A Harvard professor who had recently received tenure and writes a popular blog announced a few months ago that he would not return to the academic world after his sabbatical at Google - instead, he would join Google for good.
While his recent post on the contrast between his current life as a Googler and his past life as an academic strikes a wrong note (a commenter even felt the need to remind him of the "honeymoon" period at the beginning of each job, which might be clouding his judgment; the blog author later defended himself saying he had written the post "in jest", although he seemed to be the only one finding his post jest-like), I think his posts about academia and his decision to leave do vividly illustrate the dilemmas faced by professors in engineering, who have job opportunities outside the ivory tower. Since they can provide valuable information for doctoral candidates trying to pick the best career path, I want to point them out to my readers.
The earliest post I'm going to link to is dated May 2010 and entitled "The Secret Lives of Professors". In it, the author shares his doubts on the professorial life; in retrospect, it is not surprising that he chose to leave. His comments focus on the pressure to find funding and on time management. He writes: "The biggest surprise is how much time I have to spend getting funding for my research. Although it varies a lot, I guess that I spent about 40% of my time chasing after funding." He did have a huge group, and acknowledges he was not terribly good at grant-writing, although he does not explain what, if anything, he did to improve.
As for time management, in his words: "Another lesson is that a prof's job is never done. It's hard to ever call it a day and enjoy your "free time," since you can always be working on another paper, another proposal, sitting on another program committee, whatever." I am not quite sure in what respects this differs from life in industry; the biggest issue with academia is that it is easy to work from home, and thus to never take a real break and relax. The ability to stop work at the end of the day and forget about it until the next morning, no matter the number of unfinished tasks that await you when you get back, is certainly very helpful to avoid burnout.
The last point surprised me - "Most of my days are spent in an endless string of meetings." You would expect a good department chairman to protect untenured faculty (which the author was until he was granted tenure and took his sabbatical) so that they can get their research program off the ground.
In his "Why I'm Leaving Harvard", the new Googler explains: "And of course the amount of overhead and red tape (grant proposals, teaching, committee work, etc.) you have to do apart from the interesting technical work severely limits your ability to actually get to that point [where someone at Google or Microsoft or Facebook implements the ideas he has read in a paper of yours]." Obviously, if you view even teaching as distracting from your core purpose - which you happen to define as doing technical work - and chafe at advising graduate students rather than doing the work yourself (a point the author mentions elsewhere in his posts), joining industry is the best decision you could take for yourself.
Teaching and advising make an immediate and lasting impact on society by training tomorrow's workforce. Many doctoral students find jobs based almost entirely on the strength of their PhD dissertation - that means that at some level, they would not have gotten the job without the skills their adviser taught them. Of course you don't have your name next to theirs the way you do on research papers, and you don't receive any clear recognition for your mentoring, but the indirect impact you have will be more lasting than a research paper, as it often affects the whole direction of a student's career.
As the author himself admits, academia is not for everybody - "I also admire the professors who flourish in an academic setting, writing books, giving talks, mentoring students, sitting on government advisory boards, all that. I never found most of those things very satisfying, and all of that extra work only takes away from time spent building systems, which is what I really want to be doing." Working at Google will certainly provide him with many gratifying opportunities to see his work implemented and contribute to one of the most famous companies out there. I think the decision to leave an institution such as Harvard, especially now that he had achieved tenure, shows integrity and a desire to follow his dreams that deserves respect, although it is a pity he had to waste seven years in academia when this seems to have been such a poor fit for him. But at least it allowed him to see for himself and have no regret about the academic life.
To his credit, the author let his area dean write a guest post ("Why I'm Staying at Harvard") in response to his announcement that he would not return to Harvard; taken together, these posts give a balanced account of the pros and cons of the academic career path.
I'll only quote one paragraph of the dean's post (abridged below), which captures his overall themes quite nicely - please refer to the whole post for more details: "I enjoy the freedom of working on whatever I find interesting... having the opportunity to work with a whole variety of interesting and smart people, from undergraduates to graduate students to CS colleagues all over the globe to math and biology professors a few buildings down; the ample opportunity to do consulting work... the schedule that lets me walk my kids to school most every day and be home for dinner most every night; and the security that, as long as I keep enjoying it, I can keep doing this job for the next 30+ years."
The author did the research community a great service in launching a discussion of these issues; hopefully, he and his dean will help doctoral students avoid mistakes in their own career path by giving them a more accurate picture of the professorial life.