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I noticed in computer science, it is not that uncommon or stigmatized to see professors resign from their tenured position to go into industry. In fact, it occurred often enough that this was a point of anxiety for me back when I was applying to grad school.

However, less commonly, tenure-track assistant professors resign before applying for tenure either due to better opportunities in industry, or perhaps due to not liking academia. I suspect this scenario is less common due to some anxiety over being perceived as having failed to get tenure. And so professors try to push past the tenure goalpost before resigning.

Is this anxiety over being perceived as a washed up academic dropout warranted if you resign before tenure? Or does no one really care / it has zero effect on your career? I am wondering if there is a 'socially acceptable' time to consider resigning.

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    If an individual is more concerned about living their one life for the opinion of others than their own personal integrity, then it probably does not matter what they do. "You can't please all of the people all of the time."
    – Fe2O3
    Commented May 29 at 9:25
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    I know multiple people that have quit at different points in their tenure track to go to industry (and in none of them the TT was obviously going poorly), so I question your premise a bit.
    – xLeitix
    Commented May 29 at 11:43
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    Only academia would care, if anybody, and if there is no plan to go back, there is nothing to worry about.
    – user207421
    Commented May 30 at 5:23

6 Answers 6

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Actually the socially acceptable time to switch is when a (much) better opportunity becomes available

Don’t pass up something that aligns well with your goals. People won’t put a lot of thought into why you jumped unless you disgraced yourself somehow. It’s the least important thing to consider.

If you are in a bad situation (as I have been) spend effort, perhaps considerable effort looking for an alternative. Explore various paths. It may be that academia isn't for you. It may also be that you just are surrounded by jerks locally. Those have very different solutions.

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    Your career is yours to judge. But staying in an unhappy situation is suboptimal unless there are no other options. Sometimes you need to tough it out for financial reasons of course but seek better options.
    – Buffy
    Commented May 27 at 17:45
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    @user2562609 I think sometimes as academics we overrate how much the general public cares about us and our markers of success. The average person on the street doesn't hold a professor in higher esteem than an engineer. Those are both considered good, professional careers. Similarly, people outside academia aren't going to care about tenure--it's just not on their radar.
    – user187020
    Commented May 27 at 19:47
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    @user1149748 I have heard this sentiment more in the US by some professors of Asian origin who said that professors get a lot more respect in Asia compared to the US. When I was growing up in Asia even in high school it was clear that being a professor was more valued than say being an engineer. I have been in both positions in the US and academics and researchers are definitely more valued if anything because they have a PhD which is needed to get research-related jobs. The point being that the average industry job is less prestigious than academia, but you gain in other areas. Commented May 28 at 15:53
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    It's also worth understanding that better is personal. You can quit and go juggle dogs if that's your better. If all you care about is appearances you can make yourself miserable. Love juggling dogs enough and you can make it to Carnegie Hall. (No dogs were harmed in the researching of this comment) Commented May 28 at 17:53
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    @user1149748 As a former faculty member now in programming I don't think this is right. Just the # of faculty vs engineers leads faculty to be held in higher esteem. I do agree non-academics are mostly oblivious to tenureship distinctions.
    – Hasse1987
    Commented May 29 at 2:54
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You need to decide what is right for you. Almost all universities have some form of an annual evaluation dossier for tenure track faculty. That serves as a good guideline as to how things are progressing towards tenure, as often do off-the-record conversations with more senior mentors or department chairs.

So if things are not going well or you don't want to stay in academia regardless, why go through the actual tenure application and the preamble to it? My tenure tour alone was a year's worth of travel, giving up to 5 invited lectures per month. That was grueling, all while maintaining my research group, and trying not to be the worst absent father and husband. If I knew I was on my way out of academia, I would have gladly not gone through the hassle and just left.

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    What's a "tenure tour"? Commented May 28 at 12:48
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    @AzorAhai-him- Basically extensive traveling and giving seminars at important institutions with potential tenure letter writers so that they can become familiar with you and your work, often starting about a year before going up for tenure. I'm surprised that this hasn't been asked separately before, Maybe it's highly field- or institution-dependent.
    – Anyon
    Commented May 28 at 14:15
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    @Anyon Interesting, never heard of it, certainly not 12-60 lectures in a year! What country is this common in? Commented May 28 at 15:36
  • @AzorAhai-him- I've only heard about it in the context of US R1s. Certainly 60 is much higher than I've heard of.
    – Anyon
    Commented May 28 at 19:27
  • 20+ talks is common in US R1s, plus the expectations that you have at least a couple of invited major conference presentations. Keep in mind the window for departmental seminars is typically mid-January to early April, then again early September to late-November. So you need to concentrate them in the active seminar calendar slots. This all varies by school and department as well.
    – R1NaNo
    Commented May 28 at 20:24
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Zero effect

There's no law that says once you've become a grad student, it's tenure or nothing. As software engineer, I've worked with people with all kinds of qualifications. Not infrequently, they weren't even qualifications in the same field. A previous company had five chief engineers where two were regular engineers, one was a chemistry PhD, one was a maths PhD, and one arrived at engineering via the assembly line.

Of course interviewers will ask you why you're leaving academia for industry. But then they'd ask you why you're leaving your current job anyway. Don't overthink it.

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    On that last point, they also don't really care what the answer is as long as it's not "I caused a buttload of drama and bailed" Commented May 28 at 10:34
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    @ScottishTapWater True. The question is more about finding whether they're going to be sticking around and doing a good job at their new place, and generally whether they look professional.
    – Graham
    Commented May 28 at 13:20
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    One possible reason why you don't see many tenure-track professors resigning, may be to do with how many switch to industry between completing a PhD and getting a tenure-track position. Commented May 28 at 13:43
  • In my first job, my colleagues were (1) a former computer operator, (2) a psychology graduate, (3) a teacher, and (4) a guy whose previous job had been feeding the lions in the zoo, and my boss was a qualified accountant. All of them were excellent IT people.
    – user207421
    Commented May 30 at 5:25
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Different people value things differently, but I'd think it's a waste to "try to push past the tenure goalpost before resigning". The real achievements of research and teaching are many, but tenure is more of a means to achieve them.

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Is this anxiety over being perceived as a washed up academic dropout warranted if you resign before tenure?

If you mean in Industry - nobody cares.

It will be good if they understand what "tenure" is to start with. The hierarchy in Academia is opaque to them, and vice versa.

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Getting a tenure track position takes a lot of time and effort, so resigning seems illogical in comparison to quitting before even seeking a tenure track position. This also depends on the context, as in some places/fields getting tenure track position is actually the hardest part of getting tenure.

There is always some stigma associated with those who quit academia (they do it for money, they are not doing real research, they didn't succeed to make worthy contributions, etc. see also Why God never got tenure)

In the end, it is a personal decision, as there are may be many personal reason for leaving academia, and they rarely correlate with the moment in the career. Just to give a few examples:

  • Family circumstances - having to follow your spouse to another town/country, where appropriate academic opportunities might be non-existent.
  • Wishing to try something new, looking for new challenges - e.g., starting your own business in an unrelated domain.
  • Disagreements with political and economic views widespread in academia.

Abandoning something to which one devoted years or decades of one's life is always hard... but keeping on just for this reason is a classical example of sunk cost fallacy.

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