Low Dimensional Topology

January 13, 2015

Dispatches from the Dark Side

Filed under: Misc. — Jesse Johnson @ 2:49 pm

As some readers of this blog will have already heard, I left my position at Oklahoma State this summer to become a software engineer in Google’s Cambridge/Boston office. My decision to leave academia for the private sector (aka the Dark Side, as certain mathematicians who I won’t name like to call it) was the result of a number of years of soul-searching, research, toe-dipping, etc. In this post, I want to share my experiences for the sake of any young Ph.D.s or current graduate students who are grappling with this same decision. (Disclaimer: The views expressed below are my own and were not endorsed or approved by my employer.)  I’ll focus on software-related jobs, since that’s what I know about, though most jobs for mathematicians these days will probably involve a fair amount of programming anyway. (Also, here’s some additional required reading for anyone finishing up a Ph.D.: The Fame Trap.)

For the record: When I was in graduate school, I had no intentions of doing anything but becoming a math professor. Things didn’t change during my postdoc either. In fact, even in the spring of 2009, as the financial crisis was eviscerating the job market and unemployment was staring me grimly in the face (until Bus Jaco somehow convinced the right people to let me fill the vacancy created when Joseph Maher left OSU, but that’s another story…) my last-minute applications were all for one-year visiting lecturer positions.

At the time, my assessment of the private sector  vs. academia was pretty bleak: Your salary is higher, but the price you pay for that is longer hours at a mind-numbing job with a micro-managing boss. But it turns out, things aren’t actually that extreme. In fact, there are a lot of nice things about the private sector, that make the comparison much more subtle, even if you take money completely out of the picture.

First, lets talk about working hours: Many youngsters (and non-academics) point to the flexible schedules and long holidays as one of the perks of academia. But by the time you make it into the ranks of the tenure-track, it becomes clear that the flexibility just means that you get to pick which 60 (80?) hours a week that you work. And vacations are the times when you get to work on your real work (research) or else feel guilty for not doing all the writing that you didn’t get done during the semester.

In the private sector, on the other hand, policies regarding time vary quite a bit. I’ve heard that there are some jobs where you’re expected to be in the office 12 hours a day, whether or not you have anything to do. But there are many more companies (including Google and most of its peers) that value work-life balance and have policies that explicitly try to discourage their employees from working harder than is healthy for them. They don’t just do this because they’re nice people – they do it because they want to prevent burn-out, which in the long run counteracts any extra productivity that would come from an 80-hour week. (Don’t believe me? There are books about this.) I spend around 40 hours a week in the office and almost never bring work home. Some of my new colleagues work longer hours than that, but overall I think the attitude towards work/life balance is much healthier.

So this brings up an interesting point: As great as it is to be completely in charge of your own day-to-day and longer-term activities, there are actually some benefits to having a manager who is aware of and has a stake in your daily work: Namely, they can take a more objective view of what you’re doing and help to make corrections, such as pushing back against your self-applied pressure to work harder than is healthy. Granted, not all managers will do this, but if you find the right job at a good company, they likely will. (Google makes all managers go through training on this sort of thing, and I expect there are similar policies at many other companies.)

Next, about the “mind numbing” work: No, the work that I do is not as deep or as beautiful as the mathematics that I previously got to learn and think about. It doesn’t require the sorts of insights that come to you surprisingly at random times, and double you’re pulse rate even though you haven’t moved. It doesn’t require thinking about a problem during every spare moment for days or weeks or months. But it is quite interesting, and exercises most of the mental muscles that one works so hard to develop in a math graduate program.

In particular, it turns out that (at least in my experience) writing a computer program is a lot like writing a math paper, or a proof: You start with an overview of the thing that you want to produce, at a high-level of abstraction. Then you break it up into smaller pieces, and work out the details of each piece at a low-level of abstraction. Then you start putting these pieces together, slowly working from lower levels of abstraction to higher levels. Sometimes, you realize that they don’t fit exactly right, so you have to drop down to a lower level of abstraction to change some of the components before working your way back up.

It turns out that the ability to switch between different levels of abstraction like this is highly prized and relatively rare, even though it’s sometimes taken for granted in academia. It’s basically the same skill that you need to read and write proofs in mathematics (which is the reason I believe that math majors/Ph.D.s can make better software engineers than computer science students. But don’t tell anyone I said that…) Programming is basically this process with some syntax (which is the easy part) layered on top.

In mathematics research, the fun part is coming up with the ideas and the painful part is organizing them into a paper. In software engineering, coming up with the ideas that will solve a given problem (or determining that it can’t be solved) is usually pretty straight forward, if not trivial, by putting together ideas that have already been worked out by others. But implementing them (i.e. writing source code) is quite interesting, and significantly less painful (at least in my experience) than writing papers. Getting the pieces of a computer program to fit together tends to take a lot more time, even for very simple systems, because you can’t gloss over the details as much as you do in a math paper, but it also makes it more interesting.

