Why I Left Full-Time Academia and What I Do Instead
A brass rat
The year I finished my PhD and had our second baby, I also bought a class ring. MIT has what is, arguably, the most famous class ring of all: the brass rat. (Fun facts: The rat is actually a beaver—nature's engineer—and the ring is currently available in six metal types, none of them brass.) I picked the cheapest option, a trademarked type of stainless steel called celestrium.
I had a couple reasons for wanting a class ring. First, I wasn't planning on attending my PhD graduation in person (one of the main reasons: I had a three-month-old and a two-year-old, and didn't particularly relish the cross-country airplane travel). Acquiring a class ring was a nice, tangible milestone.
Second, the ring was arguably good for networking, because as such a recognizable ring, it could act as a conversation starter: "Oh, you went to MIT?" (Oh, you, toting babies and diaper bags, not in the full-time workforce, wasting your degree (as a friend once suggested), homeschooling your kids, you went to MIT? What happened?) Granted, in the two years since my graduation, I don't think I've received any such networking comments, but perhaps the ring is less recognizable in northern Idaho than it would be in, say, Boston.
Finally, I also wanted to remember that I was part of an exclusive club of over-achievers who had earned graduate degrees at MIT. On days when I felt overwhelmed by motherhood, the ring could be a reminder that I was capable of more than calming tantrums and making sure everyone was eating something vaguely nutritious a couple times a day; that on the long nights when I was comforting a baby mad at her hiccups or cleaning spit-up out of my hair, my life choices weren't a waste of my degree—no, indeed; I was a multitude, even if right then, my life looked, to the academic world, that I was just one more casualty of the "leaky pipeline". Not that any of these things were in doubt, but I acknowledge the effectiveness of tangible reminders.
(And of course: I'm not disparaging the enormous patience and people skills necessary to act as ombudsperson to a four-year-old and a two year old having it out over Lego tractors! I now appreciate my own mother's skills in that regard far more than I ever did before having kids of my own. Or the dexterity and balance needed to simultaneously nurse an infant, spoonfeed yogurt into one child's distracted mouth, and chop the skin off apple slices for another child. I learned how to juggle bean bags when I was a teenager, but this feat of juggling kids is harder to master!)
A nice professorship
When signing off on my dissertation, one of my committee members said, "Now we just have to get you a nice faculty position!" It was a nice sentiment, to be sure. I appreciated that my academic mentors were invested in my career and wanted to help me find the tenure-track job of my dreams.
But at the same time, I heard the hidden assumption: that the academic track ought to be on my agenda. I had previously expressed disinterest in launching a startup immediately following graduation (a common path for many Media Lab grads), and I was good at being an academic. Academia it was. Or, failing that, perhaps a good industry research position. After all, what else was there?
Planning for academia
Academia is, arguably, very good at churning out future academics, whether all those students want to be academics or not. Coursework and research aside, opportunities to explore the academic world abounded: a panel on how to find a post-doc, a teaching certificate program (emphasis on teaching undergrads and grad students), a two-day seminar specially designed for women considering the academic career path. It was called Path of Professorship, since it had the laudable goal of getting more women onto… drumroll... the path of professorship.
I was unsure when I matriculated what kind of career I was after. (Protip: Have a plan, even if you change it later.) I enjoyed research—that's why I applied to grad school in the first place—so I figured I'd find something involving research: in academia, industry, for the government, somewhere. I liked learning things. I liked working on complex problems, understanding more about people and the world, and finding answers to my questions.
Fortunately, with increasing recognition that many students (upwards of half), won't stay in the ivory tower, there's increasing discussion around how to help students prepare for non-academic jobs. The Media Lab valued and promoted entrepreneurship as an alternative; there were numerous classes and programs aimed at helping students start companies. Media Lab alums were regularly invited back to share their stories. I had the benefit of seeing a wide range of potential career paths. There were still assumptions, mostly unvoiced, about what career paths were better than others, but at least in the Media Lab, it wasn't assumed that the academic path was necessarily the best.
I was great at being an academic. In my final years as a PhD student, I successfully juggled my new baby with writing papers, debugging code, carting robots to schools for my experimental studies, and mentoring undergraduates. I documented my work in an effort to help future grad students in the lab. I kept up with recent papers in my field, went to conferences, and networked. I did all the things a hopeful lifelong academic would do in grad school to have the best shot at the tenure track.
