I’m currently a tenured professor with research grants and graduate students. Yesterday, I decided to list attributes of my job that I liked, in no particular order:
- I have the best computer gear money can buy;
- I spend most of my time thinking and writing;
- I have no immediate financial worries;
- I have a flexible schedule, I can work from my home, and I spend a lot of time with my family.
Comparatively, I didn’t like my job as a graduate student or a post-doctoral fellow even though I had most of these benefits… because I had limited and temporary income. My job as an entrepreneur had most of these attributes, but it was inherently unstable (which lead to some financial worries). My job at a government laboratory had most of these attributes as well, except that funding could be capricious.
What comes out of this analysis is that I value highly my financial well-being. As a dad with two sons, that’s hardly surprising. Also, I really enjoy working from home. Some days, I even go as far as hating my campus office: it has poor Internet connectivity, bad coffee, and so on. I’m much more prone to be distracted when I work on campus. Also, I cannot walk my son to school in the morning if I have to be at the office at 9am. So my campus office is more like a meeting place than a working place: I go there to meet with collaborators and students, not think and write.
Meanwhile, there are attributes that didn’t come up:
- Prestige: Though prestige has its uses—mostly in getting people to listen to you—I do not value it highly. I value what I produce, but not my current status. As an aside, I own a small house, a small car and my clothes are rarely brand-new.
- Academic freedom: People in academia always stress how much they like their freedom. It is true that I really enjoy choosing the object of my work. However, have you noticed how much professors look alike? They tend to have the same ideas and work in similar ways as a flock. Indeed, conformity is enforced even among academic researchers through funding decisions, publication decisions, peer reviews and so on. Hence, while I seek freedom in my work, I am not under the illusion that I have absolute freedom right now. In fact, I have lots of responsibilities and, often, most of my day is spent reviewing papers, marking assignments, answering questions, filling out forms, preparing talks, and so on. None of this is particularly exciting.
- Power over others: As a professor, I could apply for large grants and then run a large research team. Or I could try to move to management. Yet, I have no interest in having power over others. I always urge graduate students and post-doctoral fellows to find their own way. I propose ideas, examples or projects, but I rarely seek to run the show. For example, instead of telling graduate students what to do, I keep asking them what they are doing. I found this question particularly powerful : “Is this really the best use of your time right now?”