Ask us anything: when to give up (on a research project, and an academic career)

Today, three related questions from Andrew:

When is it appropriate to abandon a line of research? Is there a point of no return when you finish a project regardless of how lackluster the results have been or seem likely to be?

If it is appropriate to stop a project, how do you break the news to collaborators? And how do you deal with pressure from them to continue a project you no longer believe in?

When should you abandon the hunt for a tenure track job? What indicators warn you that obtaining a TT job is improbable? The data in this article indicate that the probability of obtaining a TT job declines to <1% 10 years post-PhD.

Jeremy: When to give up on research project is a very context-dependent judgment call, so it’s hard to give advice. I have an old post that posed a similar question to the commentariat, but didn’t get much feedback, unfortunately.

When to give up on the search for a TT job is a very personal decision. I decided to give up after four years–and then got lucky when Calgary offered me the job I currently hold. But had my personal circumstances been different, I might well have kept trying. I’d been getting multiple interviews/year for four years, a strong indicator that I was very competitive. Conversely, had my personal circumstances been different in some other way, or had I not been getting any interviews, I might’ve given up a bit sooner.

If you no longer enjoy what you’re doing, then you should look for something else to do. Don’t worry about wasting your PhD (you’re not, not even if your new career doesn’t require a PhD), don’t worry about letting anyone else down (it’s your life, not theirs), don’t feel like you’ve failed (you haven’t), and don’t feel that you’re settling for second best (you’re not).

Try to be clear-eyed about what sort of TT job you really want. For instance, if I recall correctly, Terry McGlynn has an old post at Small Pond Science arguing that many people who only apply for (and fail to get) TT jobs at research universities would be just as happy (and more likely to get hired) if they applied for jobs at teaching universities. Giving up on a TT job at Princeton or Stanford doesn’t mean giving up on a TT job.

Think about what else you want out of life besides a TT job. For instance, do you want to live in a particular place or type of place? A big part of why I gave up was that I really liked life in the city where I was a postdoc, and so did my wife, and she had a good job there. So I decided that, rather than moving again to continue chasing a TT job, I’d rather do something else so as to be able to stay in the same place (then Calgary called, changing the calculation). And of course, if you’re determined to live in a specific city or state, that’s going to make it difficult-to-impossible to get a TT job.

Learn about other options. You don’t want to keep chasing a TT job just because you have no idea what else to do, or because doing something else would seem like a scary leap into the unknown. We have a series of guest posts on non-academic careers for ecologists that might help. Starts here. But you don’t necessarily have to limit yourself to non-academic careers that will make use of your degree and skills in some obvious way. I know of a guy who left academic ecology to open a brewpub, and a commenter on an old post said that her backup plan was farming llamas. I suggest doing what I did: think about what you like about academia, and try to identify other careers that have those attributes.

Finally, regarding your odds of getting a TT job: ideally you want to estimate your odds. Not the odds of the average person. Different individuals can have very different odds, for all sorts of reasons. If you’re getting interviews, you’re competitive and your odds are reasonable. If you’re not getting interviews, ideally you want some information as to why not, so that you know how to improve your odds. Informal feedback from someone on the search committee is helpful (your supervisor may be able to get this for you, if he or she knows someone on the search committee). Comparing your cv to those of people who’ve recently been hired at the sort of place you would like to work can give you a rough sense of how you stack up, as long as you aren’t naive about it. (Thinking “Hey, I have X papers and didn’t even get interviewed for the job that John/Jane Doe got even though he/she only has X-3 papers! The search committee must’ve been full of biased morons!” is naive. See here and here if you want to know how faculty search committees actually work.) Asking your supervisor or some other experienced close colleague who knows you well and is familiar with the current job market to give you honest feedback is useful. But yes, if you’re an ecologist who is 5-6 years or more post-PhD, and you’re not getting interviews (phone interviews and/or on campus), your odds are probably pretty low and there’s a good chance they’re going to keep dropping.

Brian:  The first two questions are rather separate from the 3rd. When to give up on a project? It’s context dependent. If you’re early career and its not panning out, you may need to just optimal forage and move on to something you’re more certain will lead quickly to a paper. If its mid-late career and you’re convinced that you’re onto something even when its hard slogging and other’s don’t agree, well stick with it. That’s how a lot of Nobel prizes have been won. In short, if you can afford it, go with your scientific intuition about whether it is good/important work or not. If you’re early career you may need to be more pragmatic. But regardless of career stage, if you’re scientific intuition tells you it’s a loser, listen to that. Pursuing something further just because you already spent a lot of time on it is never a good idea – time is the main limiting resource for most scientists (of course that doesn’t mean you can’t ask yourself if you can’t get a quick paper but not killer paper out of what you’ve already done).

