January 2023 Edit: Dr. Ravit Dotan is currently the Director of The CAIR Lab at the University of Pittsburgh.
About Our Guest: In the ongoing series of interviews with PhDs with diverse perspectives about academia and career pivots, I interviewed Dr. Ravit Dotan. Dr Ravit Dotan is a VP of Responsible of AI at Mission Control. Dr. Ravit also is a Responsible AI Advocate for Bria and An Advisor to MKAI – An AI Community.
About the Interviewer: Ryan Collins, PhD is the founder of After your PhD. He graduated from Indiana University Bloomington in 2021 with A PhD in Media Arts and Sciences.
Note: This interview transcript was edited for readability and brevity.
What Are Your Current Roles And Activities?
Dr. Dotan: That’s an excellent question because I do a bunch of different things. Basically what I’ve decided is to make it my professional goal to make all AI responsible. The best way to achieve that goal is to be a part of three sectors, the private sector, the academic sector and the nonprofit sector. So I have engagements in each of those sectors in the private sector. I have two permanent roles. One is, I am VP of responsible AI at a startup called Mission Control. And I am also the responsible AI advocate at another startup called Bria. And in addition to that, I do consulting from time to time. One of the biggest gaps in this building responsible AI is how do we, there is a lot of talk and theories about how we want their AI to be like, we want them to be fair.
We want them to be transparent. We want them to be cute green, you know? And I’ve noticed that there’s this huge gap between all of those desires and what, what is actually going on. And so I decided to focus on this gap in my research. I’m trying to figure out how do we overcome this gap? And I wanna do it in a way that is informed by all of the theories and research that we have and also is intellectually rigorous. I think a great way to do it is through academic research. So that’s why I’m keeping my academic research going, but I also want to be engaged with what is happening on the ground, what actually works for companies, and what they need. And so that’s why that’s kind of a part of the reason why I’m working in the private sector as well.
Is there a different message for each audience?
It’s different. To me it’s different parts of the same audience. To me, I’m thinking about the tech ecosystem. Now each of them is doing something slightly different, so they need the message to be like suddenly adjusted, but it’s basically the same. Suppose we have a company who develops or uses AI. Very soon it’s just gonna be all companies that are like that. Yeah. How do we evaluate the company on its responsible AI maturity, and then how do we help it grow? So it could be the company itself that is evaluating itself and helping itself grow. Or it could be someone from the outside, like an investor who’s evaluating the company, helping them grow. And then either side is gonna need to understand to have motivation, like why. And so it’s gonna be the same for both. Again, the reason is first because of the social and environmental impact that I think everyone should be concerned about. And also because of the financial impact, so doing AI responsibly, just, uh, resulting better AI and you will likely to create better financial returns for various reasons. The same me applies to all of the groups just needs to be packaged a little differently sometimes.
The purpose of After Your PhD is to help academics ask questions before, during, and after the transition from academia. What were the three most important questions you asked yourself during the transition process?
Dr. Dotan: Instead of three, I will just give you one.
I think it is absolutely the most important. The question is, what do you want to do? I’m emphasizing this question because it’s hard. I find for many academics to ask themselves this question especially hard when they are at the end of their PhD. Whatever the reason that they’re living or considering living, there are a number of reasons why it’s difficult for them.
The bottom line is that a lot of academics that I see, and that was my personal situation too. They are at a point that is like often not their best in their lives. And they’re like, “I’m not sure that I’m even qualified to do anything else.” I’m stressed out financially. I am at a low point of my self-esteem. I think I’m not capable of like doing anything else beside the academia. And so it’s easy to get into the mindset of, “I will just say whatever comes and not even seriously, ask yourself the question, what is it that you wanna do?” It’s very, very important to ask this question. So I would encourage people, ask yourself, what is it that you wanna do and, and respect your own interests.
What would you tell someone if they said, “how do I figure out what I’m supposed to do if I don’t know what I want to do?”
Dr. Dotan: So the two things helped me personally. When I was wrapping up my PhD, I knew I didn’t wanna stay in academia, but at the same time I bought into the hype, you know, some level of my subconscious bought into the hype that I could only be happy doing academic research. And one of the first steps for me that was very helpful was to just notice myself enjoying other kinds of things to that’s a good point to show myself. I mean, I knew it was false, but still it had this hold on me that I could only be happy doing this. I remember I came up with a plan for myself about how I’m gonna do this exploration into the quote-unquote, outside world.
A group of people and I came up with like a syllabus and it was kind of difficult to put it together because it wasn’t like an academic syllabi. It was different. And it was challenging. And then I noticed I am enjoying this. Hmm. To me it was so small, but it was kind of, you know, the first sign that, oh, I can definitely be happy doing something else. So I would recommend finding those small things that give you this rush that maybe you thought that only academia could give you….
A guy came to my yard sale and I was like, I’m going to do an informational conversation with this person. It’s gonna be my first [conversation], so what do you do? And this guy was chopping trees for a living. He had a company for that. And he kind of climbed – pun not intended, from the bottom up of the company. So he started as a junior tree chopper. He bought it and he was very successful. He was so excited about his job. And it was great. Yeah. To me, , it was so different from what I was doing and the things that I envisioned myself doing.And it really helped me just to talk with someone about his career trajectory, who was excited about it. To like open my mind different kind of possibilities. And then this is something that’s like generally helped me to talk to former academics.
What did you actually learn during the transition?
Dr. Rotan: …I learned a lot which is why I’m pausing. I’m much happier now and I think I didn’t fully believe that I would be. I think it’s it just like somehow the culture convinces you of fact if you cannot be as happy doing anything else.
I’m so glad that I took this leap. I have no regrets, like zero regrets.
I was stuck in so many misconceptions that are a lot of ways that I thought of academia and the non-academic world that were just false
Should academics who leave academia bridge a gap between academia and industry or just leave all together?
Dr. Dotan: It really depends on the person. There isn’t one formula on how to do this really depends on what the person wants to do. And I’ve seen academics go on to successful careers in such a wide variety of things. For me personally, I find that I didn’t wanna do research of the kind that I would have been expected to do if I had worked at a tenure trip job or like a tenure job in my discipline, but there were other kinds of research that I am interested in doing, but that is just me and my personality.
Are there any links or resources that you wanna share with the audience?
Dr. Dotan: I would highly recommend professional services that, that help with career transitions. And if they specialize in academics, that’s even better for me. I found that’s very useful from what I personally have tried. One is called from PhD to life. The person behind it is Jen Polk…
I felt like I was a part of a community and this is something that is important to me. I felt like I am going from a community to nothingness.I felt like, oh, I am a part of a group actually. I also really needed someone to validate things like it’s okay to leave academiaI benefited from her service.
Interviewer Note: A few other recommendations Included: Beyond Academia, Leaving Academia: A Practical Guide, and Eric James Stephens.
Thanks For Letting Me Ask You Questions.
Dr. Dotan: I appreciate you doing this. I think it’s really going to be helpful for a lot of people.
What's Next After Your PhD?