Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The optimism of Youth

Consider this a reality check. I had a minor flashback when I read a comment from a Caltech sophomore about a very interesting article concerning people leaving physics. The flashback was to a remark by a good friend from HS, who is a manager with a major national corporation with its fingers in both the financial and software pie.

The comment from the student was that he wanted "to challenge JohnQPublic's statements since you don't need to climb the ladder to have fun in the corporate world---being a programmer is great, if you're working on the right project!"

My HS friend (in conversation at a reunion some years ago) refered to those programmers, who occupy some back room (or foreign country) where no business school grad will see them, as "Frito eaters". Slamming code is like turning a wrench on the assembly line to Suits like himself. The only respect goes to software engineers who manage the code slammers and bring structure to the project, and then only on a good day.

That is, the "right project" might be something in a low stress area like an academic research project that can be handed off to a highly talented undergrad, not necessarily a mission-critical piece of software that someone will pay real money for on a sustained enough basis to keep you and your company in business.


Digression into the "jobs" aspect of a few other comments appearing with that article, which was about some blogging physicists who are leaving academia.

Yes, it is true that you might "have a rather visceral gut reaction to the idea of being employed at a liberal arts college, even after only two years here at Caltech as an undergraduate." I would even go so far as to say that this might be because you went to Caltech rather than, say, Harvey Mudd or Williams. I don't think it is an accident that Chad, with a degree from Williams, got hired at Union College. I'm sure my applications to similar small colleges needed to be a whole lot better to sell my otherwise suspect undergrad background at an enourmous R1. My undergrad experience is not at all like that of their students, and it would be a big adjustment to teach them effectively. After all, their entire college might be smaller than my freshman dorm!

We have similar considerations when looking at applicants for a job at a CC. Many applications simply jump off the paper and say "I don't get it!" I still have to write the missing CC part (Part 5) of the job series, but the gist of it, the background info, is in part 3, not to mention yesterday's article. None of the things that matter at an R1 matter to us, just as some of the things that matter at a SLAC matter a great deal to us (the exception being the need for an externally funded research program that can involve undergrads) while others, such as dealing with a highly diverse population of students, only matter at a CC.

I was fortunate that I had learned those lessons before I applied for my present job. My immediate background was not the norm for a CC teaching job, but I had learned how to sell my teaching skills and how to demonstrate my interest in that kind of institution by things I did as a volunteer.

Another comment, by Coriolis, touches on a point of relevance to someone seeking a career at an R1. The cogent observation was that "the biggest problem I see is the overwhelming amount of bullshit that physics professors have to deal with.... It seems to me that professors are forced to spend far too long writing proposals, worrying about getting more grant money and attending useless meetings on non-physics stuff." Yes, but first I have to compliment the writer for noticing this. The life of a grad student or post doc is an easy one. Someone else gets the money to pay them (in physics). If you are lucky, you are exposed to this side of the job, even involved in it by writing part of a progress report or proposal, and mentored on the skills needed to do this (not to mention the mysterious "overhead charges" that keep the lights on). One of my major points in part 4 of the jobs series and a related article about what R1 faculty do, is that you need to know what is involved in being a professor if you want to get such a job and also earn tenure in it rather than being let go at the end of the first or third year reviews.

By the way, back on the topic that started this set of remarks, it's not all that much easier to be in business. In business you have to do all that writing and managing to help sell your product or market your skills as a subcontractor on a project. You might even have to do the billing and keep the books if you have an entrepreneurial spirit. Life in the corporate world can (does?) require just as much (more?) in the way of dirty work, with the added feature that you - rather than your grad students and post docs - will be unemployed if it does not get done effectively.

And the "service" part of the job? Those irrelevant meetings? That would be the subject of the Surviving Academic Committees article I need to write this summer. The problem is that I don't want to think about what it will take to survive it next year so it isn't getting written!

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