Quit lit

TL;DR I’m joining Beacon Biosignals as a research scientist and leaving my tenure-track position.

2020 was a hard year for all of us in many, many ways, but at least for me it clarified some things. In particular, it helped me see the ways in which I wasn’t really feeling excited or fulfilled by my academic work anymore. The prospects of my tenure-track academic career started to seem like the proverbial pie eating contest where the prize is more pie. So I started looking for opportunities to do meaningful, intellectually engaging work outside of academic research, and I think I’ve found that with Beacon. I’m really excited to learn more about the brain, pick up some hands on experience with some new machine learning techniques, and help make folks' lives better in the process. I’m also, honestly, excited to be able to use Julia for my “day job”, instead of just as a weird hobby project, and more generally to do more hands on work than is really possible on the tenure track.

Also, while I am immensely grateful for the unflagging support of my many mentors over the years, I’ve started to unpack a bit my motivations for continuing down an academic career trajectory that has always felt kind of inevitable. I think a lot of it comes down to the feelings of validation and approval and belonging that I’ve always (again, fortunately) found in academic settings, starting from being a kid that found school easy and rewarding and found a lot of comfort in the approval of my teachers. For a long time I’ve confused that feeling of being a good boy with the satisfaction that comes from honoring my curiosity and growing and learning new things. Unsurprisingly, this has recently had me recently feeling pretty unmoored and unmotivated.

I don’t regret the time I’ve spent in academia, far from it. My PhD years were challenging, of course, but also a truly precious time to deeply engage with things I was curious about and to create new knowledge. Since I started at Rutgers, my basic advice to undergrads who are thinking about pursuing a PhD is to think of it like a monastic experience rather than a credential. That experience itself better be worth it for you, personally, since credential isn’t worth much in the labor market it supposedly gives you access to—tenure track academic positions—because there is a massive oversupply of PhDs created every year and a systematic, concerted effort by university administrations to move the core teaching functions of the university onto poorly compensated, contingent labor (grad students and “adjunct faculty”).

I suppose the reason I’m writing this here is to share, out loud and in public, my own discovery that even if you’re good at your academic work, an academic career might not be the best thing for you, and there are plenty of other things you can do, even though it feels so psychically dangerous to step off that track. It took a global pandemic and months of lockdown to really make me confront that possibility, but even so I’m grateful to be able to move on.