So the difference between a mathematics research project and developing a complex piece of software is (again) a trade-off. For me, it comes down to how much you enjoy grappling with nearly unsolvable problems, versus how much you dislike writing papers. (And if you actually like writing papers, then lucky you…) There’s also something to be said for being able to know, at the outset of a project, that there is a solution and roughly how long it will take to finish it.

And, of course, in the private sector you generally don’t get to teach. For some this may be a drawback, and for others, maybe not. For me it was yet another trade-off – there were a lot of things I liked about teaching, and other things I didn’t. One thing I didn’t like was the constant tension between time/energy spent on teaching vs. research.

Finally, no discussion of an academic career would be complete without a discussion of committees. I actually enjoyed much of the time I spent in committee meetings discussing important questions about how the department should be run. These were usually questions that needed to be made, and required the sort of experience and insights that could only come from faculty members. Sometimes we spent more time than we needed to splitting hairs, or discussing issues that didn’t deserve the amount of time we devoted to them. But overall, I think most of the committees I had a chance to experience served an important purpose.

At the same time, they required a lot of time, and that time increases every year, as you lose the protections designed to give pre-tenure faculty time for research. So it’s not uncommon, as your academic career progresses, for research (which for me was one of the main draws of an academic career) to become a smaller and smaller part of your day-to-day activities.

In the private sector, on the other hand, decisions tend to get made more quickly and with less discussion. I have very few meetings at Google, and most last less than half an hour. Other people (such as managers) spend much more time in meetings than I do, but they work hard to keep them short and to the point. In general, a lot of the types of decisions that are left to faculty in academia are delegated to specialists or managers in the private sector. This obviously has both benefits (in terms of time) as well as drawbacks (in terms of control.)

So, that should give you a rough idea of the factors I considered when I decided to leave academia. I want to stress that these are all trade-offs, and how you weigh them is a personal decision. There are many mathematicians who would be happier in academia, but there are also many who would do better in the private sector.

While it may be scary to think of all the bright young minds that academia could lose to the private sector, my experience suggests that there were won’t be a shortage among the mathematicians who stay. In fact, I would argue that having such a high ratio of job seekers to jobs is much worse for the morale of the field, makes it easier for administrators to replace tenure lines with contingent faculty positions, and ends up forcing many promising young mathematicians to leave against their will anyway. If more recent Ph.D.s choose to go into the private sector, then the ones who stay will tend to be the ones who are particularly devoted to teaching (on top of their excellent research programs) which is what our universities need. Having the remaining math Ph.D.s go out into the world (willingly) and show how capable they are will both help justify the NSF grants that contributed to their education and encourage more students to enter math graduate programs, or become math majors.

When I was a graduate student, I didn’t take an objective look at the option of entering the private sector, and I don’t think many of my peers did either. But my impression is that attitudes about this are starting to change, both among students and faculty. I hope that in the future, every young mathematician will give serious thought to both options, and will be able to make a well informed decision.



  1. One of my friends has either worked for herself or in various forms of industry her entire life. She spent a few years teaching at a university in NYC and called it “the most emotionally draining work in my life”. :) That said, I’m glad things are working out for you Jesse. Try not to do any evil.

    Comment by Ryan Budney — January 13, 2015 @ 4:26 pm | Reply

  2. Thanks for making this post, Jesse. I definitely have a hard time imagining myself in anything but a research-focused academic position, but looking at the job market, trends in placements among my graduating peers, and the fates of your and my advisor’s past students, it’s unrealistic to rely on this, which is also a viscerally difficult truth to come to terms with. Morale, as you noted, is low, egos run high, and between the two there seems to be an infinite amount of room for growing despair.

    Comment by George M — January 13, 2015 @ 7:19 pm | Reply

  3. My husband Tim and I finished PhDs at the same time and same place. He went directly to industry (high tech), me to academia. Tim has never looked back. He does not miss writing papers over every holiday, or the pressure to obtain grants. His job has also been high pressure at times, but he has been paid better from the start. His company is flexible, allowing him to work remotely during my sabbaticals, and our move to middle-of-nowhere Utah. Tim has actual vacation days, rather than cramming vacations in between semesters or at the end of a conference. On the flip side, now that he has been working in the same high tech company for more than 10 years, he finds himself in more and more meetings — like six hours per day of meetings, which is not his favorite. But Jesse is completely right that there are trade offs, and lots of good in both choices. Me, I mostly love my academic job, especially working with students, and nailing down the details on a hard research paper. But when students ask about career paths, I find myself sharing Tim’s career path and experience nearly as often as I share my own. Working for industry has been really good.

