Thursday, March 24, 2005

Don't hate the player, hate the game

My answer to Bill Tozier's "What are you going to do about it ?" question is: not play.

Ever since I started down the graduate school path, I've always been pretty clear about the fact that there's no way I'm going to try to become an academic. The notion of spending 5+ years getting a PhD, 1-3 years as a postdoc slave working for minimum wage, hopefully getting a tenure-track position and then having to bust my @$$ for another 4-7 years trying to get tenure has never made sense for me. Partially that's because of my "life stage": I've had a real life that I want to get back to as soon as possible, Christina and I want to start having kids and so there's no way I want to end up 40+ years old, with kids and a mortgage, and looking for a job because I didn't get tenure. However, to a large extent that decision is also because
of my belief that the risk/reward profile of academia makes no sense -- it's like a job-related version of the Chewbacca defense.

Let's take compensation, based on
this survey of professor salaries at various universities:

- MS pays people coming straight out of undergrad, with no advanced degrees, almost the same as assistant professors get at MIT & Havard. For 6-8 years less school, that's a tradeoff definitely worth making.
- A full Harvard professor makes $150K/year [neglecting income from consulting gigs etc]. Becoming a full professor takes [I think] 5-10 years. Somebody who has a successful career at MS would make about $150K after 6-7 years there. And, on average, the probability of having that successful a career at MS is higher than there is of becoming a full professor at Harvard. There are more opportunities and the competition is less intense.

Ah, but what about getting to be your own boss, doing what you want, advancing science etc ? In other words, all the "intangible" benefits of being an academic ? Let's tackle these one by one:

i) "I'm my own boss". Sure, but you're not a slave in industry either. At a certain level of seniority in industry, you in many ways end up getting to decide what you want to spend your time on. As a dev manager, I had considerable freedom in deciding whether to spend my time attending code & design reviews, think about future product direction etc.
ii) "I can work purely on stuff that interests me". It's not clear to me that that's entirely true in academia. You have to pick a research topic that'll pull in grants. You have to teach classes. Again, in industry you can also generally always find something that's interesting -- either within the company [if it's big enough] or by moving to a different company.
iii) "I'm not selling my soul to the devil by working for a big, evil corporation": Short of working for an organization that makes weapons [and possibly Wall Street], working in industry won't really taint your eternal soul either. Ok, maybe if you're responsible for writing the advertising jingles for toilet paper, you'll have occasional doubts about whether this is the most productive way of spending your life, but is that really that much worse than yet another paper analyzing the postmodern symbolism inherent in the relationship between Beowulf and Grendel ?
iv) "I'll make important scientific contributions that will change the world !": Uhm. Yeah. Maybe. If you're Bob Langer. But you're probably not, so your chances of actually doing something that will impact other people are probably higher if you're working in industry than in academia. I mean, how many people will actually care about that paper on "DNA polymerase processivity in Arabidopsis under conditions of amino acid starvation and high-intensity X-ray bombardment" that you spent a year of your life on ? No, really, be honest with yourself.
v) "I can't be fired or downsized once I have tenure !": Chances are, if you're good/lucky enough to get tenure, you're good enough to never be out of work in industry either. And in industry, you still have more job security, year-to-year, than adjunct faculty seem to have.

A lot of this analysis [certainly the compensation bit] assumes you're in an engineering/scientific field. Maybe academia makes more sense if you're not, but somehow I doubt that.

So: don't play. There are easier ways to make a decent living and still have a job you like.


Blogger Son1 said...

What about...
vi) "I really just want to be paid to read and think and explore?"

Academia seems like it'd be a good place for that :-). From what I've seen, an industry setting isn't quite the place I would want to be. All that other stuff (be your own boss, etc) is bunk anyway. What matters is what you're working on, and academia makes it easier to get closer to some kinds of problems. It's just a lifestyle, different from others.

Anyway, your "not counting outside consulting gigs" is a big caveat.

7:44 AM  
Anonymous Bill Tozier said...

Yeah, on "not counting outside consulting gigs": I make my monthly graduate stipend easily every day I work with my consulting hat on....

As for industry... well, there's industry, and there's industry. There used to be Bell Labs and IBM Watson and places like that all over. Someday perhaps they'll be back.

But the most often-ignored downside to the academic job is the meetings. At least in industry, they end more or less on schedule.

1:16 PM  
Anonymous clew said...

Huh. I left MSFT for (eventually) more school, and much of my reason was that, however much choice I had in the aspect of what I worked on, the underlying stuff seemed increasingly like ... well, like selling colored sugar-water, to borrow a phrase.

MSR was more interesting, but that just begged the question - once the ol' options had vested.

And finally, what I want to work on is in the enormous range of difficult and externality-ridden environmental problems. There is a large chance that working on ecology in the context of business will require selling your soul, figuring out how to extract faster & put less back. The incentive$ are buggy.

On the other hand! I am not any kind of amused by the fifteen-year gamble on getting a decent job. My fallback is that I'm doing applied-math-applied-to the subject I want; and the tools are so hairy that I probably am staying employable.

7:15 PM  

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