In an earlier post, I compared life in academia with life in industry. One recurring argument to favour an academic job over an industry job is freedom.

Of course, the feeling of freedom is fundamentally subjective. And we have a strong incentive to feel free, and to present ourselves as free. Freedom is strongly linked with social status. Telling people that you are free to do whatever you want in your job is signalling your high status.

So how can you tell how much freedom you have?

I have long proposed the retirement freedom test. If you were really free in your job, you would continue it into your retirement. Another test is the lottery ticket test: would you keep your job if you won the lottery? But these tests are, again, somewhat subjective. Most people only retire once and they usually cannot tell ahead of time what retirement will be like.

For something more immediate, more measurable, I propose the week-end test. I conjecture that, given a choice, most people with a family would want to be free on week-ends to spend all their time with their kids. (Admittedly, others might want to dedicate their week-ends to unbridled and continuous kinky sex. But you get my point.)

So anyone who works on week-end fails the week-end freedom test. If you are checking emails from work on week-ends, you fail.

So how do professors do? In my experience, many of them fail the week-end freedom test. Of course, most of the professors I know are in computer science… and a large fraction of them are active researchers. So my sample is not representative. Nevertheless, many professors who claim to love their freedom fail the week-end test miserably. I know because I got emails from them on week-ends.

Of course, there is no arguing with subjective experience. You can fail the week-end test and claim that it is by choice. But what does it mean objectively?

You pity the poor lawyer at a big law firm who has to prepare his files every Saturday instead of playing baseball with his son. But your case is different: you love your job and that is why you work 60 hours a week. Your decision is entirely yours and it has nothing to do with the professional pressure you are feeling. You genuinely enjoy preparing this new research grant on Sunday instead of teaching your kid to swim. Sure, all professors in your department work on week-ends, except this weirdo who will never get promoted (does he love his job?), but they all do it out of love. It is a love that is so powerful that it beats the alternatives (such as spending time with your kids, or with your sex partner).

Appendix: I pass the week-end test. Mostly. For the last few years, I have stopped checking emails on week-ends. But I fail the retirement and lottery tests.

I have done three things after my Ph.D.:

  • I have been a (permanent/regular) researcher in a major government laboratory;
  • I have been an entrepreneur in industry (making deals, paying other people);
  • I have been a professor, in two different schools. I am now tenured and promoted.

My conclusions so far:

  • At least in my case, the difference in income has not been excessively large. While I did take a pay cut to join academia, you tend to make up some of the lost income in later years. Overall, it looks like things average out. However, if money is really important to you, there is no question that you can earn more in industry where your income is basically unlimited.
  • “Everyone” says that you have more freedom in academia. But whenever I hear someone say that, they are invariably an academic. I think that this is a form of rationalization. Overall, freedom is something you earn. You can enjoy a lot of freedom in industry, in government or in academia… but it is something that you have to constantly fight for. It is quite easy in academia to get stuck in a routine: teach, apply for grants, meet with students, teach, apply for grant, sit on meeting, teach… If you want to have a lot of time alone pondering, you are going to have to fight for it. It will probably not come during the first few years… it might take a decade or two (or you could get lucky earlier).

    A real test of freedom is to look at what people do when they retire. Do they keep doing whatever they were doing? The first thing that most academics will do when they retire is to drop the grant applications, the graduate students, the teaching… in effect, they’ll drop the bulk of their job. So how free were they?

    I consider that I have an excellent job as far as freedom goes. Yet much of my freedom comes from my ability to work on Monday night (as I did today) on my favorite research projects. If I chose to work a fixed 35 hours a week… I would be busy with meetings, teaching, grading, reviewing… almost all the time. Freedom is definitively something I earn every day.

    But another question is: how free do you want to be in your job? It is not uncommon for people wealthy enough to retire in luxury to keep working in high pressure jobs under difficult constraints. The fact is: it is often more satisfying to serve others than to cultivate your own egotistical freedom.

    It is not that exciting to write obscur research papers that nobody will ever read. Most of us want to feel useful. Being useful is hard. It means accepting people’s requirements.

  • Tenure is overrated. Most folks in industry that have worked just as hard as tenured professors, have savings, reputation and skills that are in demand. But if you are risk averse, then a government job is also quite safe even if you don’t formally have tenure. And academics with tenure lose their jobs all the time. There is always a clause saying that under “financial hardship” management can dismiss professors. And even with tenure, you still have to justify your job, constantly. If you create trouble, people can make your life hell. If you fail, people can humiliate you publicly. If you get into a fight with a tenured colleague, the fight can last decades and be unpleasant.
  • It is a lot easier to move back and forth between these occupations that people make it out to be. So while you can’t go back in time per se, professors move to industry all the time, and vice versa. To a point, you can even do both. It is not difficult to get some kind of honorary position with a research institute when you work in industry.
  • Academic and government positions require you to work in a bureaucratic setting, maybe for the rest of your life. In industry, you can be a lone wolf if you want. In this sense, there is greater freedom in industry.

Note: this post first appeared on Quora.

