def success(PhD): return ??

from a career academic & Psychology PhD transitioning to UX Researcher

(how I love python and its very readable syntax)

One of the things I learned in my transition into industry is that each company defines their KPI (key performance index)/success differently (i.e. one company can define retention rate using a different set of criteria from another company, even as the concept of “retention” is the same). It makes me think about how in academia, for the longest time — probably ever since grad school became “ a thing” up until the last few years — the only KPI for PhDs was getting a tenure track position at a college or university.

In fact, when I was applying to grad school 6 years ago, it was understood that no matter what your motive was for getting a PhD — that is, if it wasn’t “passion for doing specific xyz research”, you needed to swear on your ancestor’s grave that you wanted to be a professor. Because advisors and schools want to get good ROI by making you productive in research, and the only viable path to do that is to become a tenured professor (not adjunct, because you won’t get to do research or have secure employment; not researcher at hospitals or even in governmental agencies, because you might have to rely on precarious soft money).

“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham

Not everyone got the PhD because they wanted to be a professor, mind you. Some just somehow ended up in it, after working in labs for a while; some just wanted a free Master (you get paid as PhD and get the Master along the way; if you go to school for a Master degree then you have to pay); some wanted to buy some time before they figured out what to do with their life. (Also, no one I know went to grad school because they were “afraid of real life and wanted to be students forever”. Grad school is real life. We are students, but we are also teachers, researchers, mentors, advocates, among other things.)

As for me, I did want to be a professor, but not necessarily because of the prestige, or the opportunity to educate, etc. I just wanted to do research. I’m compulsively curious about human behaviors, have always wanted to work in the service of public interest, and sincerely enjoy the scientific process of experimentation and data analytics. Thus, academic research made the most sense at the time.

By now, you might have guessed that I did not become a tenure track professor. I did get a postdoc, which is seen as the necessary step these days before getting a professorship, but I quit halfway (leaving a really wonderful lab and boss) to make what would be the second biggest change in my life: entering the industry job market (the first was leaving Vietnam by myself to enter college in the U.S.). Why? Well:

(People who know me personally are familiar with my rants about the academic job market; maybe more about that in another post.)

So if we’re using the traditional KPI for academic research career, I would be considered “another one who bites the dust”. And I internalized that value for a long time. Leaving academia caused me a lot of anxiety, a sense of loss of identity, and the fear that I would have to start over at the ripe young age of 30. It took a few months, but I’m glad to say that I’m over it. I wanted to write a series of posts to detail my experience (leaving academia, determining what I should do next, finding a job) in case it helps those who are considering going down the same path. I also wanted to write to redefine success for myself, and for other PhDs who want to refuse the status quo KPI. Call it “reappraisal” if you will, but hey, if the greatest power humans have is the power of the mind, we should at least be able to define our own function of success. That is to say:

def success(PhD): return whatever_the_f_we_want_to_do