On Leave at Google

Monday, November 29, 2010

Via John Cook, I found an interesting blog post by Matt Welsh, a Harvard University professor of computer science. Welsh compares what he imagined academic life would be like with what it actually is like. Probably the most interesting connections he makes pertain to the kind of skill set and the level of commitment success requires:

To be sure, there are some great things about this job. To first approximation you are your own boss, and even when it comes to teaching you typically have a tremendous amount of freedom. It has often been said that being a prof is like running your own startup -- you have to hire the staff (the students), raise the money (grant proposals), and of course come up with the big ideas and execute on them. But you also have to do a lot of marketing (writing papers and giving talks), and sit on a gazillion stupid committees that eat up your time. This post is mostly for grad students who think they want to be profs one day. A few surprises and lessons from my time in the job... [bold added]
But don't take his word for it: Observe what he does with this knowledge. The note about the author in the sidebar of Welsh's blog ends as follows: "He is currently on leave at Google." Since that post was dated May 24 of this year, I became curious and immediately learned that Welsh made the change permanent in November. He gives as a reason for leaving his tenured post at Harvard one of the very things he noted was missing from his days as an academic, "I get to hack all day...."

Also noteworthy about the earlier post on academia was his comment that, "Students are the coin of the realm." Welsh doesn't focus on the problems that fact can cause, but taken together with them, his words should serve as a wake-up call to anyone pursuing an advanced degree.

Love of the work is what motivates many to pursue a career in academia, but it is clear that academia is not necessarily the best place to do the work.

-- CAV


kelleyn said...

I decided against the academic life while I was an undergrad. I was on the "hard" side of the campus, but I could still see plenty of the tenured disfunctionality, empire building, and domination of the individual's life that are notorious within academia.

Unfortunately, I may end up going back despite my best intentions. For health reasons, when I graduated with my B.S. I lost out on the peripheral benefits of higher education, mainly the networking opportunities and career jump start. I'm thinking about going back for a Master's, but getting an internship during the first summer (if I can) and then quitting the program. Unless I can think of a better way to generate contacts, of course.

Gus Van Horn said...

Grad school can be beneficial in ways apart from contact generation, such as showing that you be a creative thinker or can stick to a difficult project. Part of what you have to do (and this isn't necessarily straightforward) is figure out at which level you might want to work, and which degree is more marketable for that purpose. (If you're not sure, shoot for the MS and reevaluate when you're close to finishing. Or do what you're talking about.)

My recommendation would be, if you can, to seek out others in your field with experience in industry to see whether an MS or a PhD is more marketable for what you are interested in doing. (And if you don't know that many people, ask the ones you do know for referrals. I say this at the risk of telling you something you already know, of course.) As an example: I recall a conversation with someone at a networking event a year or so ago: He thought his PhD was overkill for what he was looking for in that it priced him out of the market.

It's really hard to post something like this without sounding completely bearish on advanced degrees. They do have their uses!

kelleyn said...

Thanks, Gus, that was helpful in many ways! You didn't patronize me at all; I'm trying to build my social and contact making skills. I hadn't thought of asking outright for referrals, and I would have wondered if and when it was OK to do so if I had. Also, "How many PhDs/etc are on your team" is a good banter question that I can use.

As for what level I want to work on, I hadn't thought about it beyond "as high as I can get." :-o So maybe a visit to grad school would help me address that question realistically.

Gus Van Horn said...

I'm glad you found what I said helpful. Building a professional network is harder in some ways than you might expect and easier in others. It's harder in that academia doesn't do a great job of helping students think about how they can apply what they know to business situations. It's easier in that you already have many of the skills. What you have to do is gradually become comfortable thinking about how to present yourself AS a person worth doing business with.

In terms of helping myself do some of these things -- not to mention achieve a more rational, value-based approach to pursuing a career -- I recommend looking at Nick "the Headhunter" Corcodilos. I learned about him through another reader and have found his advice useful in many ways.

kelleyn said...

Yes, I have heard excellent things about Nick Corcodilos. I bookmarked him for when I get a chance to do some more serious reading, probably over the weekend. So far, I agree with a lot of what he says: pursue quality rather than quantity, cultivate relationships for their own sake, think in terms of valuing the work and the company rather than in terms of getting a job. I also like that he is up front about intimidation games, suboptimal HR practices and the like. It's refreshing to hear the truth after all the sugar coated advice that has failed me so many times.

If I seem to drop off the map for awhile, it's because my new computer came today. RAWR! I can hear it begging me to install Ubuntu on it.

Gus Van Horn said...

What I like most about Corcodilos is that his advice is long range (i.e., look for a career rather than a job) and that he demystifies networking -- particularly, as you noticed, in terms of emphasizing that you're building relationships with other people.