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I've posted a few questions regarding research and I'm trying to make my progress on a project more fruitful, and while the answers/comments have been quite helpful, it still doesn't seem like I am really enjoying the process - I have a hard time in following through with the advice and getting myself to work, and it seems like I'm asking questions trying to treat symptoms but not the root cause.

For me, it seems like I want a career in academia or something research-based because I don't really want to end up in industry (more specifically, I don't want to end up as a software engineer). But at the same time, I also don't feel I have enough interest and knowledge in my current project to push myself forward.

I've done a small (software) internship for a startup, did some "research" which was closer to software work where I helped visualize some data into a website, and now have an internship for a larger tech company this summer. I found the tasks I had in my previous experiences to be not very interesting or stimulating, so industry did not seem to appeal to me (though maybe things will change this summer). However, when I speak to professors during office hours, or family members with graduate degrees, and talk to them about their work it resonates more with me. So I've definitely found more interest in academia, or so it seems.

The problem is that it seems like my interest stops there - I like talking about academia/research work but am less motivated to put in the work in my classes and research. In the case of academics, I can warm up to a book about a topic I'm learning about over time provided there isn't much time pressure, but research is a different beast. I find that I keep putting my research on the back burner, and once I got my position, getting started on anything is hard, to say the least.

This conflict is why I'm feeling that I might be gaslighting myself by accident.

At this point, I feel like I'm the stereotypical parent in YouTube skits where they say that the kid needs to grow up to be a "doctor, lawyer, engineer, or failure", except I'm doing this to myself. Is there any way that could help me determine if I am truly wanting a career in academia or if I've just convinced myself that I do?


For context, my previous questions dealt with external factors that do seem to be making it harder. Having to deal with extraneous tasks and other commitments makes being able to find joy in learning hard (and finding time to work on research far harder), and a lack of supervision and deadline in my research project means I can let the inertia keeping me from work fester. I don't have access to a time machine or some way to tweak personal parameters so I wouldn't know how things would be if those roadblocks were removed, but it doesn't seem like those are the root cause - if I had more passion, then I feel like I could find a way around them.

I'm really not sure where I'm going with this question, so if it's against the rules or off-topic in some way, feel free to close this, but if not, advice would be greatly appreciated.

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    Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Academia Meta, or in Academia Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – Bryan Krause
    Apr 5, 2023 at 14:25
  • Would you please clarify if you are an undergraduate, postgraduate or postdoc ? It's extraordinary that you are not providing basic info like this. Also of great relevance is why you got into study of computer science/software in the first place. What did your school aptitude tests tell you about your strengths and weaknesses ?
    – Trunk
    Apr 6, 2023 at 12:36
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    @Trunk it is tagged as undergrad
    – Dawn
    Apr 6, 2023 at 16:50
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    But he's writing of himself as if he was doing serious research. Comp Sc or software eng undergraduates do not do serious research: at most they do just a small offshoot of a much larger and deeper study as a final year project. The modules he's taking may well have a small project to complete as well as assignments but that shouldn't be beyond someone who matriculates for that course. Moreover he writes of himself almost like an introspective novelist, how he feels about this and that, the support others get but which he lacks and so on. His actual problem is unclear due to vague phrasing.
    – Trunk
    Apr 6, 2023 at 18:12

11 Answers 11

22

For me it looks like you should do something to find out more about yourself. This could be something like meditation, learn more about self awareness, counselling.

You are asking a question that ultimately only you yourself can answer. You need to take responsibility for yourself and decide whether this is where you want to go, and if not, where else. There are techniques to improve your awareness for yourself, your feelings, and what drives you, and I suggest you try to find out about them.

