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More on Maintenance

January 27, 2013 Leave a comment

I keep finding more parallels between software maintenance and academic maintenance. Back in my days as a software developer, I vividly remember that the more senior and experienced developers were, the more their jobs were concerned with maintenance. In fact, the head of our programming team was devoting almost all of his time to fixing bugs. He was the most senior developer, who was most intimately familiar with our main product. He always had the largest number of bug reports in his work queue. These were pretty nasty bugs–showstoppers–which stood on the way of shipping the product to the customer. Despite performing an utterly important service for the company (i.e., keeping the product afloat), I remember my team lead being one of the most bitter people I’ve ever encountered. Fixing mostly other people’s mess must not be that fulfilling, even though the activity is vital for the very survival of the product and company. Not wanting to be eventually put in a position like that was one of the primary reasons why I decided to go back to school to get my Ph.D. and seek a career in research rather than in industry.

I am noticing that a faculty’s seniority level is almost directly proportional to the amount of academic maintenance they perform. The amount of service I perform has increased significantly since I got tenure. The faculty with administrative responsibilities mostly focus on academic maintenance rather than research. Department head is the ultimate example of a faculty focusing solely on maintaining the research enterprise of the department. I wonder, however, if focusing on academic maintenance too much can make faculty bitter, similarly to how it tends to work in software development. Too much non-research commitments is indeed stated as a key reason by those who have left academia.

It seems that maintenance, while essential, makes people engaged in it unhappy. There are notable exceptions, however. One of my former bosses claimed that he enjoyed fixing bugs more than he did writing original code. I am sure there are faculty who find departmental service as fulfilling as their research activities. Perhaps some of the techniques used to facilitate software maintenance can be applied to academic maintenance. Appropriate architecture, thoughtful design, solid implementation–all are known to streamline the maintenance process. A well-structured academic department with well-engineered work processes indeed reduces and simplifies the maintenance of the research enterprise as well. I wonder what other software maintenance state of the art can be applied here.

Doing a Ph.D. will break you down and build you back up!

January 26, 2013 10 comments

“Things don’t go wrong and break your heart so you can become bitter and give up. They happen to break you down and build you up so you can be all that you were intended to be.”
― Charles Jones Life is Tremendous

There is a blog post making rounds around the Internet, in which a career academic advises students against pursuing Ph.D. studies. The author’s main point is that the process invariably breaks the Ph.D. seeker, and it does so by design. I agree, but it is only part of the picture. Doing a Ph.D. breaks you down and then builds you into a stronger, more mature, and more determined person, prepared to deal with the vagaries of the research trade.

Ph.D. training indeed breaks you, as it makes your realize your own inadequacies when you are forced to develop wanton patience working on hard problems for years, without any certainty that the problems are even solvable. During your Ph.D. training you have to learn how to persevere in the face of intellectual doubts, personal isolation, and financial hardship. However, successfully completing one’s Ph.D. journey does prepare you for the challenges of a research career.

I have recently received tenure, and I found my tenure track experiences to be much more trying and unforgiving than anything I went through during my Ph.D. studies. Do you know what it does to a man’s (or a woman’s) soul to have 11 NSF proposals rejected in a row? Do you know when you are the only person in your department working in your research area, which your department does not fully understand? Do you know what it is like when your very first teaching assignment turns into developing a new undergraduate course from scratch? Do you know what it is like for a life-long urbanite to find yourself in a small college town that does not have anything to offer that you care about?

Nevertheless, no matter how isolated, overworked, and depressed I may have felt at times, it has never occurred to me to quit my job. My Ph.D. training hardened my spirit and enabled me to persevere against all odds. My 12th submission to the NSF got funded, thus cementing my tenure case. In my department, I became a go-to person for collaborations in my research area. The undergraduate course I developed became one of the most popular courses in the curriculum  and helped me recruit a student with whom I co-authored some of my best papers. Finally, I have learned to appreciate the safety and absence of traffic of my new living arrangements–nothing beats living half a mile away from your office! To a large degree, I credit my Ph.D. training, which was indeed  long and grueling, with giving me the strength and determination to succeed on the tenure track.

Doing a Ph.D. taught me several important lessons. One is that whether you have had a good experience or bad experience, it is the noun (i.e., experience) that is important, not the adjective (i.e., good or bad); use all your experiences as an opportunity to learn and grow. Another lesson was conveyed to me by a member of my Ph.D. committee. He said: “You are being too defensive with your committee. You have done excellent work that was published in top places–stand your ground!” And this is what I have been doing ever since–standing my ground no matter what my research career throws at me.

Finally, I do not think that anything needs to change in the way Ph.D. training is conducted. The process must remain long and hard, as it is the only way to train students for successful research careers. However, whether one should embark on the Ph.D. journey is a highly individual decision that should not be made lightly.

