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Moving from Corporate IT to Science? 356

EdinBear asks: "I've been working as a SysAdmin in an increasingly corporate internet services company, which has been hit hard by the fallout from the .com bust. When I started some years ago, I felt I was helping small and interesting companies get benefit from the burgeoning Internet through useful and attractive web services. However, since the Internet became 'normal', the focus has been purely commercial - and instead of helping an enterprise get exposure in an interesting way, it's all about money and finance. I now feel I want to move into Science to use my skills in a productive, 'big picture' kind of way, rather than just helping a client get more rich through financial services. I'm interested to hear if other people have found themselves in a similar position; is the transfer to Science/Research/Academia difficult? Is the grass greener on the other side? The money is less, but is the job satisfaction more?"
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Moving from Corporate IT to Science?

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  • Yes, I did it (Score:2, Interesting)

    by mamster ( 595449 )
    I spent four years in IT, burned out after a couple of dot-com blowups, and went back to school to get a degree in biology. Of course, I did a little consulting along the way, setting up networks and fixing PCs. Next month I'm starting a full-time lab research job. I have no regrets.
  • It depends (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Noodlenose ( 537591 )
    It all depends on the degree you have wether you actually have a chance to get back into academia. They might not want you yet or only after getting a diferent degree.

    Might be tougher than you think.

    • Re:It depends (Score:2, Interesting)

      by jlkelley ( 35651 )

      Agreed -- your prior degree may make a lot of difference. Most academic science jobs are going to require a Ph.D in the relevant field, so you may have a lot of school ahead of you.

      However, I wouldn't let that discourage you. I am hoping to make a similar transition (from microprocessor design to physics), for similar reasons. Be aware that it's a long road, though. Even with an undergrad degree in physics I have already spent the last 9 months or so preparing for GREs, lining up recommendations, etc. to apply to grad school.

      The desire to make some contribution to science, however small, is what keeps me going.
      • Agreed -- your prior degree may make a lot of difference. Most academic science jobs are going to require a Ph.D in the relevant field, so you may have a lot of school ahead of you.

        It's not clear if the question is about actually working as an academic, or working as a sysadmin in a university. A compromise might be to work as a sysadmin in a biotech company. Experience of warehousing and mining financial data would be easily transferrable.
  • by Damion ( 13279 ) on Thursday August 15, 2002 @09:25PM (#4080249) Journal
    One major pitfal to be wary of if you aim to return to Academia is the politics. The life of a new professor is not an easy one, and the climb toward respect is a long one.
    • by Verizon Guy ( 585358 ) on Thursday August 15, 2002 @09:27PM (#4080258) Homepage
      No doubt, the battle in growing a professor's beard and maintaining it is an uphill one.
    • Theres politics in every field, the corperate world has just as many politics.

      Learn to either avoid opening yourself up to attack, or to attack other people who become threats.

    • The politics are so bitter because the stakes are so low. Seriously...

      Consider a protestant church's group of deacons, eders and commitees, it's pretty similar to students, associates and professors. There is usually nothing important to argue about, so people tend to inflate their status by taking a stupid stance and sticking to it.

      It's pretty annoying to have a thesis comittee argue about what the name of your new major should be. That doesn't stop them from doing it.

      That having been said, I'm jealous. I wish I could go back to college. Just the normal, I-hate-my-job return to the womb that most of us want. Good luck!
    • That's assuming he wants to be a prof. Admins are slightly sheltered... at least ours are. Yes, there are definitely politics at play... but within the university IT groups it is usually internal to them.

      As others have said, you have to bow to the faculty demands. You definitely have to be more flexible. But the benefits (if the pay isn't) are good (heck I get 24 vacation days a year... renewing every fiscal start... no accrument). You also get the opportunity for side incomes. I teach one class a semester which kicks in about another $6K a year. Others get their names passed around when outside industries call for consultants.

      It's not a bad gig, even if it isn't the greatest. It is stable and you can sleep at night; literally because "on call" is loosely defined and figuratively because helping academia is a zero-conscience crusher. Unless your Uni is helping design diseases and/or weapons and other "bad stuff" you are probably helping the greater good more often than the greater bad and that, as Martha Stewart would say, is "A Good Thing."

