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Why go to academia

July 11, 2012 2 comments

Whenever graduate students ask me about the realities of academic life, I am brutally honest with them. I tell them openly about how much work and sacrifice it takes to make it in academia. Over the years, quite of few of these students have thanked me for my honesty. In a strange way, they feel that by disabusing them of their false idealistic beliefs, I actually helped them deal with the adversities of grad school and beyond. I do believe that when choosing a career path, people should do that with their eyes open, but I hope I am not on my way of becoming a curmudgeonly old professor.

The follow-up question that I am asked most often is what are my own reasons and motivation for going to and staying in academia. In my previous blog post, I explained what I believe to be the wrong reasons to want to pursue an academic career. Next, I will explain in turn what I consider to be my primary reasons for being an academic researcher.

Constant learning and intellectual growth
We learn and grow when we respond to negative feedback. There is no environment other than academia when your work is constantly critiqued through the process of peer review. By addressing the reviewers’ comments and suggestions, I find myself constantly learning and growing. I feel like with every paper and proposal submission, I become a more cogent thinker, writer, and presenter. No matter how far you advance in academia, your research submission can be rejected, an occasion you can use to continue growing. The same applies to reading a thoughtful teaching evaluation; it can become an impetus to improving your teaching skills.

Of course, people learn on their mistakes in other fields of human activity, but nowhere are critique and rejection as prevalent and omnipresent as in academia. Of course not all of the critique is fair and can be difficult to take, but seeing it as an impetus for growth helps set things into proper perspective.

A true win-win relationship with your graduate students
Academia is one of the few remaining environments where you can have a true win-win when it comes to work outcomes and rewards. When I write a research paper with a student, I receive credit if the student’s name appears as first author. It reflects positively on my advising prowess. I.e., my effective advising has helped the student achieve this research accomplishment. If my student gets a great job upon graduation, nothing would make me feel happier. Once again, it would reinforce my image as an effective advisor and boost my academic career. I may be mistaken, but it seems to me that in industry the interpersonal dynamics between the boss and subordinates is rarely as mutually beneficial.

Experience is a plus
The sad secret of the computing industry is that it is rife with age discrimination. Let’s be honest–software development, in particular, is an up or out field. One is expected to move into management or architecture. Otherwise, once you hit the middle age, as an experienced software developer, you can be replaced by a cheaper, straight-out-of-college developer. By contrast, in academia, experience is appreciated and gives you a competitive edge. Experienced professors possess a wealth of experience and skills that takes years to acquire. I want to be in a field where getting older does not inevitably render me irrelevant professionally.

Perhaps outside of software development, age discrimination is not as rampant, but it remains a fact of life for many technical professionals. I want to continue performing my current job for years to come, becoming continuously better at it, and as a result more valuable for my students,  university, and wider research community.

Conclusion
In the discussion above, I have examined my own reasons for going to and staying in academia. These reasons may not seem compelling to everyone, but they are the ones that motivate me to continue doing what I am doing. Will these reasons continue holding sufficient sway to keep me in academia for the rest of my career? I certainly hope so, but only time will tell.

Going to academia for wrong reasons

July 11, 2012 1 comment

As the summer is about to hit its midpoint, fresh graduate students are starting to move to their respective campuses, ready to start graduate school in the fall. Many of these students are determined to seek academic careers upon graduation. However, invariably as they progress through graduate school, many of them will change their minds and decide not to pursue an academic career. I believe this is because many students start graduate school adhering to some unrealistic, romantic notion of what being a professor is like. At some point during their graduate studies, they experience a rude awakening  and change their career plans or even drop out of grad school altogether. Wouldn’t they have been better off if someone disabused them of their false idealistic beliefs early on?

In the following discussion, I will examine what I perceive as some of the most commonly mentioned wrong reasons to pursue an academic career. In the following post,  I will then provide my own reasons for going to and staying in academia.

Among the mistaken reasons to want an academic career the ones I hear most commonly mentioned are: having a flexible schedule, working on stimulating projects, traveling around the word to present your research, and serving as a positive role model for the younger generation. Let’s examine these reasons in sequence.

Having a flexible schedule
It is generally true that academic researchers have a lot of flexibility in determining when they do work. However, the flexibility has nothing to do with the actual amount of hours one is expected to put in to build and maintain a successful research career. The tenure track is known to require an extraordinary time commitment. As the saying goes: “Nobody cares when you put in your 10-14 hours work during a typical work day.”

Many jobs in industry offer high levels of flexibility. Working from home is becoming a popular trend. Independent consultants get to determine their own hours. So having a flexible schedule should not be a major motivation for someone to want to go to academia.

Working on stimulating projects
There is a misunderstanding that academic researchers can choose the problems they want to work on, with their imagination being the only constraint. This is generally true under two conditions. You have to be able to (1) obtain adequate funding for the projects you personally find interesting, (2) recruit competent graduate students who’d be willing to work on these projects. Fulfilling either of these conditions is hard enough; fulfilling both of them can be nearly impossible in this funding climate and the intense competition for capable graduate students both across universities and within departments. Otherwise, academic researchers often end up working on the projects that the funding agencies are willing to fund or the ones that interest their graduate students (provided that the students support themselves trough a fellowship or a TA job).

Academia is not the only place where stimulating projects  are taking place. Startups and established companies creating cutting edge technologies are known for their intellectually stimulating work environments. You will be creating the technologies that not only can have huge practical impact, but can also become quite financially remunerative. So if your sole goal is to work on stimulating projects, academia may not be your best bet.

Traveling around the world to present your research
Do you know what it feels like to arrive to a conference straight from a red-eye intercontinental flight? You are sleep-deprived, disoriented, and over-caffeinated. But you cannot miss the bit, and start socializing and networking right away.

Why couldn’t you have arrived a day earlier? Well, it would mean being away from the office an extra day! Also, when traveling on a shoestring budget, all these extra hotel nights would quickly add up. Besides, often you end up spending most of your time in your hotel room working on your next paper or proposal.

Conference travel quickly loses its glory. As a result, whenever possible, professors send their graduate students to present the work. It is much more fun to travel for leisure.

Serving as a positive role model
From what I have observed, few students, undergraduate or graduate, see their professors as role models. In a strong employment market for IT professionals, few CS undergraduates would ever consider getting a graduate degree. Their options in industry are too enticing. When you are removed from your professor by years and years of graduate education, you cannot possibly relate to them. More likely role models for our students are technology leaders and star entrepreneurs. Graduate students may admire their advisors, but unlikely to see them as their role models.

So I can see how one can go to academia because they aspire to do an excellent job imparting knowledge and skills, but expecting to become a role model would be pretentious and quite unlikely.

Conclusion
In the discussion above, I have examined what I believe to be some of the most common misconceptions about academic careers. Graduate students motivated to go to academia primarily for any of these reasons are likely to be disappointed or may even decide to opt out of academia.