On Academic Maintenance

January 25, 2013 1 comment

One of the common software myths is “once the software is delivered, most of the work is behind us.” In fact, nothing can be further from the truth, as it is estimated that between 60 and 80% of all software engineering effort and cost is expended on software maintenance, the process of modifying software after its initial release.

Whenever I interview people for faculty positions, I always ask them why they want to get a job in academia rather than in a research lab. Most of the interviewees have thoughtful answers that range from the ability define your own research agenda to developing long term mentoring relationships. However, once in a while I get an answer that goes something as follows: “I have done internships in research labs and saw how much time researchers spend on maintaining research software rather than on actual research; I’d rather not do that.” I am usually proud of my restraint when I don’t counter this answer with: “You think there is no maintenance in academia–what do you think I am doing right now talking to you rather than working on my research?!”

This answer indicates to me a fundamental misunderstanding of how the academic research enterprise operates. In fact, I find that similarly to software maintenance, academic maintenance takes between 60 and 80% of the total time and effort of an academic researcher.  Teaching, grant preparation, committee work, manuscript reviewing, recommendation letter writing–all are essential activities without which the research enterprise cannot function. However, these maintenance activities combined commonly consume more time than direct research activities, including reading and writing research papers, meeting with your graduate students, and crafting research prototypes, even in a research university. That’s the basic equation of the academic research enterprise, and anyone who thinks that academic researchers live the posh existence of spending the majority of their time on research rather than on research maintenance are sadly mistaken.

Overcoming Post-Tenure Depression (PTD)

January 21, 2013 Leave a comment

During my somewhat haphazard workouts, I often cross ways with a full professor, who’s been working for the university for more than 20 years. I enjoy these encounters, as my more experienced colleague never fails to impart useful advice on me regarding both my lifting technique and academic matters. When I mentioned to my colleague that I was going through my tenure evaluation, his reaction was “Oh, I am so sorry–I hope you’ll be able to overcome your post-tenure depression quickly.” According to my colleague, the tenure evaluation process is almost always followed by bouts of depression. It is understandable why people get upset when they fail to get tenure, but the prevalence of post-tenure depression (PTD) seems counter-intuitive.

To make the long story short, I had a mild case of PTD, and even though I am not completely out of the woods yet, I believe I am steady on my way to recovery. This blog post, after a semester-long hiatus, is a testament to the veracity of this claim. The purpose of this post is to share some of the strategies I have followed to overcome PTD, with the hope that someone in the same situation may find them useful.

Much has been written about the causes of PTD, so I won’t bore you with repeating what others have stated so eloquently. In summary, PTD is a direct outcome of realizing that earning tenure does not automatically change anything in a faculty’s life. Overcoming PTD requires both realizing the new opportunities that tenure affords and following through on at least some of them.

In the following discussion, I list some of the opportunities and benefits of tenure I have discovered and how I am trying to leverage them.

  • Rejection is easier to take philosophically. While on the tenure track, every rejected paper or proposal would increase my doubts whether I’d be able to build a strong enough tenure case. Now rejections no longer automatically conjure up images of receiving the message of “Tenure Denied!” As a result, I am better able to leverage rejection as a learning and growth opportunity. An additional benefit is that now rejected papers affect my graduate students more than they do me (I already earned my Ph.D. and tenure, while they still haven’t reached even the first milestone). This is really a win-win situation, as it causes my students to get ownership of and be responsible for their work.
  • I can pursue my educational interests more freely. While on the tenure track, I single-mindedly focused on research as all pre-tenure faculty in a research university. With respect to teaching my biggest concern was how I could do a decent job as a teacher without taking too much of time away from my research activities. As I am realizing now, some of these concerns were purely psychological: at times, I was mentally restraining myself from pursuing my educational interests too far. Now, I am looking forward to trying educational innovation in my classes, an investment of time and efforts I can make without agonizing about jeopardizing my research productivity.
  • I feel like I can pursue my other interests without feeling guilty. In my previous life, I was pursuing a career as a professional classical clarinetist. While on the tenure track, I had no time to practice. I felt that working toward tenure required a single-minded devotion, and pursing any other interest would detract from reaching my main goal. Ever since my successful tenure decision was announced, I brought my clarinet to my office and started practicing on a regular basis at the end of my workday. Even though I usually do not get to playing my clarinet until the very late hours of the day, engaging in an activity that once used to be my primary occupation provides me with a certain balance to my life. To keep myself motivated, I am now planning a solo recital some time in the near future.

Leveraging these opportunities have helped me feel better about my job as a faculty. Even though tenure has not changed my work habits (the same number hours with unchanged intensity), having reached this milestone has positively affected my perception of my job.