    (Full disclosure: Tim’s PhD is in computer science, which doesn’t seem to have the same stigma as math in terms of leaving academia. Nearly every one of his fellow students in grad school took great jobs in industry rather than academia. We mathematicians may need to get out more.)

    Comment by Jessica Purcell — January 13, 2015 @ 11:55 pm | Reply

    • That’s good to hear that you’re both happy with the (different) decisions that you made. Many people who go into industry seem to be happy in the long run, but few of them get to compare their experience directly with an academic career track (and vice versa).

      Comment by Jesse Johnson — January 16, 2015 @ 10:03 pm | Reply

  4. This is a really helpful post. One downside I see to industry for CS PhDs is that it seems you pretty much have to live in NYC, Boston, or the West Coast. Not a lot high tech jobs in, say, the Southeast, but plenty of colleges and universities.

    Comment by John — January 14, 2015 @ 12:27 pm | Reply

    • There’s lots of tech jobs in smaller towns. You’ll have to be willing to work for a smallish software firm. This isn’t like banking where all the sophisticated banks are located in a narrow geographical area. But if you want to work for a giant software firm like Google, yeah, your options are limited. But even then, Google has offices all over the world. You could work in Zurich, if San Francisco does not appeal to you.

      Comment by Ryan Budney — January 14, 2015 @ 1:41 pm | Reply

    • I agree with Ryan. In the south east, in particular, there’s a lot happening in the NC research triangle. Red Hat has offices in Raleigh and I keep hearing about new startups from around there.

      Comment by Jesse Johnson — January 14, 2015 @ 4:32 pm | Reply

  5. Great post Jesse
    In Australia there are less academic positions so in my experience more math PhDs end up in industry
    Even though we have less opportunities at companies like Google my impression from former students is they have had rewarding careers
    Math graduates who are good at communication team work and working with programming do especially well
    I think this is also v important that maths skills are recognised and used outside academia
    I also enjoy dabbling in mining (rock digging not data mining) which has many maths optimisation challenges
    Enjoy Google and keep letting us know how it is going

    Comment by Hyam Rubinstein — January 16, 2015 @ 6:15 am | Reply

    • That’s a good point about team work. In academia, it seems you have a fair amount of control over how and how much you interact with your colleagues – it’s easier to close your office door when you want to work alone and go talk to your colleagues about interesting problems when you’re feeling social. On the other hand, you’re likely to have only a few (if any) colleagues down the hall working in a field close enough to your that you can work with them. In the private sector, you’re surrounded by people you’re surrounded by people who you can work with, and pretty much everything you do involves cooperating with or negotiation with someone else.

      Comment by Jesse Johnson — January 16, 2015 @ 9:31 pm | Reply

  6. Jesse,
    it surprises me that you never considered a third option – government. Full disclosure, I’m civil service. But, you don’t have to be civil service to work for the Feds. There are different options. You can be a contractor hired by the government. For example, at least half of the Department of Defense workforce is hired contractor. There are different colors to this. You could form your own company and work for the Fed. You could work for someone else’s company that contracts to the Fed. You could work for a Federally Funded Research and Development Center. That includes all the Department of Energy labs like, Argonne National Laboratory, Brookhaven National Laboratory, Fermi National Accelerator Lab, Idaho National Lab, Jet Propulsion Lab, Lawrence Berkeley Lab, Lawrence Livermore Lab, Los Alamos National Lab, Oak Ridge National Lab, Pacific Northwest National Lab, Sandia National Lab, SLAC National Accelerator Lab, Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, etc. With these labs, the contract is held by a University or company, the employees work for that entity, but all the equipment, the building, and the land belong to the Fed. For example, way back, when the University of California owned the contract for Los Alamos National Lab, you worked for the state of California, and received the same benefits. At FFRDC’s, retention is extremely high – people rarely get fired – and the salaries are typically a third higher than for civil service. Then, there is of course, civil service. For sure the pay is lowest, and Congress has long since removed pensions, so I can’t really recommend it unless you are near the end of your carreer and looking for a job with less stress. But, jobs at NASA, National Institute of Standards, National Security Agency (the guys that spy on everyone), Naval Research Lab, Air Force Research Lab, ARMY Research Lab, etc. can be a lot of fun. For sure, there is a lot of money that flows in, and applying for grants is not something that you have to worry about. You also don’t have to write papers. In fact, because of the secrecy thing, it is not encouraged.

