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On the Groves of Academe [a rant in several parts]

Okay, so (I claim) it’s kind of insane to want to be a professor.  “And yet,” you say (in my head, where you are interested), “You are yourself finishing a Ph.D. and trying to stay in academia!”

Well, I gave three possible reasons for that behavior:

  • You’re nuts.
  • You somehow missed the memo on the problems with academia.
  • You know yourself, and know what makes you happy, very well. 

I don’t think I’m irretrievably insane, and I certainly got the memo.  So.

[This got long as all hell.  Feel free to just look at this cat instead. –ed.]

Not posed.  I just looked over and Libra was sitting
in my backpack.  With her tongue sticking out.

Do I know myself that well?  Who knows.  Maybe!  But I know, as much as anyone can know without being there, what the tradeoffs are.  I undoubtedly have surprises in my future, and I have things to learn about being in academia – including unpleasant things – and about myself.  But here are some things I’m sure of about myself, right now.

  • I don’t care that much about money.1 As far as my life objectives and reward structures go, it’s not high on the list.  I want enough money for a reasonably nice life – but in my field, that doesn’t require being at the financial pinnacle.
  • I like writing.  I like presenting to groups.  I like being in front of groups.  I like teaching and I love presenting at conferences.  I am a big fat ham.
  • I love, love, love traveling.  I have a map of places I have yet to go.  This is a thing researchers do, travel for conferences; and I love basically everything about business traveling.
  • I love interacting with smart people!  In a university environment, many of the people you rub along with are stimulating, thought-provoking, fascinating people.
  • I am motivated by tackling new problems and coming up with new ideas – even if some of them don’t work out.  Tackling problems that humanity has never solved before is awesome.  Producing profitable artifacts, less my thing.
If you don’t know what this is all about, get off my lawn.
  • My personal health and well-being is best served by having a job/role that supports not getting up at 8 or 9 (or 10) every day.  It sounds minor, but it’s not.
  • I love being on campus.  I love wandering around a campus, people-watching students and professors, reading posters in random buildings.  I find that I feel comfortable and happy on almost any campus.
  • I do not give farts about how many people know my name.  I care a bit about the quality of those people, but the idea of “toiling along in relative obscurity” is untroubling.
  • I lead small groups well; I mentor well; I don’t want to be a career manager.
  • I work best under pressure.  With no forcing functions, I tend to play computer games in my underwear and loathe myself.
  • Mr. Fix-It hates moving with a passion, and I don’t want to drag him around as I do corporate job changes.  Also, neither of us is a big fan of Silicon Valley.
  • And hey – I went into grad school from an industry research job, with my eyes open, planning to enjoy it.  And for the most part, I’ve enjoyed the hell out of it.

Some of these can be addressed by non-university research jobs; some cannot.  Some aren’t addressed by academia, either, and not all “industry” research jobs are created equal.  Put together, they make a pretty reasonable story.  That said, there’s one more slightly dirty secret:

  • It’s a one-way street.  You can go from academia to industry, but not vice versa.2

So “publish or perish” is really “publish or do what you’d be doing anyway if you weren’t in academia”.  Trying out the faculty gig keeps my options the most open, which I do care about. A lot. A whole lot.  A whole, whole lot.  …yep.


[1]  This, by the way, is the kind of thing that’s easy to toss off if you have enough money, and don’t have to worry about making rent, or have to decide between medicine and food.  I have always been that lucky, but a lot of it is luck, and I am profoundly grateful.

[2]  Yes yes there are exceptions.  People win the lottery too.  Thpt.