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Retrospective on leaving academia for industry data science

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It's been two and a half months since I left academia to take a job as a data scientist in industry. Although I haven't been in my new job for very long yet, I wanted to check in with my current thoughts about whether the transition was worth it and the differences between working in academia and industry.

In a lot of ways, being an industry data scientist is a lot like being a post-doc. I'm paid to tackle intellectual problems, I have a lot of freedom in how I approach problems, and there is emphasis placed on professional development (attending conferences, etc.). Of course, there is a change of emphasis on what types of tasks I do - as an academic I spent a lot of time collecting data and writing, in industry the emphasis is more on doing analyses and communicating results verbally or through simple reports.

The problems I had in academia I no longer have in industry

I made the decision to do leave academia for a number of reasons, outlined in a previous post. The main reasons were that I was lonely, stressed out, and no longer found the research held any interest for me.

Being in industry, there's a lot less social isolation. It's rare that a day goes by where I'm not in some kind of meeting. While sometimes this can get frustrating when meetings seem unnecessary, I think a big part of the point of meetings is social. It's nice to get away from the desk and talk to people. I'm not the kind of person that often seeks out social interactions, and I think it's really good for me to be involved in various meetings.

In academia, it often felt like I alone had to figure out how to solve a problem (or come up with an idea) in isolation to save a project that might span years. The projects I've worked on in industry are just much less stressful. They tend to be smaller or have a much longer timeline. Perhaps most importantly, they tend to have more people involved so you can always get more input. The end product isn't a research paper, so often it makes sense to be a bit less rigorous if it means a quicker turn-around (depending on the needs of the project).

Perhaps most importantly, it's expected that you leave work at work. I have done small amounts of work on evenings and weekends since starting my new job, but it's seen as weird and definitely not expected. People will talk about how much they have to finish, but doing it on the weekend is still unthinkable for them. It keeps work from encroaching on my personal life, and keeps me from feeling guilty about working on other things for fun.

Industry isn't without its problems, but I find them easier to overcome

While most of the time I'm interacting with more people throughout the course of a project, one downside of industry is that I have to explain things to many more non-technical people. In academic science, everyone knows some stats and some programming, so it's usually pretty easy to explain the idea behind analyses to someone regardless of their specific field. Now, I find myself talking to HR people or nurses who lack any math or programming understanding. This can lead to some frustration and talking at cross-purposes.

However, the challenge of communicating with less technical people is just that - a challenge. I've always enjoyed explaining technical things in non-technical ways. It helps me to understand things when I'm forced to put it in simple terms. This is a bit more extreme - explaining sometimes complex algorithms and statistics to people who don't know the first thing about math or code. But it allows me to develop a skill to speak to a wider audience, and I think that's a good thing.

While projects are less stressful, the flip side is a feeling of less personal investment that makes it hard to feel passionate about projects. The projects can still be fun and interesting, but there isn't always a whole lot of deeper meaning in them. Relatedly, with academia, your work is in some ways open to the world. You get publications, maybe some media coverage, and are considered a recognized expert. Without going beyond your job, the same thing doesn't really happen in industry. I might get some publications due to my position, but media coverage (or any other sort of recognition outside of the company) is unlikely.

But once again, I find this issue much easier to deal with than the issues I had in academia. Though I have less passion for work projects, I have a lot more time and energy to put into my own personal projects. And this can be quite rewarding - I get to try different things, like coding silly twitter bots or writing data journalism pieces. I find I have a wider range of projects to work on for satisfaction than I did while an academic, where I felt like any side project should ultimately net me a publication.

A lot of clear benefits of industry

I've had moments of wondering if I really did the right thing by leaving academia (usually when some reward of academia is made particularly salient). However, the thought doesn't usually last long.

Simply put, I value the types of freedom an industry job gives me far more than the types academia does. I have less freedom now in terms of what specific projects I take on. However, I have much more freedom to define where I live, what industry I work in, and all of the freedoms involved in having a much more secure financial situation. There are also a number of different ways I could take my career - I could transition into a management position or stay closer to development/implementation. I could try freelancing or consulting. While I'm happy where I am right now, it's good to know that I have a lot of options for the future.

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