Monday, January 18, 2010

Limited Experience

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.

43 comments:

Chris said...

I have actually spent more years in "the real world" (about 20) than in academia (10 or so). I find there is a difference, but not nearly so profound as most people believe. This is likely because most people have no idea what academics actually do. Anyway, there are some differences in culture and priorities, but I believe the main differences stem from the nature of the work. Being paid to advance science creates a different environment, and attracts different people, than being paid to maximize shareholder value.

Joshua Halpern said...

Eli has a friend who has recently moved into the world of big iron management contracts for technical projects. After reading some of the winning proposals his comment was "they get money for this crap"

Anonymous said...

I have always felt a typical "academics v. industry" discussion particularly useless, because it quickly degenerates into a "us v. them" sling-match.

Academics and industry lie at the two opposite ends of a broadly-encompassing spectrum of science and technology development. And there is a reason for being so; as they are (or should be) complementary to each other. If us academics start doing what the industry says is real-world-like, then what would industries do?

Saying academic work is useless is as disingenuous and even silly as the academic snickering about industrial development work for being too easy or--ahem--practical.

John V said...

I've interpreted criticism of academia as not "real world" to mean its usefulness is so long-range and nebulous that many consider it not useful.

From that point of view, they question the wisdom of many state universities as well as huge federal agencies in supporting hundreds of thousands of well-paid and tenured profs.

The ivory tower complaint is heard most directed against humanities, whose usefulness is hardest to document, less at science and engineering. Science does get flak to the extend US dollars pay to train foreign student who then return with value added to their home countries.

I didn't think it was relevant whether we mingle with the public nor need to meet deadlines - the primary grievance is whether we earn our paycheck and job security.

Anonymous said...

Such perfect timing on the sterotypes of academics:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/18/arts/18liberal.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

Miss Outlier said...

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?

I don't think that's quite the right comparison - I would be upset if medical doctors teaching new doctors had never practiced medicine. I would be concerned if a piano tuner was taught by someone who had never tuned a piano. I think the commenters were just worried that our next generation of engineers may be taught by people who have never engineered something in industry.

It doesn't have to be work experience outside your field, just work experience outside academia in general might be helpful. In my own experience, my engineering professors who have worked in industry are much more practical and helpful, and better professors in general.

Anonymous said...

amen.

siz said...

That was thoughtfully and eloquently written. Thank you.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

You make a very good point about no other profession being criticized in quite this way -- I'm totally stealing it.

Cloud said...

FSP, I think academics are real people living in the real world. I'm genuinely sorry if my comments on your last post gave a different the impression. You asked a question, wondering why people view professors as not living in the real world, and I was trying to answer it.

Don't underestimate how the differences in job security spill into the rest of life. Even the least secure academics (postdocs) generally know when their funding expires. I could walk in to work tomorrow and be laid off with no warning. I have, in fact, walked in to work on what I thought was going to be a normal work day and seen literally half of my colleagues laid off. I chose this career path and I am happy with it, but the lack of job security means that I have to make decisions in a way that attempts to ensure that I and my family will be OK if we suddenly lose my income- which is more than half of our family's income. Unless I some day manage to save enough to be independently wealthy, this means that I consider my job status before making almost any decision involving money.

There are three main work "worlds"- academia, private industry, and government. They feed off of each other and we need all three. I think they all have their perks and stresses, and that we all tend to focus on the perks of the other worlds and not see the stresses. The only thing different about academia is that whereas scientists working in industry or government have usually had enough exposure to life in academia to understand a little bit of the stresses (in fact, these may be why we chose to pursue a different career), scientists working in academia can exist in a world where they never have to understand the stresses in the other worlds. Not all academics live in such a world- but we've all run into enough who do to understand a bit why some in the general public might think that professors don't live in "the real world". The general public has almost no clue about the stresses of your job, so they just see a group of people making decent money, with job security unlike anything they can ever hope to have, working on things that interest them, but which may in fact seem esoteric to others.

Oh, and I don't get today as a holiday either. The only person I know who gets today off works for the government.

Lorac said...

