Friday, February 11, 2005

Academic decathalon

Yesterday I exchanged email with a former-student-turned-blogger of mine. She was one of my favorites and so it was nice to hear what she was up to -- it turns out that she's now in grad school herself, which, in combination with this talk I'm giving back at Penn in April and my reflections on my job, started me thinking about academia, and how I feel to have left it.

The short answer: Damn good.

The longer answer: There's a lot to like about academia. You get to work on whatever you want, whenever you want, more or less however you want. Funding is an issue, but get yourself into a reasonable tenure-track position in a field like linguistics and the flexibility is unparalleled. You're surrounded by smart people. You travel, or not. You get to work on a topic just because it's interesting to you. You can and do become the world expert in something.

And then it occurs to you: you're the world expert in the thing you're the world expert in because no one else gives a shit about it.

So you write a pretty good dissertation, and if you're lucky and/or particularly well-connected, 50 or 100 or saints be praised 200 people read it in the year or two after it's finished, and you're sitting there with your Ph.D. feeling pretty good about your intellectual chops, and your parents are very proud of you although they're wishing you were earning just a little more money. It only matters a little that most of your grad school friends are going through or have gone through for some time some weird phase that looks and smells a lot like clinical depression, complete with weird ego/mood swings and psuedo-intellectual existential crises of being every other week. Alternating periods of aggressively social and antisocial behavior.

So now, a few years later, it's totally perplexing/exciting/disorienting/energizing to find myself in a place where I'm working on challenging and interesting problems whose solutions will actually be used by real people. Lots of real people -- millions of them. I'm still working with smart people and I only have somewhat less lifestyle flexibility. I don't get to totally dictate my work agenda the way I basically did in the latter stages of graduate school, but neither is it the case that I have no control over it. I still get to take ideas and run with them. In the way that I want. I don't get to teach, which I really do miss. But all in all for me it's been a definite trade up.


Blogger grumperina said...

Kieran, you put a big smile on my face :-D. I have such fond memories of Penn's Ling Department. I still remember writing that paper for Don's class that you then suggested I submit for the linguistics competition. That's when I knew I'd be a ling major :).

I think my reasons for wanting to leave academia after I get my PhD are a bit different than yours (really, I don't care so much whether my research is applicable in the real world), but ask me again in two years when two people have read my dissertation, and I maybe I will have changed my mind :).

8:50 AM  

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