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.

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:
  1. 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);
  2. 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; or
  3. 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:
  1. the State forced them to, by making it a condition of the budget increase; or
  2. 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: 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?

Job security

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. I enjoy: 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.

What was 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 how they 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 improving teaching. 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… well, teaching, 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.