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In the past 8.5 years I have been working towards a computer science Ph.D focusing on Human-Computer Interaction. I am all but dissertation (ABD) and took a one year sabbatical as a professor. I'm now intending to leave the program as I no longer find the passion I need to complete my research.

More specifically: I have many years of development experience on a large software project related to my research, presented many talks to academic and non-academic audiences, taught a wide variety of computer science courses, and engaged heavily in project planning and student talent mentorship.

The problem I find is identifying what positions are appropriate for my experience. Granted, my interests should and do drive what I will apply for, but I want the perspective from the hiring end. I see a lot of general terms for positions (Senior Software Developer, Principal Software Developer), but even with position descriptions most sound generally very similar. I feel insider knowledge could provide insight to expectations with these terms.

  1. Would my type of experience qualify me for roles that are asking for significant industry experience?
  2. Would my experience qualify me for roles that differ from the norm in the software industry?
  3. Are there general terms/positions that make sense to search for to help find appropriate roles?

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    Sitting in the "future employer" devil's advocate seat, one of the things that would concern me most is: I no longer find the passion I need to complete my research. What happens when you no longer have the passion to complete the mind-numbing project that the company has invested massive money in that is still maybe only 1 year away from completion? – Joel Etherton Dec 3 '14 at 15:58
  • I searched a few of job web sites for Human Computer Interaction and got several hits. What have you tried? – paparazzo Dec 3 '14 at 16:07
  • @JoelEtherton, Sometimes the wisest choice is to abandon the dissertation and get on with your life. This is especially true for students that don't intend to stay in academia forever. – teego1967 Dec 3 '14 at 17:03
  • @teego1967: Undeniably, however, the stark admission that the quitting is simply because of a lack of passion would be troubling to me. That sentiment needs to be rethought and described in a different way. Phd programs are not cheap, and if he's willing to throw his own money away because he can't find the passion, how much will he care when it's an employer's money? Your own words would be better than can't find the passion. I reached a point where the wisest choice for my life, my career was to discontinue the research. – Joel Etherton Dec 3 '14 at 17:19
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Would my type of experience qualify me for roles that are asking for significant industry experience?

Generally, no.

In my experience, going towards a PhD involves a lot of research and little coding. And the little coding involved usually does not meet the bar for professional experience - especially when it comes to the processes involved in producing quality code in a predictable manner.

Would my experience qualify me for roles that differ from the norm in the software industry?

Sure, depending on your HCI specialty, that sort of formal training is uncommon amongst programmers, and thus valuable. Also, having your teaching background is useful working on software for the education industry, and teaching/training in general. Few programmers are really skilled at public speaking.

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Coming from a similar background (also ABD >10 years ago), I've been through your dilemma. I would generally disregard advice about what you are or are not "qualified" for in terms of industry experience.

What constitutes qualified in one place is a novice in another. There is NO "ground truth" in computer-based industries-- its not a professional field with real credentials like you would have for a doctor or lawyer. The only way to find out where you belong is by trial and error. This is true for software engineering and especially true for emergent fields like HCI.

I think the key thing is to match up what you want to do with what your talents are and then target very specific jobs. This usually means going after "niche" jobs rather than jobs where the competition is wide. I think you'll find that the most compatible employers are going to be smallish companies. Large companies tend to focus on candidates with "straight story" continuous career progression, although there are exceptions.

Alternatively, a consulting company may be the ticket for your first position. I found working for a consulting company useful after I left my PHD program. It was an opportunity to see a lot of different workplaces (as clients), and I was able to bring a fresh viewpoint to the projects. I left that job after less than 2 years, but the experience was valuable in helping to chart future career decisions.

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It took me 8 years to complete my PhD work and just submitted a revised dissertation. I too ran out of motivation and passion and wanted to ABD. The feedback I got was :

  1. Academic expertise is viewed with considerable disdain in industry.
  2. Not completing shows a lack of commitment and work ethic.
  3. Your teaching experience will have minimal relevance even in academia, yet alone industry.

The late Steve Jobs said: "Artists ship!"

So you can either walk away and consider 8.5 years as "sunk cost"; or

Spend a considerable amount of time in your future justifying your ABD or complete forget telling anybody about it - but how to cover the "gaping hole" in your CV.

Could you sit down and write up your dissertation in 6 months and have the satisfaction of completing something you have started?

If you are still searching for answers, perhaps you could read Steve Pressfield's "The War of Art" (yup, not the other way around, that's Sun Tzu's work.)

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