Leaving academia: Whether or not to work in a large corporation

I had two job interviews last week, and I am currently trying to figure out whether or not I want to work in a large multinational corporation. At least one of the jobs sounds very attractive, with a likable boss, a nice team, and an interesting and complex topic to work on. The working conditions would be really nice too.

Should I accept the job if I get it?

This is what I imagine working for a big corporation feels like:

You’re somewhere in the belly of a huge ocean cruiser, making sure that some aspect of the engines run smoothly, but you do not see where the cruiser is going, why it is going where it goes, and you are not sure whether it might currently be in the process of running over a small fishing boat or polluting the sea with oil. But at least someone is paying the cruiser for what it does. You feel some loyalty to the rest of the huge crew in the cruiser and you know that they all depend on the engines working well, maybe you also feel loyalty to the passengers who are paying your salary, but the captain and his plans are extremely far away from you, and you suspect the captain may be evil, you don’t know, you will certainly never meet him except when you see him in the news.

But you are surrounded by a nice team of specialists working on the engines with you. You have fun together and you can use your talents and capacities really well. Your direct boss is likable and praises you for your effort. You earn good money and you can live a life in safety.

Is that good enough?

There are other types of jobs possible, of course, besides working in a huge corporation. I could teach, work in some small start-up, maybe even in non-profit organisations, in applied research etc.

But now the big shiny cruiser does look beautiful to me in some way. I am not entirely sure why. Maybe it is because I would be working in a team with female economists and law specialists, instead with again a majority of men, like would be the case in most other jobs I have been considering. I would really like to work closely with people with a completely different background than me, I would really not mind to learn about law and economics.

Another suspicion I have about the jobs that seem more meaningful than working for a large corporation – like working in a start-up, or in a non-profit, or some king of research institution – is that those jobs want you to give yourself to them entirely, and get very little in return in terms of stability and money. I have had enough of this in research. My effort was partially paid in me “feeling I was doing something useful and noble and meaningful” (which I am not sure I did in retrospect). And looking back, this payment was clearly not enough and still makes me feel cheated somehow. I feel I have been giving much more than I got back. In teaching, the ratio between giving and receiving seemed somewhat more fair to me, although it is still a job that wants to eat you up if you take it seriously (and I can’t avoid taking teaching seriously).

Maybe every job everywhere always wants you to give it everything, and what you have to do is simply to fight back as much as you can. Maybe my positive feeling about the corporation job partially comes from a vague idea that it is easier fighting back if the job is less idealistic. Perhaps it is easier to not work on the weekends if the job is not about “expanding the human knowledge” or “looking after the new generation”, which are really noble goals, but “letting a huge, very profitable cruiser make even more profit”. Is that the reason I am considering it?

I am someone who can get very obsessive, very driven, and who can easily give up her well-being in order to reach some goal that I find meaningful. Is the solution to that to have a work that is not too meaningful?

I once read a story about a guy who was a successful theater director. He was so passionate about theater that he became manic during work-intense persiods, following by depression, and so developed the full-blown bipolar disorder that was running in his family. He then realized that it was impossible for him to be a sane person while doing something he cared about so much. And he actually got another degree, became an accountant, and lived happily ever after.

This story is absolutely the opposite of what you read in every career-counseling book, about “following your passion”, even when this means living in poor conditions and working like crazy, because “work will feel like free time” in this way, and also “success will magically happen if you do whatever you are really passionate about”.

First of all, this is not true, but even if you manage to be successful with your passionate about, at what cost will this success come? If you are doing what you are passionate about, but are so stressed and driven that the seasons go by without you noticing, and the friendships feel like a chore, then something is wrong.

Of course, something might also be wrong if your work feels so pointless that the pointlessness of it starts to infect your personality, your outlook on life, and your mood. But I am not sure if this actually happens if the work is challenging and your colleagues are nice. Maybe then the eventual pointlessness is something you do not care about.

I think the type of work I would be doing is not unethical, but it is also not especially ethical. I guess it is neutral. And that feels a bit weird. But I have to admit that most of my research has had an entirely neutral effect on the world too, and it ate me up completely and made my life very hard. And so my net effect on the world, if I include myself and the people closest to me in the calculation, which I should, might be more positive in the big corporation than it was in academia.

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20 Responses to Leaving academia: Whether or not to work in a large corporation

  1. Great post, and it sounds like that’s a very important decision to make! I worked in a corporate setting for about ten years before starting my own business.

    Working for a salary can be very suitable for a job that is tightly integrated with a clear job description. This usually means, however, that this arrangement is not suitable for the type of work we do when we follow our passion (creativity, activism, etc..), so I completely agree with you that the advice to “follow your passion” in your career needs to be considered very, very carefully. I think that the only circumstance where this truly applies is when you are your own boss, and are in full control of your own pleasure/pain ratio. Otherwise, you may get into a situation where the people around you will have an incentive to find endless ways to “leverage” your skills and passion until you are working nights and weekends! This has been my experience at least.