As for abandoning the pursuit of a tenure track job, that’s a tough one. Of course the ideal is you get good mentorship and guidance so that you don’t make this decision far down the road but are steered in alternative directions earlier. When that doesn’t happen, I think its a very tough decision. Jeremy is right that somewhere around the end of your 3rd postdoc, there starts being a stigma that will only compound the troubles. That said, I think being realistic about how far you’ve been making it into search processes is important. Actually being the one person to get a signed contract in a specific job on a specific campus has a lot of stochasticity. But making short lists, getting phone interviews, getting on-campus interviews are good signs. If those are happening with some regularity, then being persistent waiting for the right fit/stars aligning is rational (it becomes a bit of a lottery where you just have to play enough times). But if those things are not happening by your second postdoc (plus or minus one postdoc – i.e. that’s very approximate), then that is probably a strong signal. I think Jeremy’s reference to Terry McGlynn’s post is very relevant. And more generally, I think it is a question of how open you are. I hear people say they really want a tenure track job but then say they’ll only take a job in state X and at a research intensive university (or never at a research intensive university). That’s just not realistic in academia (unless you’re a superstar, and even then I don’t think its realistic, but might have a non-zero chance of happening). There are a lot of scoping questions to ask. Will you take a job anywhere in the US? Anywhere in the world? At any type of institution? or if not all types of institutions, then what types? This obviously has a big impact on how long you will have to wait/likelihood of getting a job. (Of course preferring a non-academic job if you can’t get an academic job in state X is a perfectly reasonable life choice – its just important to be realistic about how much you’ve upped the odds of “non-academic”).

So in summary, I think realistic assessments of whether you’re coming close or not (short lists, phone interviews, on campus interviews) and whether you’ve scoped yourself out of the job by where you don’t apply are two important questions to ask before deciding whether to look elsewhere.

18 thoughts on “Ask us anything: when to give up (on a research project, and an academic career)

  1. “Don’t worry about wasting your PhD (you’re not, not even if your new career doesn’t require a PhD), don’t worry about letting anyone else down (it’s your life, not theirs), don’t feel like you’ve failed (you haven’t), and don’t feel that you’re settling for second best (you’re not).”

    Wow. That about covered every bit of post-Ph.D anxiety that I’ve had/have. This is a bit off subject, but I was thinking about these thoughts exactly the other day, and wondering: where do they come from (especially given that they’re more universal than I thought)? My advisors and mentors are nothing by supportive, but these statements run across my mind and the minds of my peers often. I came to the conclusion that my own brain and self-inflicted pressure was to blame, but perhaps there are other factors at play.

    • “I was thinking about these thoughts exactly the other day, and wondering: where do they come from (especially given that they’re more universal than I thought)? My advisors and mentors are nothing by supportive, but these statements run across my mind and the minds of my peers often. I came to the conclusion that my own brain and self-inflicted pressure was to blame, but perhaps there are other factors at play.”

      Good question, to which I don’t know the answer. I’m sure in many (most?) cases it’s self-inflicted, at least in part. If you’re passionate about pursuing any goal, it can be hard to quit pursuing that goal, because you need to find some mental rationale for quitting that you can live with. Nobody wants to admit failure, or settle for second best, or feel that they’ve wasted years of their lives. I think the best solution to this is try not to get too invested in any goal in the first place. If you tie up too much of your identity and sense of self-worth in any one thing, you’re going to have a rough time if that one thing doesn’t pan out. For instance, I think I did a pretty good job of not getting too invested in the possibility of an academic career: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2011/07/19/advice-how-i-almost-quit-science/

      In other cases I’m sure the pressure is at least partially externally-inflicted. But I don’t have any idea as to the relative frequency or importance of self-imposed vs. externally-imposed sources of pressure. It can even be hard for individuals to decide this in their own lives. I vividly recall that back in high school I felt a lot of externally imposed pressure to achieve perfect grades. Looking back, I don’t think that pressure was real, or if it was it wasn’t nearly as severe as I thought at the time. Rather, I was putting a lot of pressure on myself, which made me waaaay over-sensitive to even the slightest bit of perceived external pressure.