    Comment by Mayer A. Landau — January 16, 2015 @ 8:44 pm | Reply

    • That’s true, I probably didn’t give as much consideration to government employment as I should have. I always thought of government work as falling somewhere near the middle of a spectrum with academia and the private sector at both ends. Or maybe it fills up that spectrum, with the national labs and the other research labs on the side closer to academia, and the civil service closer to the private sector. I agree there are a lot of opportunities there to find different compromises between the trade-offs that separate academia and industry.

      Comment by Jesse Johnson — January 16, 2015 @ 9:43 pm | Reply

      • Working in government is far easier said than done. When I quit academia I moved back to my DC roots, and government was the first place I looked. True, if you expand to “contractors” I technically work for the government, but it’s still private sector.

        Most government jobs have little use for pure mathematics. The NIH, for instance, wants mathematical biologists or maybe chemists. Many of them are actually in statistics, and the bureaucracy doesn’t see mathematics and statistics and interchangeable. I took STAT600 (graduate-level) for 3 credits as an undergraduate, but the application procedures require 6 credits (say, STAT100+STAT300) on your transcript before a real person will even look at your résumé.

        Tl;dr: contracting for government is good but still basically what you’re doing now; getting to work for the government itself is a nightmare.

        Comment by John Armstrong — January 17, 2015 @ 9:10 am

      • Actually civil service or FFRDC’s fill the gamut from academia to private sector. In either, you can pursue basic research to very applied engineering, or program management. In civil service in fact, you are encouraged to teach a class at the local university or college. This is true at almost all government labs. There are extremes of course. The National Institue of Standarde, run by the Department of Commerce, is about as close to academia as you can get. There are two labs, at Boulder Colorado next to the University of Colorado, and one in Maryland by the University of Maryland. These labs are congressionally mandated to make public everything they do, so the people who work there, who are civil service, publish and teach a lot. These labs boast several noble prize winners. At the other extreme, there are labs that are completely black, where you are absolutely forbidden to publish anything. In fact, you are not supposed to have any public profile at all. You are expected to be some anonymous silhouette behind a high barbed wire fence. If you move on to another job, on your resume, you can only put the name of the place. As a mathematician, you can get a job at either place. Some Princeton University math professors, for example, have found gigs at the National Security Agency. But, what they did there, who knows? At any rate, the Fed is a vast employer. The biggest! And, you can find almost any type of job in their employ.

        Comment by Mayer A. Landau — January 17, 2015 @ 12:44 pm

  7. […] Maybe, maybe not. Here is a post from someone who did. […]

    Pingback by Math professors: should you leave academia for the private sector? | College Math Teaching — January 16, 2015 @ 10:55 pm | Reply

  8. Thanks for the post, Jesse. I can’t resist quoting Bill Thurston, from “Proof and Progress in Mathematics”:

    “The standard of correctness and completeness necessary to get a computer program to work at all is a couple of orders of magnitude higher than the mathematical community’s standard of valid proofs.”

    And then the kicker:

    “Nonetheless, large computer programs, even when they have been very carefully written and very carefully tested, always seem to have

    Comment by Marc Culler — January 21, 2015 @ 11:38 pm | Reply

  9. […] know her other co-author but I really like Yoshi and the fact that he goes by Yoshi).  Also, one of her previous co-authors taught me abstract algebra when I was an undergraduate and he was a postdoc!  That link is to a […]

    Pingback by Some thoughts on knots: current research | Baking and Math — March 8, 2015 @ 11:20 pm | Reply

  10. […] wrote a fantastic piece about going from his tenure-track job to working for Google; I recommend the whole thing.  He talks about money, time, intellectual challenge, and committee work as his factors. […]

    Pingback by The non-academic job search (Part 0)-Deciding to leave | Baking and Math — October 26, 2016 @ 1:40 pm | Reply

  11. And what happened with your research? Did you stop it?

    Comment by peperomi — December 17, 2016 @ 5:01 pm | Reply

    • Good question. I haven’t written any papers or contributed to writing any papers since leaving academia, though a few of my collaborators have finished up and submitted papers that were in progress. Once the incentives to publish were gone, I discovered that I enjoy finding connections between ideas more than I enjoy forming those ideas into theorems and writing up careful proofs. So I’ve found other ways to scratch the itches that doing research used to scratch.

      Comment by Jesse Johnson — December 17, 2016 @ 9:26 pm | Reply

  12. Hmm it appears like your site ate my first comment (it was super long) so I guess I’ll just sum it up what I wrote and say, I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog. I too am an aspiring blog blogger but I’m still new to the whole thing. Do you have any helpful hints for novice blog writers? I’d certainly appreciate it.

    Comment by Film complet vf — May 4, 2019 @ 11:36 am | Reply

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