One year after leaving
One year after leaving academia,✞Technically one year, two months, and a handful of days
— or, depending on when you count my last day, one year, three months.
I meant to write this earlier, but got distracted.
I’ve come to realize that my one mistake
was not to have done so sooner.
I’ve had the time of my life in my new position.
Things I miss
I don’t want this to sound as if I’m trashing academia,
but after drafting it, that’s exactly what it feels like,
so let me start off saying some of the things I miss.
- I pretty much always loved lecturing, and most students
complimented me on it.
- I liked grading when it was clear that the students had
learned something and thought about how to apply it to the assignment.
You get a real sense of accomplishment
out of seeing your students’s achievement.
- I likewise enjoyed working with the higher-achieving students
who wanted to do some research
and were willing and able to put the time into it.
My first five to ten years at the University were great if only because
I had so many undergraduate and graduate research students —
my Master’s students never failed to win regional awards,
and my PhD student won two external, financial awards,
one of which gave her a foot in the door to her eventual, full-time job.
- The research environment:
- I could fairly routinely talk
with mathematicins about, well, mathematics.
I could make mathematical jokes, even play mathematical pranks,
and colleagues would appreciate the humor.
- The University supported my work enough that I could attend conferences
specific to my field, both to learn about new advances in the field
and to present my own.
- There is something amazing about attending a special session
at the premier conference in your field
and sitting through five presentations where three explicitly cite your work
and a fourth is… well, you, presenting your own, new work.
- Very flexible hours: I probably miss this the most.
It probably doesn’t need further explanation.
- Salaries: They may not compete with the private sector,
but there is something to be said about getting paid
to do what you want to do, to work on projects that
you invent yourself.
- The idealism: The one thing most university employees share
is a sense of dedication to a higher cause: the pursuit of truth
— ah, whom am I kidding,
this is the post-modern age of deconstruction. Well, there is a sense that
you are dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge.
At least among the mathematicians and scientists, anyway.✝Well, the ones
who haven’t been assimilated or intimidated by the Comissars of Ignorance.
For them, even knowledge doesn’t matter;
the purpose of a university is activism on behalf of
[insert your favorite left-wing cause here].
Things I don’t
Some of these will seem to contradict some above, but they don’t. Mostly.
It’s a refreshing change to work for an organization
that rewards employees for loyal effort.
The University experience
In more than fifteen years at the University, my only raises came from:
- occasional merit raises, which I typically maxed out, and soon realized that
I would never, at that rate, come close to the higher-paid faculty who
seemed to contribute less overall (though they might excel in one
or two areas);
- a one-time “equity” adjustment, which basically meant
that the University admitted it had underpaid so many of us so badly
for so long that even the Administration grew so ashamed of its behavior
that it convinced the legislature to let it direct its State-mandated salary
raises to fixing salary compression and inversion;
- I went hunting for a job elsewhere, obtained an offer from a place
I didn’t really want to go to anyway, and showed the offer to my chair,
who talked to the Dean, who asked what I’d take to stay.
In short, the University handed out raises only when:
- the State forced them to, by making it a condition of the budget increase;
- I was disloyal by seeking better opportunities elsewhere.
That doesn’t strike me as any way to run an organization,
but three different presidents ran it that way during my time there,
so what would I know. I guess they had better things to do with the money
the legislature handed them.
The current experience
By contrast, my new employer seems to throw money at me! To wit:
- As is customary, they asked me to specify an acceptable salary range.
I think I did everything you were supposed to do —
researched online what comparably-experienced programmers made
(based on what I understood the position to be);
thought carefully about what I’d be able to get by with, and
what I’d dream of, etc. —
and specified a range where I was sure
they’d be happy with the lower end, and I could dream of the upper end.
Heck, I was willing to take less than the lower end;
I was that sick of academia.
Imagine my shock when their offer was $5,000 higher than my upper end.✟I am not much of a negotiator.
- Within a year, I received a significant raise.
- The team I work with won a bonus.
- We recently had to re-bid on our contract,
and they offered me a retention bonus to stay.
I wasn’t even dreaming of leaving…
I’m absolutely flabbergasted. I realize that University administrators
have very different constraints than the people I now work for,
and I’m likely lucky even for someone in the tech sector, but
I never expected to be doing this well this quickly.
Is this due to the simple fact that half-competent software developers
are in high demand,
while the academic market is flush with competent academics?
Tenure had become a trap.
