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On Academic Maintenance

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.

  1. January 26, 2013 at 10:58 am

    So, in addition to “technical debt”, now we have “academic debt”

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