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I've completed my PhD, gone into industry, and now considering returning to academia. I loved doing the research, all stages of the process, from the exploration of ideas to drafting papers - I actually enjoyed writing my PhD thesis, unlike almost every other student I ever met.

However, I think I enjoyed it because it was research, not because I'm passionate about the field itself (let's call it computational X). I'm the kind of person who is easily fascinated by many fields, some related to mine (e.g. computational Y), others not at all. I think that if I had ended up doing research in a different area, I might still have enjoyed academia just as much, all else being the same (e.g. similar experiences with advisor etc.).

Moreover, when I think about academia, what I fantasize about the most is the general features of research, e.g. big picture thinking of project ideas, mentoring students, writing, teaching, attending conferences, and just...being on campus. What I do research in seems to play a secondary role in these fantasies. This makes me wonder whether I'm just being nostalgic about student life and not thinking clearly about whether academia and I are actually a good fit.

The typical response I get when asking for advice on "should I try for academia / faculty positions" is "are you passionate about your field?". But I can't seem to find advice on whether being passionate about research as a career, but only "fairly happy" about the field itself, is a good enough reason to pursue academia. How, and to what degree, should these observations influence whether I leave industry to do a post-doc and/or try for faculty jobs?

(I realize it's possible to find R&D / research-ey jobs in industry, but for the purpose of this question I'd like to skip this possibility, because of possible intellectual property-related restrictions on publishing, constraints on teaching / mentoring, etc.).

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    You may be underestimating the difficulty of getting a research gig in academia. My impression in the U.S. is that the supply of newly minted Ph.D.s is far far greater than the demand for new professors. It's a growing trend that Universities are hiring fewer full professors and instead hiring more part-time lecturers. Even as a professor, you'd typically be spending quite a bit of your time trying to find money for research rather than doing actual research.
    – bfris
    Commented Apr 30 at 19:32
  • Agreed - the chances of success are low and I will have to consider that point seriously and separately. This, in fact, is partly why I feel I should have a resolution to my question / concern above before expending the time and effort to do a post doc, apply for faculty jobs, etc.
    – josh_eime
    Commented Apr 30 at 21:02

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Yes, that is possible. There are people who position themselves more in a "support discipline" and thus get to participate in a wide variety of projects. For example, statisticians get to work on a wide variety of projects. This positioning could be formal, in that it is part of your job title. However, it could also be informal. It is usually know that one person knows everything there is to know about that one topic, but could not add 1 plus 1 if his/her/their life depended on it, while another spezialises in a particular techniques and applies it to a wide range of topics. Most try to find collaborations with people with skills that complement theirs. You can't be only a generalist, but there are skills you can specialize in that allows you to be of value in a wide range of projects.

Other than that, working in academia is also just a job. There will be days that you will hate it and (hopefully more) days you will love it. There will be things about that job you will hate (universities are big bureaucracies...) and other things you will love (A students saying "aaah that is how that works").

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