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Transitiong from industry back to academia?


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Hello everyone!

I am 32 and going through a difficult time deciding my future. 

I have a major in electrical engineering and ever since I was in college I was involved with research. At first this wasn't really by choice, it was more by opportunity. But I ended up enjoying it very much. During these first research years I got involved in a field that is more applied mathematics to energy systems than actual engineering. To my surprise, I discovered that I enjoyed mathematics more than physics/engineering. So I thought that it would be a good career choice for me to work with applied mathematics to energy systems. At first I wasn't sure which kind of career I wanted to follow (industry or academia) so I decided to move to a bigger city and take a master course on this field as a way to get more connections and decide my direction.

I took my master at a major university and published two papers at a very prestigious journal. My work during my master could be considered for a PhD. Please don't think I am bragging, I am trying to make my situation clear. At some point during those 2 years I thought that a career in academia was suitable for me but at the end of my master course I was miserable. I didn't understand the purpose of my own research, I had no money, I was depressed and I felt sick. Those 2 papers had come at a VERY high emotional price. To make matters worse I remember to this day a time when my mom called me crying and saying she couldn't help me anymore with rent because she was going broke. Living in a big city is very expensive and I simply couldn't afford by my own anymore and as I was feeling depressed with my research I decided it was time to leave academia. I quickly managed to find a job in the industry working in my field and I could fully support myself (I ended up getting those connections in the end!). I was relieved and at the same time.

So, for the past 5 and a half years or so I have been working in the industry. I went from a junior position to a senior one. I have always get good feedback from the people I worked with and this past year I have been getting many calls from headhunters asking if I am interested in managing positions. At first I declined those positions because I didn't want any other stress in my life other than the many lockdowns. But that got me thinking, after this crazy period is over, do I want to move to a managing position? What I  really like doing is thinking, coding, understanding the energy regulation of where I live, etc. For the past 3 years I have had the same feedback from managers: ability to solve complex problems. And despite having an enormous anxiety when faced with a challenging problem, I love the feeling after having solved it. And I realized that moving to a managing position would take exactly the parts that I enjoy doing from me. I say this based on the experience I get from my own managers. I am not business orientated. I don't really mind the decisions that will actually be made with the results I came up with.  A very good friend of mine called me asking if I am interested in a position on his new company. The money is good and it would be awesome to work with people I actually enjoy spending time with. But I feel it would be good for the first few years and then I would be at the same position I am at now. And I started to feel that if I don't at some point move to managing, I am done. Someone younger will take my job. 

So, I started thinking about going back to academia. I know that there is still a lot of managing and bureaucracy to do in academia but I started to feel that I would be more connected to things I actually care about. So I decided to give my master advisor a call. He said that he and other professor are opening a research company highly connected with the university and he was more than gladly to accept me back. He said he could pay me as much as I get in the industry to work on my PhD and research for the industry. This is VERY uncommon and would put me in a very privileged position. I would be able to keep my current lifestyle and take a PhD. Of course working hours would increase.

But I am having a lot of anxiety with this decision. I panic that I might be just fantasizing about a career transition back to academia. I mean, who does that? Will I really be at the position I am thinking about now? But at the same time I feel like I have a golden opportunity in my hand and it is time I start to face life and become a reference at what I do. After working in the industry I have many ideas for research in energy systems that I truly believe would be a good contribution. 

If I do decide to go back to the university I have the option to work in this company as a full time researcher. It is a startup company but I do have a feeling that it might work out. I think they have a good plan for the future. Or I could try the professor path which is more difficult but still an option.

I have been fantasizing about using this PhD time to not only work with my field but also taking classes on pure mathematics and philosophy of sciences to have a better knowledge and become a good researcher.   

I am pretty much venting but has anyone experienced anything similar? Any advice is welcome.

Thanks for reading. 

 

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As long as you can support yourself and see some happiness in what you're doing, I say go for it. I've more or less plodded along on the same career path for the past 20 years. I use it to enjoy the other 90% of life (not related to my career). My brothers are a bit different and both are in healthcare (not engineering). One took the management route and is a regional director for services in western Canada. The other went the PhD/clinical route.  Both are very happy, essentially have the same degrees but are doing completely different things so although it's a different field entirely I see your predicament!

Hope you make the choice that works for you. Maybe you need to find out more info from your MA mentor - see if you can find out more about the position, what you would be researching in general, what funding the company depends on and how reliable that paycheque would be. In the end it is your happiness and livelihood on the line. You could just as easily nerd out afternoon upon afternoon on all the research galore you love to do without worrying about how reliable this start up or new company would be. 

Here's a thought: Why not stick with your current work and donate or volunteer your time with this new company for the first year? The advantages? You'll be in a management role and also involved in research in your time off. If you don't care for other hobbies or don't have any other commitments, why not do both for a year and then make a move? 

 

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On 1/6/2021 at 11:31 PM, lukas1315 said:

I panic that I might be just fantasizing about a career transition back to academia. I mean, who does that? Will I really be at the position I am thinking about now? But at the same time I feel like I have a golden opportunity in my hand and it is time I start to face life and become a reference at what I do. After working in the industry I have many ideas for research in energy systems that I truly believe would be a good contribution. 

It's up to you to control your career path. Working at the research company may not put you in the position that you visualize. But it is a step in that direction. You will still need to take other steps as opportunities arise. Keep the end goal in mind as you choose your steps, and you will eventually get to where you want to be. And maybe you will move on from that, too.

Personally, I think it makes a lot of sense for you to take the job at the university and take it from there. I agree with you about management. For you, I think it would take the joy out of work. 

 

Edited by Jibralta
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