After many great years in academia, I finally decided in October of last year to resign from my position as tenured assistant professor. As of February of this year, I proudly walk the earth as an independent engineer.
It has taken me two years of thinking to reach this decision.
I started re-evaluating my life in academia two years ago after a review-for-promotion (See the “oral defence” bullet. :)) process that resulted in a “not quite yet” judgement. It took this long to make my decision, because it was actually going quite well. I had tenure, the holy grail (well, the first of a number of them) for many academics. I had built up and was heading the TU Delft Medical Visualization research group. I was fortunate to attract the best postgraduate students and Ph.D. candidates. My research proposals were successful, so I had money to explore exciting new research avenues. My h-index was (slowly) going in the right direction. Even my teaching was more than occasionally positively received. :)
However, after all this thinking I was finally able to admit to myself that I am a much better engineer than an academic. All of these years, I had been applying my engineering talent to the design problem that is academia. This was successful to a certain extent, but I would never be able to compete with a Real Academic(tm).
More importantly, life is short. It makes sense, and is much more enjoyable, to spend the largest possible part of it running at full efficiency.
Quickly after this realisation, came the next one: I had sub-consciously been working on a fairly respectable engineering-oriented CV and a great network. I now had the freedom to work for … me. I could get back to designing and building advanced technical artefacts that people actually use, and I could do so completely on my own terms.
It was definitely not easy to leave academia. The hardest part is leaving behind the relationships I was privileged to have with my colleagues (friends), in Delft and the rest of the world. Of course we will still have contact, but it will never be the same as the 15:30 sugar fix, the caffeine-driven and super-esoteric debates in the kitchen, the ultra-weird lunch discussions, or the awesome conversations and beer-drinking at scientific (haha) conferences.
That being said, the wave of creative energy I have been riding on for the past month, even after correcting for novelty, is a good sign that my choice was a suitable one. I am happy and relieved to call myself an engineer again.
So Academia, it’s really not you, it’s me. :)