Over the last day or so, many of my Facebook friends have been posting UNM CS professor Terran Lane’s reflections on leaving academia for a job at Google. It’s worth a read, and raises some very valid points about the troubles with academia—pay, funding, job security, incentives, isolationism, work/life balance and so forth. But I also find the piece fairly naive about the alternatives. For example, I laughed out loud at this line: “Google is a strong example of an organization that actually is using advanced computer science to make a real, positive difference in the world.”
At the end of the day, big organizations are mostly the same. Universities and corporations have different pros and cons, but as someone who’s worked in a bunch of industries–financial services, advertising, entertainment, technology, games, etc., academia still has a lot going for it.
Despite it all, working in academia (on the tenure track anyway) is still a positive lifestyle choice, and we who benefit from it better be willing to admit to the benefits, even if we should also remain committed to correcting many of the flaws Lane discusses. Life is complicated, and articles like Lane’s offer a needed reminder to all of us. But it’s also worth remembering that university faculty have moved back and forth between academia and industry for decades. Indeed, many academics in Lane’s field can take a leave of absence to go work at a company like Google, enjoying the benefits of both worlds. Nothing’s perfect, and lots of things are troubled. But corporate life is not an obviously better life than academic life, even in today’s corporatized university climate, and even given the apparent wealth of companies like Google.