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  • I agree, but what and when? As a student I have a multiple jobs and research on top of a full courseload, and summer I will be interning and previewing course content, and well, the cycle continues for another few years - I'm starved for time for introspection. I can probably implement something small like daily meditation (which I picked up over spring break) and adding a few questions when talking to my family members, who have been in both industry and academia. (1/2)
    – Revise
    Apr 5, 2023 at 7:37
  • Beyond that, I'm not sure what to do besides maybe take a gap semester/year and work - otherwise, there are too many urgent distractions/responsibilities keeping me from finding time to find out more about myself. I often feel like I should have figured out my "direction" or at least some foundational knowledge in what I wanted to study prior to entering undergrad, and now having to figure things along as I go is very difficult.
    – Revise
    Apr 5, 2023 at 7:43
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    I'd like to add that internal considerations are important, but there is also missing information. When you become a full-time researcher, do the mentioned problems become more difficult or easier with experience? Does OP's experience in a company coincide with other peoples experiences or not? Etc.
    – Cream
    Apr 5, 2023 at 9:27
  • A gap year sound ideal if you can afford it. Even if you just do some fairly mindless work and hopefully travel a bit (or combine the two, the important bit is to leave your familiar environment). Sometimes it's hard to see the forest for the trees. I'm a lot older than you (I'm 51), but I'm still convinced that I would not be where I am now if I hadn't taken a year out after school. Boredom can provide a great focus for the mind ;-) If you can afford therapy/counselling that can be helpful too, but it's hard work. Apr 5, 2023 at 9:55
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    i would add that "take responsibility for yourself and decide" doesn't mean that you can't change decision later. But asking random people on the internet to decide is usually a bad idea Apr 5, 2023 at 16:41
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You're presumably in your 20s.

You have many, many potential career years left.

This isn't a choice you have to make now and absolutely stick to. You can go get a job in industry, and if it doesn't work out return to acadaemia. You could also do the opposite, stick it out in acadaemia and if that doesn't work out go explore industry.

At this point in your life, there's not a huge amount of detriment or risk there as it's not like you'd be moving from a senior position in one to a junior position in the other: both would likely be junior.

This cost will go up as you progress, so I'd suggest experimenting sooner rather than later to see what actually works for you.

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    It is true that experimenting sooner definitely does less damage than later. But depending on the field it can already be really difficult to go back to academia even after a one year absence let alone a few years. PhD positions are highly competitive and you will simply not have as strong a CV having not worked in the field (you will also have forgotten many of the required skills). Still you are right, returning to academia after leaving it after your PhD is even more difficult so it is better to do it before your PhD than after.
    – Kvothe
    Apr 5, 2023 at 16:34
  • @Kvothe - I don't know if that's necessarily a hard and fast rule. You can also gain a hell of a lot of useful skills in industry, depending on the exact route you go down, that would be an absolute asset in a post-doc. You can also potentially speak to your old supervisor and if you decide you want to come back and maybe collaborate on some things to get your skills refreshed alongside your job while you're applying for postdoc positions Apr 7, 2023 at 19:12
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For context, I am currently also standing before the decision whether to stay in academia or leave. Which is why I am contemplating similar points.

A way I like to think about job decisions is in terms of two factors.

  1. The abstract image of the job: Maybe you find this kind of work important. Or its a role you would like to see yourself in (e.g. the prestige of being a professor). Or you just like the end-result, (e.g. you value knowledge and would be proud to write a standard textbook at some point).
  2. The day-to-day reality of the job: In short, you might enjoy the daily tasks of the job. They come easy to you and you feel you are doing it well.

A job that fits well should have a good mix of these factors (imho).
To me, it seems that research scores high on 1. for you, but not so high on 2. And your internal conflict comes from a conflict of these two points.

This is, I think, not uncommon, because everyone hears something about the findings of research, but only few actually produce these findings.
To me, it is very hard to work independently on projects that take a long time to be completed. Its hard to achieve such a high level of quality (as it is required in research) by myself. But that is okay. In the end these decisions are up to personal preference.

