Thursday, January 16, 2014

Passing of the Professor

Sadly, "The Professor", Russell Johnson, has passed away

I enjoyed Gilligan's Island as a kid.  I can't help but think that his portrayal deeply affected people's perception of scientists, subconsciously or consciously, for better or worse, for a generation. 

Some related links.
Improbable research
TV Tropes (the Professor).

Feel free to add more in comments.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Andreessen Tweets

My brother pointed me to this article on a great exchange of tweets about the origins of Netscape. 

The two highlights, for me at least.  First, Andreessen expressed a philosophy that I believe in, but I don't think most university IP departments do:  in computer tech, the best strategy is for the university to let professors/students/other employees run with their entrpreneurial plans rather than attempt to maximize the university's short-term or nominal value extracted.  He tweeted about how the University of Illinois lost out on the browser/Netscape process, and tweets:

History of Stanford suggests best approach extreme laissez faire-optimize for long-term philanthropy vs short-term gain.
Many billions of dollars of gifts from grateful alumni far outweigh commercial licensing or patent arrangements in long run. 
I agree with the sentiment.  An issue is that this approach may not be best for some situations -- drug development at universities, perhaps (I don't know how that works, but I've heard it's "different" from an IP standpoint) -- although maybe even there a more hands-off approach from overzealous university lawyers would be best in the long run.  (Maybe I'm too optimistic -- after all, I suggested Harvard should be tuition-free and could still come out ahead.)

The other more amusing highlight is Andreessen notes that the Mosiac project applied for more NSF funding and was rejected, which pushed them to start a company.  Which, he suggests, was probably the right decision for the NSF.  Looking at the outcomes, there's a good argument.  Something for me to keep in mind the next time a rejection comes -- even Marc Andreessen had proposals rejected by the NSF, and he ended up doing OK. 

Monday, January 06, 2014

Boston Magazine Piece on Aaron Swartz

If you haven't seen it, there's a well-written piece on Bob Swartz, father of Aaron Swartz, in Boston Magazine, covering MITs reaction to Aaron Swartz's case.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

The PhD - Tenure - Jobs Argument, Already Started for 2014

'Tis the season when graduate applications are being decided as well as the job interview process starting again, and just in time for the new year, your regularly scheduled inflammatory article entitled, "Can't Get Tenure? Then Get a Real Job" up at Bloomberg.  The point of the article seems to be that the tenure model follows the age-old "tournament model" of employment, with a very few plum positions at the top, and lots of people scrambling for them -- and, along the way, essentially turning themselves into free labor for existing tenured professors, as well as (in most cases) unemployable dried out husks by their early 30's -- and that's bad.  The only solution suggested seems to be to cut Ph.D. production, and there are no incentives to make that happen.  (I can only encourage you to avoid reading the comments, where somehow this becomes a political issue, with "liberals" being to blame for... seemingly everything, I guess, but this in particular.)

I'm always happy to admit that computer science seems to be a special case;  industry takes many of our PhDs.  However, without trying to dissect the article -- which is field agnostic -- I think it's healthy for computer science to regularly look at itself, and determine whether it's doing the right things.  Here's my take on what those are, at the individual (faculty) level:

1)  Be honest with undergraduates.  If you're a professor talking to an undergrad thinking about grad school, you should point out that you're the success story, not the average story.  Point them to the Taulbee survey or other figures.  Have them work out the math on potential opportunity costs.  Whether you're positive or negative on them going to graduate school is up to you, of course, but either way you should be giving clear, factual information as well as advice.
2)  Be honest with your graduate students.  If they aren't performing, let them know they need to get better (or move on).  (It's painful, but better for them in the long run.)  Be sure the latest "time-to-academic-job" timeline is on their radar -- how many years of postdocs is becoming the norm?  Make sure they know what skills they need to work on besides research skills -- speaking, writing, organizing, managing.
3)  Controversial(?):  encourage breadth for your students.  It seems to me that since I was a student there's much more pressure to go deep -- to show in your PhD that you are the expert on your research area, even if that research area becomes narrow.  The message seem to be don't waste time on classes, projects, or learning that fall outside your clear research path.  I'm torn in advising the other direction, because I think the way the academic field is progressing, that can be a promising short-term approach if the goal is to get a tenure-track position.  But I don't think it's good for developing a long-term career, and I don't think it's the right approach for the significant number of students who end up doing something else.  [I'm aware I'm very biased on this issue.]  

At the field level, I think there are big questions, and I'm not sure how they get answered.

1)  Are we encouraging too much depth over breadth in our training?  (See 3 above.)  Is this what we want?
2)  Are we OK with what seems to be a lengthening pipeline, with postdocs becoming more common (in some areas, but not all, standard) on the academic career path?
3)  Do we have any sense of goals for how many graduate students go on to careers in industry, entrepreneurship, teaching (e.g., teaching university positions as opposed to research university positions), etc.?  If so, do we want to do more to help prepare students for these types of work, which may not mirror exactly what we as professors do?  How do we measure success for our graduate students, and how do we tell if we're doing a good job preparing students overall?

Plenty to think about for the new year.