Computer Science & Academia: Two views on staying or leaving

Via my York University Computer Science & Engineering colleague Andrew Eckford, two contrasting blog posts by two different Harvard computer science profs. One has decided to leave academia for greener pastures at Google and the other has decided to stay.

First, Matt Welsh on leaving.

There is one simple reason that I'm leaving academia: I simply love work I'm doing at Google. I get to hack all day, working on problems that are orders of magnitude larger and more interesting than I can work on at any university. That is really hard to beat, and is worth more to me than having "Prof." in front of my name, or a big office, or even permanent employment. In many ways, working at Google is realizing the dream I've had of building big systems my entire career.

As I've blogged about before, being a professor is not the job I thought it would be. There's a lot of overhead involved, and (at least for me) getting funding is a lot harder than it should be. Also, it's increasingly hard to do "big systems" work in an academic setting. Arguably the problems in industry are so much larger than what most academics can tackle. It would be nice if that would change, but you know the saying -- if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

The cynical view is that as an academic systems researcher, the very best possible outcome for your research is that someone at Google or Microsoft or Facebook reads one of your papers, gets inspired by it, and implements something like it internally. Chances are they will have to change your idea drastically to get it to actually work, and you'll never hear about it. And of course the amount of overhead and red tape (grant proposals, teaching, committee work, etc.) you have to do apart from the interesting technical work severely limits your ability to actually get to that point. At Google, I have a much more direct route from idea to execution to impact. I can just sit down and write the code and deploy the system, on more machines than I will ever have access to at a university. I personally find this far more satisfying than the elaborate academic process.

Michael Mitzenmacher on staying.

I think there's a sense in academia that people get PhD's so that they can become professors. Most graduate students have that point of view going in -- their experience with research professionals at that point is essentially entirely with faculty. And most professors encourage students to have that goal. Some of that, I think, is that most professors like their job (unsurprisingly), and some may not have other experiences to suggest to their students. And some of it may be more calculated. One measure of a faculty member's success is how many faculty offspring they've produced.

But being a faculty member is not for everyone. As Matt has described in this blog, and I in the past have described in my blog, being a professor is probably not exactly what most people expect. Besides teaching and research, your time gets taken up with administration, managing (graduate) students, fundraising, and service to your scientific community. It's perhaps absurd to expect that everyone who starts out in a PhD program be interested in all these various aspects of the job. And, fortunately, in computer science, there are still many other compelling options available.


I suppose the question that's left is why I'm staying at Harvard -- that is, why I still like being a professor. (And thank you to those of you who think the obvious answer is, "Who else would hire you?") I enjoy the freedom of working on whatever I find interesting; being unrestricted in who I choose to talk to about research problems and ideas; having the opportunity to work with a whole variety of interesting and smart people, from undergraduates to graduate students to CS colleagues all over the globe to math and biology professors a few buildings down; the ample opportunity to do consulting work that both pays well and challenges me in different ways; the schedule that lets me walk my kids to school most every day and be home for dinner most every night; and the security that, as long as I keep enjoying it, I can keep doing this job for the next 30+ years.

The job is never boring. On any given day, I might be teaching, planning a class, working with students, thinking, writing a paper, writing some code, reading, listening to a talk, planning or giving a talk, organizing an event, consulting in some form, or any other manner of things. In the old days, I wrote a blog. These days, I'm administrating, making sure our classes work smoothly, our faculty are satisfied and enabled to do the great things they do, and we're able to continue to expand and get even better. Once I wrote a book, and someday I hope to do that again. Perhaps the biggest possible complaint is that there's always something to do, so you have to learn to manage your time, say no, and make good decisions about what to do every day. As someone who hates being bored, this is generally a good feature of the job for me.

Not surprisingly, a lot of it comes down to how much personal benefit and fulfillment a particular person gets from the teaching and service missions of academic life and how much a particular person enjoys a certain variety of tasks and activities and not just head-down research.

Because, of course, everyone is different. We shouldn't all be expected to find fulfillment in the same things.

