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The Fame Trap

The other day I was speaking with a group of interns about the differences between the academic and industrial career paths. One of them mentioned that when you join a company like Google, you lose your identity -- that is, people outside the company may not know much about what you do or work on. I like to think of it like getting assimilated into the Borg. This is a concern I hear a lot from grad students.

First off, this is absolutely true. Unless you work really hard at it, being in industry (not counting industrial research labs, of course) does not afford you as many opportunities to stay visible in the research community. No big surprise here -- at a company like Google, your job isn't to publish papers, it's to build products. You can publish papers, serve on program committees, and go to conferences -- but when academic research not your main job, doing those things isn't necessarily a priority.

I think many grad students get fixated on this idea of cultivating their academic profile and tend to make career decisions that build on that, to the exclusion of some other ways in which they could have a mark on the world. (This absolutely happened to me.) As an academic, your entire career is focused, to some degree, on building and maintaining your personal brand. In my experience, though, the "fame" you enjoy as an academic is on a fairly small scale, and it takes a tremendous amount of energy to perpetuate. That is, there are many reasons for wanting to pursue an academic career, but I would argue that achieving prestige in the research community isn't a particularly good one.

Let's keep things in perspective -- renown in the academic world is on a tiny scale. Take the systems community: a typical systems conference will have no more than about 400 attendees. Let's assume that roughly 10% of the people in the community (that matter!) are actually going to the major conferences -- so we're talking (generously) on the order of 10,000 people or so who might be active in the systems community at any given time.

I'm sorry, but being "famous" in a tight-knit community of O(10K) academics ain't really being famous. That's nowhere near the level of Kanye, or even Neil deGrasse Tyson. In fact, I can't name a single academic computer scientist who enjoys that level of fame. Maybe Alan Turing, but his fame is largely posthumous. There are the rare academics who are well-known across CS -- David Patterson comes to mind -- but even he's not exactly a household name. (Unless your household involves a lot of dinnertime conversations about disk arrays and processor architecture.)

As a grad student, it's pretty easy to fall into the fame trap, and I speak from experience. When I finished my PhD, I was pretty much dead set on having an academic career, because that seemed to be the most glamorous, high-profile career path at the time. (Keep in mind that when I finished my PhD in 2002, I had an offer from pre-IPO Google, and could have been something like employee #400. Now I'm just employee #40,000.) I was enamored with the prestige of being a professor. I dreamt of running my own lab, having my own students, being as "famous" as my advisor. And of course, from having been in grad school for so long, building up my academic profile was pretty much the only world I knew.

What I didn't realize at the time was how much work it would be to maintain an academic reputation. To be visible, and stay visible, in the research community means going to countless conferences, serving on program committees and panels, visiting other universities to give talks, and of course publishing as many papers as you possibly can. Getting tenure is driven in large part by how well known you are and how much "impact" you're having. If you fail to do these things, your stature in the community slips pretty quickly, unless you are really well-established and can afford to just show your face from time to time. (Junior faculty need not apply.)

I see this all the time in my academic colleagues. They travel constantly -- one or two trips per month is typical. They say yes to a ridiculous number of committees, advisory boards, whatever. They like to "complain" about the amount of travel and committee work they do, but I'm sure they all realize that they can't really stop doing it, lest they stop getting invited to do these things. (Kind of a strange vicious cycle, that.) It's like being in a small-time folk band that has to tour constantly to keep paying the bills -- you never get a break.

I applaud my academic colleagues who can still do this. For me, personally, I never really enjoyed it, and I found it wasn't worth the sacrifice just to maintain the status quo of my academic reputation. Once I had kids, I really started to appreciate the toll it was having on my family to be out of town so often, and I started to realize that maybe I had my priorities all wrong.

These days I still enjoy being part of the academic community, but in a more selective way. I like to go to occasional conferences and serve on PCs that are very closely aligned with my area, because I learn a lot about what's going on in the research world. It's also a good way to recruit interns and full-time hires, and of course I have lots of academic friends I like to meet up with and have beers with. I'll admit I still like giving talks from time to time. I've done very little publishing since leaving academia, but that's by choice -- I'm spending my time on things that are more important (to me) than writing more papers.

None of this is to say that academia can't be a wonderful career path, but I think chasing academic fame is not the best reason to go down that path. I wish I had known that when I was finishing my PhD.


  1. hey Matt.
    Another thoughtful entry, as usual.

    A couple of quick comments.

    First, I agree that there is a cost to maintaining visibility in the community. I do want to add, however, that oftentimes doing good work can do a large part of that reputation maintenance by itself. I find this a necessary part of what I do, because my work cover several distinct communities, measurements (IMC/SIGMETRICS), security (UsenixSec/NDSS/Oakland), networking (mobicom/sigcomm), web stuff (WWW/COSN). So there's not a single year when I can go to all these conferences. But I've found that doing visible work in the area (i.e. getting published at these places) keep visibility up even if I skip the conferences.