Next week, the Scots will get to vote to determine whether Scotland becomes its own country.

As a middle-aged Quebecker, I spent much of my youth hearing about the separation of Quebec from Canada. We had two referendums. The first one in the 1980s was defeated decisively. The second one in 1995 was a close call. Because of these two failures, I get to live in Canada, one of the richest countries in the world instead of an independent (and poorer) Quebec.

There is much to be said about the United Kingdom. It is a fine country. But If I were in Scotland, I’d vote for the independence of Scotland the same way I could be convinced to vote for the independence of Quebec.

Why? Because a fragmented Europe took over the world.

Let me explain. If you go back a few centuries… you had huge empires in China and India. The Qing dynasty ruled over 300 million individuals while the Maratha Empire counted 150 million individuals. In Europe, you had a giant mess. Lots of small and weak states. Instead of the modern-day Germany, we had a collection of small kingdoms, the largest one being maybe Bavaria. Italy (and the Italian language) only came about in the second part the IXXth century. France was a collection of culturally distinct provinces, with the French language becoming a standard only after the French revolution. Scotland joined England only in 1707.

This patchwork of weak states enabled great prosperity, at least locally. First in Venice, then in Dutch Republic and then in England. Venice counted less than 200,000 people, the Dutch Republic had fewer than 2 million people while England had 5 million people.

There was so much prosperity that the Dutch and then the British took over the world. They could afford it.

People look at Europe and think that the lack of unification is the problem. One united Europe would be stronger. But that is like saying that by putting all your eggs in the same basket, you can carry eggs more efficiently.

Europe contributed most as a political laboratory. It gave us the democracy, the industrial revolution and modern science.

It is entirely possible that the United States works better as a giant unified country… But then you get things like an all-powerful spy agency and a federal government that can arm the local police forces for war. If you broke up the USA into small states, at least some of them would be free from this nonsense. Some of them would not have gone to war in Irak. Small countries tend to trade more with other countries than large countries, and trade discourages war. And as an individual, you would have more choices. You could move more easily if you disagreed with the current policies.

Of course, small countries do not have large open markets. But the only 6 countries that offered economic freedom in 2014 are Hong Kong, Switzerland, Singapore, New Zealand, Australia and Canada. They are all relatively small countries in terms of population. The largest ones (Canada, Australia) are modest countries on an international scale… So some small countries can be nice places where to run a business despite their size.

How far would I go? I think that the idea of the city state had a lot of good. The 5 richest countries in the world right now on a per capita basis are Qatar (2 million people), Luxembourg (500,000 people), Singapore (5 million people), Norway (5 million people) and Brunei (400,000 people). Let cities compete for talent and industries. One screwed up city will not harm us much, while one great one can make all the difference. Have Montreal compete against Toronto and New York City. Singapore proves that it can work.

Back in the eighties, half of the 16-year-old teenagers were licensed drivers in the US. Evidently, things have changed. Driving is still important, but other activities have become even more important. I am guessing that it is hard to get a date without a mobile phone today.

My point is that we create needs. These needs feel very real. And, in a sense, they are.

Employers and governments are no different. Once your automotive corporation has a social-media specialist, you cannot imagine not having one. Once you have compelled all colleges to have officers in charge of research grants, you cannot imagine how it could ever be otherwise. I call this transemployment.

So, irrespective of primary needs (food, lodging and reproduction), we create jobs that have abstract purposes. Sure, maybe we can automate the job of the social-media specialist. Maybe we can buy software that automatically represents the corporation on Twitter and Facebook. But since we do not really know what the social-media specialist does, how do we know that automation will work? And if you automate, who do you blame when things go bad?

What happens if someone asks what the social-media specialist does and whether it is needed, or whether it can be automated? Nobody is going to ask. The position might be terminated, but it would be too rude to say that the job was not real.

It is easy to question the value of concrete work, like carpentry or plumbing. You either need a plumber or you do not. But how do you know whether you need this particular program manager?

If you work in an office, much of the work you do is not real. The forms you fill are usually there as part of some process. This process feels absolutely essential… except that, not long ago, it did not exist and things worked nevertheless.

We need medical doctors so badly that we can afford to have them spend half their time filling out forms and satisfying regulations.

We know that many jobs are not real. But we need to believe that they are. And if you ask too many questions, someone could ask whether your own job is real. My conjecture is that useless jobs have become a cultural blind spot. Even just asking whether something needs doing has become a major faux pas. Anyhow, most times, we do not understand what others do for a living.

If there was a war, and half of the working age men were sent to fight… maybe fight some aliens in outer space… we would still have food, houses, cars, colleges… We would make do with far fewer people.

But, surely, the free market would take care of these inefficiencies and make people unemployed? It would, but we are getting so wealthy that the inefficiencies brought forth by transemployment are often insignificant.

I know, it does not feel like we are massively wealthy, but we are. These days, people will go down in the streets if you suggest that you might lower their retirement benefits. A century ago, people would have celebrated at the thought that they might have any retirement benefit whatsoever. It used to be that people would go on strike and see their families go hungry… today, the people who went to occupy Wall Street had mobile phones, the Internet, and abundance of food… They were not asking for bread, they were not hungry… they were upset because some were much wealthier than they were.

