What I like about my job

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?”

Published by

Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

10 thoughts on “What I like about my job”

  1. My favorite part of your post was your list of things that didn’t come up.

    Your remarks about prestige remind of this essay by Paul Graham.

    Similarly, if you admire two kinds of work equally, but one is more prestigious, you should probably choose the other. Your opinions about what’s admirable are always going to be slightly influenced by prestige, so if the two seem equal to you, you probably have more genuine admiration for the less prestigious one.

    Also, I wonder how much academic freedom academics have anyway. Their freedom is limited by what they can get grants to pay for and what their peers will approve in publication. They may be able to offend the general public, but they dare not offend their peers.

  2. @John Thanks for the Paul Graham quote. I entirely agree with him.

    I think freedom is a difficult concept. It is not all black and white. You are not either free or a slave. There are different types of freedom.

  3. Thanks for the insight.

    On the prestige, here at the UIB you have a mixed bag: professors that are so full of themselves but always give shitty classes and gorgeous professors that don’t mind having a beer after classes.

  4. Interesting that you hate going to your office. It’s quite the opposite with me. I hate working from home except when I have to (it’s good to have the freedom to choose of course). There are *so* many other things to get distracted with at home whereas at the office I can usually concentrate quite well. As for the coffee, I just bring mine in a thermos.

  5. Great post.
    I just feel the closing question is a bit unfair. Usually my answer would be no, like now when I am reading blogs, but this gives me the breadth of view, not just a converging line of ideas.
    I think it is crucial for research.

  6. As a new assistant professor, I like the same things as you. What I currently really dislike is how overbooked I am (or maybe just feel). Starting everything (teaching and research) is really, really hard. Maybe it’s an organization problem, and you get used to it, as my tenured colleagues seem to be quite relaxed…

    For now, working in my office is ok. I really like the flexibility, and already come to the office later than anyone else, which shifts my whole day, so I also enjoy a quiet environment after 5pm.

    I liked your insight on things that did not come up and I think I agree.

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