    The other quick comment is that I think in some ways you have it really good right now, doing what you do at Google and still cherry picking your conferences and TPC involvement. But I think this is in (large) part due to all the work you did at Harvard and your reputation that you built up during your academic years. In contrast, I think new graduates going to Google would likely find it quite difficult to keep this type of selective involvement with the academic community. Just a minor point of clarification :-)

    Thanks, and keep these great posts coming!!!

    1. I'll admit that my ability to cherrypick my academic community involvement might be due to having done time as a professor, although I do know of several cases of recent PhD hires at Google who have been able to retain academic visibility. On the other hand, how important is it to stay involved in the academic community if you're an engineer? Only marginally. There's a reason hundreds of engineers from Google, Facebook, and Amazon are not packing into the venues like OSDI and SOSP...

  2. I agree with a lot of what Matt says here, but I would like to put in a plug for why an academic career can be compatible with having kids and being a good parent. First, before my kids started school, they traveled with me all the time. It was a bit unusual, but we have many, many wonderful memories of these trips. (My daughter used one for her 8th grade storytelling assembly; the trip happened when she was 6.) And while at the time I never would have believed it, when I see a Mom traveling alone with her two kids, I sometimes yearn for those times (the kids are now teenagers and rarely travel with me).

    Second, summers are the greatest gift that academia gives to faculty. Sure, one can spend the summer attending faculty summits, teaching courses, traveling around, and attending conferences, but one can also spend the summer meeting with one's students, spending time with the kids, hanging out at the pool (sometimes with a laptop), etc. It's a choice we get to make. The summer my (then probably around 8 or 9 year old) daughter asked why some people had to work during the summer convinced me that I'd struck the right balance -- I was getting done what needed to be done, but she viewed me as totally available to her.

    OK, it's almost 11, my daughter and I are now going to head into the office together (she has a job painting a mural on campus this summer -- we get to commute together).

    - M

    1. +1 to this - clearly lots of faculty find time to be great parents. In my case the timing wasn't great (having my first kid right before going up for tenure).

  3. When I read this post, I first found myself agreeing with what Matt was saying, but on reflection, I believe the things I found myself agreeing with are both more universal and obvious, and that Matt gets things wrong when ascribing certain features to "academia".

    Matt's post seems really to be about two basic human desires:
    1) The desire to do work that is personally fulfilling.
    2) The desire to be recognized and/or externally validated for one's work.

    These two desires are not always aligned.

    Matt points out that as a graduate student and junior faculty member that one feels pushed toward desire 2 over desire 1 -- what he appears to refer to as chasing fame. And I agree that this is the case. But I disagree that this is a particular feature of academia. When you are in your 20s and 30s, in most professions you are building up your professional reputation and standing in order to develop a long-term career. It's true in medicine, in law, in business -- even, from what I hear, in building systems at companies both large and small. If you want to succeed in your chosen profession, you aim to become well known for your professional work, judged under your profession's metrics. Generally, this is done by doing good work -- the two desires can align fairly well, if not perfectly.

    Academia may seem unique because of the role of "tenure" in this process, but other careers have similar milestones (e.g., making partner in a law firm).

    I think Matt is also wrong in that, in my experience, as you've built up your "fame", or reputation, you don't have to work as hard to maintain it. I do not go to countless conferences or seek to visit other universities just to give a talk (I avoid work travel whenever possible these days), I serve on program committees and panels really when I feel like it, and I publish papers because I like doing research and having it known, not because I have some quota to fill. I may be missing something, but most of the faculty I know aren't "chasing fame"; they're doing their job the way they like to do it. They do the work not because they are aiming to enhance their reputation, but because they like their work and want to do interesting things. (Again, one the joys of tenure, though in my case I don't think my view of the job changed dramatically pre- and post- tenure.)

    I feel the need here to point out, as one of Matt's previous colleagues, that Matt was considered extremely intense for a junior faculty member (at least by me, and I believe by others). This worked for him, in that he achieved the goal of being offered tenure. I am definitely glad that he seems to have found a happier, more balanced lifestyle that works for him now. I am always concerned, however, that (in my opinion) Matt's posts often ascribe features to "the job" that really were actually features "of Matt" during that period of his life, and that younger academics will not recognize this difference. I, for one, was not as intense as Matt as a junior faculty member, and that worked for me, and I don't believe my experience is at all singular.

    1. Hi Michael!

      Those are fair points. I don't think we disagree, though, that as a junior faculty in particular you do need to be highly visible, and that takes a lot of work. (I don't know of any successful junior faculty who did not end up doing a lot of travel and committee work - whether they like doing that or not is another question).

