Making My Own Way from Academia to Industry
The story of how I entered & left the family business of academia to pursue my own path as a software engineer
My academic trajectory was both traditional and nontraditional in different ways. It was completely traditional in that I went straight from high school to college, and straight from college to graduate school. I focused all of my attention until I was 27 on my academics. In college, I knew that graduate school was the next step for me, so I spent my summers participating in immersive research experiences both at my college and other universities, striving for NSF funding and undergraduate publications. As far as an academic pursuit goes, my choices were taken directly from the playbook. However, my particular execution of these choices was not so straightforward.
Maya as a senior in high school, excited about heading to VCU that Fall, 2011)
After high school, I went to Virginia Commonwealth University to study Biomedical Engineering, on the pre-med track. I was in the Honors College and joined a dance team, ready to take on freshman year as the studious person I was all through grade-school. I found myself getting quickly sucked into the party scene though, falling into a friend group that seemed to prioritize having a good time over their coursework. Within 6 months, I realized that if I stayed at VCU for the remaining of my tenure in college, I would not reach any kind of potential that I knew I was capable of, so I made the tough decision to transfer to a small, liberal arts college called Roanoke College.
At Roanoke College, I started fresh, learning from my mistakes and readjusting my priorities once again. During my time there, I triple-majored in mathematics, computer science and physics, completed coursework in the Honors Program and participated in multicultural events regularly on campus. After 5 years of college (1 year at VCU and 4 years at Roanoke College), I graduated Magna Cum Laude as the first triple-major in my department.
Maya graduates from Roanoke College, 2016 After graduating, I moved up to Washington D.C. where I attended The George Washington University as a PhD student in computer science. In my first 2 years there, I completed all of the required coursework to obtain my Masters Degree, and began working on research in a computer vision lab. After earning my Masters Degree, I began working on my thesis research full-time, that is until Covid-19 took over.
My research involved taking pictures in a highly-controlled environment, using a setup that I had built at my lab on campus. In 2020, I was unable to be on campus due to the pandemic, so I couldn’t take experimental pictures or progress my research at the pace that I was previously. This was one of many factors which led to my decision to leave my PhD program at the end of that year in search for a job. This was a really scary time for me; I was choosing to leave the thing that I knew best in the world in search of a job in software engineering, and I was quickly learning that a purely academic education lacks certain practical teachings that one might otherwise get from internships (which I didn’t have because of my single-minded pursuit of a graduate degree)! I don’t think I ever envisioned working as a software engineer until last year. I always saw myself following in the footsteps of my family and becoming a professor. In this last year, I have come to understand the notion that today, I may want something different from when I was in college. Since graduating from undergrad, I have completed a Masters Degree, gotten married, adopted two dogs and lived through a pandemic.
Maya with her husband, Mitch, and two dogs, Padfoot and Rasta, 2021
It’s only natural that some of those life events caused me to adjust my priorities and reassess the path I was on professionally. There were many times when I thought that somehow it was wrong for me to think that way, that I should be able to take on new life challenges and still maintain my path, even if it’s not as fulfilling anymore. This was the biggest lesson I have learned in the last two years - it is so important to take the time every once in a while and reassess life, both from a personal and professional standpoint. It’s easy to keep our heads down and just keep doing what feels natural, but it’s harder to recognize that what was natural and fulfilling 5 years ago may be a chore today. Not only that, but maybe I learned and grew so much in the few years after college that today I am actually not the same person as I was then.