I am a lawyer (and former academic scientist) who must live and work by deadlines. I also collaborate in academic research with an economist. Recently, I gave him a paper to review for posting on HIS website and asked for it back by a certain date (3 weeks in the future). That day came and went, despite reminders. So I handed in my final, only to receive his comments the next day (LOL) along with myriad excuses. Excuse me, but what part of a deadline didn't he understand? (Excusable once, maybe even a few times, but unfortunately, it is a "habit".)

I think that academics put deadlines into different categories. Grant submission deadlines - deadlines that must be met. Paper review deadlines - when time permits. Of course, some might view this as real world....

Here is a subject that I'd like to read about on your blog. The ethics (or not) of "double reporting" research results to 2 different granting agencies.

Shay said...

Is there another profession that is criticized for this same thing?

Speaking as a retired military professional, I would have to say yes.

Anonymous said...

Having worked in government, for a couple small companies, a family business, and a non-profit before heading back to academia for grad school, I'd agree that they all have their own cultures and pressures that aren't necessarily understood in other realms. But academia's culture still seems to me to be the most different from these others.

In most other jobs, you report directly to a boss; someone else has a very high impact on your work happiness and you don't generally get to choose that person. That's not the case in academia. If an academic misses a deadline, it generally only affects that one person (or perhaps a small group of collaborators who have the freedom to not work with that person next time). In most other jobs, others are more directly effected, and the deadline-misser gets a direct, immediate external reprimand.

And things move slowly in academia; a professor can be hired for a position, but not start for over a year if so negotiated. That sort of thing doesn't happen in other lines of work where a company/non-profit/government agency needs to fill a job now.

What I find most different about academia is that some (many?) academics don't seem to realize that there are non-academics who can do things better than they can. For example, a professor I work with has started a non-profit and is trying to build it, but he doesn't consult with people who actually have experience building non-profits; his realm of contacts is academics and so those are the people he goes to. Another example: department heads are often pulled from the ranks of professors, who are usually not trained for such a roll; wouldn't it make more sense to hire a professional manager -- someone who's had some training in, um, management?

I think this sort of insularity in professional contacts is what differentiates academia from many other lines of work, and makes non-academics see academics as being a bit out of touch.

yolio said...

I think the inability to advise student on non-academic career paths is a pretty serious limitation that is not being adequately addressed. The large majority of graduate student will not go down an academic career path. Career planning is quite different for a non-academic pathway. Not only is there the problem that academic mentors can't give good guidance in this rather significant area, but I have found that academic mentors can often be actively discouraging of students efforts to prepare themselves for non-academic paths. These efforts are viewed us undermining their progress on an academic path, even when that path is totally untenable.

I agree that claiming academia isn't the "real" world is silly, it is like saying Californians aren't "real" americans. However, academics as a whole have earned a reputation for being clueless about how the other half lives. I get the impression that you, FSP, are more organized, conscientious, etc than many of your colleagues. This means that you are probably a poor example of the problematic gap between academics and non-academics.

alice said...

since academia got full of middle aged women devastated by their daddy issues, wanting to prove themselves they can make it and make daddy proud, trying to make themselves believe their ability to memorize textbooks and getting good grades can make them useful as persons, and who talk and blog about academics more than their actual work and duties, just as if academics was a new bag to show off to their girlfriends and to attract men, well yes academia is a bunch of idiots eating funds to produce "knowledge" just for the production

Anonymous said...

Hi FSP, I am a 2nd year post-doc and I have made the comment "only in academia" a great many times. Usually what I am referring to is blatantly inappropriate comments such as my PI asking about my sex life, telling me about her sexual assault while in graduate school, commenting on my breasts, or calling me in to discuss if I support the post-doc union and letting me know how angry he would be if I did.

I have worked in the corporate world for some time prior to entering academia and while the business world has it's own issues I would say that on average employers and the HR department do a much better of job of not allowing such behavior. Usually because of the fear of being sued/fired, no such fear exists in academia and I think as a result you get people behaving in ways that non-academics are shocked and appalled to hear about.

FrauTech said...

Miss Outlier said it right.

