Why go to academia
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.
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.