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    I think I resonate with what you say - I really look up to my professors and researchers I find while looking at papers, and in the case of my professors, I respect that they have passion. I asked my math professor a question during office hours, and not only did he answer my question but also mentioned other questions that arise from the original question and provided recommendations for visualizing the outcome. I respect such passion and desire to learn in work and hope that I can also reflect that wherever I end up. (1/?)
    – Revise
    Apr 5, 2023 at 7:47
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    Whereas from what I heard about industry (internship group chats, talking to the people I worked with in previous experience, listening to my parents - managers in tech - hold meetings and discuss their work), it really doesn't seem like many people in industry have the same feelings but are more results-oriented. My mom has often mentioned how she is frustrated with how many people work for promotions and there are plenty of people who provide as much use as an unused RAID 1 disk - just extra redundancy. (2/?)
    – Revise
    Apr 5, 2023 at 7:53
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    Hence I sometimes mention to others that I don't really want to end up as yet another engineer. As for day-to-day, I really don't have enough experience to evaluate for myself. I know for me so far research has been hard to focus on and work on, and the same for industry tasks, and I don't know if those are due to external factors I mentioned above or truly because I don't enjoy the tasks/do them well. For me, it is as you mentioned - I prefer academia because of the abstract image, but I have limited experience (and most experiences have not been positive), so I feel lost.
    – Revise
    Apr 5, 2023 at 8:02
  • Yes, it is a very difficult question, and I think one that strongly depends on the company/research area or institute. So there might not be one right choice here. I can't say much about industry yet. But to me it seems that research needs a very strong internal interest and drive, and it will always be necessary to find a way past roadblocks like the ones you mentioned and things get "even harder" after a PhD. At the same time, I heard that you have more freedom to follow your interests and collaborators on eye-to-eye level to help you along the way.
    – Cream
    Apr 5, 2023 at 8:42
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    Regarding industry (despite my lack of experience), I think it is sometimes viewed unfairly from inside of academia. You can just as well be "yet another mathematician working on some niche problem" as you can be "just another engineer just for redundancy". But equally, I am sure there can be engaging company departments where you can have a lot of freedom, responsibility and work with interesting people. But as in research, it might take time, effort and luck to get there. I think you are already making a good decision by doing internships in companies that interest you to help you decide.
    – Cream
    Apr 5, 2023 at 8:49
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There's already plenty of general "academia vs. industry" advice answers on this site, not to mention the internet in general, so I won't go into that too much. I'll try to be as specific as possible to the question.

The way you've phrased things strikes me as more poetic or dramatic than practical. You are creating an artistically pleasing description of your pathos, but you are not effectively moving towards settling the question of which type of career you should do.

To answer something like that, one wouldn't start by asking emotionally loaded questions like "am I only doing X to avoid Y". You would start with a simple "should I do X or Y?" This would lead you to the helpful "what appeals to me about X? about Y?". You would then balance this against the obvious "I have already been doing X, but what would be the cost of trying Y?".

Since you speak of talking to professors during office hours, rather than outside of them, you are surely a student and not faculty. You can easily spend a year or three working in the industry and see if you really like it better. It would be minimally disruptive to your aspirations in either career. Having done both, I can tell you the industry is less complicated than academia, you can definitely get a good idea after 1-3 years. This would be the most direct way to settle your issue.

While it's not hard to switch from academia to industry, it is still non-trivial. For one, you will have to learn how to interview well. Another, you will have to get used to people who don't have anywhere near the technical knowledge you do, don't want to learn, and just want you to "summarize it" or "explain like I'm 5". Both of these things can be learned fairly quickly, you should look for the relevant resources (too many to list here).

The obverse, switching from industry to academia, can be harder but is not as difficult as people make it out to be. Especially for a student it is not a big deal. You can also be proactive and discuss it with your advisor, and perhaps he might be able to help arrange a "soft landing" for you if/when you do return - like hiring you as a postdoc so you can freshen up your academic CV.

