Mirror of Quora answer to: Why did you leave academia?

This is a mirror of https://www.quora.com/Why-do-people-leave-academia-What-are-the-pros-and-cons-of-leaving-the-field/answer/Vipul-Naik

I decided around the late middle of my fifth year of graduate school (math Ph.D. at the University of Chicago) that I would complete my Ph.D. but not stay in academia beyond that. I am currently scheduled to get my Ph.D. degree this December (Autumn 2013) at which point I’ll be done with academia (though I do plan to eventually submit a condensed form of my Ph.D. thesis for publication, possibly with slightly stronger versions of the results, but that’s essentially it).

My reasons for leaving:

  1. Not much of a peer network: It so happened that the area of research I chose, group theory, is an area where not too many other people are interested. There were only a couple other graduate students working in related areas, and none working in pure group theory. The few others working in related areas had graduated by the time I reached my fifth year of graduate school Although this wasn’t a direct factor in my decision to leave, I believe that if I had chosen a more mainstream area of mathematics, there would have been more people urging me to stay on in academia and in general a support and peer network geared towards pushing me to stay in academia. I knew at the time of choosing the area of research (back when I began graduate school) that very few people pursue this area of research, and I was also vaguely aware that the absence of a peer network can have other effects, but I was quite passionate about group theory at the time (and I still really enjoy it). I don’t regret any of this, because I think that in hindsight my particular combination of skills and interests is not well-suited to academia for the long term, and yet I think that graduate school was a fairly good choice for me at the time I began it, and I’ve learned a lot there, even if not in the conventional manner that one learns a lot from graduate school.
  2. Absence of substantial research results: Around middle to late fifth year, I didn’t have any research results worth publishing. I had a lot of very small results, and a few big results conjectured that I didn’t have proofs of. But there wasn’t much in the sweet spot that’s needed for a publication. I had two options: (a) decide not to stay in academia, and do the bare minimum needed for a good thesis, rather than try to get the publication level needed for a post-doctoral position, or (b) put in a full-fledged effort trying to get publishable stuff, with a < 50% chance of success, and with very little time or preparation for a potential future non-academic career. I talked to a few friends and chose option (a). My thesis ended up being more substantive than I had envisaged, but it took me a fair amount of time to write it up, and I would have needed even more time if I wanted to also apply to further academic jobs.
  3. Relatively low impact: My particular area within academia was particularly out-of-fashion: group theory. But even the more in-fashion areas of mathematics didn’t have sufficient real-world impact. When I was younger, I hadn’t given impact much thought, and I hadn’t thought much about potential non-academic careers that could draw on my skills and interests and have higher impact. I was now becoming more aware of these possibilities, and academia seemed, by comparison, to be relatively less attractive. I should add that I feel that I did have a reasonable level of impact on the world in my years of graduate school (relative to other people of my age and experience level), but almost none of that impact was related with the actual research that led to my thesis and the kind of research in general that’s closely linked to publication. And I believed that the impact I could have staying in academia would diverge steadily over time from the impact I could have outside academia.
  4. Emphasis of academia on a particular brand of original research: Although I do enjoy the academic style of thinking, asking questions, and continually refining one’s insight, the way in which I pursue these goals is quite different from the way that academia’s measurement systems generally capture. During graduate school, one of my main projects was a group theory wiki titled Groupprops, which now has somewhere between 1.8 million and 6 million pageviews (depending on whether you trust Google Analytics or MediaWiki’s internal measurement). I really enjoyed the kind of thinking that’s needed to create such pages and improve them incrementally. But this type of work doesn’t get any formal recognition in academia. Nor does it help directly with the type of research that leads to publication, though it did help me somewhat with the research work that ultimately became my thesis.
  5. Absence of importance in academia to teaching: I found that people around me were not as interested in teaching, and the many subtleties involved, as I was. Teaching would be an important source both of impact and job satisfaction for me in academia, and the relative lack of focus on it made academia correspondingly less attractive to me (though I do know that there exist teaching colleges that in principle focus more on teaching, I don’t have strong evidence that these actually reward good teaching in meaningful ways).
  6. Cultural misfit in academia: I wouldn’t really say this was causal to my quitting academia, but it did cement my decision. I had a diverse range of intellectual interests most of which were not shared my the majority of students around me, and by extension, would not be shared by my colleagues if I stayed on in academia. Although I did have some good friends in academia, I wasn’t really part of the social circles of people in academia. Partly this is because I’m not sociable in general. Around the time I decided to quit academia, I began forming friendships with people over the Internet that I found much more fun and intellectually engaging than what I’d found in math academia, and who shared many of the interests I had. Although my discovery of these friends happened after I had already decided not to stay on, the fact that I was able to find such friends certainly helped rule out the potential concern that I would not be able to find intellectually stimulating environments outside the rarefied walls of academia. Note that I’m not making an absolute comparison here, just making a comparison specific to the types of things I am interested in.

PS: I’ve written (in collaboration with others) some articles about academia, that people who’ve reached to the bottom of this answer might find interesting:

Academia as a career option
Culture of academia
Social value of academia

I’ve also described my graduate school experience in more detail here:

Graduate experience

Basic information