Lessons Learned

18 months ago I left my academic nest to see what I could discover in the wider world. Here is what I learned.

My skills are more valued than I could ever have imagined.

I am abnormally good at mathematics, it’s time that I admit that. In academia I tried to challenge myself intellectually by always choosing topics that pushed me – so I went towards applying my skills into biology – whilst also being aligned with my other interests (sports science, healthcare, how we learn, etc.).

This was a wonderful strategy for keeping my brain ticking over. But it is not the best strategy for obtaining an academic position. The disciplinarity of science resembles a caste, or more accurately a guild, system. You can only get a tenured position within your own crowd. I didn’t spend enough time showing the mathematically minded group that I was into developing tools for them – because I wasn’t – but I also didn’t really belong to the neuroscientists, or the sports scientists.

As an aside, I would like to point out that many of my friends pursued two-year postdoc positions in experimental labs in order to be able to obtain a tenured neuroscience position. They quite openly admitted, at least to me, that they had zero interest in what they were doing but to get a position in a biology faculty they had to be able to pretend that they could do real experimental work. End of aside.

I followed my own path – which included not publishing many of my resuls, because they seemed obvious and not so interesting to me – and ended up quite rightfully outside of academia. And now I continue on that path.

What is interesting is that I now find considerably more scope for pursuing that path than I ever did before. I thought that I needed to join the guild in order to be free. But actually there is a wider world which does not have my skills but is very happy to pay to access them.

There is probably a bit of insider bias at play here. I formerly was just one of many people good at mathematics. The École Normale Supérieure is one of the best places in the world to study mathematics. And now I learn just how rare these skills are in the wider world.

I love formalising systems. I love sitting down with one of my team and helping them to figure out the harder part of how their work interacts with that of the others. This is a task that they seem less able to do than I. For me, it’s a pleasure as well as being stimulating.

The fact that I have skills which extend far beyond the purely technical is almost priceless.

PhD programmes pay a lot of lip-service to how they contribute to real-world or soft skills. Many of them now insist that you take numerous courses in such skills before you are allowed to graduate. I am very much in favour of this practice. Although, in practice it seems to be poor at really teaching the students.

I, even before taking such classes, have always excelled at such soft-skills. I grew-up in a culture which values your ability to interact with other people above all other skills. I effectively ended up in psychology by spending the time, when other students were figuring out their maths homework, trying to figure out how they thought about the task. I love thinking about how people think. And I have been carrying out my own experiments on people around me since at least my mid-teens.

Thankfully, I don’t just excel at recognising the patterns. If that was it I would write papers and settle quietly into tenure somewhere. I am genuinely good with people. I like them and typically they come to like me.

This ability, combined with an understanding of deeply technical matters, is almost priceless in the wider world.

Building deep-tech products requires team work. Being able to lead such a team is a very rare skill. Academia selects for ability to pass exams. Tenure selects for ability to publish in a narrow field. Neither is conducive for team building, management or leadership. I have the technical background of a professor across multiple technical domains, but I seem also to be able to lead people on demanding technical projects.

This is amazing personal fun for me. And, due to its rarity, it is also highly prized.

My friends and acquaintances who struggled when they left academia did so for good reasons.

This is a harder section for me to write. Presumably the subjects may some day read it, and may even recognise themselves.

Many of my friends, who eventually left academia, struggled to find their feet. They were not able to value their own skills. Nor were they able to transmit to potential and actual employers where that skillset actually lies.

Given the number of projects I’ve worked on in the past year, I think I finally get it. Most of them struggled for very good reasons.

They typically struggle because,

  • they don’t know what they are good at
  • they don’t know how to actually deliver
  • they don’t tailor their time to what is required by their external partners
  • they don’t work well in teams
  • they are extremely set in their ways and ill-equipped to adaptation
  • their response to failure is to do even more of the same
  • they think they are a perfectionist, but it’s actually procrastination
  • they don’t recognise that there are some things that they are just not expert in

I’ll stop now, but I’ll come back to this list in a future post. I have been asked a number of times for advice to people transferring and I would dearly love to expand on this.