I'll also note that it's important to distinguish between consuming the fruits of a labor and doing the labor itself. Not every foodie's calling is to be a cook. Libraries are free, you can read and talk about the latest research no matter what job you do. This should not be the basis of your decision. Rather, to decide if you'd be happy in academic research, you should look at the key activities of the academic researcher and how they relate to you. I would say these are things like writing papers, writing grants, coming up with novel research projects and so on.

And lastly, don't base your opinion of the industry on one boring internship you had. Internships are often boring. Remember that job interviews go both ways - you should absolutely be asking what sort of work you would be expected to do, and if they fail to convince you that it will be interesting, you can absolutely decline the job. Of course, this assumes that you are employable enough that you can choose from multiple job opportunities, but if you are not, it is probably unwise to be in the industry to begin with (this, keeping in mind my previous point about learning to interview well).

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you didn't write where you live or your age, but I guess you are between 20 and 25.

First of all, in my opinion, you should better understand what you want from your life and since it looks like you struggle to achieve it by yourself, a psychotherapist would really help a lot.

Then you need to speed-up your choices.

Consider that you will hardly find the dream job, so for sure there will be something you will not like in your daily routine. we don't live in a fantasy world. So if you decide to leave academia, the sooner the better, because industry it's a completely different world, and the more you push it away, the worst will be.

A lot of people working in academia will downvote me, but I tried both, and academia is like kindergarden if compared with industry. You have deadlines yes, but nobody will fire you, you have plenty of time to develop projects, not a lot of pressure, etc..

So going to the industry will be a big jump, but also rewarding.

You just need to decide fast, because it's very unlikely that someone will want to hire a 30 years old software engineer with ZERO experience in the industry. Unless you want to start from very low in the hierarchy. It depends a lot on the country you work in, but I think it could be true in many cases.

I hope I didn't sound too harsh, you just need a bit of help and you will find your way without any issue.

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I had a similar internal conflict while working on my PhD. After my PhD and my first post-doc, I thought I hated research so much that I tried teaching at a small school. After a few semesters of teaching, I even got into one of those boot camps that connect you with industry jobs. And somehow I felt that it wasn't for me (industry I mean). I ended up accepting a research position in something slightly irrelevant to my PhD and somehow things took off for me (a bit).

So I think a small change in direction might help. Whatever it is you do, it might help finding topics or areas of research, related to what you know, and work on them. Something you find cool or interesting. Try them for a little bit and see.

Another thing I realized, after getting my current research job, is that despite feeling uncomfortable with research at times, I was always willing to do the work, i.e., I never really gave up on it completely.

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From your description it looks like you are just starting your career. At this point it is normal to feel overwhelmed by difficult tasks, big projects and so on. Even so, when it seems you are left with less guidance than usual as described in one of your previous questions.

My suggestion would be to wait and see. Do the internship, continue with your studies and choose. After some time, if you don't like your choice, you can always reassess and make a move in the direction you then perceive as more likeable.

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your question is very interesting actually.

I will give you my view on this based on my experience. I am a 2nd year PhD student at the university in Central Europe. I finished my master degree in 2017 and graduated in 2018. But decided to apply for PhD programme in 2021.

For the last 5-6 years i have also been working in the same office (industry). Of course because of my involvment in academic area my agreement needed to be changed. Actually I do not know any PhD student who do not work in an industry overall. It is because of economical factors and small scholarships that we get from university and government. Everyone of my PhD friends work somewhere ( either in the industry or in other schools as assistants or wherever).

My point is that I did not want to be only an academic. Theory and experiments ( academia) are not taken 'seriously' in my field. That is why I still pursue my daily job. I can not think of myself only as a theorist but also an active do-er and creator.

For me the 'practice' is pretty important as well as cooperation with workmates at the office. I know after finishing my PhD i would continue working in my industry but also I would like to work in academia part time.

