I went through much the same thing (see my answer also). Glad you have found a good career path. Mar 11 at 13:04
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    Thanks, @JosephDoggie! I've come to accept the fact that going out of research wasn't a failure and this helped me a lot to recontextualize my situation. Not sure what my career path will be from now on (heck, I might find a new idea again and branch into something completely different), though I'm confident it won't bring me back to academia. Happy that it worked out for you too! Mar 14 at 8:21
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I felt triggered to answer because I am in an exact situation like yours with slightly different details.

In the past few days, I was watching many videos on youtube and reading a lot of articles/posts on how to leave academia without this bad feeling that I cannot give a label. You will find a lot of people sharing their experiences:

How/Why I left academia?

Many of them give advice and talk about how working in the industry is amazing and academia after PhD is waste of time. In contrast, you will find a few successful academics judging those who are asking how to leave academia and that one needs to fight for his dream.

Honestly, I was disappointed with both opinions because they are trying to generalize their experiences to everyone, while everyone has a specific path in life with its particularities.

Despite your ambitions and main goal, you definitely have other small and side goals that are important. Also, there are factors in your life that are specific to you:

  • Am I happy in my current position?
  • Can I survive this pressure of limited contracts and waiting for grant and paper notifications?
  • Is this pressure affecting my social life and mental health?
  • How money is important in my life? (given that an industrial position pays better)
  • What about other responsibilities (e.g. family)?
  • If I want to stay in academia and it does not work, how difficult will be to transit to the industry?
  • If I quit, can I accept the fact that I am not a researcher?
  • What are my chances to get a faculty position given my progress and the progress of my peers? Here, note that a lot of factors must be considered.
  • Can I transit back to academia if I want?
  • I think there are more.

I know your question was about how to overcome the guilt feeling after leaving but I want to start my answer one step earlier. If you analyzed everything and you found that industry is the right career path, then go for it and do not care about any judgment because no one knows your life and needs better than you. I will quote a passage from EarlGrey's answer to another question:

But then, who cares? you are you, they are they.

Feeling guilty and sad is normal because academic research is like a drug and something you (and I) have been doing for a long time with passion and stress hoping that it will pay off someday. However, only a few people are meant to get faculty positions after their PhDs, not because they are smarter than you or better than you but most probably their circumstances are better (Of course assuming that you worked as hard as they did).

I have the same feeling as you after 2.5 years being a postdoc and 2 years as assistant professor, where it becomes very hard to get a position in the industry and at the same time, I don't know whether I should risk my family's future hoping that I will get a faculty position in the future (despite that I publish a lot and have funded grants). I decided to balance between both (my life and my family from one side and my career goal). I got an offer in the industry after hundreds of rejections and I decided to go for it and temporarily leave my career goal because I have responsibilities that are more valuable than my personal goal. temporarily because I still hope and work to come back if possible. Otherwise, I will be satisfied with the fact that I have tried and failed.

I hope sharing my experience helps you overcome this feeling.

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I personally left academia, worked in industry, came back to academia (a mistake) and wound up working outside academia. One's first duty for employment is to provide for oneself, any family, and any pets, etc., plus whatever charitable obligations one feels.

For career fulfillment, I am currently doing meaningful work that helps people.

If you like your current situation, then go with it, and try to improve your standing in that community.

If you don't like your current situation, then try to return to academia, but I did it and it isn't easy!

NOTE: As various responses said, don't let others judge you.

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Your question is very evocative, not just to people in academia but to anyone who has ever felt compelled to sidetrack to something other than what they really want to do.

Firstly, whatever your colleagues and friends (?) may say, you are not doing anything wrong in getting a reasonable job for someone of your skills: we all have to make a living and provide for ourselves and our dependents.

Secondly, the job change you are making now - you call it career change - is not an EITHER/OR junction. It will not preclude you from going back to either industrial research or indeed university work at some point in the near future. Of course if you remain in the role of scientific editor of a publisher for over 10 years, do little other independent research work and lose your existing contacts then it would be hard to go back into these milieux.

So, as I see it, during your current editorial project(s) you need to make a note of things that you come across that you think may be of interest to people in both academia and/or industry. This can cover quite a lot.

  • If you work with a textbook publisher trying to make more readable and coherent what may otherwise be disjointed nonsense, this will not only give you a direct input but will also allow you to consult with researchers and teachers across the spectrum. Hopefully such engagements will provide you a chance to cultivate your own educational/training values and impress them on others.

  • If you work with a journal publisher, you will gain an advance view of developments in your own field of interest. I am not suggesting that you start peddling your influence here with a view to a future job elsewhere. But the perspective you would gain in such a role would better inform your decision on any return to research that you may make.

  • If you work for a larger market publication, e.g. ASME's Mechanical Engineering Magazine, you can hopefully improve the standard of writing by the journalists on new innovations so people with a general technical background get a clear idea of it while specialists can find most of the more precise answers they need.

This new job need not be only a possible career in scientific publishing. It can also be a means of broadening your knowledge of what is going on in academia, industry and state research funding organizations. It will certainly expose you to a wider cross-section of the scientific and administrative community, vastly improve your social and communicative skills and provide you with a means to obtain insights you might otherwise miss.

But it will not provide you with your own lab, fellow researchers beside you and the buzz/stress of that environment. If you need to keep a hand in here, you might want to consider offering consulting services (perhaps on a free and friendly basis at first to existing contacts) on a part-time basis. There must be some companies in your country that would benefit from your expertise. Even if you gain little financially at first from these involvements, you will get some satisfaction from being part of a successful project.

So I see no reason for feeling guilty, inferior or too disappointed in your current position. Naturally there is an adjustment period to get used to the new environment but do not rationalize this as an indicator of a wrong decision. You have a respectable, if not ideal, job and you have the means in it to return to research proper.

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Academic positions themselves are great; the process of getting them is a godawful nightmare, and it requires a substantial amount of luck. It's fine to be unwilling to burn that much time and energy and opportunity cost for a slim chance at that kind of position, just as it's fine to avoid paying for a lottery ticket even if you'd enjoy the million-dollar prize. (The judgmental tones you're describing are certainly real, but they're not anything you need to bother paying attention to.)

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I miss being relevant in research and academic fraternity

Being in your case some 25 years ago, I had a hard, cold look at how I am "relevant" to research and I found out that I was not really.

Academia was great, I knew that I would have a pretty straight track through the food chain but I would never get a Nobel Prize or make a discovery that would shake the world.

I would have, of course, done all kinds of small discoveries that would have pushed human knowledge by 10^-13% but I decided that industry would open brand new horizons.

I will not be a CEO either (because I do not want to) but the change was great on many aspects that overshadow the bad ones.

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