    • I do think the fact that PhD’s are trained in academia has a strong impact on the implicit judgments one swims in. It is human nature to assume the path oneself took is a great path (a mixture of post hoc justification of life choices and a filter on those to whom it is a good fit). So while I think it is not malicious and just human nature, most professors have a pretty strong assumption that any deviation from their own path (not finishing PhD, taking PhD outside of academia, not becoming research scientist) is suboptimal. And they do genuinely want the best for their students so they wish their own path on their students.

      When you are a PhD student this is the only environment you get exposed to. But go hang out in a government agency (with PhD colleagues) and you’ll get a very different attitude towards academia! You’ll soon assume academics are those who can’t hack it in the real world and are impractical and live in the ivory tower.

      • @Brian:

        “most professors have a pretty strong assumption that any deviation from their own path (not finishing PhD, taking PhD outside of academia, not becoming research scientist) is suboptimal.”

        Are you sure that’s true these days? Especially for most faculty not employed by the very top research universities? My impression is that the attitude I expressed in the original post–it’s your life, etc.–is the majority attitude among faculty at this point.

        Maybe we should do a poll!

      • I think to really unpack this would take a lot of time and complexity. But a few thoughts:

        1) I do agree this is changing. I think younger faculty are much more likely to be broadly supportive of diverse trajectories. But I’m not sure this still adds up to a majority view in most departments yet.
        2) There is a difference between active and passive expression of views on this. I suspect most “be an academic” opinion holders are still pretty vocal. I suspect a lot of “follow your own path” people may say this one-on-one to their advisees but may not say it in public (in part because they are more junior – at least in my hypothesis).
        3) While a lot of people may say “follow your own path”, I don’t think many of them actually know much about let alone are able to advise and actively promote careers outside academia. This involves an explicit message in one direction and an implicit message in another that is ultimately a very mixed message.
        4) On some of the more extreme points – namely its fine to get a PhD and then go into a career that doesn’t use your PhD – I suspect that most academics have a pretty visceral, subconscious reaction against this, even among those who might say something different.

        A poll would indeed be interesting, but I’m pretty sure DE readers would be a very biased subsample. Maybe we could poll people on what their adviser or committee communicates to them to be more representative.

      • I think there are two possibilities here, and I am referring more about (seasoned, say after the 1st) post-docs more than PhD students or fresh PhDs. One possibility is that the postdoc has chances in academia (good CV, phone or campus interviews), but she decides to pursue another career. This is unlikely, but possible (it requires a certain courage to change careers after years of dedication to research and generally no or little experience with “normal” or different jobs), and in this case I think the majority of her advisor may go with the “it’s your life, you need to be happy”, but they would, openly or not, shake their head.
        The second possibility is that the postdoc does not have many chances in academia. In that case it is much easier for the advisor to support the “it’s your life, you need to be happy” view, but what else can she say?
        I agree with Brian that after hanging out in a govt agency you’ll get a different view/attitude towards academia. It surely changed my view.

      • @Brian:

        I think your #3 is the big one, by far.

        I try to deal with it by being open about it. I’m always quite explicit with my trainees (and prospective grad students) that I’m better able to advise them about academic careers than non-academic ones.* While making clear that it’s their life and I’ll do whatever I can to advise them on how best to pursue whatever path they choose. Which I’ve done in various ways. I’ve tried to put students in touch with people who are in the sorts of non-academic careers they (the students) want to pursue. I’ve supported a grad student of mine who took some courses on entrepreneurship from our business school during his PhD…

        *Which doesn’t indicate anything uniquely insular or ignorant about academics, by the way. Non-academics who’ve never been academics are a terrible source of advice about how to pursue an academic career. In general, people are only good sources of advice about how to pursue the career or careers that they themselves have pursued.

        “Maybe we could poll people on what their adviser or committee communicates to them to be more representative.”

        That was my thought on the potential poll as well–ask faculty what messages they give to their trainees, but also ask trainees what messages they’ve gotten from their supervisors and committee members.

      • @Simone:

        “One possibility is that the postdoc has chances in academia (good CV, phone or campus interviews), but she decides to pursue another career. This is unlikely, but possible (it requires a certain courage to change careers after years of dedication to research and generally no or little experience with “normal” or different jobs), and in this case I think the majority of her advisor may go with the “it’s your life, you need to be happy”, but they would, openly or not, shake their head.”

