Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Everything I did wrong as a professor

I really screwed things up as a young faculty member at Harvard. It worked out OK in the end, but, man, I wish I could go back in time to when I was a new professor and give my younger self some much-needed advice. No, not the "you shouldn't be a professor, get another kind of job" advice -- I wouldn't have listened to that -- but one of the reasons I ended up leaving academia is that I burned myself out. Maybe that could have been avoided had I taken a different approach to the job.

What did I get wrong? Let me count the ways...

Working on too many projects at once. I thrive on having many balls in the air. As a junior faculty member, though, I probably should have stayed focused on just one or two juicy projects, and let all the others fall to the side. I did not have a good filter for thinking about which projects I should take on and where they might lead. It was difficult to say no to any new research direction, since for all I knew it might lead somewhere great.

This one is tricky. When I first heard about using sensor networks to monitor volcanic eruptions, I thought it was a terrible idea and unlikely to lead anywhere. It turned out to be one of my most exciting and productive projects. So what the hell do I know?

Taking on high-risk projects with factors out of my control. Managing risk was not something I spent much time thinking about. I worked hard to build collaborations with the medical community to use sensor networks for things like disaster triage and monitoring patients with Parkinson's Disease. The volcano monitoring project also had a tremendous amount of risk (not just that of the volcano trying to destroy our sensors). I got lucky in some cases but it would have been better, probably, to stick to "core" CS projects that didn't involve straying too far from the lab. I can sure as hell figure out how to program a Linux box to do what I want -- had that volcano not been erupting, though, we wouldn't have gotten our paper published.

Taking on too many students. This goes along with the too-many-projects problem described above. I dreamed of having a big group, and I did. I had something like a dozen PhD students, undergrads, and postdocs rotating through my group at any given time. This ends up being a vicious cycle, as the more people in the group, the more time I had to spend writing grant proposals, and had less time to mentor them and go deep on their research. I seriously had PhD students where I reckon I spent more time writing grants to cover their salary than they spent working in the lab. If I had just, say, three or four good PhD students that would have been so much easier to manage.

Wasted too much time courting companies for money. I did not know how to play the funding game, and had unrealistic expectations of the value of visiting companies and drumming up interest in my work with them. I took countless trips to random companies up and down the Eastern seaboard, most of which did not pan out in terms of funding or collaborations. I should have stuck with the more obvious funding opportunities (NSF, Microsoft) and not blown so much energy on getting little bits of money here and there from companies that didn't understand how to fund academic research.

Way, way, way too much travel. I had to go to every goddamn conference, workshop, program committee meeting, NSF panel, you name it. I never turned down an invitation to speak somewhere, no matter how far afield from my core community and how little influence it would have on my career. I'd travel at least twice a month, sometimes more. I'd go to a conference, come home, and turn around and see the same set of people just a few weeks later at some other event. There were times when I felt that my airline status was more important to maintain than my marriage.

Conferences are a huge time sink. You don't go to see the talks -- if I need to read a paper and have questions about it I can email the authors. Sometimes it was just about having beers with my academic friends in an exotic location (like, say, upstate New York). Still, what an expensive and tiring way to maintain a social life. There's also way too many of them -- there should be just one big event a year where everyone would show up.

All the boondoggles. I wasted an incredible amount of time on little side projects that didn't need me. Each one might not be much of a time sink, but they really add up. Editorial board of a journal. PC chair of random, forgettable workshops. Serving on all manner of random committees. I found it hard to avoid this trap because you think, well, saying no means you're not going to get asked to do the more important thing next time. I have a feeling it doesn't work that way.

Hard to say if I could have really done things differently, and I know lots of faculty who seem to keep their shit together despite doing everything "wrong" on the list above. So maybe it's just me.

9 comments:

  1. I agree with everything, especially regarding conferences being a time sink.

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  3. "Working on too many projects at once" --> In many ways this seems like a classical exploration-exploitation problem! We never know what could be that one big hit until we try many things?
    Maybe some people are inherently better at picking those big hit problems. (Or perhaps the reality is that the things they pick become a self fulfilling prophecy since they did pick it in the first place:) )

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  4. FOMO 8-)
    I worked at one Australian university where the number of meetings I was invited to was insane. So I said no if there was no agenda, said no if there was nothing that actually needed input from me, said no if I was going to be there 'ex officio', and finally said no to anything I didn't want to go to. It didn't seem to make much difference, as I expected. My apotheosis was when I walked out of a tedious meeting scheduled to last an hour after 15 minutes of bullshit, saying "Sorry, I appear to be double-booked". 15 minutes of my life I never got back. Afterwards, someone rang me and abused me, because after I left nobody else felt they could. Ha!

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  5. FOMO 8-)
    I worked at one Australian university where the number of meetings I was invited to was insane. So I said no if there was no agenda, said no if there was nothing that actually needed input from me, said no if I was going to be there 'ex officio', and finally said no to anything I didn't want to go to. It didn't seem to make much difference, as I expected. My apotheosis was when I walked out of a tedious meeting scheduled to last an hour after 15 minutes of bullshit, saying "Sorry, I appear to be double-booked". 15 minutes of my life I never got back. Afterwards, someone rang me and abused me, because after I left nobody else felt they could. Ha!

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  6. I find 3-5 projects at the same time per research leader is a great target to have, 2 for junior people.

    For the research leader case: dedicate one week-day for each project to get some mental focus (hence the maximum of 5), and balance your risk between them into high/medium/low bands (1 low, the others medium and high - I find most researchers surprisingly lack boldness and risk appetite, given their role - they're also surprisingly often herd animals - one does big data or deep learning, 700 follow; cf. what Don Knuth says about that topic in his video memories).

    For the junior researcher case: If you work on only one research project when you get stuck it's nice to have something else to switch to, so if there's no other project you can take a walk in the park, which also works but I find re-channeling attention to a second project is a great way not to lose time.

    This is informed based on experience in both academic and industry research lab environments.

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  7. You could have changed almost everything, right? Why didn't try and decided instead to leave academia?

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  9. May I ask, what was your success rate with government grants (NSF, NASA etc) vs private money (Microsoft, IBM)?

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