For me you should not leave academia but maybe try to be more open for your industry. It would be good to work part time in your professional field or get some internship.

Sometimes it gets difficult when you focus only on 'one thing'. You need to have perspectives from other people - not only theorists and researchers.

I do not know how old you are but basing your career on academia and research is not enough in my opinion. What if in 2-3 years you would definitely leave academia and you will have no working experience? I think in 21 century people need to be very flexible.

I know that PhD process is difficult and it takes so much time to think and do experiments... But you can not get stuck in 'one thing' as I said before.

For your general career I would suggest to get an internship or a part time job in your industry. You will need to decide then or pursue both ( in my opinion its the best option).

I hope it works. I cross fingers for you :)

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Is there other non-academic work you would enjoy? Just as an English major doesn't have to become an author and could work for a software company, you could apply for work at a company that does something you're interested in besides software.
And if you decide that what you're doing now is better than anything else you could think of, then it makes sense to keep doing it.

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Honestly, I feel that you are beyond the usual kind of advice given out on this forum. I believe that you need to consult with an occupational psychologist at the very least. They will advise on the question of academia vs industry - though there are of course several other arenas where IT skills are deployed, e.g. government, large institutions and private consultancy to name but three.

If they adjudge that motivation issues are relevant then they will advise you accordingly on the relevant professionals in your city that you can attend.

Someone in a previous answer suggested a heart-to-heart with a doctor. If you have a family doctor, i.e. a doctor who treats your parents and siblings and knows you since you were a child, I would see this as a useful step. But with the world changing as it has over the last 50 years, family doctors seem to be a thing of the past and this may not be an option.

Do not go to the campus counsellors or psychologists just because they are cheap/free under your insurance plan. Campus counsellors tend to be evasive on issues where parents, professors and adults in general have to be confronted as they are part of the subject's problem. They frequently make things worse in such situations in their efforts to avoid dealing properly with it.

Spend a few bucks on yourself and find a well-recommended (perhaps by a family doctor, if your family have one) occupational psychologist downtown.

Be assured that most of us here are - in soul and spirit - with you on this part of your journey and if it's any assurance to you quite a few of us had to undertake similar digressions during our own careers: there really is resurrection in these matters.

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This is an important question that I wish more people thought about before attempting an academic career. Try approaching it with this question:

Suppose you wake up this morning, check your email and see an urgent message about something that went badly wrong yesterday. The problem is serious and fixing it is going to take a long time. Do you dread going to work?

An academic example of such a problem could be that you published a proof of X, and then someone found what looks at first glance like a critical error in your proof.

If you dread to going to work, you might want to do something else. Otherwise, you're good.

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    I do not find this a compelling test of whether academia is right for someone. I do not think the statement describes accurately the experience of being in academia versus industry.
    – Bryan Krause
    Apr 5, 2023 at 2:37
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    I fail to understand this as well. All jobs have downsides and tasks we rather not deal with. The answer to your question with any job is "no".
    – user71659
    Apr 5, 2023 at 4:07
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    This is a form of “what kind of problems do you enjoy solving” career advice…. Except you have replaced a problem with an embarrassing quasi-crisis.
    – Dawn
    Apr 5, 2023 at 4:13
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    I really like academia, so far, and it's where I want to be. But according to your description I don't? I think the way we deal with failure is not related with personal interest on academia. Yeah, you gotta learn how to deal with failure in academia, but I disagree with this being the core feature Apr 5, 2023 at 6:48
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    Realizing that you made an embarrassing and/or stupid error in your work is not comparable to a new result which suggests large swathes of accepted theory may be wrong. The first is unpleasant the second can be fascinating. A new result that makes me rethink everything I thought I knew about my field is good news. It is intellectually stimulating and exciting and although it may be hard to deal with, it is also the way that science advances. Someone pointing out an error I made in my work is a completely different situation.
    – terdon
    Apr 5, 2023 at 12:04

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