Home > rant > When to quit your nerd job

When to quit your nerd job

August 23, 2012

I get lots of emails nowadays from quantitative people who are unhappy in academics, or in finance, or in tech, and want to know what they should do next, and specifically if they should quit their job. Most of them have Ph.D.’s or are even professors or well-established in their profession. They’re interested in switching fields, or at least jobs, and they want advice.

Maybe I get so many emails like this because they’ve read my advice post and realize I’m all about these three rules:

  1. Go for it! (this usually is all most people need, especially when talking about the crush type of advice)
  2. Do what you’d do if you weren’t at all insecure (great for people trying to quit a bad job or deciding between job offers)
  3. Do what a man would do (I usually reserve this advice for women)

I’m going to concentrate mostly on rule #2 today in giving job advice.

Most of the time, the people who ask me are in pretty darn shitty situations and really want to quit, and really want to be able to say to themselves that they deserve better, but are kept from doing so from some kind of fear that there are no better jobs out there or that they deserve to be treated badly. It’s really surprising and annoying that they are so afraid to ask for and demand more. Why are nerds always underselling themselves?

Here are things I hear people complain about that make me want to punch them (or really, give them encouraging hugs and then kicks in the pants):

  1. My brain is rotting. Why on earth would you stay in a job where your brain rots? Don’t you realize that, as Ph.D.’s in math or stats or physics or whatever, our brains are our main tools? That’s why we get paid, that’s why we will always be able to get a job, but only if we don’t let them rot. It’s kind of like an athlete saying, yeah I’m on this professional team but I spend all day lying around watching TV so my muscles have completely atrophies. Guess what, athlete, that’s no good!
  2. I’m isolated and nobody ever talks to me. If teamwork is important to you, this is a dealbreaker. Get your ass up and look around. Are there other people in your field/ department/ group who have similar skills as you but who are working with other people? How did they get that set up? Can you get that set up? If you have a boss, can you tell your boss you need to work with other people?
  3. I’m being used by my company – they pay me well but they don’t give me real work to do. I’m mainly here for them to show clients they have a Ph.D. working in the back. This is pretty common and really terrible, because it leads to brainrot as well as isolation, and moreover your name is attached to what is probably a shitty business model and product. I say demand to get in on the business for real or leave. Simple as that, you don’t want to collude in fraudulent business offerings.
  4. The pace and politics of academics drive me nuts. I totally get this, personally, because these are also things that led me to leave academics. On the one hand, I’m super glad I left because those things really did drive me nuts. On the other hand, let me just say, you never get rid of your problems, you just get new ones. You have to be prepared for fast-paced but still political problems outside of academics.

My theory is that people are way too slow to quit a job, or at least to agitate for a better position within their workplace. And keep in mind I’m saying this to you as an unemployed person, so you know I know how to quit a job – I’m a pro! The truth is, though, that I quit each job knowing there are lots of juicy jobs out there for people with quantitative skills.

My advice:

First find out what you’re worth on the open market. Look at job listings, talk to people, mention that you’re open to talking to people, find out what else is out there. You may realize you have it pretty good after all, or that it’s worth talking to people inside your company or department about changing your position slightly that would help out your mental state a lot.

Second, you could do the above and then end up saying to yourself, “What the fuck! They’re either promoting me/ moving me or else I’m quitting!”. This is a perfect moment to make demands you wouldn’t normally have the balls to make, and they often work. In fact you should keep in mind that it’s most companies’ policy to generally underpay and underappreciate their employees until they demand better, and then to give in to those demands. True fact.

Next, if you do decide to leave, do a budget on your finances and figure out how many months you can afford to be unemployed. It turns out that people are always very conservative about this (understandably) and it takes them quite a bit of emotional turmoil to even make that calculation with hard numbers. But it’s a good idea, because you’ll often find that you actually have enough money to quit your job and spend a few months learning skills and networking to get a job that you actually think might be a better fit for you.

You can also try to get another job while you’re working, but it’s really hard to be sure you’re not just embarking on a rebound relationship. I prefer being unemployed for a while myself, but it’s all about personality.

Good luck, and remember rule #2!

Categories: rant
  1. mathematrucker
    August 23, 2012 at 1:14 pm

    There are so many variables to finding job and income satisfaction. It’s such a personal thing. Now in my early 50s I feel very lucky to have found an occupation twenty years ago that to me doesn’t even feel like a “job” (long haul trucking), that pays pretty close to what a professor makes (when you take into account long haul’s tax-friendliness). In some ways I’m thankful I never did finish a math Ph.D. It may have been more difficult to make the leap into trucking with one compared to just holding an M.S.

    Another lucky thing is it’s amazingly easy for an amateur like myself to publish whatever they feel like nowadays and completely bypass all the academic political bullshit. I’m extremely thankful for my education and the enduring love for mathematics it gave me. Trucking wouldn’t be anywhere near as fun without a great hobby to go with it.


  2. Michal
    August 24, 2012 at 4:20 am

    I think my situation is described by last paragraph but I do not understand what you mean by “it’s really hard to be sure you’re not just embarking on a rebound relationship”.


    • August 24, 2012 at 2:25 pm

      When you break off a dating relationship and immediately start another the primary motivation can easily be to find something to do to and not dwell on the past. Without some learning or growth, rebound relationships often fail. The same can be true in a relationship with your employer.

      Ideally, each party has honorable motives for creating a successful future relationship. This can be hard to assess if you’re presently in a bad relationship or just leaving one.


  3. Jay
    August 24, 2012 at 9:43 pm

    I’ve gone for it, and had it fold 18 months later leaving me unemployed for over a year. So there’s something to be said for realism and humility.

    I’m OK for now because I don’t have a mortgage, a family, or many obligations.


    • August 26, 2012 at 10:05 am

      Realism and humility might leave one wondering what might have been. You’re right about the obligations tending to make one less willing to take employment risks. Not sure where those fears come from but they are real.


  4. K
    August 26, 2012 at 6:05 pm

    The analogy with relationships is a good one but sometimes it’s not the right thing to break up just because you’re unhappy. In the throes of a midlife crisis or some such you might feel like you’re not in love or you’re trapped, but when the crisis passes you might feel better and end up glad you didn’t get a divorce. A friend had this experience and I think it’s not that rare — and sometimes the couple does get the divorce. Anyway, if you’re unhappy you might hate your job even if the job isn’t the thing that’s making you unhappy.


  5. J.Ramirez
    September 5, 2012 at 11:30 am

    In a tough job market where skills are required to get in in the first place, it is hard for someone like me, who has no experience in the field, to even be considered for a job. I have a couple ideas of what to do to make myself stand out but I cannot quit my job even though at times I feel like I am becoming stale. My way to cope with this is to do something productive outside of work such a taking free courses online and signing up to learn a programming language. Learning something new is a good way to keep one’s brain from rotting.


  1. August 25, 2012 at 9:00 am
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