During the discussion of Friday's post about the perception of academics as living somehow separate from the real world, aside from disagreement about what defines the "real world", there were comments that many academics don't live in the real world because we have had no major work experience outside of academia.
Is there another profession that is criticized for this same thing? Do we long for our doctors to spend more time working for pharmaceutical companies or veterinary clinics? Do we wish that our piano tuners would stop focusing so much on pianos and learn to maintain tubas? Should librarians be encouraged to work in book stores?
Would I be a more real person if I had had a non-academic career before immersing myself in academe for the rest of my days? Would I be a better professor?
I have certainly had some non-academic jobs, most of them when I was in high school or college, but have had no sustained employment experiences other than in academia. I can see how that limits my ability to give detailed advice to students about non-academic career options, but that's why there are career panels and visiting speakers and so on.
Those who work in non-academic jobs but interact with academics may express frustrations about how academics don't understand the need to get things done efficiently and within a particular time frame. Such misunderstandings surely also occur between different companies and government agencies, just as they do between different academic disciplines (e.g., science and engineering). It's one of the (surmountable) challenges of doing interdisciplinary research. Those who must work with others who don't have exactly the same career path and background should expect to deal with differences in approach and priorities.
I must admit that I don't really understand the criticism that academics are unaware of deadlines and the need to get things done efficiently. Many of us live and die by deadlines related to acquiring grants, reporting progress, and advising students/postdocs. Perhaps the typical time frame of a grant (2-3 years) is long compared to the needs of non-academic research.
If I were not also teaching and advising and doing various and sundry service obligations within and beyond my university, and if I had time to do a research project myself or with an experienced and motivated student or postdoc, and if there were no major time delays owing to logistical situations beyond my control, I could get many projects completed to the point of journal publication(s) in less than half the time it takes in the more realistic mode involving training/advising students and divided attention.
But that's not what we're here for. That's not a job I want. I want to be an adviser and a multi-tasker and someone who has the time and job flexibility to explore various ideas and see what kinds of discoveries we can make. That's not a flaw or a liability of being an academic. That's central to what we do, and one of the great things about the job. And that's also why I don't mind that I am going to be in my office working on what is, for many people, a holiday in the US.
That also doesn't make it (or me) any less real than what people with other jobs do. Some people move very successfully between the academic, industry, and/or government spheres, and that's great, but that's not for me.
And yet, despite this lack of variety in my career path, I remain convinced that that I am a (mostly) real person and a (reasonably) good professor.
6 years ago