Leaving Academia

I recently left academia. I was a graduate student, and I had just passed my qualification exam. I should have started to work on my grand project that would lead to my thesis. But instead I decided to leave. I decided that I’ve spent enough time being educated.

Being in grad school just started to feel weird. I started thinking about all the things I’ve accomplished in my life. I’ve participated in the “physics olympics”. I’ve graduated from high school. I’ve graduated from university after studying physics for 6 years. I’ve worked on multiple archaeological web databases on the side. And yet, I was still going to school, and I still had to write one exam after another, proving that I was worthy to continue. After my qualifying exam, I just got sick of it. Sick of having to prove to other people whether I’m worthy or not. I know what I can do, and that’s enough.

I started thinking about why I was going to grad school. Was it to get a better job? I was pursuing a PhD in computer graphics. With that degree, I would have two main options: attempt a career in academia, or look for a job in the entertainment industry. A career in academia would just require even more proving my worthiness. As a postdoc I wouldn’t take literal exams, but I would submit lots of papers, hoping that they would be accepted, or apply for grants, or interview for better positions. I’d constantly be evaluated. That’s not what I was looking for. So I’d have to look for a job in the entertainment industry. But it turns out that this is a hard business. It’s extremely competitive, and people work extreme hours. There’s constant pressure to finish a project on a looming deadline, only to start with the next stressful project.

If I’m not going to grad school because of job opportunities, what other reasons are there? Pursuing my interests? As a PhD student you get to choose some interesting problem and work on that, right? That’s what I naively imagined before I started at the institute. Some day at lunch I told my supervisor about this idea I had. We could take his fluid simulation method from computer graphics and apply it to a problem related to molten polymers. There was this experiment by a group of applied physicists that would fit nicely. He asked me how many people would be interested in the problem. Maybe a handful, I said. And then I realized that there was no way I could work on that problem. Success in academia is measured in the number of citations your paper receives. What point is there in writing a paper that is only interesting to such a small audience? To be successful you need to target a large audience, and not just pursue whatever obscure problem takes your fancy.

There seemed to be only one reason to continue: If I’d finish grad school, I could introduce myself as “Dr. Egger”. I’d have a really prestigious degree! But is that really worth four years of my life? I myself tend to not think very highly of people who care only about degrees. Most people I care about don’t care about degrees. It seems that going to grad school just for the sake of having a degree is not a very good reason for me.

Why was I continuing with this? I had applied to the institute because I didn’t want to stay at my previous university, and I saw a poster advertising a really nice graduate program. Applying seemed to be the natural thing to do. Was I just working here because I was accepted when I applied?

So I left academia. I decided it’s time to stop educating myself, and put all that education to some use.

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