Wednesday, November 24, 2010

This just in: Harvard loses a tenured professor to Google

Actually, the news is over a week old. I don't really have a broader point to make about the two links below -- I mean, it's not all that difficult to imagine someone leaving a good, happy situation to a better and happier, situation. Still, the following two posts are worth reading for the way two smart people have articulated their thoughts about the kinds of things that contribute to their big decisions about changing (or, not changing) their career paths.

First, Matt Welsh on why he's leaving his tenured professorship at Harvard to join Google:

... The question for me is simply which side of the innovation pipeline I want to work on. Academics have a lot of freedom, but this comes at the cost of high overhead and a longer path from idea to application. I really admire the academics who have had major impact outside of the ivory tower, like David Patterson at Berkeley. 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.

Welsh has posted a response from Michael Mitzenmacher, Area Dean for Computer Science at Harvard, on "Why I'm Staying at Harvard":

I suppose the question that's left is why I'm staying at Harvard -- that is, why I still like being a professor. (And thank you to those of you who think the obvious answer is, "Who else would hire you?") I enjoy the freedom of working on whatever I find interesting; being unrestricted in who I choose to talk to about research problems and ideas; 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 that both pays well and challenges me in different ways; 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.

Mitzenmacher balances the good bits with the not-so-good bits (which those wishing to become faculty members ought to keep in mind):

Of course I don't like everything about the job. Getting funding is a painful exercise, having papers rejected is frustrating and unpleasant, and not every student is a wondrous joy to work with. I sometimes struggle to put work away and enjoy the rest of my life -- not because of external pressure (especially post-tenure), but because lots of my work is engaging and fun. Of course that's the point -- there's good and bad in all of it, and people's preferences are, naturally, vastly different. I don't think anyone should read too much into Matt's going to Google about the global state of Computer Science, or Professordom, or Harvard, or Google. One guy found a job he likes better than the one he had. It happens all the time, even in academia. It's happened before and will happen again.


  1. Manu Awasthi said...

    John Regehr here at Utah has also tried to point out the good, the bad and the ugly of staying in academia here :

  2. WebMiner said...

    Harvard CS isn't really a fun place to do systems work. It is crowded out by the rest of SEAS to some extent. I would sit up if someone from Berkeley or Wisconsin CS systems went to a company. Mike Carey and Raghu Ramakrishnan, now those are notable departures.