Monday, August 4, 2014

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.