[Reblogged] Academic Careers (a.k.a. “Man looks up in the tree”)

From Prof. Hung Q. Ngo’s blog, University of Buffalo.

Hello everyone. Thanks very much for attending my talk. I’m honored to be invited and humbled to be sandwiched between these two hugely successful gentlemen. I actually had no idea what this talk is supposed to be about until roughly a week ago when Tường sent me an email with the following excerpt

Dear anh Hung, 
Blah blah blah ...
In the current agenda, the title of your part in the plenary session is "academic careers". 
This is really a broad topic under the "All the way home" session name.

That is why you will hear something vaguely in the realm of “academic careers,” about which I have no authority whatsoever.

Why in the world did I agree to go give a talk when I didn’t even know the title, and even after knowing the title I am less than qualified to give it? Here’s why:

  • Amount I was paid: $400
  • The round-trip Amtrak ticket from Buffalo to Troy: $128
  • A chance to network with the future of Vietnam’s science and technology: priceless
    (As you can see, I watched too much TV.)

Alright, as I have already spent some of those $272 (exclusively on Starbucks coffees, of course) it is now time to cook up something. I have never given a non-technical talk before in my life. All of my technical talks have the following outline:

  • Here’s an optimization problem with a wonderful real-world motivation
  • Here’s how I modified it to become a version I can solve (which is a world away from the motivation)
  • Here’s how I solved it.
  • Future works (which are even further away from the real-world motivation)

Remember, the trick to get by in graduate school is, if you can’t solve a problem, modify it! If your advisor has not taught you this trick then you should change advisor. So I will stick with what I am comfortable with and follow the outline. There are three points I want to get across

  1. Academic career as an optimization problem
  2. Because of (1), beware of the opportunity costs
  3. Don’t think about an academic career as an optimization problem

I have to deliver those 3 points and sound smart and wise at the same time, which means I will have to tell you some stories whose meanings are so vague that you can fit whatever your worldview is into them.

1. Academic career as an optimization problem

Every optimization problem has three basic parts: the solver (i.e. you), the objective (or utility function, if you wan to make it sound smart), and the constraints.

You The constraints The objective

Shame on you if you didn’t recognize the constraint above.

Ah, and here’s something for the feminists in the audience.

You The constraints The objective

I know. I didn’t recognize the guy in the middle either.

Of course, feel free to replace Salma Hayek by other less sensible constraints such as keeping yourself sane and healthy, broadening your intellectual reach, making some money to support your parents, or building the foundations for a long-lasting marriage of your own.

I know. I know. Some of you are thinking I’ve got things backward

You The constraints The objective

Or maybe, just maybe, Albert Einstein and Salma Hayek are things we see on the road to enlightenment. And, one of the paths to get there is called an academic career.

You The constraints The objective

2. Beware of the opportunity costs, or three stories about a man who looks up in the tree

I hope by now everyone agrees that an academic career can be formulated as an optimization problem, which is the problem of getting to the objective in the most efficient way subject to the constraints.

The major question is: “which objective”? Life is hard. When faced with multiple mutually exclusive choices, economists have taught us to watch out for something called the opportunity cost, which is the “cost of an alternative which must be forgone in order to pursue a certain action”.

To explain what the opportunity costs might be in the context of our topic, let me tell you three stories about “a man who looks up in the tree”.

“Man looks up in the tree” — First story

My friend, professor Thái Trà My of the University of Florida, told me this story. I don’t remember the exact details, so I am paraphrasing. However, the gist of it is true.

She was going home from work one day, when she saw an old colleague standing in front of her building, looking up in a tree. She asked him why. He said he was wondering if he had chosen to be a pizza delivery boy instead of a professor, would his life have been happier.

He is by all accounts an accomplished academic. He has published a ton of papers, wrote textbooks, served on a multitude of important scientific committees nationally and internationally. He is now near the end of his career. His children have grown up and no longer lived with him.

That day, perhaps not the first time, he was thinking about the meaning of it all.

Pause a moment and imagine wearing his shoes, you will see that how difficult it is to answer his question. I did pause, for quite a while, and still have no answer.

Now, in addition to the the pizza delivery boy and the “meaning of it all” question, you can also think about writing computer games or being a venture capitalist.

“Man looks up in the tree” — Second story

This story is even more true than the first. (“More true” is an oxymoron, but we’re not quite in the mood for logic yet.)

One beautiful afternoon, there was a man looking up in a big oak tree near central park in New York. Naturally, a passer-by saw the man and looked up to see what the other guy was looking at. In no time a big crowd gathered below the tree, everybody looked up and wondered. The first man finally stopped and started to walk away, somewhat amused by the surrounding. The crowd eagerly inquired him about what he was looking at. The man, wiping his nose with a tissue, said he had a nosebleed.

-oOo-For a typical academic career, publishing research papers is not only a duty, but also the very livelihood of the career. In fact, if you don’t publish sufficiently you get kicked out of academia; or in case you already got tenure, you can be looked up on as an appendix in the department. Oh, I forgot, nowadays in Computer Science, as a graduate student you must already have published a lot just to get an academic job.

Some real smart people can publish a ton of quality research.

Inevitably, however, the publication pressure also creates crowds similar to the one who looked up in the oak tree. One paper looked at an artificial problem, which leaves a lot of “open” “problems,” then a crowd of other papers jump in to address the newly created problems.

What’s worse? The authors of the first paper didn’t even have nosebleed.