If you're teaching Mathematics, I don't think real world experience is critical. But if you're teaching engineers, and you've never actually worked as an engineer, you don't necessarily understand what skills need to be taught or what passes for an engineer's typical responsibilities. As in, engineering programs in general that are highly ranked go a lot into very theoretical/by hand calculations, rather than teaching you more of the programs you would use in industry to analyze or practical problem solving. Why do ME's at my school build several robots as design projects when the chances you will be working for a robotics company has got to be like 1%. They should spend more time on machine shop knowledge, CNC machines, and applying programs (ProEngineer, Solidworks, ANSYS, Matlab) to a set of data.

But then, I don't think this "detachment" is a problem in all fields. If you're teaching me german literature, your real world experience is not likely to be applicable in any way.

Alex said...

I second Miss Outlier. I am a bit uncomfortable with my own lack of non-academic experience, because I spend just about all of my time teaching and mentoring undergraduates and I know that most of them will not go into an academic career, even though academic careers are really the only ones for which I can offer sound first-hand advice. Sure, I can point to people in non-academic careers, but there's a limit to what I can say with knowledge and authority.

My barber doesn't have to know what an academic job interview is like to give me a good haircut so I look good for the interview. My medical doctor doesn't have to know the specifics of my job to keep me healthy enough to do it. My accountant doesn't have to know much about my job to help me pay taxes on the income that I earn from it. But I am supposed to prepare and mentor people for their future, and so I am uncomfortable not knowing much about the environments that they'll enter in their futures.

I've given some thought to doing a non-academic sabbatical, to learn more about the environments my students will work in. I've also thought about doing a sabbatical as a community college student, since so many of my students are transfer students. I really know very little about the worlds that my students come from or depart to. And that bothers me.

So, our academic world may not be any less "real" than industry, but it is definitely a disadvantage to be a mentor when you know so little about what your mentees will face in their careers.

Steveo said...

I think that the major point here has been missed. The 'real' world consists of more than just science and technology industries. The 'real' world consists of everything else besides academia. The biggest difference between academia and everything else seems to be flexibility. As a grad student I can for the most part work whatever hours I want. I can do plenty of work from home. Working somewhere else you don't have this same flexibility. Your hours might be defined by the weather (construction for example) or by consumer convenience (the service industry). And when you consider that less than 50% of people have a Bachelors degree (many of those with degrees not having a clue at what academia is besides teaching) its easy to see why people see academics as disconnected from the 'real' world.

Is it fair? Maybe not, but thats reality.

Nicole said...

No one's criticizing academics for not having "real world" experience, at least I didn't think I read any comments to that effect. But I did aim to criticize academics for claiming a career in academia is not really different from a career in the "real world". How would you know if you didn't have the experience? That was my only point. I have more to make, but it will just be arguing.

Nicole said...

Oh, and actually you might be a better professor with "real world" experience. I know someone who recently left academia for industry, and that was her exact comment. She wished she had had the industry experience before becoming a professor, particularly because it would've helped her manage her lab and her research better.

Shippen said...

I have to second what Cloud said, and also cheer the pointer to the NYT article. I worked in a number of blue- and white-collar jobs (often as the lone female) before heading to grad school for my doctorate. Nowadays I work with a lot of faculty across the country as well as serving as a Girl Scout leader in a (mostly) blue-collar town. My in-laws are all conservative, and mostly engineers.

The differences in attitudes and assumptions between academics and non-academics is very apparent to me, and in my experience, it doesn't fall along class lines. It goes back in part to the excellent summation in the NYT article: "Nearly half of the political lopsidedness in academia can be traced to four characteristics that liberals in general, and professors in particular, share: advanced degrees; a nonconservative religious theology (which includes liberal Protestants and Jews, and the nonreligious); an expressed tolerance for controversial ideas; and a disparity between education and income." What I often find is no tolerance for other ideas, controversial or no. The knee-jerk emotionalism of the responses, and the complete lack of critical thinking amaze me. There is very little support in the culture outside of Academe for reasoned debate, for challenging of ideas, for respectful disagreement. Not to say that the Academy is perfect in this regard, but as a culture it at least claims to value these things.

And while I agree with Cloud that the pressures of life outside the university setting can be very different with respect to job security, having a boss who can affect your life on a daily basis, etc., it's also very different in terms of what is considered important in areas unrelated to working life.

Doctor Pion said...

I have deadlines every day. They are called "classes" and "grading homework".