      I do think there is a big difference between the expectations of academics and non-academics when it comes to professional visibility. Being visible within Google (for example) doesn't require doing a huge amount of travel and service work above and beyond your "day job" -- indeed, most successful Googlers I know do very little of that. For me it's been a big relief being able to spend more of my time focused on the stuff I care about and am good at, rather than trying to maintain my reputation in the community.

      All I'm getting at is that I think grad students considering jobs in industry tend to place too much emphasis on the impact such a choice would have on their academic visibility. I'm not sure it's all it's cracked up to be.

    2. Matt :

      Again, I think a "junior position" for most any professional career requires a lot of work, with the goal of becoming highly visible. For an academic, I'd agree that usually includes a non-trivial amount of travel, although I don't think it's as much as you suggest. (Recall that I think you were an over-achiever.)

      While I wouldn't want to disagree with your personal experience at Google, my understanding from several Google people I know is that "being visible" within Google can require significant travel if you're not based in the main Mountain View campus. If you're not at the mother ship, depending on your role and how much you want to advance at Google, I'm given to understand fairly frequent visits may be expected.

      Finally, I think the issue for grad students, the issue is that they may be considering a job in industry, but want to keep the option open to return to academia (if, say, they find industry isn't for them). If they don't ever want an academic job, I would agree with you that academic visibility isn't necessarily important, and they probably need not be concerned (although they may desire to keep such connections for various reasons). If they think they might want to switch back to an academic job later in their career, then academic visibility can be very important, and I can understand their placing emphasis on this issue.

    3. Do you really believe that one can ever go from industry to academia? I don't know of anyone in the systems community who has ever done this, apart from a small number of people who went into fairly senior (e.g., department chair) type positions. Grad students often express this desire to want to leave open the option of being a professor "one day", but honestly, unless you go straight out of your PhD/postdoc it seems highly unlikely you can ever get a good academic position. Please educate me if I am simply not remembering all of those industry people who went back to academia...

      I happen to disagree about the travel required to be visible at Google. We have this nifty technology called videoconferencing. I hardly ever have to travel to MTV and most of the senior folks I work with who are not MTV-based don't need to either. It is occasionally necessary but I travel about 1/10th as much as I did as an academic now.

    4. Ok, I think I'm with Mike on this one. I don't see the special thing here about academia. The issue that I think you're really getting at is ambition. Ambitious people want to be recognized by their peers. That's true in academia, in industry, in business, in government... in life. Now some career paths tolerate more or less ambition that is certainly true (I think academia is a challenging career path for low ambition people... but so is entrepreneurship). However, I think people who ARE ambitious face similar stresses everywhere. Certainly my ambitious friends at Cisco all hope to one day be recognized as a Distinguished Engineer or one day maybe even a Fellow. My ambitious Microsoft friends, definitely know what level they are at, what it means to be a partner, etc... My ambitious Google friends similarly want to be appreciated within their organization through some combination of notoriety, compensation and title (again distinguished engineer, fellow, etc... who wouldn't' want to be jdean?). While the precise requirements to achieve recognition in different communities vary a bit, I've yet to see a career path where the drive of personal ambition does not create real life overhead. My startup friends have to do all kinds of things (customer talks, tradeshows, etc) that I don't have to do. Friends at other companies need to manage the... uh... touchy process of 360 review and in-group ranking. I have to do faculty meetings.... so we all have our crosses to bear :-)

      Now I think the issue of _external_ reputation is a slightly different beast and it depends on who your ambition drives you to appeal to outside your core community. However, I think this is a place where academia actually has a number of advantages (not unique advantages, but real ones). As an academic you generally only answer to yourself and your colleagues and not to one's organization. This means that if I am interested in giving a talk about work in progress, then I can. If I want to engage in the political process I can talk to policy makers and politicians and publicly give my unvarnished opinion about any fool topic I want (even better if its about something I know a bit about). If I choose to engage the media in discussing my research, I'm free to craft how to do this. Now not everyone in academia want to take advantage of all of these freedoms (and sometimes for good reason :-) they are hugely enabling if one has a goal to directly and personally influence a larger community. Moreover, for good or ill, there are a range of constituencies in public and private life who are willing to listen and to accept the things academics say as representing an "unbiased informed opinion" in way that is much harder as a representative of a corporation.

    5. BTW, a few people who've gone back off the top of my head:
      Anna Karlin (SRC -> UW)
      Mike Mitzenmacher (SRC->Harvard)
      John Ousterhout (Electric Cloud -> Stanford)
      Jennifer Rexford (AT&T -> Princeton)
      Tons of ML folks in the AT&T diaspora (e.g., Schapire, Kearns, Saul, Freund, etc)
      Ari Juels (RSA -> Cornell)

      I think its actually become a bit easier over time... and there is quite a bit more of it going on than there used to be. We get faculty applications in all fields from Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, etc... every year.

