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Motivation in Academia vs Industry

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I’ve been in industry working as a data scientist for a year now after leaving academia. By all measures I can think of, it’s been a good year. I got lucky with having a great manager, I’ve gotten a bunch of experience and learned a lot, I work at a place where doing good work means actually helping sick people, and I even lucked out with a promotion, allowing me to try out a slightly more managerial position so I get to see how I like those responsibilities while still making my own development contributions.

However, I wanted to revisit my appraisal of my life in academia vs industry. Rereading my previous post about this, I agree with everything I said. On the whole, the issues I had in academia aren’t an issue in industry, and overall I still can’t imagine going back to academia.

But I’ve been thinking lately about what’s been the biggest tradeoff for me: the motivational structure. With academia, there are a bunch of somewhat quantifiable metrics that are often looked at to approximate how much you’ve accomplished as a scientist - your number of first-author publications, h-index, etc. Of course there are issues with these metrics, and a lot of controversy around how much weight is put on them to judge a scholar. However, one thing I’ve realized is that (at least for me) they are incredibly effective motivators.

It feels incredibly good to get a new first-author publication when that is the main metric by which you’re judged. It goes on your CV, and that accomplishment will follow you wherever you go. Every citation it accrues goes down on a sort of permanent record of achievement for you. It feels a lot like building something, where every incremental piece adds up.

There’s no real equivalent in industry. When a project is completed, it might come up between you and your manager in your performance review. If it’s a big project, you might put it on your resume to help the next time you’re looking for a job.

This motivational structure for academia is a double-edged sword. It gave me a sense of purpose and progression, quantifiable goals and accomplishments. However, it was a bit too effective. I didn’t take much time off because I wanted to keep moving towards that next publication. I felt guilty reading if it wasn’t reading something I hoped would give me a new project idea for a quick publication. And of course, when there was a big set back in my project, it would take a big psychological toll.

I’ve been trying, both at work and in my private life, to find things that will help give me some of this sense of progression and purpose. I’ve had mixed success - certainly I’ve found some things motivating and rewarding in a similar way, but not in as sustained a way as publications were when I was an academic. It just seems to take more effort to find these things.

A probably healthier way of looking at things is with a growth-mindset - that it’s the skills I’ve gained and lessons learned that are important, not the specific accomplishments I’ve made. But growth is hard to measure, and it’s often hard to see how far you’ve come. It’s hard to get super excited about growth.

On balance I certainly still think the move to industry was doubtless the right one for me. The same lack of a super motivating goal also makes it much easier to leave work at work and have a better work-life balance. But this is probably the biggest issue I’ve struggled with since the shift. It was something I worried about before leaving, and that worry has turned out to be justified.

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