excerpted from

*Concerns of Young Mathematicians*

Volume 4, Issue 38

December 5, 1996

An electronically distributed digest for discussions of the issues of  concern to mathematicians at the beginning of their careers.

Life After Academia
Michael Sand
mdsand@ccgate.hac.com

I would like to share with YMN readers some of my experiences after working in industry for a few months.

After obtaining my Ph.D. from Berkeley in 1994, I was fortunate to get a one- year position at UC Riverside. I got an extension for another year, but that was as long as the university would extend the type of position I had. I went through the motions again and applied to 180 schools. I landed one interview for a job at a tiny school for which I was turned down. I was relieved, because by this time I was not so sure I wanted to stay in academics. The prospect of teaching three or four classes a term, maintaining a research program and earning an academic salary for my efforts was rapidly losing its appeal.

Having decided to work in industry, I managed to get a job in a software lab at Hughes Aircraft Company. I had essentially no software experience, but I was fortunate to find managers who were interested in my general problem solving abilities as opposed to any specific knowledge I might have.

How is this job different than my two years at UCR? I am now focused on solving whatever particular problem is in front of me, as opposed to worrying about building a career by writing enough papers and going to the right conferences. The work I do now has an immediate effect and there is no doubt about the motivation for looking at a problem. I no longer have to make a judgment about the value to my career of a problem, since essentially the problems are given to me. This aspect of industry bothers a lot of academicians, but not me. I am fortunate to have managers who want to be told if I am getting bored with my work. So far this hasn't happened. I also find that I collaborate with far more people now than I ever did in academics. It takes the knowledge and experience of several hundred people to produce a modern avionics system.

There are other differences as well. One was the interview. Basically, I just chatted with a few people for a couple of hours and attempted to convince them I could be useful. Hughes then made a decision about me within a few days. This is quite different from the standard academic ordeal in which an interview can be a one or two day event and the decision process can last for months. Another difference is the salary. A look at the salary survey in the December Notices will give you an idea of the disparity between academics and industry. Another minor point, I found my job with about 25 resumes over a two month period.

The work itself so far has been sufficiently challenging. I have been assigned to a project for which the basic software has been written. My job involves investigating problems in the functioning of our system. Very often the solution involves some modification of the code. Even so, I do not consider myself to be a programmer since the main part of the work is analyzing problems, as opposed to writing code. Programming is a similar portion of my job now as using TeX was in an academic job.

A significant change is that I no longer need to split my time between the two very different activities of teaching and research. Certainly there are opportunities to teach within an industrial setting, but it is no longer part of my main function. This has two benefits. The most obvious is that I can focus my energy on problem solving. Even mediocre teaching requires a fair amount of effort. The second benefit for me is that I was never able to make my idealistic notion of what university level instruction ought to be mesh with the reality of being judged by student  evaluations. (Mine always ranged from high praise to scornful disdain.)

Despite these differences, I have found that many of the skills honed in my academic career apply directly to industrial work: problem solving; understanding complex structures; continuously acquiring new knowledge and expressing technical ideas verbally and in writing.

The bottom line is that I am happier in my current job than I would have been in an academic position. For me, the terrible academic job market was a blessing in disguise.