Maya with her parents, Susheela & Anil, on her wedding day
Through this process, I came to realize how common it was for people to leave PhD programs, especially in the sciences. Getting a PhD can be a long and grueling process, and it is so important to be in such a program for the right reasons. When I started, those reasons were personal: I wanted to be an academic and achieve an education that would allow me to pursue my dream of being a professor. By the time I quit, my reasons were everything but personal: I was scared of failing, and couldn’t fathom how my family full of professors would react. In other words, I was doing it for them and not for me. The minute I really internalized that fact was the minute that I was able to see all of the opportunities that waited for me adjacent to graduate school. Taking my career in this new direction has been the best decision I have made for myself; no regrets! Once I had gone through the grueling process of interviewing for jobs, and had finally landed my current job as Botany.io, I chose to make a more formal announcement on Instagram to my follower-base (not that I am any kind of influencer, but I had to start using my voice somewhere). This note captures my feelings that day in a way that I couldn’t replicate in words today, so I am choosing to share it here in this more public setting. I shared this note on the same day that I started my job, and the reaction I received from my friends & family (including people I barely spoke to anymore) helped me to understand that I had made the right choice, and I had everything to be proud of in that moment.
I started my PhD program straight out of college, totally confident that I wanted to teach and follow in my family’s footsteps. Over the first two years, while working on my Master’s Degree, I TA’d many classes and really enjoyed it, solidifying my belief that teaching was my calling. Students seemed to want to learn from me, and I felt that I was able to cultivate an excitement in the classroom. I continued to TA after earning my MS, but noticed a stark shift in the students; they were less engaged, less interested, and more and more seemed to be there only because they had to be. I continued to do my best to find new and interesting ways to keep them engaged, but was relatively unsuccessful. This was the first sign that maybe academia was heading in a direction that I didn’t like. Then Covid-19 happened. Not only do I not want to teach virtually, but this is arguably one of the worst times to be a new faculty member at a university; funding is scarce and getting harder to obtain, and pedagogy is becoming less about the material and more about keeping students engaged through a computer screen, which is not what I have spent the last 4 years training for. Over the last few months, I began to realize that a PhD was not required unless I was sure I wanted to go into academia, and this is the first reason I decided to leave the program.
Over the last 8-10 months, it has felt like the world was literally burning around us. I woke up every morning, turned on CNN to watch the news, and then went back to my research with glitter. I began to feel less and less engaged with my research as things got worse in the world, and I realized that this was because I wasn’t doing my part and making an impact. In grad school, we do research for the sake of doing research, and I was doing research with glitter (it was super cool, but I honestly sometimes just felt like I was playing with glitter). My work was important, and one day it will have a huge impact in camera calibration, but not today, and that became a problem for me. This is the second reason for which I decided to leave the program.
This was by far one of the hardest decisions I have ever made. I have never had an internship, never had a job - I have been in school my whole life, and I was really good at it! I come from a family of academics, and thought I would follow in their footsteps, so it was really hard to accept that I may want to break away from the family business and do something different (not that different, I’m still a computer scientist 😊). One thing I want to highlight is that I never refer to this decision as “quitting”, because I don’t believe that’s what I’m doing. It took a long time for me to convince myself that I haven’t failed, because on the surface, that’s what it looks like. Instead, I try to tell myself that I made the hard choice knowing that it was the right choice for me, rather than do what I know simply because it’s easy; that’s not failing, that’s recognizing a change that I need for my own success.
I received an out-pouring of excitement & support from my friends and family on social media
I tell this story not to seek validation in the choices I made, but rather to voice my story for others who may be struggling through making a similar decision. When I started thinking about whether grad school was the right place for me, or even if it was possible/advisable to leave grad school, I found that few publicly spoke about their difficulties with the exact same thoughts; I had to dig and dig in order to find others who had been through this, especially women. I had so many questions: How do I tell my advisor? When do I tell my advisor? What do I tell my family & friends? How do I make the jump from academia to industry with NO industry-facing experience? Now that I have made it over the hurdle of making a decision, I have a voice, and I want to use it. I want other young women to know that it is okay to CHOOSE to leave, it’s not failure. In fact, it’s quite the opposite of failure; I believe that recognizing when something isn’t working and making an active choice to do something about it is the biggest form of success.
- Constant reflection on my actions and state of being is the best way to ensure happiness & motivation in life
Satisfaction is hardly ever found in doing something for someone else; motivation has to come from within
Change is good! It's just as important to make changes as it is to push through hard times.
-- Maya S.