Two examples of the Real World come to mind:

1) The time it takes between design concept and delivery of product in the auto industry. Even the best companies take more time than the life-cycle of an academic research grant.

2) The time it took to up-armor the Humvee and then design and build the MRAP during a war. We started from nothing more than a piece of paper in 1942 and had an atom bomb delivered in less time than that took.

Siz said...

"Academia is now full of middle-aged women with daddy issues"

WTF?? That's a complete new one that I've never heard before.

But yeah, you're totally right. My father never loved me and put me down, so I've been sitting in my office for days memorizing textbooks. Because, you know, you become faculty by memorizing text books.

Sounds like someone just received some not very good grades or didn't complete their PhD because of a middle-aged women.

Or is a troll. And most likely a man posing as a woman.

But yeah, my department is overran by women. We now have one (me).

Anonymous said...

Miss OUtlier:I think the commenters were just worried that our next generation of engineers may be taught by people who have never engineered something in industry.

But that is already happening!! I did my undergrad degree in mechanical engineering and most of the tenured profs had never worked in industry. They went straight from grad school to becoming professors. I did have a few classes taught by adjunct faculty who were practicing engineers or recently retired from industry. Their classes were definitely different and usually more appreciated by the undergrad students because most undergrad engineering majors will not become academics most of them will become practicing engineers in industry.

I'm now a research professor (in mechanical engineering). After my PhD I spent about a decade and half as a staff scientist in a national lab so I too have never worked in industry.

Cloud said...

For the record, I think you can be a great professor without ever working anywhere except academia. I wanted my professors to be able to teach the material, not try to teach me about future jobs. And I wanted my PhD mentor to help me learn to be a good scientist- learning to be a good corporate citizen can come on the job and from other mentors. No one should have just one mentor.

But I think it is great that some of you want to help your students understand more about non-academic career paths. Reach out to the appropriate networking group (AWIS, ACS, etc), and you'll almost certainly find people willing to help. Most people (myself included!) love to talk about how they got to where they are.

I'll have to make time to go read the NYTimes article. From the excerpt Shippen quotes, I'd guess I'd be considered as out of step with the mainstream as any academic.

Anonymous said...

Re the example of engineering professors having never worked in industry. This is actually very common. Engineering is different from the sciences (like physics, chemistry etc) in the sense that the undergrad degree is a professional degree and most people with an BS in engineering will go straight to work as engineers in industry after graduation. It is less common for an engineering degree holder to get a PhD and become a professor. yet, in a university the TT faculty are by definition professors with PhDs. Therefore engineering professors are anomalies within the wider profession of engineers. But they are the ones who teach the next generation of practicing engineers. I do see this as a problem. Engineering professors who have never worked in industry as practicing engineers (many don't have a PE license for example, but then again not all engineering disciplines require licensing) can certainly be great teachers but understandably they may not make good role models for their students.

Then again, the flip side of the argument is that university is not vocational school.

Maybe the same can be said of professors in law and business schools. How many law professors have actually worked as lawyers as opposed to going straight into academia? (I don't know the answer)

I have a PhD in electrical engineering and was a TT prof but I left academia to work in industry.

Ms.PhD said...

Didn't read all the comments because I don't have time.

Personally, the academics I have worked with are mostly very unreliable, irresponsible folk. They miss deadlines all the time. They ask for extensions after the deadline.

The main thing I see is that the "system", such as it is, seems to assume that everyone is very responsible and conscientious, but we don't actually enforce this or hire for it.

From what I can tell, there are NO CONSEQUENCES. There are no deadlines for publishing articles, at least in my field where the journals are all privately run and separate from any kind of conferences. And there are no consequences for things like missing thesis committee meetings, or not reading and editing papers or theses for one's own students and postdocs.

There is nowhere that students or postdocs can go to file a complaint, and there is no punishment for these PIs.

I'm just saying. Most of the PIs I've worked with have repeatedly exhibited behavior that would get them massacred in a normal workplace- as in, an angry person comes in with some kind of rapid-fire weapon and starts gunning everyone down.

I'm frankly never surprised when I hear stories about science grad students killing each other, themselves or their advisors. I'm more surprised that this doesn't happen all the time in academia.

Anonymous said...

Dear FSP, I love your blog. But on this issue you come off a little defensive.

