Beki Grinter

On Not Leaving Academia

In academia, academic management, discipline on July 26, 2012 at 11:20 am

An article written by a faculty member who is leaving academia for Google has been circulating on Facebook. I agree in parts with what he is saying, but I am not going to leave academia (I should add that I am a tenured professor, like—I believe—the author of the original piece). Here, for what its worth, are my thoughts. I’ve organized them around some of the same sub-headings.

Opportunity To Make A Difference

He wants to make a difference and I can really understand that. Despite the enthusiasm that many Universities have to make things out of ideas, it is hard to start from here and get to there. But, my experience of working in two corporations (I was in the research division, but tasked, particularly at Lucent, to change things in the commercial side of the organization) is that its really difficult to affect change in organizations. Perhaps I picked the wrong things, but a colleague and I spent multiple years implementing an approach to collecting metrics that we thought was sane (as opposed to what they had, which wasn’t). We had the blessing of and support from the CTO which is a huge starting advantage (when you show up for meetings you can’t so easily be ignored—I have a whole other story about that).

There is one really visceral opportunity to make a difference in the University. Students. I’m looking at a stack of cards that students have written to me over the years to thank me for classes and advisement. To be there in someone’s life, to make a difference, to have that person write to you (by hand, on notepaper, mailed) humbles me to this day. I love the emails too, but truthfully its the cards or the students who nominate me for “favorite professor” or some such that really move me because of the time and effort they took to tell me something positive.

Work And Family/Life Balance

He wants a better work/life balance. I wonder if that’s true for everyone who is working.

I also wonder a challenge with a work-life balance is the constant discussion about it. I feel that the way arguments about work-life balance are often constructed are part of the problem. For example, the work-life balance discussion often seems to imply that the solution is with the individual, you must change it. But as the author notes, thats not at all true. Our work-life balance is also made all around us, through legislation (and the lack of it) about holidays and leave, and through the culture of the importance of work in this country.

One of the more emancipating moments I had in my own work-life balance was realizing that some of it is just out of my hands. Not just because its been set for me by other institutions, but also because my work depends on others, and sometimes the coordination is just really bad (who knew that these two commitments were going to collide in this way at that time, but others are depending on me). Accepting that its not something we can “solve” just for us, as if we are isolated from the employers, country, and colleagues, has been uplifting in my own thinking about work-life balance. I’ve gone from thinking that I’m a doomed work-life screw up to realizing that it’s an ongoing balancing project.

Centralization Of Authority And Decrease Of Autonomy

The rise of the number of administrators in the American University has been the subject of much discussion. I feel that that increase is happening at Georgia Tech although exact numbers are hard to get a hold of. I am not sure whether its led to a direct decrease in my autonomy though. In no small part because while it’s happened I’ve moved from untenured, to tenured, and from Associate to Full Professor. That is remarkably empowering.

I’m also lucky that I’ve interacted with a number of senior administrators, and while I don’t necessarily agree with all their decisions (excepting, of course, for the ones to promote me 😉 I am confident that they have Georgia Tech’s best interest at heart and they are trying very hard to do what they believe to be right. Perhaps if I had a message here it would be to encourage all administrators to give time to the faculty, to try to interact with them enough that these sorts of relationships can be forged.

Funding Climate

The funding climate makes me sad too, it’s one reason I wanted to vote, and naturalized in order to do so. I agree with him that there is pressure on faculty to raise more resources, from broader variety of sources. And at least here at Georgia Tech I wish we had more help from the Institute to develop these new streams.

But, while this does suck I was reminded of other utterly dreadful things I’ve done in corporations. Patent maps, marketing analyses (yes, me). Horrible. And when I think about funding, and particularly the chase, I try to remind myself that yeah, every job has something that’s no fun. The upside to pursuing funding is that grant writing is a very intense process of thinking which I find enjoyable. So, its not all bad.

Risk in Research

His argument here is that research has gotten more conservative, and that’s an argument I also hear. But that’s actually a very hard thing to know. Personally, while I feel I’ve not been risk-averse, I have written grants to look less risk-averse. How others see my risk-averseness I couldn’t say. So, how can we tell? We can assess each other, would we use the same definition of risk. Perhaps we point back to a time when it seemed like there was more risk and result, but there are still (at least in my field) many inspiring researchers who are taking risks, and who are wonderfully creative.