Personally, I find great enjoyment is a wide variety of tasks. I love building interesting and useful collections and building solid and lasting relationships with faculty and administrative units. I love my involvement in IL but I'm not sure I'd love doing three or four times as much as I do now. Sitting at the reference desk (both physical and virtual) is fantastic, I really enjoy helping students with their work -- but I think I'd explode if I had to do it all day. In addition to all that, I have the time and am certainly encouraged to play and active role in the development of librarianship. I like being engaged in scholarly and professional activities as much as any of the other things I mention above.

So, I thrive on the particular kind of variety that my particular academic library job provides. Academia works for me.

How about you? I'm interested in the take that other librarians or scientists in other contexts might have.

6 responses so far

  • Amy says:

    I've been on both sides of the fence (post-doc in an industrial research lab before I became a faculty member), and what both Matt and Michael say rings very true to me. From my vantage point now, having entire days to devote to my research seems so luxurious! And I did very much enjoy my stint in the lab. But I ultimately left because I felt like even though what I was doing was interesting work, I was not really having an impact. Teaching and mentoring undergrads does make me feel like I'm having a much greater impact on the field, because I'm training the next generation of computer scientists! Plus I absolutely love working with undergraduate researchers---that's how I got my start down this path, and I love being able to give back by giving other students their start as well.

    I often wish my current job wasn't so busy/frantic, but then again I'm glad I don't have to change my research agenda at the whims of upper management anymore. Plus I agree with Michael---I absolutely love that no two days in this job are the same, and that I have the privilege to wear so many hats.

  • i personally have a combination of Academia and entrepreneurship. With this I get the best of both worlds. I get input and inspiration from smart students, and open research, while also being able to apply my ideas. I think this is different from the corporation/academia debate, as having your own company allows even more control of your destiny.

  • John Dupuis says:

    Thanks, Amy & Matthew.

    I guess it all comes down to what works with us individually. And Matthew, I guess it'd be nice to have a third view represented: leaving academic CS to found a start-up. There must be cases out there that have been written about (aside from Google, of course). I'll see what I can find. If anyone knows of any, I'd be happy to hear about them.

  • Being a prof. has less and less to do with scolarship, and more to do with management. More critically, in science, professors are discouraged from tinkering in their labs and encouraged to become fund raisers and group leaders. Teaching is hardly on the map as we have inexpensive adjuncts to do the job well enough. Effectively, the professor is dissociated from reality and pushed into a virtual world akin to the financial markets: doing science without spending time in the lab is like selling financial products.

    That is to say that things are better at Google, but Matt's desire to get back to tangible work, work which has an objective effect on reality, is understandable. And I postulate that we may see more and more people who leave great looking jobs to get back to more basic, yet more satisfying, work.

  • John Dupuis says:

    Thanks, Daniel. You're probably right. I wonder how this plays out beyond CS? I'm thinking of the more applied parts of fields like engineering or chemistry or geology as well as the various business disciplines. Certainly, combining commercial/government consulting with academia is very prevalent in business and I suspect becoming more so in scitech fields.

  • Roman says:

    Michael paints a very rosy picture of an academic job.

    "I enjoy the freedom of working on whatever I find interesting;"

    Only if you run your own group and get funding for it.

    "being unrestricted in who I choose to talk to about research problems and ideas; having the opportunity to work with a whole variety of interesting and smart people,"

    I've never had any problem with finding smart people in my industry.

    "the ample opportunity to do consulting work that both pays well and challenges me in different ways;"

    That's not that common in, say, theoretical physics.

    "the schedule that lets me walk my kids to school most every day and be home for dinner most every night;"

    That's relatively rare in physics: all successful professors I've seen work really long hours and sacrifice a lot of their personal life for their career.

    "and the security that, as long as I keep enjoying it, I can keep doing this job for the next 30+ years."

    Not before you get tenure.

    I don't doubt that you can be very happy in the academia when you're successful. But if you're not, you'll probably be much less happy as a so-so scientist than as a so-so engineer in Google.

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