To academia or not to academia

:: rambling

I have not posted in a while. I have been busy starting to focus on what my dissertation topic will be. This has brought on lots of thinking about the future, including whether or not I want to go into academia. I used to be sure, but I have become less sure…

When I started doing research, I thought to myself “Ah, the freedom to set my own schedule, work on interesting problems, and not worry about whether or not my work is directly increasing profits!”. I think this is largely true… of graduate students. But the more I am in academia, the more concerned I am that professors have no such luxuries.

Professors seem to spend an inordinate amount of time on things other than research: teaching, preparing to teach, grading assignments of those being taught, applying for money, sitting on committees, reviewing applications, scheduling talks, scheduling visitors, reviewing papers, and so on. Between classes and committees and other such responsibilities, there is little freedom to set one’s own schedule.

I worry that this myriad of non-interesting-problem related responsibilities really prevent professors from working on interesting problems. I notice this particularly when I am the only one making progress on my advisor’s research projects.

I understand that there is more to doing research than sitting down and solving a new and interesting problem. I do like teaching, attending talks, meeting with other researchers, and reading papers, and I appreciate these other tasks that just must get done. But I am concerned that the majority of a professor’s time is spent on not-research, and that there seem to be weeks and months at a time that professors do not sit down and solve a problem—unless they deal with uninteresting things all day and start doing research at 11pm1.

I do not want to work until 11pm every day, because there are other things in my life that I like doing.

I am not even sure professors get to choose their own research agenda. This seems particularly true of tenure track positions. To get tenure, you seem to require lots of publications at highly rated venues. This does not encourage doing good work. It encourages doing popular, easy work; it encourages slicing good work as thinly as possible; it encourages padding papers with co-authors so they will pad their papers with you as a co-author; it encourages ignoring your students and your teaching; it encourages working too much to be healthy. If you do not get tenured, even if you do a good job, you are fired.

In general, incentives seem setup totally wrong. For instance, professors seem to need Ph.D. students to get any work done, possibly caused by the hundreds of other things they have to do. But this incentives them to hire more Ph.D. students, regardless of whether or not the market needs more Ph.D. students. Given how competitive the academic job market is, and how narrow the skill set a Ph.D. provides, I am not convinced the market needs any more Ph.D.s. As a final example, professors with tenure are not encouraged to do a good job at literally anything.

Instead, the incentives in academia should encourage solving novel, interesting, hard problems, but not punish you for getting there late or taking a long time. They should encourage collaboration, and not discourage discussing early work for fear of getting scooped. They should encourage doing good work continuously, and not lots of good work for 6 years followed by no incentives. They should encourage a healthy work/life balance.

At least in industry there is one clear motive: profit. If you can convince someone (with enough decision making power) that your interesting problem increases profits—brings in revenue, brings up productivity, brings down cost—you can do it. Maybe you can’t set your own schedule as easily, but that is changing. More and more companies allow flexible hours and telecommuting. There is a standard on how much your work: 40 hours a week. And you make double what you make in academia.

1 Personal communication about a senior researcher.