Do you regret leaving academia? Part 2.
Is it worth making the switch?
[Some of you might have received this yesterday. If so, sorry for the duplication. We’re tracking down a technical gremlin. Brendon & Patrick]
Do you regret leaving academia? Is it worth it?
My only regret about leaving academia is that I didn’t do it sooner. I enjoyed grad school for the most part, and the first couple of years of being a professor. But I was unhappy for a lot of my time as a professor, for a whole bunch of reasons. I regret that I didn’t have the courage or the wherewithal or the imagination or whatever else was necessary to leave.
As you might imagine, Patrick and I tend to run around with some people who have left academia, are happy they did, and have no regrets. “Confirmation bias” is our middle name. It’s worth mentioning the blindingly obvious point, though, that your mileage might vary. I know of at least one person who left academia, went into business, had a mixed bag of hard times and some big success, and really regrets leaving. He was happier doing the academic thing, wishes he could return to what he had, and now he can’t. As my wife, who is a tenured professor, just reminded me about 5 minutes ago, in the middle of a pandemic with the economy unwinding, unemployment rising, and uncertainty everywhere all the time, being a tenured professor feels relatively comfortable (but no doubt being an adjunct feels worse than ever -- where you are on the academic food chain is everything). I mention both of these examples simply to say that what can get lost in the headiness or optimism that Patrick and I have about our choices, is that leaving is not always the right choice for some people. It’s not necessarily the cure for whatever’s ailing you. It’s not easy, it’s not always clear, it may not be happy or good for you. I live by the motto that the biggest risk is taking no risk. But it’s not all butterflies and unicorns. In fact, not being an academic might suck for you.
Because I live with a professor, I vicariously get a taste of the highs that come with a great class or a scholarly breakthrough, the lows of rejection and grading papers, and the in-between of the grinding routine of every semester. I’m happy for her when she finishes another paper, I enjoy brainstorming with her about a syllabus or class she is teaching, and I admire her fortitude and energy down the backstretch of the semester, but I don’t wish it for myself. Every now and then, to be sure, I’ll recall an old idea or argument, replay it in my mind, and get a nice little tingle up the back of my mind. Or I’ll think about a class that I used to teach, and wish that I’d done it differently -- “if I were to do that again, I’d do x, y, and z, and forget all of that other stuff…” In the last few years, I’ve taught two courses at a local university. I certainly had a few intellectual and pedagogical highs, but both experiences mostly reminded me how much I enjoy doing other, non-academic things. Academia for me is like an old relationship that didn’t work out -- I remember some of it unhappily, some of it with a kind of fuzzy fondness, and some of it not at all. I don’t regret leaving it. And I am not interested in rekindling an old flame...
I sometimes wonder if I would have sped up my departure if I’d understood the concept of “opportunity cost”. I suspect that economists and management consultants have long since internalized this concept (and maybe everyone else, for that matter), but I was reading poetry and doing, well, whatever -- I didn’t get the memo. If you are like I was, here: opportunity cost is the loss of possible gain (e.g., time, money, pleasure, etc.) from choosing to do one thing, and not the alternative(s). Here’s the link to Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opportunity_cost.
Let’s take a simple example. Let’s say you’ve been in graduate school for a few years, and you’ve got a few years ahead of you before you’re done with your dissertation. All in, 5 years. Your university has waived the tuition and you’ve got a stipend of $10K/year to live on. You also teach several sections, do some tutoring, and have a few hours at the library circulation desk. You’re getting by, working hard, you’re receiving words of encouragement from your professors, and you’re generally happy and satisfied. The prospect of a tough job market in a few years worries you (2 recent PhDs in your department got job offers this year, but the other 5 who went on the market didn’t), and you’re not sure how you’re going to make ends meet next summer, but life is basically good. And when you’re done, at the very least you’ll have your PhD, which is no mean feat. In fact, it’s a hell of an accomplishment, one to be proud of forever and one that’s chock-full of cultural capital (to say nothing of knowledge and a rich set of skills) that you can tap for the rest of your life. It’s a big deal.
What is the opportunity cost of this 5-year project? Everyone’s mileage will vary in this kind of “what if?” exercise, of course, and I’m sure that you can imagine a lot of alternatives. One alternative is simply that during that 5-year period of time you could have been doing something else and perhaps earning more money. It’s easy to compare, say, living on $20K a year in graduate school and earning, say, $50K a year doing something else. $50K is bigger than $20K -- duh -- so $30K is an annual opportunity cost for being a graduate student vs. being someone else. That’s not nothing, of course, but there is actually more to it than that.
Let’s imagine that while you’re in graduate school, you don’t save a nickel. Why would you? You’re just trying to get by, finish the diss, and get a job as a professor. In the other scenario, where you’re earning more money, let’s say that you’re putting $500 a year in a Roth IRA, for retirement. What is that worth? Let’s do this exercise (you can do it yourself here: https://www.calculator.net/roth-ira-calculator.html). The person who puts nothing in her Roth IRA has $0 at the end of the 5 years. The person who puts $500 at the end of the year in her Roth IRA every year for 5 years, assuming a 6% investment return, will finish year 5 with $2,819 in her account. That’s not nothing, but maybe not very exciting, either.
What happens over a longer period of time? Let’s say our grad student who doesn’t save anything for 5 years then gets a job (yay!) and, on her 30th birthday on Dec 31 2020, puts $500 a year into a Roth IRA every year until she retires at age 65. She will put in a total of $17.5K over that time. Assuming a 6% annual return, she’ll retire with $55,717. Now, how about the person who didn’t go to graduate school, and had a 5-year head start on saving? On her 25th birthday on Dec 31 2015, she deposited $500 into her Roth IRA. She’s been doing it every year since, and she will do so every year until she, too, turns 65. She will have deposited a total of $20K into her Roth IRA over that time. Assuming a 6% annual return, she will retire with $77,381. So, that 5 extra years of deposits ($2500 total) is worth about $19.5K of additional earnings over the long haul.
My point is not that economics alone are the key to understanding opportunity cost. How much money you earn is not the be-all and end-all of these personal balancing acts and trade-offs. Nor is my point that everyone should open up a Roth IRA tomorrow, and plunk $500 into it every year until you’re 65. My point is that when considering different options and their costs, it’s useful to focus on both near-term and long-term costs and consequences, and that the longer-term consequences can be harder to identify, articulate and/or quantify. In the near-term, the difference in earnings in our scenarios is $30K annually. That’s meaningful, to be sure -- over 5 years that’s a difference of $150K between the two scenarios. Stop and ponder that for a second: 150k over 5 years is more than 7x what our grad student made at the beginning of this story. That equates to having the resources to live at the same level for 7 years reading, knitting, or watching Netflix. Hidden in all of this is the possibility that the magnitude of a given opportunity cost can increase over time. That’s the crucial point.
Real life is obviously more complicated than this kind of simple What If? scenario, and there are always more moving parts, some obvious and some less so. What I am suggesting is that the difficult, but very important part of weighing opportunity costs, is in the reckoning with magnitude-over-time. I’ve chosen salaries, and Roth IRA and $500 for this little story because numbers are concrete and easy to manipulate. It’s crucial to keep in mind, though, that opportunity cost is not just about numbers and money. At the heart of an opportunity cost calculation can be geography, family, time, pleasure, or any number of other factors that are important to you.
Oh, and a quick head’s-up: we are publishing our first paid post today! In it, Patrick answers the question, “How did you get your first non-academic job?” It’s a great “Howdunnit”! To read it, click the “Subscribe” button below and upgrade your subscription. To learn more about the upsides of a paid subscription, visit our “About” page (look up at the top right corner of this page).