Academic transitions are one-way only: Reflecting on my first Reddit AMA

TL;DR: I thought it would be easy to get back into academia if I wanted to, after ‘temporarily’ moving into industry. This doesn’t happen, unless you’re very good or very lucky.

Ten weeks ago, on January 14th 2016, I took part in my first ever Reddit AMA on the Science sub-reddit.

John Hammersley Overleaf Reddit AMA Photo

Performing the customary ‘pose with paper’ to announce my Reddit AMA 🙂

The focus was on my transition from academia to industry to scientific start-up, but the questions covered a much wider variety of topics, from my favourite mathematical theorems and whether I was related to the great John M Hammersley (I’m not, as far as I know), to open science and questions on the future direction of academic publishing. You can read the full AMA Q&A on The Winnower here: https://dx.doi.org/10.15200/winn.145277.76794

Reflecting back on the event itself…I don’t think I’ve had a more intense three hours sat typing at my computer, certainly not one where I didn’t really know what to expect in advance.

I’d been lucky enough to know two people who’d already taken part in their own AMA’s, and their advice was to aim to answer one question every 3-4 minutes – otherwise you’d risk getting stuck churning over draft answers to one particular question and only getting through an handful by the end of the ‘hour’.

I just about managed to stick to this, although I found it hard to keep my answers short and avoid copious re-writing all the time. In reality I also spent an hour or so beforehand preparing and an hour or so afterwards finishing off, although I think that’s still pretty quick by AMA standards.

I’m writing this blog post because one question reminded me of a misconception I had when I left academia, which I think is probably fairly common:

I thought it would be easy to get back into academia if I wanted to, after ‘temporarily’ moving into industry. 

This doesn’t happen, unless you’re very good or very lucky.

This is the exact question from gyoenastaader:

Dr.Hammersley,

I finished my PhD about a year ago and was fairly sick of the academic environment, but I did not really want to leave as I still loved research and teaching. The whole grant proposal farming became too much.

When I decided to leave for the industry I was told by a few mentors/professors that once I leave academia, it is almost impossible to get back in. I now work for an engineering consulting firm where we do very little research, but I would like to get back into academia at some point.

Any advice?

What I realized after the AMA was that I’d had this very same advice at the time I left academia, but fell into the classic trap of thinking the advice didn’t apply to me, that I knew something different, that I was somehow special, and that I’d be able to get back in if I wanted to…

With the benefit of hindsight, and a little more understanding of how competitive academia really is, I can see how unlikely this was. I was lucky enough to go work for a company that encouraged research, and could probably have got back into academia in that field (which was completely different to my PhD), but that’s not what I was thinking when I left. It was also not what I was thinking when I wrote my reply to gyoenastaader (see below). I assumed that if I wanted to continue my PhD research, I’d be able to…that I’d somehow be able to get a post-doc despite doing no research in that area for years, that my work in industry would somehow count for me rather than against me…

Like I say, with hindsight, I now realize just how naive I was.

Thankfully I’ve been lucky enough to embark on an amazing new adventure with Overleaf these past three years, and although I do look with some envy as new results are discovered in a field I could have continued in, I do feel like I’m doing my bit to help further science and research with Overleaf.

Let’s see what the next few years bring – and of course in my new ‘naive’ state, I still believe I’ll be able to get back into research at some point, somehow. Old habits (and dreams) die hard.

For completeness, here’s my full answer to gyoenastaader:

I would have to agree with your mentors/professors on this – from what I’ve seen, it’s very hard to get back in to academia once you’ve left, unless you’re planning to start again with a PhD in a different field.

Why is it so hard? Not only will you be less up to date on your former research (except in the two cases mentioned below), you’ll be competing with all those who completed their PhD whilst you were in industry.

What would help? In order to get back in, I think you’d either have to (1) do it pretty quickly, within a year or so of leaving (in which case you’ll still be pretty up to date and the competition for places won’t have expanded too much), or (2) be working for a company that lets you (and encourages you) to publish papers on the research you’re doing for them.

Doing (1) is very hard unless you were specifically going on a short break to begin with (i.e. taking time out to go travelling), as it takes time to get a job and work in it long enough to realize you want to move back.

Doing (2) depends very much on the company you go to – when I left academia to work on driverless cars, we were still writing research papers with collaborators at universities (and indeed some of my colleagues were working for the company as part of their PhD), and so all the time there I felt like there was the opportunity to move back into academia if I wanted to.

So if you want to move back into academia I’d suggest finding a company that has close ties with a nearby university and which encourages the publication of papers – if it works out, that should provide you with an opportunity to make the move back in (if you still want to at that point!).

I hope that helps, and good luck, whatever you choose!