Given all that, even with the other options available, maybe it's obvious why someone would peg me as future faculty.
I did seriously consider pursuing professorship. There were many appealing aspects. I could work on cool new research, I could keep writing papers, I could teach stuff to enthusiastic young people, the whole deal. I'd be good at it.
But I wouldn't be happy.
Examining my values
One professor I worked with openly admitted to being a workaholic. I had seen other professors' calendars: wall-to-wall meetings, seminars, classes, reviews, grading; it was never-ending. One professor put careful boundaries on his time on campus (he left every afternoon at the same time to pick up his girls from school); most did not.
I knew what academic life would be like. The cycles of grant writing, research studies, paper submissions. Some of it was appealing; some of it wasn't. Long hours. Countless deadlines.
As a student, I was careful with my time. I made sure I went home at a reasonable time each day. Never pulled an all-nighter. Went hiking with my husband. I didn't let work become my life, because it wasn't. It was only part of my life.
When I was approaching the end of my PhD, my husband and I moved our family to Idaho. This move coincided with another big milestone: our second child. After those two milestones, no matter what I ultimately planned for my career, I was going to take some time off. (Everyone I told heartily approved.) With my time off, I started a garden, I started a blog, I began crafting again, I read more, wrote more, and so much else.
When some time had passed, it was time to reevaluate. What did I want from my life and career?
Flexibility and family
A fun exercise: imagine you're at the end of your life looking back. What would you wish you had spent more time doing? Less time doing? Who would you wish you had spent more time with?
Now fix your life to line up with those priorities.
As fun, engaging, and challenging as my research was, it couldn't compare to raising my children—especially while they were so young. Have you seen the delight in a child's face as they're learning about the world? The first time they catch a ladybug and let it crawl up their arm? The look of concentration when figuring out what size rock gets the biggest splash when thrown in the river? Or even how thrilled a six-month-old baby is to simply see his mom's face?
Randy and I share many values, in particular about education, freedom, and family. It mattered to us that our children would be homeschooled, like I was. I knew I didn't want a full-time, out-of-the-home career—it was incompatible with how we wanted to raise our children.
Furthermore, the parts of grad school, and research more broadly, that I enjoyed most were learning, discovering, asking questions, and solving problems. I enjoyed writing about my ideas. Programming robots was equal parts fun and frustration; running studies, the same. I liked working with children. I loved learning how people worked, finding out more about perception, human development, human cognition, decision-making, emotion, belief. Many of these things I had enjoyed when studying cognitive science at Vassar prior to grad school, and in my non-fiction reading even before that (did I ever tell you about the time when, as a teenager, I read a textbook on consciousness just for fun?). None of it required me to pursue a full-time research career.
I valued flexibility. I didn't want someone else to set my schedule (I enjoyed my internships at NASA, and sure, I often treated grad school like a job with semi-regular hours, but no 9-5's for me, thanks). I valued change for what it could teach me; I valued growth from new experiences. I knew what academic life would be like—and, like the moment I decided to study abroad in college, I knew it was time to move on from the familiar into the unknown.
Not so different
As I wrote last week, I aim for excellence over success. Pursuing excellence in my daily life requires a hybrid path: mothering my children, writing, working. I follow my curiosity and approach life with sincerity.
Although I am not actively programming robots now, I'm involved in scholarly work. I joined the Ronin Institute as a research scholar. I consult on tech, design, and learning for non-profits and businesses. I write: academic papers (e.g., this one), this blog, and other projects, including a book that's under submission to publishers via my agent.
I work and play with children—and as a bonus, I don't have to give them back at the end of the experiment! I'm increasingly convinced that no one ought to study children's psychology or developmental psychology without also being a parent. You get such a closeup view of the process of development. Seeing the day to day change is fascinating. It's one thing to read about how children develop theory of mind and metacognitive skills, or how children resolve disagreements during play; it's another to watch my 4-year-old reasoning with my 2-year-old about why she ought to give him back a toy, or explaining to her how seeds need water and dirt and sun to grow.
I read about all the things that fascinate me—in the past year, for example, I've read books on urban development, geology, Buddhist meditation, gut bacteria, the beginning of the universe, the psychology of human morality, antifragility, organization, and more.
I garden, I do some professional photography, I try out new jam recipes, I raise my children.
I wear my brass rat to social events.
In short: I do a mishmash of activities I enjoy, pursuing excellence, playing, as I've always done.