      However, it is certainly the case that going from industry to academia is strictly harder than going directly into academia because the standard for evaluation is unbalanced (some of the reasons for this being reasonable and other not so much)

    6. I think somehow my post got misconstrued as saying that an industrial job path doesn't involve having to work hard if you want to be successful. Of course you do, that's obvious, as both Michael and Stefan point out.

      The point I was trying to make is that "academic fame" is not all that rewarding of a reason to pursue an academic career in the long run. While well-established, tenured faculty know that, I'm not sure that most grad students do.

  4. Regarding travel: In addition to the visibility issue, this also substitutes, poorly, for community. In industry and government (my current gig), you are surrounded by hundreds of people who work on very closely-related projects. At the FCC, I'm surrounded by about 1000 people who care deeply about communications, and I collaborate with dozens on various projects. In academia, you have a few grad students that aren't really peers, and, unless you are at a very large institution, fewer than a handful of faculty in your own area where you can have subject-matter conversations that go beyond complaining about the administration and teaching. With few exceptions, collaboration between faculty is about grant writing, so travel to some extent substitutes for the lack of intellectual community within the university.

  5. Mike and Stefan's comments certainly resonate with my "junior faculty" -equivalent experience at Google; in a place full of very smart people, independent impact, distinction, and recognition is strongly correlated with going beyond the normal work day.

    I also find myself agreeing with Henning. In academia, it is near-impossible to find people with shared interest in density without traveling. By contrast, teams in Google have shared interests (peers) by definition, and delivering any system of significance take lot more than one person. These two put together remove the need for traveling and satisfy the yearning for collaborations in one go. For folks in management on teams that are split across Google offices, there still is significant (couple of times a quarter) traveling.

    Getting to the original topic, fame and notoriety. I feel that there are plenty of people at Google who are quite famous outside of Google, but generally the threshold for achieving outside notoriety is pretty high. Publishing in academic conferences might get one known publicly, but without that folks tend to know peer groups across companies or in press only above a certain very high threshold of accomplishment (specially in engineering).

    1. It's also true that the Fame Trap applies to people in industry, albeit in different circles. The term I have heard used is "conference whores" (sorry for being crude, but that's the vernacular) -- this blog post provides a good description:

  6. I would certainly second Michael's point about your being an over-achiever, Matt ;)

    There is a lot of traveling to be done as an Assistant Professor, and I agree that one finds it hard at that stage to say no to various TPC's and reviewing/editorial duties. However, beyond that stage, things do ease up quite a bit, and one can be more flexible, in my experience. Some travel is needed for networking because, as others have mentioned, one's community is really spread out over the planet. In order to keep a sane and balanced family life, I average about 3-6 trips a year myself, which is nowhere near the 1-2 trips a month you cite (there are colleagues who travel that much, but I would not consider them to be typical). And as a parent I really appreciate the flexibility of controlling my own schedule.

    I can't imagine anyone choosing academia over industry because they think they'll be more famous as an academic. As you point out it is a very small stage indeed. But I do confess it makes me happy when I meet with a colleague whom I respect for their work tell me that they enjoyed or learned something from reading a paper of mine, or even that it triggered them to do follow up with their own ideas.

    Academic prestige derives from consistently producing good work and making significant contributions. Though one may be driven by personal ambition and academia does offer many incentives for cultivating one's brand, it is helpful for an academic to consider from time to time which is the cart and which is the horse.

  7. Very insightful post. Thank you.
    I'm a regular reader of your blog and feel disappointed that you didn't explain to your readers why you deleted the part 3 of the google career part series of posts.

    1. Sorry about that. I decided to rewrite that post but I haven't gotten around to finishing it yet.

  8. kinda disappointed this post didn't include this image...

  9. Anyone who goes into academia wanting to be "famous" - recognized by lots of people on the street - must be nuts. But who in academia wants that? Most academics are content with recognition by their peers. The idea is that if you're working on 5th-century-BC Greek inscriptions or nonassociative division algebras, you mainly do it because it's fun, and you only care about the good opinion of other experts on those topics.

    Even counting all countries and all subjects, there are only about 150,000 scientists worldwide who have published something every year from 1996 to 2011:

  10. Couldn't agree more with the post above. You go into academia because you want to keep learning and believe that being able to do so is important for you (and perhaps also for the world at-large, ultimately), not because you want a "glamorous, high-profile career path." And yes, networking within academia isn't really about gaining recognition per se; it's more about building synergistic relationships with your peers so that you can give and receive both positive and negative feedback anytime you wish--which is so crucial for the process of learning.


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