Like all stereotypes, the one that academics don't live in the real world has some basis in truth - to deny that just seems silly - while, of course, also being an oversimplification and inaccurate in many cases.

The lack of work experience outside academia (or sometimes even lack of second-hand awareness of what outside work is like), inattention to deadlines, lack of accountability (once one has tenure) are all true for some academics, less true for others. These same things and others are sometimes known as "academic freedom" and that's what makes us able to do the job of coming up with new knowledge, as you've said. If we were weighed down by all the same crap as many of those in the private sector are, we couldn't do what we do very well. (And of course some of that crap does make its way into academia, and does inhibit us from coming up with new knowledge to some degree.)

But of course all this freedom has down sides too, as pointed out in some of the other comments - it allows for some bad behavior and some ignorance of how the rest of the world lives, or at least works. You yourself have commented many times on bad behavior of your colleagues, the horror of faculty meetings etc. Some of that kind of stuff can occur in other professions too but there is something special about how academics do it, at our worst.

From reading your blog I have the impression that you pride yourself a little bit on behaving more professionally than some of your colleagues, who may indulge in some "unreal world" behavior from time to time. I think you have to know that some academics don't live in the real world - in some sense or other - and maybe you don't want to get lumped in with them. Fair enough...

Anonymous said...

MsPhD brings up a good point which is the almost total lack of accountability of (tenured) PIs to anyone or for anything. Academics do get evaluated constantly - for teaching, for manuscripts, for grants, for awards - but the consequences for failing such evaluations are ULTIMATELY not dire to themselves since they are tenured and thus have job security. The consequences are suffered by the students whose papers don't get published and thus can't get academic positions themselves, or who have to switch labs when their funding runs out, or who don't have the proper facilities to do their research because the PI doesn't have enough money to buy their supplies. The consequences to the tenured PIs are a hit to their professional reputation and personal pride, and that's about it really. If a tenured PI for some reason doesn't mind becoming an underachiever, they will still have their job to do with as they please. of course I doubt if many PIs would do this because I think PIs are usually an ambitious lot clamoring for fame and glory. However, if they fail to achieve said fame and glory, they can still continue on in their jobs or change their aspirations.

Very few jobs outside of academia have such a lack of accountability and gives such great personal freedom to the worker to define their own job and continue keeping it even if they fail at their own goals. To me, this alone is reason enough to say that academia is separate from the real world.

We spend the majority of our waking hours at work - at least 40 hours every week, usually more. Therefore your working conditions and work life are a HUGE part of your total life. therefore, if your work life is separate from the 'real world' then so are you, right?

Anonymous said...

I don't know if it's a difference between fields or what- but in my particular brand of physical sciences, if you can't meet deadlines you will flame out in no time (if you're pre-tenure at least). And most of the successful scientists I know (pre and post tenure), have at bare minimum three major research activities going on at all times, let alone side projects, advising, teaching, and service activities.

I guess it just seems a bit contradictory to me that most of us can in the same breadth complain how competitive science is, and then go on to whine about how lazy academics are. If the scientist is good at their job, I really don't think they can be both.

As for the few bad-apples who spoil the bunch (ie the faculty who get tenure and then become dead wood)- maybe I'm just lucky and in the departments I have been in they have either been shamed into taking on increased teaching/grading/service loads or convinced to leave their position.

Certainly research is different from business, but sometimes that ivory tower sure seams to be more like a boiler room.

Dr. Science said...

Good topic and one that has always baffled me. Do those Wall Street bankers who drove our financial system into the ground with poor management and short-term thinking, the same ones who the NY Times wrote about who are "suffering" because they now have to live in one house and let some of the hired help go and take less Euro vacations and send their kids to less prestigious boarding schools...do they live in the "real world?" I think not. It's just part of the anti-intellectualism of our culture, which has been around for a long time, but got more traction in the Bush years when it was hip to be dumb. Most people have no idea what an job in academia involves.

The tales of office land that I hear from my partner astound me with their strangeness, irrationality, waste of funds, and general slackitude of people playing iPhone games while "working"...for literally 10x my academic salary. So I don't understand this focus on academics as esoteric spoiled aliens living in a fantasy world.

Hope said...

