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Irreplaceable academics?

While observing the temporary plunge of Apple stock in response to Steve Jobs’ announcement regarding his planned medical leave of absence, I was wondering whether academic researchers can be deemed similarly irreplaceable by their universities.

Few would doubt that Steve Jobs has played a pivotal role in the success of Apple as a technological leader. The history of computing shows that individual technologists often play decisive roles, making innovative products really happen. Furthermore, founders of some of the most successful IT companies have been known to approach the technologists they wanted to hire in person, ask them what it would take to hire them, and then meet their demands. For example, Windows NT may not have happened if Bill Gates had not approached David Cutler in person asking him to join Microsoft. According to this book, Gates met all of Cutler’s demands, one of which included constructing a new building for the NT team.

At the same time, team work is what we teach our undergraduate students. Even in the introductory courses, we ask our students to perform lab assignments in pair programming teams, and both team members  receive the same grade. In more advanced classes, we encourage our students to work on programming projects in teams of two or more. Interestingly, I have observed how some Ph.D. students groomed in a similar manner had difficulties adjusting to the solitude of Ph.D. level research, where eventually one has write an individual dissertation.

Due to the emphasis on team work in modern society, I wonder if the role of an individual in academic work is being unduly diminished. Particularly due to the shortage of academic positions and the glut of Ph.D. level scientists, can universities assume that professors are dispensable? How hard should academic departments work trying to recruit and retain their faculty?

In CS, I have observed a noticeable inflation in that every year, on average, fresh Ph.D. graduates have more and better publications. So one strategy an academic department can follow is not to try to retain any faculty. If a faculty member becomes dissatisfied with some aspect of his or her job, make no accommodation and just let them leave. Due to the inflation in the quality of fresh Ph.D.s, the department is likely to hire a more accomplished replacement.

Nevertheless, I do not think that such a strategy is sustainable, particularly with respect to senior faculty. While unlike a company an academic department does not have a specific production goal, academic productivity is a tangible commodity. Furthermore, if senior faculty are generous about sharing their experience, they can be extremely conducive to the success of junior faculty. How many junior people have written their first successful grant proposal as a co-PI with a more senior colleague?

At the same time, the question remains whether individuals are appreciated more in industry or academia. Do college administrators go to the same lengths to convince star academics to join and stay in their universities as CEOs do with star technologists? I am not sure.

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Categories: careers
  1. January 28, 2011 at 8:56 am

    This is quite insightful and reflective. While I am not a professor, I hear and see similar distinctions between academia and industry. I think a core difference is the value places on teamwork and leadership between the two institutions. In academia, people will collaborate, but they are not team members. In industry, there may be leaders, but people generally are participating in teamwork.

    In fact, I’ve seen junior faculty who work closely with senior faculty – and people discuss their concerns over the junior faculties ability to craft their own research area. Meaning that even though there may be mentorship and collaboration, in academia it can a double edged sword.

  2. January 28, 2011 at 6:10 pm

    @Laurian, that’s a very interesting point! In industry, leadership and teamwork do not interfere with each other, at least in better managed companies. In academia, collaboration can put in question junior people’s ability to drive their own research agenda. And at the same time, it is hard to imagine an individual faculty play as pivotal a role in a university as some industry stars do in their companies.

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