The Secret Life of (One) Professor: Two Years In

Matt Welsh of Harvard recently wrote on the Secret Lives of Professors, a post that stirred a lot of discussion and struck a chord with a somewhat less experienced professor (that would be me; two years on the job vs. Matt’s seven). I found my self nodding at many of Matt’s well framed observations.

Matt’s main “surprises” and lessons that he offers to grad students in his post include:

Lots of time spent on funding request. I have had a similar experience, because (like Matt) I enjoy working with, and leading, a large group of researchers. Of course, the batting averages are low for funding requests (Matt downplays his success rate but I bet it’s better than average). In my first two years, I submitted 3 NSF proposals, 2 of which were declined and one outstanding (a good sign); I am currently working on two more. Each of these took significant effort, in one case at least (an estimated) two full months of my time. In addition, I submitted a number of smaller-scale proposals, most of them to quick and easy to write, and was fortunate enough to get a Google Research Award (thanks again Goog!), and to be assigned as a faculty mentor to a superstar two-year postdoc Nick Diakopoulos. Together with some other odds and ends (thanks SC&I!) I feel pretty happy after two years regarding the group and resourced I amassed; but the cost on my time is still substantial. On the bright side, as Sam Madden points out in the comments to Matt’s article, some of the grant proposal process is actually helpful in helping me think about future work and research agendas, even if the specific proposal does not get funded.

The job is never done. Even as I write this, I could (and feel that I should!) be editing a paper, or looking at some data, or catching up on email, or working on one of two said proposals. Matt’s admits:

For years I would leave the office in the evening and sit down at my laptop to keep working as soon as I got home.

I can’t say my experience is far from that, although I still insist on taking good vacations. And a 2-year old kid certainly makes for a compelling reason to stop working at any time.

Can’t get to “hack”. True enough, most of the interesting work is delegated to students, as Matt complains that he doesn’t find time to write code. However, that is partially the decision that Matt (and I) knowingly take when we decide to work (and try to fund) a large group of students. Managing fewer or no students might allow more individual research work, which is certainly a path taken by some faculty that skip on the funding requests and the resultant students meetings. However, I am no Ayman, do not miss writing code, and am happy to farm that out to students. I do enjoy thinking about the intellectual and research issues, and often get to do that with the students. I would like to have fewer meetings and less email, but unlike Matt I feel involved enough in the intellectual work, at least so far. Nevertheless, I can’t dive into it like the grad students who indeed “have it good”.

Working with students. Matt writes:

The main reason to be an academic is… to train the next generation.

I see it the same way (the intellectual pursuit is also up there, but it could be claimed that you can perform similar intellectual pursuits in other settings like research labs). The students is why I am in academia, and the advising is by far my favorite activity. From solving someone else’s problems (e.g. a student not sure how do approach X or Y) to, more substantially, showing students a path from a first-year confusion to an experienced researcher that understands how to ask (and answer) research questions, and communicate it effectively. Well, I am clearly not quite there yet having just recently started doing it (and just started funding my first PhD student). But I am enjoying it already. Like Matt, for me it is not just working with the PhDs and Masters students; the undergrads play a big role. I started working with several star undergrads, some of them have never SSH’ed into a server before, most of them have never seen how research is done. Their wide-eyed excitement is an energy source, an inspiration and a cause of constant enjoyment.

So, the bottom line?

It is certainly not for everybody. It remains to be seen if it is even for me.

I will buy that, Matt. At the end of the day, for me, it’s the students, and the freedom to carve my own path. This summer I am lucky enough to be working with my group at SC&I consisting of one postdoc, 2-3 Phd students, 3 Masters students, and 1-3 undergrads (at any given time). With teaching (more on this topic later) out of the way, I spend two full days a week with this gang talking about research, writing papers or grants, having other “good” meetings, or playing Rock Band on our Wii. It’s definitely one of the best work summers I have had, much like my summers at Yahoo! Research Berkeley where we had most of our fantastic interns join in on the fun.

Speaking of the defunct Y!RB, and regarding that path-carving freedom, I feel a lot less constrained in academia compared to industry research. I have had a fantastic experience at Yahoo!, and was lucky to have a great team at the Berkeley lab. However, to start my own project at Yahoo!, that follows my own personal vision, and involved multiple people, would have taken a lot of convincing (and would need to be ultimately tied to corporate agenda). I know Ayman does not agree, so maybe this is just a false sense that I have, that moving a bunch of people towards a vision that I choose and craft is easier in academia. To do that with the students might be, as Matt put it, “the coin of the realm”.

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