Then again, the flip side of the argument is that university is not vocational school.

YES! If you want to be an engineer who emerges from school w/heavy-duty machining skills and an expertise in Matlab, *don’t* go to a university – go to a vocational school. But be prepared to underperform your university-graduate peers on the job.

I worked in industry, as an engineer, for a number of years before returning to school for a PhD. At the two companies where I worked, we focused on hiring people w/critical thinking skills, not position-specific knowledge. It doesn’t take someone long to learn Matlab on the job – learning critical thinking on the fly is not an option.

rocketscientista said...

Holy long comments, batman. So I'll just say my two cents-- I tend to think differently what it means to "have real world experience." I would think it would be good for a law professor to have worked on some cases, and not just done law research. I would want my dental school professor to have some slightly broad experience in dentistry. But my scientist? I'd want them to have stayed in academia, having done SCIENCE! It's not like there's some crazy science industry that all the science professors are ignoring, so I don't think it's a problem.

Sure, it'd be nice to be able to get advice about these "alternative" careers closer to home (also because as what? at least 80% of us will wind up in an "alternative" career), it isn't necessary. It'd be good to know some people who use their science careers for something other than being a professor, but I don't think the science real world is like any of the others.


Also, you hit the nail on the head with why (against my better senses) I still want to be a prof- I want that multi-tasking, grant-applying, student-advising, course-teaching, talk-giving, administration-dealing life. I'd be awesome at it. In that vein, I wish there was more availability and less stigma for those who want to do JUST research to have those research professorships. I think it'd do wonders for the environment and for students.

Nick said...

Although I don't agree entirely with Ms. PhD's generalization of academics as unreliable, the essence of her argument is more or less what I was trying to get at with my comment on the last post: Academics often answer to a lower standard of accountability than people in industry or government. Yes, there are consequences for failures in academia, but the lack of direct supervision means that those consequences come later (and, often, in milder form) than they do in industry and government. Fundamentally, an academic has little direct experience after they get tenure of a boss breathing down one's neck, or of a pitch that can mean the difference between a promotion and a layoff. It has an effect, and the fact that so many academics don't seem to be able to see it only reinforces the stereotype.

Anonymous said...

Another difference between academia and most other lines of work is that professors are allowed to do consulting on the side and even to start their own companies to try to commercialize the technology developed in their academic labs, and to do this OPENLY. It is not easy by any means (especially when it comes to having to deal with university tech transfer offices), but the point is that it is allowed. Other lines of work don't allow you to do this - it would be considered moonlighting and you would get fired.

I know of many science and engineering faculty who have spun off high-tech companies from their academic labs and used those to try to further their careers or to increase the scope of their "empires". Such companies often fail ultimately (since most startups don't succeed) but the fact is that they were allowed to do it openly while still retaining their university pay and benefits. My PhD advisor is one such professor who started a small high tech company based on the technology developed in our university lab. It still remains to be seen if the company will succeed in bringing a product to market.

Doctor Pion said...

Alex, you don't need to do a sabbatical as a CC student, just talk to their professors about your expectations.

On my first pass, I agreed completely with FrauTech and others about mathematics, but after today's experience in one of my physics classes, I'm not so sure anymore.

For mathematicians, I'll redefine Real World to mean "academic classes that require your math classes". Too many of our math faculty come out of undergrad and grad school with zero experience in a subject like physics or engineering. (I know some who took a single chemistry class for their BS, and that was it for physical sciences.) They have no idea that we work algebra problems with "interesting" numbers rather than single digit integers, or that we expect properly rounded answers. They are so hooked on graphing calculators that they never put x on the vertical axis until calculus, if then. Most have no idea that we use complex numbers (it is called "impedance"), so they skip that topic in trig or precalc. And, yes, we add vectors using components, not the law of cosines and sines.

Kevin said...

Doctor Pion wrote "Too many of our math faculty come out of undergrad and grad school with zero experience in a subject like physics or engineering. (I know some who took a single chemistry class for their BS, and that was it for physical sciences.)"

