Academia versus industry
Academia is a nice racket if you’re bent a certain way. People in academia think their lifestyle is the most desirable state of affairs; I drank the kool-aide for a while, and figured that work in industry would be a long tale of sorrows and misery, slightly mitigated by larger paychecks. Happily, I have not found it to be so. I’m happier as a professional than I was as an academic, and almost certainly a better person than I would have been sucking off the government teat with the rest of academia. If you have my particular basket of moral defects, you probably will be also.
Are you a frustrated academic, thinking of a better life in a profession, or better yet, founding your own business? Here are some hints as to whether or not you should make the switch. Note that my comments on academia are also true for working in a large business organization, though to a lesser extent.
1) In academia, eminence is everything. Eminence helps in business, but unless you’re a CEO type who will be paid millions a year to screw up a functioning organization, it doesn’t get you very far. In business, you’re expected to get stuff done. You need practical skills, like the ability to hack code, or the ability to organize or talk people into things. If you have no such skills, you’re not going to get anywhere. Eminence in academia means you get your name on the important papers, and you become more eminent. It doesn’t mean you’ve actually done or are capable of doing any of the work. That’s a great state of affairs if you’ve managed to rock the Zipf distribution a la Lotka, and have managed to achieve eminence.
2) In business, being a polymath is important and valued. In modern academia, being a monomaniac is important and valued. Very few serious academics in technical fields manage to straddle different sub-fields. Those who pull it off paid their dues by hewing to one subject for long enough to achieve tenure and some degree of eminence. The average academic today does research which is more or less exactly the same thing as what their wrote their dissertation on. The average sciencey person in business has worked on many different kinds of projects. If you find your dissertation topic endlessly fascinating, and you don’t mind rehashing it for the rest of your life, stay in academia. If you like doing lots of different kinds of things, consider business.
3) In business, results are the only thing that matters. In academia, publishing papers is the main thing that matters. What is more, results in business come quickly, and businesspeople are good at a type of project management that gets results quickly. This isn’t so true in academia. While some people in academia are good project managers, the time frame is measured in years rather than months. And in such long term projects, it is generally impossible to tell if the manager is any good until the project works, or not.
4) In business, people are generally very good at dealing with other people. In academia, people skills are not valued at all. There are very few adolescent jerks in business. People are actually nice to one another, even when they despise each other. In academia, at best, people more or less ignore one another. I’ve seen inexcusable drama queen type behavior in academia; childish vendettas between eminent scholars over trivialities which happened decades ago: I know two famous spectroscopists who have a 30 year vendetta involving a pencil sharpener. In academia, there are ridiculous prima-donnas who think their smattering of skills make them Mozarts. In academia, incredible rudeness towards underlings accepted as normal behavior. People get away with it because they can’t get fired, and they think it’s normal. You can’t do this in business, or you will get fired. Firing people who behave like twits is salubrious for making daily life more pleasant, and encouraging you and the people around you to be better people. Do you have zero people skills and think that you are a unique genius worthy of royal treatment? Do you not mind such behavior in others? Stay in academia. Or grow up and join the human race in the world of business. I had always thought that it was the academics who were the nice guys, and the businessmen who were cruel power hungry bastards; I was mistaken. I grew up a lot, quitting academia. If you’re a grown up in academia, however, you can do very well managing academics, as there are precious few adults to babysit the doofs who warm academic chairs. I wrote this before I learned of the Dawkins/Skepchick affair, but it is a fair object lesson in two unpleasant, egotistical blockheads who have never been forced to play nice with others. How often does this happen in business? Pretty much, never. You can learn a lot about academic life by watching Jerry Springer: the underclass and the academic class have similar moral character -that of superannuated adolescents.
5) Academia encourages conformity. Business encourages individualism. It’s extremely rare for a modern academic to voice politically incorrect opinions; almost unheard of. There are good reasons for this: it’s about the only way to get fired as an academic. In business, nobody cares what your opinions are; you’re free to voice any opinion you like, short of violating sexual and racial harassment laws. Unconventional opinions are not universally rewarded, but they sometimes are, and they rarely hurt you. I’m doing well, despite regularly voicing opinions that would get me fired in academia. Ask Lubos Motl, one of the most brilliant string theorists of his generation how that’s working out for him.
6) Business is short term goal oriented, academia can be long term goal oriented. It’s rare to be involved in a business venture with multi-year long deploy times. Such ideas are generally called “early stage start ups,” and are done with the personal capital of the founders. Long term projects are routine in academia. Personally, I prefer short term projects; they tend to work in the end. If you prefer grand visions and things which get done on multi-year timescales (or, never), stick to academia.
7) Business pays better. Also: more better chicks dig business than science. Women have more common sense than men: this has been proved by science.
Oh, and a small fact for those who haven’t gone to college yet: my landlord is a high school drop out.