    Best of luck in your decision – and for what it’s worth, I still do enjoy teaching a couple days per month, becuase it’s where I get the most autonomy in my work. When you’re the teacher, you’re also the captain of the ship and it’s up to you to plot the learning destination and get everybody safely there. 🙂

    • zinemin says:

      Thank you! I really like your insight that you need to be your own boss if you are passionate about your job. Otherwise, I agree, you will be much too easy to exploit… and you will just run against walls because others get to make the decisions about things that you care about very much, which is incredibly exhausting. I have not actually looked at it from this angle, but this explains a lot. This is also the reason I think that an academic career is only a good thing if you get a professorship quite early on, which happens to nobody anymore in my generation.
      I also agree that viewed in this way, teaching is actually a very attractive job… you get to make the decisions about where the ship is going, and you still have the safety of a traditional job.

  2. xykademiqz says:

    But you are surrounded by a nice team of specialists working on the engines with you. You have fun together and you can use your talents and capacities really well. Your direct boss is likable and praises you for your effort. You earn good money and you can live a life in safety.

    Is that good enough?

    Yes, absolutely. It’s more than most people have. We academics sometimes forget that there is a big world out there and that many people work mundane, soul-crushing, poorly paid jobs because they have to.

    Don’t underestimate the positive effect of simply having enough money to be comfortable, travel, pursue hobbies. And working for a nice boss and with nice people is a blessing.

    I hate the weather where we live and hate it that so many people are religious and the politics in the state is going to $hit, but my colleagues are nice, I am well respected, and I earn a good salary, with raises (because I am respected). When proposals get rejected and I am in the dumps, I remember: I have a great, secure job, with benefits (health and retirement, that’s a big deal in the US). I have a roof over my kids’ heads, and health insurance to take care of them if sick. We don’t worry about safety, quality of schools, or having enough food. On top of that, the colleagues and students are great. That’s more than enough; all the obsessing about grants and papers is really self-inflicted.

    Money, food, shelter, caring people — that’s nothing to sneeze at.

    Good luck — I hope you get the job!

    Also, check out inbabyattachmode blog — she’s a biomedical scientist who recently moved to a big corporation. Also, Wandering Scientist is a biotech veteran and PhDindustry is a long-time and very successful corporate employee moving back to academia.

    • zinemin says:

      Thank you! Yes, you are right. Some people in my surrounding do sneeze at corporate jobs and get really glassy eyes when I even mention what I would do in this job. But if I really can work with nice, open and friendly people — and I do think this would be the case in this job — this is worth a lot to me. In the end it is always about a compromise in life, I guess, even if that is not what some self-help books seem to claim. 🙂 Thanks for the links, I will check them out!

  3. rs says:

    Thank you so much for writing this. I feel exactly the same way by consumed by my passion for research and not getting back anything in return. Go for it. Good luck.

    • zinemin says:

      Thank you! At least for me, leaving science was absolutely the right decision. I do not really miss it, which is surprising, because I was really in it with all my heart, or at least I thought so. But I think it is similar to being in a very one-sided relationship, when you love someone and they do not love you back. If you leave, you will just be relieved, not heart-broken, and discover that there are many other lovely people in the world. 🙂

  4. Anke says:

    If they offer you the job, sit down and think about which conditions (money, holidays, benefits, you name it) could offset the objections you have. Then try to get these conditions when you negotiate the contract. Take it and see how it feels to work in this corporation. Give yourself some time, six months maybe, evaluate. Are you happy? If yes, super, if not, go back to start. Knowing something about buisness and economics will be an advantage, if you have to look for a new job again.
    Am in a similar boat, tired of post-docing and currently trying more applied research and development; I negotiated a better salary and reduced work hours – and am loving getting my life back. For now at least, have only been working four months in this position.
    Good luck!

    • zinemin says:

      Yes, good points, thank you! Indeed, this is the nice thing about a job outside of academia — if you dislike it, you can always leave without risking to give up all your life’s work, or having to move to another continent. And you can even negotiate the working conditions, you are right. I am really not used to this, with post-docs there was always very little room for negotiations… my dream would be to work only 80%, to have one day for my own projects…
      Sounds like you have found a great solution for yourself! Applied research is a great option and I hope you will continue to like it there.

  5. Former post doc says:

    Should you accept if you get it? Of course! Honestly, the way you described it, it sounds perfect. Probably better than it actually is. But then again, I always found the thought of working as part of an engine of a large corporation appealing.

    I don’t think I ever commented on your blog before, but I have been reading it for a while, and it had a big effect on my life and my career. I had been a pretty successful PhD student and postdoc, and a decision to leave academia was a mental struggle for me. I discussed leaving academia with my academic friends a lot, and have started several discussions based on your blog posts I read. About a year ago, I decided to leave. I declined to attend the final stage group leader interview at a research center that I used to consider a dream place before. I got a good, well paid job at a big corporation, and have not regretted my decision once.