Alignment of interests is a beautiful thing.

Life doesn’t have to be a struggle. It’s ok to learn how to overcome adversity. But if you’re constantly banging your head against a brick wall, then maybe it’s time for a change.

The term in investor circles is ‘alignment of interests.’ I want to work with people whose interests align with my own. This just makes everything work more smoothly. Once you’ve lived this experience you will never want to go back.

I used to hear this phrase and think it was a cynical ploy coined by money men. It’s not. It can exist in any situation. I want to build the platform I am currently building at Fosanis. I already wanted to build almost exactly this technology before I joined the company. The guys needed somebody to build it. Hello! that’s alignment of interests.

Most people do not experience this in the workplace. They experience work as, I need money, you need some work done. I’ll do the work, you pay the money. That’s not a real alignment. It’s only partial at best.

However, many people will have some experience of joining a society or doing organised sports. Some of the members quite enjoy organising things. Others are more interested in participating. But all want the group or team to do the activity together. That’s an alignment. When it works well nobody feels overworked or taken advantage of.

Traditional academia is dead. It stinks of a Ponzi scheme.

One of my favourite reads of 2018 was Developer Hegemony. I’ve been recommending it to many of my friends. The basic premise of the book is a three tiered view of knowledge worker careers. The bottom tier are pragmatists. The middle tier – who drive the system – are idealists. And the top tier are opportunists.

There is no massive solution presented in the book. Each tier comes with a trade-off. Like me, the author, has worked at each tier in the system. My current position is somewhere between the idealist and opportunist tiers, but since I founded a company last year I can safely say I was also in the top-tier once. His biggest contribution is to describe the system and offer advice on how life feels no matter which tier you choose to occupy.

My feeling about academia now is that it has evolved into a very similar system. I read many articles during my time in academia which write of a pyramid-scheme. But I think it’s only now, separated from my idealism, that I finally accept this message.

Most of my close friends progressed at least as far as tenure-track in academia. A growing number have tenure at this point. But the treadmill has not slowed down! They are still not secure, and a number have subsequently left academia entirely.

These are people with academic tenure. Technically they have guaranteed salaries for the rest of their lives. And yet, they are quitting.

You can use any metaphor you like. The system is dying. The best people are leaving. And they are happier once they do so.

I am still doing academic work. I just do it differently.

A few weeks ago I was invited to talk at the alumni day for the BCCN here in Berlin.

I have an interesting track record with the Berlin BCCN. I was technically a member, but felt somewhat of an outsider at the time. My boss during my postdoc time formally forbade me from talking to other BCCN people. They all seemed like buddies of his, so for a long time I avoided them.

I also taught my own course at the BCCN. I had full authority over course content. And nobody else could in any way influence what I taught. This is a level of authority I am used to having from my early-career in Ireland. But it’s almost unheard of here in Germany. I was only a postdoc. Teaching the course gave me almost the status of a professor, with some of my colleagues, and my course was consistently the highest rated by the students.

Coming back to the alumni day, I was to discuss careers in industry. I took part in a panel of three academics and three industry people. The big discovery of the day was that, I and the Reader (a senior academic title in the UK) on the panel (who I have known for many years) have the most similar lives and outlooks on our work. The two postdocs are enjoying their work, without looking too far down the road ahead. And the two guys from industry are super happy to be doing technical work that they love without having to worry about managing teams or applying for funding.

We are all, basically, happy right now. If we weren’t we probably wouldn’t have taken part. There are many careers out there.

The Reader and I have gone the furthest towards choosing our own paths. We share very similar worries. We both actively enjoy implementing our ideas through our teams. And we both get a huge thrill out of taking our ideas and trying them out. It was very exciting to realise that I’m still living my life the way I always wanted to, I just worry less about publishing papers now.

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