Why I Quit Academia

Once I read a book in Russian that mentioned a study of the children of Soviet military personnel who had to move often. The conclusion was that frequent relocation is very damaging for children’s psyche. The children had to build new friendships, which they would lose the next time they had to move. After several moves they would stop making friends; later, as adults, they would be afraid of getting close to anyone.

In September 1996, my husband, my two children and I came to Princeton from Israel for my husband’s month-long visit to the Institute for Advanced Study. After the visit we were supposed to go back to Israel, but that didn’t happen. My husband returned alone and I stayed in Princeton with my children. That’s a long and sentimental story for another time.

Meanwhile, my older son Alexey started going to Princeton High School. By this time he had attended seven schools in three different countries. In light of the evidence presented in that book about the impact on children of moving, I felt very guilty. Alexey was entering 10th grade. Moving him again not only would further damage his ability to make friends, but would also screw up his college chances. He needed a stable environment leading up to college. For example, recommendation letters are better written by people who are involved with kids for several years. I was afraid to mess up his future. I promised myself not to move him again during high school, especially as Princeton High School was one of the best public schools in New Jersey.

At the same time, I got a Visiting Scholar position at Princeton University. Although it didn’t pay me any salary, through that position I received university housing, library privileges and an office. I was living on my personal savings and the monthly check my husband was sending me from Israel. My money was running out and I felt completely lost, like so many immigrants. I was new to Princeton; I didn’t have friends there; and I was struggling with English. On top of that, I had medical problems, not the least very low energy.

Ingrid Daubechies noticed me at the Princeton math department and approached me. After our conversation, she found some money for me to work on the Math Alive course she was designing. That work was a breath of fresh air. I enjoyed it tremendously, but the part-time salary was not enough. Then I received more help from Ingrid. She appreciated my work on Math Alive a lot, but realized that I needed a different solution. She sacrificed her own interests and started recommending me around. She arranged an interview for me at Telcordia, who offered me a job as a systems engineer.

The decision to accept this job was very painful, because I did not want to leave academia. However, considering that my priority was to keep Alexey in Princeton High School, I didn’t feel I had other options. I knew that I couldn’t stay much longer at Princeton University and I was aware that getting a University job often requires relocation.

Looking back, I think the reasons behind this decision were more complex than sacrificing my career for my child. If I had known more about social supports for poor families and about other possible research jobs, or if I had been more confident in my research abilities, I might not have left academics.

Alexey triumphed at Princeton High School. The school allowed him to take math courses at Princeton University. He took several, including the course in logic by John Conway and two courses in graph theory by Paul Seymour. Alexey’s multi-variable calculus professor complained to me that she couldn’t fit her grades into the required curve. If she gave Alexey 100%, the others would have to get less than 20. Luckily, it turned out that because her class was small, she didn’t need to bother about making a curve. After three years in Princeton High School, Alexey secured an impressive resume and great recommendation letters and went to MIT to pursue a double major in mathematics and computer science.



  1. Xamuel:

    Cool story. I’ve always been on the move all my life… never thought about how that has affected me. Is there really anybody left in the world who *hasn’t* moved three or four times by their teens?

  2. JBL:

    Oh, so you are also this T. Khovanova? http://arxiv.org/abs/q-alg/9701033

    Xamuel, indeed there is: my parents still live in the same home they brought me back to when I was born, and I’ve lived in only two cities my entire life (counting a semester spent studying abroad during college, and not distinguishing between different parts of the greater Boston area).

  3. misha:

    You are lucky somebody sympathetic happened to be around. As for that psychological research you mention, I would take with a grain of salt. Maybe it’s that people who relocate often put less value into lasting relationships, and they pass their genes to their children. It’s like saying that spanking (not that I am for it) produces violence in children. Maybe it’s just the more violent parents that spank their children…

  4. misha:

    Here is a different perspective on the subject: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fw7W5DM2ep0

  5. Tanya Khovanova’s Math Blog » Blog Archive » Math Careers and Choices:

    […] recently wrote about my own decision to quit academia twelve years ago. Although what I really wanted to do was to work in academia, my family […]

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