structions are intended for their learning. Sometimes, students and alumni
come back and tell us how much they
learned from our classes, projects, and
assignments. Not to get sentimental,
but in the last month I’ve gotten notes
from two alumni thanking me just for
spending time with them.
˲ The excitement of a rapidly changing field. It seems I never teach the
same course twice. What we teach in
academia is influenced by what you
are doing in industry, so we’re changing along with you, and the body of
foundational knowledge in CS is still
expanding. For example, between
studying computer architecture as an
undergrad in 1996 and teaching it for
the first time in 2011, pipelining and
superscalar architectures made it into
the textbooks. No big deal, right? CS
is also expanding into interdisciplinary applications. Liberal arts colleges
value learning across disciplines, and
our relatively flat organizational structures facilitate collaboration. Even if
the technology and content of a course
haven’t changed, the students have.
˲ Changing jobs. It seems like folks
in Silicon Valley change jobs every 2–3
years. I change jobs all the time. Every semester I am teaching different courses
on a different schedule. Every year I have
different administrative responsibilities.
Bored? Frustrated? Wait three months!
˲ Sabbaticals. Sabbaticals are a
unique opportunity in the tech industry, compared to most other industries.
(As fast as everyone changes jobs, no
one will notice a few months’ gap on
your résumé.) By contrast, sabbaticals
are de rigueur for faculty. The traditional
sabbatical is one year out of every seven,
but some colleges offer more than that.
The truth is, we need it—time to renew,
reflect, research, write, and rest. Undergraduates are young. We’re old. They
only stay for four years. We’d die if we
tried to keep up with them all the time.
˲ Summers. You don’t get summers
off? We do! Well, not exactly off; most
liberal arts college faculty have nine-
month contracts, so we are on our own
over the summer. Some use this time
to take on short-term contract work, or
write summer salary into their (gasp!)
grant proposals. Most write, research,
travel, supervise students, and/or pre-
pare for the coming academic year. It’s
important to rest during our summers,
too, even if we sometimes feel guilty
for not getting as much done as we
planned. Fortunately, our nine-month
salaries are spread out over all 12
months of the year, so we don’t starve.
˲ The hours. Like you, we sometimes
work long hours to meet release deadlines. That means not just meeting conference deadlines, but also getting big
assignments out, finalizing grades, or
making recommendations for hiring.
Much of our work falls into a routine,
and we don’t get brownie points for arriving early or staying late. No one is
watching (except our students, who have
been kno wn to remind the less self-disciplined of us to go home and eat dinner).
Much of our work is our own choice—
usually how we do it, and often what we
do. When I’ve had the longest hours, I’ve
been doing things I enjoy: meeting interesting people, teaching new classes, and
working with my students. Also, see the
˲ The perks. You know all those
perks that Google and Facebook offer?
They are trying to create a college-like
environment. Why not go for the original? Free lunch might not be offered
every day, but it’s often an incentive
for attending seminars and committee meetings. The dining hall is cheap.
Candidates and speakers need to be
taken out to dinner at fancy restaurants. Why is there so much alcohol at
faculty events? To get us to stop working on our own things and talk to each
other. Many colleges offer inexpensive
housing near campus for new faculty,
so you can roll out of bed and walk to
class just like your students do (though
maybe not in your pajamas). Trust me,
after a couple of years, you won’t want
to be quite so close to campus.
˲ The paycheck. I won’t lie: academic
paychecks are nowhere close to Silicon
Valley paychecks. Though computer
scientists tend to earn more than most
faculty, some of your new grads will
earn a higher salary than you do. There
are no annual bonuses or stock options
in academia. On the other hand, the
same salary goes a lot farther in Grinnell, IA, or Walla Walla, WA, than in
Silicon Valley, and in the eternal words
of Jessie J: “It’s not about the money.”
˲ Funding research. While most lib-
eral arts colleges will help you write
external grant proposals—and I have
many colleagues who have received ex-
ternal research grants—few liberal arts
colleges require faculty to seek external
grants. If your equipment needs are
modest, there is often internal funding
to support students. Internal propos-
als are reviewed not by other computer
scientists (or by the C suite), but by col-
leagues in the liberal arts. This means
as long as you can explain it convinc-
ingly and eventually get it published,
you can do pretty much whatever kind
of research you want. There’s no need
to reframe your real interests to fit a cor-
porate or national research program.
I haven’t written this just to hear
myself talking (though it sometimes
seems faculty are prone to that). CS is
facing a crisis in hiring. An increasing
number of new Ph.D.’s are bound for
industry, which means faculty positions are going unfilled. Whatever good
experiences you had as a CS undergrad,
students today are not necessarily getting the same experience. Fewer faculty
means bigger classes, less hands-on
mentoring, and a chillier climate for
women and minorities. We need you
to help us make undergraduate education everything it should be.
Thinking long term, if more Ph.D.’s
don’t return to the academy, there
won’t be enough graduates capable of
taking all those high tech jobs. Thinking even longer term, if there are not
enough CS graduates getting Ph.D.’s,
the whole pipeline could grind to a halt
( http://stanford.io/2fQl8EL). Liberal
arts colleges make a real contribution
to maintaining the Ph.D. pipeline: in
measuring yield of science students
who go on to earn Ph.D.’s (http://bit.
ly/2fKvUkL), baccalaureate colleges are
second only to “research universities
with very high research activity,” and
constitute the majority of the list of top
50 institutions. It is critical we get new
faculty who can fill open positions at
liberal arts colleges.
Please consider a return to academia, whether forever or just for a
year. I promise, there will still be jobs
in Silicon Valley when you go back.
Your undergrad professors
(We always believed in you!)
Janet Davis blogs on her experiences as Whitman
College’s founding computer scientist at http://blogs.
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