Now I am not suggesting that you go punch them in the nose. What I am suggesting is for you to think about the opportunity cost of all the brain-power spent on this absolutely meaningless game; and to think about the opportunity cost of your brain-power should you decide to spend it on this absolutely meaningless game.

“Man looks up in the tree” — Third story

In the next few weeks, there will be a man who looks up in a tree.

The tree is a palm tree on a beach in Nha Trang. His mind will ponder philosophical questions and optimization problems, except for the “meaning of it all” question. He will probably also think about some of you who will suffer the harsh winter and the publication pressure.

That man would be me. I’m on sabbatical this semester, which means my university pays me to do anything I want. (Keep it between us, please!)

On the Amtrak train from Buffalo to Troy, I managed to read a book by the mathematical economist Steven Landsburg entitled “The Big Questions: Tackling the problems of philosophy with ideas from Mathematics, Economics, and Physics”. (He took some ideas from Computer Science too!) It is a wonderful book about extremely interesting and important questions such as ‘the nature of reality’ (spoiler: it’s math all the way down!), ‘the basis of knowledge’, ‘the foundation of ethics’, as well as ‘how Hercules chopped off the Hydra’s heads’. The way the questions were phrased and answers were framed could only have come from academic type of thinking, and my intellect was richer because of it.

I am not saying that academic people can only ask and answer philosophical questions distant from our daily lives. After all, Google grew out of academia. Or, as another example, we have also heard about the very important works that the VEF scholars have done in the first day of this conference. They are true academics. What I am trying to say is that, when freedom of inquiry is encouraged and rewarded properly, academia is an absolutely wonderful place to spend your lives. And thus it would have been unfair not to mention the reverse opportunity cost.

Being in academia, you gain three major things:

  • Time flexibility
  • Intellectual freedom
  • A chance to be very famous (in a very small group of people), and an extremely slim chance to forever transform the way humans think and/or live.

Of the three, “intellectual freedom” is the defining quality of academia.

3. How to not think about academic careers as an optimization problem

Had you thought a lot about pursuing an academic career using the framework I just outlined, you probably would have gone nuts. Think about it, you’d spend 12 years in grade schools, 10 more to get a B.S. and a Ph.D., work your ass off for another 6 years to get tenure. That’s a solid 28 years for some papers very few people read and one sabbatical semester, while at the same time missing out on Salma Hayek.

So, where did I go wrong with the formulation?

You The constraints The objective

The problem, as my wife has taught me well, is that I should not take myself too seriously. I am finally attempting to tell you what an academic career really ought to be and why I spend so much money at Starbucks.

You The constraints The objective

That’s a picture of my daughter when she was about 1 year old. She became the optimization problem, and I threw away all my optimization problems. Anyhow, that is not the main point I am trying to make.

Here is what my daughter taught me about academics. The “little monkey” (as her grand mother is fond of saying) is very curious, and she always gives me a sense of amazement and admiration whenever she screams: “daddy, look what I found!”. That’s when I realized what an academic ought to be. If you have ever read Richard Feynman, one of my very favorite academics, you would instantly recognize these qualities in his writings. In fact, one of his books is titled “the pleasure of finding things out”.

You don’t have to be in academia to be an academic. David Shaw was a former faculty member at Columbia’s computer science department. About 20 years ago he left academia and founded a very successful Hedge Fund named D. E. Shaw & Co.; In 2001, he also founded and served as the chief scientist at D. E. Shaw Research, studying computational biochemistry. Below is an excerpt from his CACM interview

PAT HANRAHAN: What led you to form D. E. Shaw Research?

DAVID SHAW: … During the early years of D. E. Shaw & Co., the financial firm, I’d been personally involved in research … But as the years went by and the company grew, I had to spend more time on general management, and I could feel myself getting stupider with each passing year. I didn’t like that, so I started solving little theoretical problems at night just for fun …

To me, David Shaw is more academic than many people in academia.

You have an academic career when you get paid to be an academic, who is like a little kid greatly enjoys spending a lifetime exploring knowledge, solving problems and sharing those with others, not because she wanted to show off, but because she possesses an innate kid-like desire to share what she found. There’s only one thing worse than a boasting academic, that’s an academic boasting about things he does not know (which is what I’m doing now). Intellectual honesty is the other hallmark feature of a true academic.

That is why one of the very best moments of a day, to me, is when I open a book in a coffee shop, which explains my Starbucks shopping spree.

That is why academics write papers and are eager to tell the results to anybody who would listen, even when there are very few listeners.

That is why an academic should also enjoy teaching, at the cost of being bugged constantly on a few grade percentage points. That is why I personally would consider a semester a success when just one student casually mentions that my class was useful to him or her.

If you are thinking about pursuing an academic career, it is probably wise to pay attention to the opportunity costs. Not only the cost of not pursuing an alternate career (such as computer game writer or venture capitalist), but also the cost of chasing superficial values within academia, where some people tend to be obsessed with things like the number of papers published or the journal impact factors while they forget about the essential value of the profession, that is of attaining knowledge and sharing knowledge in an intellectually honest way. It is very easy to get caught up in the game, especially when our rice bowls depend on it. That is very unfortunate.

This brings us to the final message I would like to convey.

This session is named “all the way home.” Most if not all of you are probably going to build a career in Vietnam. I know life is very complex, and who am I to say anything about what you can or should do. But, I’d like to plead the following: if you are going to be an academic, or — better yet — a power in the academic scene, please contribute in building an environment where intellectual freedom flourishes in spite of economic and political pressures, and where superficial values are crushed by intellectual honesty.

That, to me, is the ultimate goal of an academic career.

Thank you!


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