Poor Incentives

The need to publish more and more, and procure ever increased amounts of funding (during a time of decreasing support) are not good incentives for research. They don’t encourage activities that don’t lead to those outcomes quickly. I share this view. And I have more to add.

Its clear that Universities want to encourage a diversity of career paths, for example, emphasizing impact on industry or the creation of start ups. What’s not so clear is how that matches the processes by which we are evaluated. Tenure and Promotion processes turn on a committee seeking letters from academics at other institutions about the importance of the person’s scholarship and teaching. How are academics at other universities going to write about a start up? Do they even know? If they do, what are the criteria by which you describe the impact? (Metrics are one criteria, but they can be very problematic. I’ve written about the h-index before, others I’ve seen include number of users or downloads, but what you actually mean is number of consumers because how does anyone know who is using a piece of software?)

The point I want to return to here is that there is a serious incentive mis-match between what is desired and what is evaluated. You can not change one without changing the other effectively, at best the change won’t happen, at worst people will be cruelly disappointed. And when you consider that change, not only do you want to consider both the front (encourage) and back ends (evaluation) you also want to ask what you take off the table—what’s not going to happen if I work on this, expecting people to do both is also a problem.

Is this different in corporations, I’m not so sure, I think this is the academic version of we’re all doing more in the job today than we were a decade ago. Also, worth noting that we have jobs. In this economic climate that’s a privilege.

Mass Production Of Education

He’s worried about MOOCS and I agree. I view them as the latest technology being subjected to utopian rhetoric about the possibilities without examining them carefully. Also, its not new, the School of the Air in Australia or the Open University in the United Kingdom have been teaching in this fashion for decades. Perhaps the technology has changed, but the years of experience that has already accumulated suggest that there’s a lot of unaccounted for work in this current rhetoric. My colleague Ian has another fabulous critique.

And finally, the most important reason why I won’t leave academia is the colleagues I have. In the invisible college they encourage and support the research that I do. In the local college they do that and also mentor and advise, they inspire and engage, and they make me laugh at times (always necessary in the workplace). And then there’s the students, from whom I learn, and who trust me with their future. They laugh (sometimes with me, sometimes perhaps at me) and when they smile, it’s a good thing. All that and a salary, it’s still pretty good.


  1. I think the first part hits the nail on the head. The KEY impact of university faculty is the STUDENTS we produce, not the research. Too much luck is involved in whether the later makes impact and the timescales for impact are large. I find the folks who are disgruntled and leave academia are ones who confuse the importance between these two products of academia.

  2. I view it this way: each position (let’s limit it to academic vs. industry to keep it simple) has a variety of attributes or features A = {a1, a2, …, aN}. Each “a” could be something like “intellectual freedom” (good!), “pain of funding” (bad!), “working with awesome students” (good!), “ineffective and time-consuming committees” (groan!), etc. Now each person has a weight for each of these attributes, W = {w1, w2, …, wN}. The key thing is that the weights vary from one individual to another, and so even for the same identical faculty position at the same institution in the same department, one person may find that working in academia is the best thing for them, while another finds that industry is preferable. Of course real-life is far more complicated than this (two-body problems, mortgages, kids’ schools). The other interesting aspect is that even for the same person, the weights change over time. For me, my personal weight for teaching went down over time (the classroom time where you were actually “teaching” was great, but the overheads surrounding that just got more and more onerous), the burden on constantly writing proposals did not improve over time, etc.
    Overall, I still loved my time with GT and I feel very privileged and grateful to have had a chance to work and thrive there. I had a great time there, but my personal W vector has changed to the point where I decided it was time to move on (but at least I didn’t join Google).

    • You’re right, its a personal (familial) choice (assuming there is choice, in this labour market that’s also not a given…). When I started to write this my main motivation was to argue for some positives for academia and also to highlight that all gainful employment has pros and cons. Like you say, it’s how you balance the sum of it.

  3. […] On Not Leaving Academia « Beki’s Blog. Share this:EmailDiggRedditFacebookPrintStumbleUponTwitterLike this:LikeBe the first to like […]

  4. […] of New Mexico academic who is leaving to go to Google. Mark has blogged on it, and linked to a more positive post that reinforces why you would stay in the job, but my reaction to the original post is that there are far too many solid, scoring, points being […]

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  6. […] to everybody who wrote to point me to Georgia Tech Professor Beki Grinter’s reply to my own post.  Prof. Grinter’s post is eloquent and clearly speaks to a lot of the […]

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