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Going to academia for wrong reasons

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.

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.

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  1. July 11, 2012 at 11:20 pm

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