Knowing I possessed it made me reluctant to risk leaving academia
for a job in the private sector —
or even for another university, where I might not win it again.
My worries about giving up tenure’s job security,
have turned out to be unfounded so far.
My employer really values me,
and makes this quite clear in more ways than one.
For our business sector, being able to advertise the presence of a mathematician
on your team turns out to be a big plus when competing for contracts —
and the mathematics really has come in handy, so I can understand why.
The sense of mission
Different people probably have different requirements for job satisfaction.
- working on challenging problems that involve some software development;
- working in a team environment when everyone is contributing; but also
- time to work on my own a while.
It helps most that I know the project’s goal
and enthusiastically believe it to be worthwhile.
My current job
I don’t honestly know that everyone on the team believes
in our project’s mission,
but it would be hard to deny that we know what it is.
I can’t go into the details,but
I don’t see anyone on the team questioning our mission’s importance.
Actions speak pretty loudly.
The University experience
A University’s two-fold mission is to engage in scholarly activity
and use the fruit of the same to educate
both its students and the wider community.
A good professor does not find these two to be in tension,
as research naturally sheds a light on teaching.
Even so, some faculty gravitate more towards teaching,
and consider it the more important role,
while others consider research more important, as it distinguishes
a university from, say, a community college.
It will surprise no one that these camps are often at odds.
bizarre was when colleagues contradicted themselves
when serving on hiring, promotion, and tenure committees.
They would proclaim one thing in public, then argue for the opposite position
within the confines of a confidential tenure review.
Worst of all were the attempts to sabotage a tenure review
by raising objections based on academic misconduct that turned out to be
half-truths — and God forbid someone should dig a little to learn more,
as you ran the risk of being accused of misconduct yourself,
for supposedly violating the committee’s confidential deliberations!
Teamwork and collegiality
For me, a positive workplace environment where everyone understands the mission
and is dedicated to it
is more important
than a missions I can believe in, believe it or not.
While everyone in fast food understands the mission,
you don’t always have the privilege of coworkers
who dedicate themselves to that mission
Some people are just out for themselves,
while others struggle with problems that affect their work.
But when you have a solid manager and solid coworkers,
fast food can be satisfying — so long as you don’t
think too hard about the pay.
My current employer
I’m now lucky to work with a brilliant team that cares about our project
while each team member brings distinct talents.
Several have advanced degrees, and others are working on them.
(One of them kindly shared a paper he published that is related
to some work on our project, and it’s an exciting paper.)
Some neither have an advanced degree nor seem interested in them,
but they still perform valuable roles.
Heck, our lead developer has nothing more than a humble Bachelor’s Degree,
and only a fool would think that he’s any less valuable
than the rest of us —
that guy has a talent not only for code, he can design
I’m extraordinarily lucky to have landed this position.
The university experience
The University’s environment was toxic from the start,
precisely because so many faculty had utter, unmasked disdain for each other.
Not every job interview features coworkers sparring over dinner in a preview
of future, profanity-laced shouting matches!
But it wasn’t just my particular place of employment;
I witnessed it with every position I ever held in academia,
and with not a few that I interviewed for
And then there is academia’s very distinct disdain for non-doctoral
and/or untenured faculty.
I don’t refer here to the completely reasonable distinction of privilege
between tenured and untenured faculty. The bar for achieving tenure is high,
set to distinguish faculty who have contributed non-trivially to their fields.
This brings inherent value to an institution dedicated
to the advancement and communication of knowledge.
This “trial by fire”, as it were, does give such faculty
a better insight that ought to confer unique privileges.
That’s completely different
from treating non-doctoral or untenured faculty as if they were subhuman,
as if their opinions did not even deserve an airing,
or as if their teaching and service contributions to the University
deserve no particular thanks, let alone reward.
Sadly, this attitude was not uncommon,
and University administration made it quite plain
felt on the matter when deciding on the sizes of raises
that they would give the “lesser” faculty.
It’s strange: on the one hand, Administration liked to claim that
excellent teaching was their highest priority, and put an emphasis on
On the other hand they often treated their best teachers as unwanted leeches,
simply because they were untenured or non-doctoral
It’s not exactly a secret that most universities’ best teachers
are the ones who spend most of their time taking joy in…
as opposed to complaining about how the number of classes they have to teach
interferes with their research, or with — I wish I were making this up
— their inherent dignity as a tenured holder of a terminal degree.