Via my York University Computer Science & Engineering colleague Andrew Eckford, two contrasting blog posts by two different Harvard computer science profs. One has decided to leave academia for greener pastures at Google and the other has decided to stay.
First, Matt Welsh on leaving.
There is one simple reason that I’m leaving academia: I simply love work I’m doing at Google. I get to hack all day, working on problems that are orders of magnitude larger and more interesting than I can work on at any university. That is really hard to beat, and is worth more to me than having “Prof.” in front of my name, or a big office, or even permanent employment. In many ways, working at Google is realizing the dream I’ve had of building big systems my entire career.
As I’ve blogged about before, being a professor is not the job I thought it would be. There’s a lot of overhead involved, and (at least for me) getting funding is a lot harder than it should be. Also, it’s increasingly hard to do “big systems” work in an academic setting. Arguably the problems in industry are so much larger than what most academics can tackle. It would be nice if that would change, but you know the saying — if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
The cynical view is that as an academic systems researcher, the very best possible outcome for your research is that someone at Google or Microsoft or Facebook reads one of your papers, gets inspired by it, and implements something like it internally. Chances are they will have to change your idea drastically to get it to actually work, and you’ll never hear about it. And of course the amount of overhead and red tape (grant proposals, teaching, committee work, etc.) you have to do apart from the interesting technical work severely limits your ability to actually get to that point. At Google, I have a much more direct route from idea to execution to impact. I can just sit down and write the code and deploy the system, on more machines than I will ever have access to at a university. I personally find this far more satisfying than the elaborate academic process.
I think there’s a sense in academia that people get PhD’s so that they can become professors. Most graduate students have that point of view going in — their experience with research professionals at that point is essentially entirely with faculty. And most professors encourage students to have that goal. Some of that, I think, is that most professors like their job (unsurprisingly), and some may not have other experiences to suggest to their students. And some of it may be more calculated. One measure of a faculty member’s success is how many faculty offspring they’ve produced.
But being a faculty member is not for everyone. As Matt has described in this blog, and I in the past have described in my blog, being a professor is probably not exactly what most people expect. Besides teaching and research, your time gets taken up with administration, managing (graduate) students, fundraising, and service to your scientific community. It’s perhaps absurd to expect that everyone who starts out in a PhD program be interested in all these various aspects of the job. And, fortunately, in computer science, there are still many other compelling options available.
I suppose the question that’s left is why I’m staying at Harvard — that is, why I still like being a professor. (And thank you to those of you who think the obvious answer is, “Who else would hire you?”) I enjoy the freedom of working on whatever I find interesting; being unrestricted in who I choose to talk to about research problems and ideas; having the opportunity to work with a whole variety of interesting and smart people, from undergraduates to graduate students to CS colleagues all over the globe to math and biology professors a few buildings down; the ample opportunity to do consulting work that both pays well and challenges me in different ways; the schedule that lets me walk my kids to school most every day and be home for dinner most every night; and the security that, as long as I keep enjoying it, I can keep doing this job for the next 30+ years.
The job is never boring. On any given day, I might be teaching, planning a class, working with students, thinking, writing a paper, writing some code, reading, listening to a talk, planning or giving a talk, organizing an event, consulting in some form, or any other manner of things. In the old days, I wrote a blog. These days, I’m administrating, making sure our classes work smoothly, our faculty are satisfied and enabled to do the great things they do, and we’re able to continue to expand and get even better. Once I wrote a book, and someday I hope to do that again. Perhaps the biggest possible complaint is that there’s always something to do, so you have to learn to manage your time, say no, and make good decisions about what to do every day. As someone who hates being bored, this is generally a good feature of the job for me.
Not surprisingly, a lot of it comes down to how much personal benefit and fulfillment a particular person gets from the teaching and service missions of academic life and how much a particular person enjoys a certain variety of tasks and activities and not just head-down research.
Because, of course, everyone is different. We shouldn’t all be expected to find fulfillment in the same things.
Personally, I find great enjoyment is a wide variety of tasks. I love building interesting and useful collections and building solid and lasting relationships with faculty and administrative units. I love my involvement in IL but I’m not sure I’d love doing three or four times as much as I do now. Sitting at the reference desk (both physical and virtual) is fantastic, I really enjoy helping students with their work — but I think I’d explode if I had to do it all day. In addition to all that, I have the time and am certainly encouraged to play and active role in the development of librarianship. I like being engaged in scholarly and professional activities as much as any of the other things I mention above.
So, I thrive on the particular kind of variety that my particular academic library job provides. Academia works for me.
How about you? I’m interested in the take that other librarians or scientists in other contexts might have.