Some will accuse me of being dismissive of poverty. Yes, there is real poverty in the world. Nothing is perfect. Even in a Star Trek universe, there will be misery. But that only encourages us to sustain transemployment. Trying to put everyone who is not absolutely needed out of a job would be considered very harsh. It is much better to add new jobs.

And that is the future I imagine. In fact, this future is already here. Robots have replaced us. We just choose to ignore that fact.

I have always loved reading. But it is a love that has been constantly frustrated. As a young teenager, I would spend days in the library, but I quickly exhausted my interests. If you wanted to know about Einstein, you were lucky to find one biography. If you wanted to teach yourself calculus, you might find one boring reference, if that.

When I attended junior college (we call it cegep here), one of my teachers encouraged me to read Feynman’s lectures. (They are now freely available online.) Though they were available at the library, I could not borrow them for the summer. So I tried to purchase them. There was no Amazon, no world wide web at the time. I went to a local bookstore and I asked the owner to order them for me. I said I was willing to pay upfront for the books. She refused to order them. Too much trouble to take in special requests. I think that, many years later, I did buy them in Toronto in a large bookstore, but it was just to show that I could. It felt like an empty victory.

As someone who spends almost all of his free time reading, you would think that I would be at ease in a bookstore. And while I have spent a lot of time in bookstores, they never satisfied me, even when I acquired the means to buy whatever books I wanted.

Libraries are more interesting. I could have been a librarian. The problem with libraries is that they are finite. There is always only so much room. I read about 25 science-fiction novel a year and about as many non-fiction books… all of them chosen with care… and none of them likely to be stocked in any given library. Here is what I read lately: Echopraxia by Watts (follow-up to Blindsight), Make It Stick by Brown and Finite and Infinite Games by Carse. None of these books are likely to be at my local library. And if they are available, I am likely to have to wait days or weeks to get them. In contrast, I bought them online in seconds.

Back in 2010, I got rid of most of my paper books. Though I have, on occasion, bought paper books, I do not think I have set foot in a bookstore ever since. I have also cancelled by newspaper subscription in 2012.

It may sound like an empty gesture, especially in 2014, but I still have colleagues commenting on the fact that my office is almost empty. Last week, one of my PhD students came in my office for a chat carrying more paper books than I ever had in my current office.

To say that I am still ahead of the curve is an understatement. In Quebec, most local publishers have shied away from ebooks. Though you can get the latest novels as ebooks, they are priced like paper books, making their purchase unreasonable.

Similarly, academia is still very much grounded in paper books. In many departments, you cannot get tenure without a (paper!) book by your name. A genuine book that lies flat in the bookstore for at least 3 months before being returned to the publisher. The fact that nobody would willingly buy your book is irrelevant. Paper has magic.

Do not get me wrong: I love paper. If you have ever seen me in person, you probably know that I always carry a paper notebook. I have always carried paper with me ever since I was a teenager—except for a few years when I believed that PDAs (the ancestor of modern-day smart phones) could replace notebooks. I am sure paper will be obsolete in 10 or 20 years, but we are not there yet. My sons still use paper books. We bring them to the library every three weeks or so. At school, they only use paper books. At home, for their studies, I buy them paper books.

I am a nerd. I like the feel of books. But I embrace ebooks because I cannot stand the thought of being limited by whatever I can carry physically with me, or by whatever space there is on the shelves. I also do not want to be limited by what gatekeepers believe I should be reading.

When you start doing something new, you can usually tell that others are joining in. I know others are embracing ebooks because I see people reading them on the bus every week. But it is harder to tell whether others have stopped doing something… like going to bookstores. Thankfully, Stephen Downes’ recent account of his visit to a bookstore conforts me in my belief that the days of paper books are numbered:

It occurred to me that you would never come to the bookstore to learn anything. The stuff that’s there is mostly superficial and survey literature.


It should not be surprising that the computer book section has been absolutely devastated. Again, you would not go to this section to learn anything – at best, the books could be considered references. Today, if you’re studying computer science – programming, design, concepts – you’re studying online. This section reflects that, and there was nothing for me to even browse.

Downes sums up my frustration with bookstores. They are not, and might never have been, for the intellectually curious folks. They are all about the mass production of cookie-cutter content.

Without profitable bookstores, I do not think that government libraries will last very long. Once people have formed the habit of using ebooks, or whatever superior alternatives are coming down the line… they will stop coming to the libraries. Libraries will be killed by the likes of Amazon just like Netflix killed Blockbuster.

Like any major change, this will not be painless. Already, the disappearance of bookstores means that many lose otherwise fine jobs. I will be the first to admit that ebooks are not quite as good as paper books for learning. But this only means that there are great business opportunities ahead. Ebooks could be so much more than zipped HTML files.

There will always be a market for paper books, the same way there will always be a market for vinyl records. But that is all.

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