        If I was advising someone in that situation I would want to make sure that their choice to change career wasn’t based on a misreading of their chances in academia. It really would be a head-shaking shame for someone to abandon a career they wanted and had a good shot at succeeding in due to underestimating their chances of success. But if someone in that position knew they had a good chance of success and decided to move on anyway, I think and hope I’d be fully supportive, explicitly and implicitly. I don’t know that every scientist would take the same attitude, though I think and hope many would. I mean, I guess inside I might be slightly saddened. But I think that’s a natural human reaction to anybody deciding not to do something they’re really good at, or choosing one path over another. It’s only natural to wonder a little about what could’ve been. Be a tiny bit saddened at unrealized potential, even unrealized potential that becomes realized potential in some other area. Everybody wonders about, and is a bit wistful about, the road not taken (https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2013/01/16/the-road-not-taken-for-me-and-for-ecology/)

        There certainly are some faculty who take the decision of a promising scientist to leave science as an occasion to worry about the future of science as a whole. People who seem to think that the difficulty of getting a faculty position somehow selects against (rather than for) the people who’d be best at academic science. So they worry simultaneously about too many people trying to walk the academic career path, *and* too many people leaving the academic career path. I think that view’s mistaken in multiple ways. Fortunately, I do think it’s becoming less common.

      • Jeremy, I agree, nice points.
        As you and Brian have pointed out before, choosing academia is not just choosing a job (for instance, choosing to be a CPA is mostly choosing a job), as there a number of things necessarily associated with the academic life, at least early in the career: mostly not being able to choose where to live, salaries – especially in certain locations – not that great and others related to family life.
        As for “There certainly are some faculty who take the decision of a promising scientist to leave science as an occasion to worry about the future of science as a whole”, I am very confident that science won’t be worse off with more people leaving academia. There is an overproduction of very good scientists who for one reason or the other cannot find a job in academia. I believe increasingly tight funding would be a problem, but not fewer people who want to follow the academic route (to be clear, I think that for the jobs available there are more than enough people looking for jobs in the right tail of the distribution of academic quality).

      • @Simone:

        “(for instance, choosing to be a CPA is mostly choosing a job), as there a number of things necessarily associated with the academic life, at least early in the career: mostly not being able to choose where to live, salaries – especially in certain locations – not that great and others related to family life.”

        Hmm…lots of careers require some advanced training (including being a CPA), which is often costly to undertake (as opposed to paying a salary, even a modest one). And various careers require various sorts of sacrifices and trade-offs both earlier and later in one’s career. So I don’t know that academia is unique or even all that unusual in those respects. Although the length of the apprenticeship period is unusually long compared to other careers I know about.

        “I think that for the jobs available there are more than enough people looking for jobs in the right tail of the distribution of academic quality”

        I completely agree.

      • I was using CPA as an example of a “normal” job that can allow you to work in the place you live in or several other places you’d like to live (as opposed to wouldn’t mind to live). It is quite unusual to have a job that allows you to work in one or two places (since it is quite difficult to get a job offer from 10 different universities, and it is not always true that people send applications for jobs in places in which they’d like to live, speaking in generalities here, but you get what you can get).
        It is far from being the only job that implies that, but it is quite unusual (for the US, in Europe it would be highly unusual).

      • “I was using CPA as an example of a “normal” job that can allow you to work in the place you live in or several other places you’d like to live (as opposed to wouldn’t mind to live).”

        Ah, ok, I’m with you now. Yes, in most (not all) careers one can pursue one’s career successfully while retaining a lot of choice about where to live. That’s generally not true in academia.

  2. Pingback: Why I “gave up” on a TT job. | ecoroulette

  3. Just found Meg’s link to data on time to TT job from a recent ASLO survey:

    https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2014/02/21/friday-links-20/

    In ecology, the median time from PhD to tenure track job has actually *decreased* since the 1980s. The median used to be 4-7 years, but since the 1990s it’s been about 3 years. Speculating here: that may be because the shape of the distribution is changing. I wonder if nowadays, people either get a TT job within a couple of years of their PhD, or spend a long time as postdocs before giving up. Or maybe not even that long–maybe a lot of people give up sooner than they used to, because it’s now widely recognized that your odds are low if you’ve been a postdoc for about 5 years or more?

  4. Pingback: You can’t estimate your odds of getting a faculty job from common quantitative metrics | Dynamic Ecology

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