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.

published July 25, 2012


  1. Mark N.

    I can believe that for people in his position, of a certain temperament, Google is clearly better, though that doesn’t apply to everyone. The main problem with being a STEM professor at a research university is that it’s increasingly a sort of freelance “soft money” job: a huge part of your job requirement is chasing down external financing to keep your little ship afloat. Then the other big part is research management: hiring and organizing the research scientists, post-docs, etc. hired with that money, and interfacing with the external stakeholders (keeping DARPA happy, etc.).

    Some people are good at and love that, but many researchers aren’t and don’t, and basically want to be left alone, with some equipment, to do some research with a few collaborators. What Google (and, say MSR) seem to offer senior hires is relative freedom to do research in that style, without having to play the financing/management/PR role of heading up a quasi-freelance research organization.

  2. MCM

    “on the tenure track anyway”

    Might as well say “life in America is pretty great (for the lottery winners anyway).”

  3. Ian Bogost


    I included that caveat for two reasons. First, the contingent employee situation in academia is bad and shouldn’t be compared to working at Google &c, and second because Terran is talking about the tenure track. TT is hardly a lottery, but like so many things it involves a good deal of luck.

  4. Ian Bogost


    Yes, great points.

  5. Connelly Barnes

    Academics like to complain because it is their personality type. I don’t see many leaving to do construction work or dentistry. Mostly everyone continues to do research, R&D, or occasionally start companies related to their research (such as, for example, Google, which was founded by ex-researchers and does tons of internal research, and which academics also love to complain about in the process of complaining about leaving academia).