That would almost be me---I took a useless chemical thermodynamics class without calculus as my only science class as an undergrad, then went to grad school in math. Luckily for me, the total lack of advice I got had ended me up at a good school that did not do the sort of math I liked (graph theory and combinatorics). I switched to computer science, which had some great faculty in graphs and combinatorics, then drifted through various fields, ending up in VLSI design, where I taught for several years before switching to bioinformatics. I've had to take various science courses as a faculty member in order to do my job well (intro bio, biochem, grad biochem, Bayesian statistics). If I had time, I should probably take o chem and genetics, too.

I agree that many math faculty are not familiar enough with the applications of math to teach the subject to physicists and engineers. It is like having poetry faculty trying to teach writing technical reports---the goals are too different.

AaSA - Always a Stress Addict said...

Two things:
1) I work in teacher education - and can't understand the attitude 'don't worry about all that Uni stuff, its the practice that counts' - if we had that attitude to specialists, say doctors and dentists, we'd still be sucked by leaches and knocked out by chloroform. Surely we want professionals to be very good at waht they do and on top of the latest developments??
2) and it interests me when poeple accuse academics of not having 'real world skills'. So when the builder at my house told the disparaging story of the Professor who could not even put up his own bookshelves, my response was - "well what would you do for a job if we all put up our own bookshelves" Hmmmmmmmwww.AcadmicLife.com.au

Anonymous said...

I am pretty late into this discussion. If you ask me, the reason why academics are accused of not living in the real world can be explained rather easily.

1) Americans can be divided into two groups

A) Went to college

B) Did not go to college.

1B) If someone did not go to college, he/she will usually feel some kind of inferiority complex and will feel inclined to say that college ..and therefore academics don't matter.

1A) By definition, most people who went to college came out with an average performance....that's why its called the "avg" (or maybe I should say median?)

1A-1)In college, there are grades. Grades have a feel of objectivity. If you get a "B", it means you have been stamped as average.

1A-2) Then they move outside college. Performance matters here as well, but the parameters aren't as sharp as grades. Result: Everyone finds some job stability, probably a marriage, kids, etc. etc. As such, it is rather easy to build an illusion of success... (eg: everyone has the best looking wife and the nicest kids)

1A-3) Armed with this comfortable illusion, it is only natural that the middle class guy wants to sneer at the academics who rated him as "average" or maybe even "below average".

1A-4) Conclusion: In the "real world", everyone gets a chance to build a comfortable illusion of success; not so in academia. It is easy to see why the human mind would want to turn the logic on its head and claim that it is the professors who were wrong all along.

Anonymous said...

Wading into the tail end of this debate... Kevin mentioned that math faculty have not taken enough science to teach math to science majors. That may well be true, but at least they are teaching math. A far far more serious problem is the fact that in many small colleges, math faculty teach computer science courses. This leads to a real mismatch between the skills that are taught and the skills that computer science majors actually need. Mathematicians often look down on computer science and don't see it as a real discipline, so programs in these programs run by mathematicians tend to be a hodge podge of theory courses and courses in this language or that language. What tends to be missing are courses such as software engineering, object-oriented design, databases, and operating systems.

Anonymous said...

The difference between the "real world" vs "academic" (and even "military") is that a person must sell something and make a profit.

Academics and military rely on the fact that guns are pointed at people's heads, making them cough up the money to support these operations. Regardless if they have any value. The tax pie is then divided up in very political ways (not profitable ways) to researchers.

In the "real world" a profit must be produced by creating value for someone else directly. Funding cannot be coerced through taxation. If the product does not sell, the operation falls apart. And no taxes get paid to support military and govt funded science research.

Deadlines, meetings and funding may resemble each other, but academic and military pursuits are most often sustained by coercion through taxation. Without the "real world" and the taxes levied on it, academia as we know it would be forced to live in the real world.

That means less job security and only the most profitable universities could survive. However, this would drive innovation, more intellectual property and self sustaining universities that rely on the real value they produce and not the next NIH/NSF budget.

Anonymous said...

This may reak of the bitterness of a student 3 weeks from defending, but I think comments about faculty in the real world are often related to faculty's lack of ability to have interpersonal relationships, that are respectful and not condescending in manor. I also think that in the real work it is not as easy to be come intrenched in antiquated technology like it is in academia. As much as we like to speak of pedagogy, and innovation, I find that Academia often lead to the faculty simply using their students to satiate there own curiosities.