    It is mentally freeing. It is just a job, it is not my life. I still recognize my workaholic tendencies, caring a lot about the job I do, and putting everything I have out there. I still work longer hours than what would be necessary, and I recognize that a lot of what was borderline self-destructive in academia is still there within me. But now, it does not completely engulf me and exhaust me mentally. I have weekends for myself. I feel I am being compensated enough for what I do. If I don’t like the job, I can leave and get another one. This feeling is completely new to me, very freeing, and different than the way I ever saw my career in academia.

    Looking forward to reading how things develop for you. I hope you get a job you like, and enjoy it!

    • zinemin says:

      Thank you! The idea of working as part of the engine of a large corporation is a little bit appealing to me too, but also a bit scary, like you get swallowed up and used… but in truth, as you say, the swallowing-up and being-used part probably fitted better with academia. As my therapist claims “fears are usually about what already happened to you in the past, not about what will necessarily happen in the future”…. 🙂 I don’t know how it is to have a job that you do not bring home with you, that you might even forget about during the weekend, that you can quit easily in case your boss mistreats you, and where you get compensated in a fair way for your efforts. It must indeed be very freeing.

      Wow, thanks a lot for your nice words about my blog. This means a lot to me. I am glad that you are happy with your decision! I do not regret leaving academia either. It is great to have more choices now, even if it is also sometimes bewildering.

  6. skryazhi says:

    I really enjoy your insightful introspective posts.

    I have the same feeling about corporations, although it this feeling is based on media rather than personal experience. Maybe another way to think about working in a corporation is this. Yes, it’s a big ship, but you can actually climb up and join the leadership. And then you will be able to steer the ship in the right direction, at least a little bit. In fact I think it’s very important that big corporations have people like you in their leadership, and not just the frat-boy types. This is probably the only way that corporations will stop being evil. And if you succeed in this, the impact would probably be much bigger than if teach or do research.

    • zinemin says:

      Thank you!

      Yes, I see your point. I have read a bit about how to ethically choose a job, and some people claim it is best to try to get a high-paying and relatively powerful job in a powerful and potentially evil company, because that is where you can make the biggest difference, and you could donate the surplus money you’re making.
      I am not sure if this can work out in real life. 🙂

  7. physpostdoc says:

    Thank you for this post. I find myself in a similar situation, where I have begun considering the rather unhealthy work ethic I tend to slide in with very little or no visible incentive, except my innate passion for physics. I have had a reasonably successful stint till now and have had my graduate and current postdoc training in Ivy Leagues — but almost always had to balance personal (two-body situation) and professional (unsupportive and unhealthy competition A-list universities tend to foster, adverse gender ratios etc) costs against the freedom of pursuing my subject. However, a law of severly diminished returns seems to have set in, and the doubt about the justifications for fighting to make it big in academia coupled with my perpetual self-doubt about “not being good enough” has impelled me to rethink about my career choices. I particularly like your analogy about the theater director — I now seem to value personal peace and happiness much more than earlier, and maybe both of these would be more easy to realize in a job which does not affect me so deeply! I find this very reassuring.

    • zinemin says:

      The story about the theater director is actually true, I read it in the newspaper and was really astonished at the time, since it seem to go against everything I believed to be true. 🙂 Yes, I understand exactly what you mean. I value peace and happiness, and being able to live close to the people I care about, much more than I did when I was younger, too. I think it is completely fine and normal that priorities change over a lifetime, and it sometimes takes a while to find the courage to live according to the new priorities instead of the old…. at least that is how it was for me. Whatever you decide, I wish you good luck!

  8. Lily says:

    That’s funny, I’m going through a similar curve in my career. And concluding that “not unethical work” that is in-demand+well paid and I am neutral-to-enthused about (though it makes me cranky) is more than good enough.
    You might find this book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, helpful.

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  10. Cloud says:

    Hi! I came over from a link at the Grumpies. I see @xykademiqz has already given me a shout out (thanks!) and she is right that I’ve spent most of my career in biotech, which means small to medium sized companies. However, I also spent 5 years at a very large company. It was a contracting firm, and the joke was that from a distance we looked like a large ship but when you got close, we were a bunch of little canoes all rowing in the same general direction, but occasionally reaching over to whack our neighbor with our paddles. That was fairly apt, but at the level I was (the lowest rung of management), I didn’t see much of the whacking people with paddles, and I mostly really liked working there. I only left because I wasn’t getting the kind of projects that I found most interesting anymore (this was due to some reorganizations).

    My work at the big company never felt pointless, but there were sometimes rules to follow that felt pointless. In retrospect, though, having worked in higher levels of management (albeit at smaller companies), some of those rules were there to make essential but somewhat hidden functions (like tax accounting) run more smoothly.

    Another thing I’ll say: this probably won’t be your last job or last company. It is common to move around these days. So I’d say that the thing to ask yourself is: can I be happy in this job for 2-5 years? If the answer is yes, it is probably worth taking it, especially since it will get you industry experience, which will make getting the next job easier.

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  12. Hi, came across this via @babyattachmode on twitter – very interesting post, thanks. I moved from academia to industry and LOVE IT! Been there a year now and it is the best thing since sliced bread, I am completely motivated and passionate and engaged, obsessed by work! I think you made a good choice.

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