  • by paddyponchero ( 239792 ) on Thursday August 15, 2002 @09:28PM (#4080262)
    SO basically you've been pedaling bullshit for a few years and now you want to be an authority.
  • Pretty much the same (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday August 15, 2002 @09:31PM (#4080266)
    I have BS degrees in computer science and physics, and have played both sides of the fence.
    Slashdotters who find political situations in the work place difficult, will find much of the same in academia.

    They are actually quite similar. Those 'greedy' clients chasing dollar bills will for the most part just be replaced with 'fame greedy' co-authors who want to make a name for themselves. In science it's all about your reputation, and it's managed in the much the same way porfolios are in the business world.

    This isn't true of everyone of course, but in my opinion the grass is pretty brown on both sides of the fence.
  • by mojo-raisin ( 223411 ) on Thursday August 15, 2002 @09:32PM (#4080270)
    As a molecular biologist (with a BS) who's worked in several academic and industrial labs, I say steer very clear of doing wetlab work - it is boring and repetitive, and most of the day you are not really using your mind.

    Basically, I prep DNA, ligate DNA, do PCR reactions and transform bacteria. Run the gels, digest DNA, yadayadayada. It doesn't pay well, and is not galmorous. No scientist that I know really enjoys doing that crap. After decades of work, you might be lucky do direct your own group of minions to do this crap so you can analyze results and think of new experiments all day long (the fun parts).

    Go into a field that mixes computers and science. Like say bioinformatics or molecular modeling. I'm fairly ignorant on these subjects, but they seem much more interesting to do on a day to day basis. So that's where I'm trying to head.
    • by Mercaptan ( 257186 ) on Thursday August 15, 2002 @10:30PM (#4080506) Homepage
      See, I've got a microbiology degree and a good deal of computer science under my belt. I'm working a research technician job that's 50% wet lab work and 50% bioinformatics computation work. The job is great really because I get to do both and the people I'm working with are very enthusiastic and young, plus I think doing the wet benchwork is very key.

      You're right, the lab work can be very boring, but by the same token programming on big projects can be pretty mind numbing too. It's when you can live on the edge of both that it gets interesting, but that's a rare combination to find in one person.

      I've been around a lot of different people trying to get into bioinformatics. You have biologists who are trying to learn the programming and software skills. They have a hard time adapting to thinking in binary and not fearing computers in general. Then you have computer science and IT people trying to pick up some molecular biology. They have a hard time grasping the messy world of genetics and cell biology.

      It boils down to this. If you have the wet lab skills, you have cred with the molecular biologists. If you can program, you have cred with the computation people. It pays to have both.
      • Damn straight! I've been trying to explain this to people for a long time now. Any idiot can learn Perl or the basics of biology in a short time. The key is being able to think like an experimental scientist, and know how to develop hypotheses and experiments. And, at the same time, knowledge of theoretical computer science is essential beyond a certain point. I work with uniformly brilliant people, yet I can't help thinking that if they knew enough to optimize their programs or code reusable solutions more they'd be much more efficient. Half of what I do is simply dealing with crap data and setting up systems to make my work easier.

        Of course, since the field is hot shit right now, anyone who doesn't get a PhD as soon as possible will be fucked in a few years. That would be me, unfortunately.
      • Couldn't you have picked a better name? "Mercaptan" stinks!
    • (* Basically, I prep DNA, ligate DNA, do PCR reactions and transform bacteria. Run the gels, digest DNA, yadayadayada. It doesn't pay well, and is not galmorous. *)

      Why can't that be automated more by machines?
    • Go into a field that mixes computers and science. Like say bioinformatics or molecular modeling. I'm fairly ignorant on these subjects, but they seem much more interesting to do on a day to day basis. So that's where I'm trying to head.

      A year ago I left the programming and management world to go back to get my Master's. The university I'm attending just started offering an option in computational biology. Once I started the computational biology option, it's been tremendously exciting. I've been approached by biologists who want me to roll my thesis work into their efforts--data mining biology-related data, etc. I've also been told by the department that biotechnology companies are just throwing grant money towards bioinformatics like crazy. If I decide to get my Ph.D., I'm assured it will be paid for.

      And the best part of all? Check out BioPerl [] and []. Open Source is quite popular in this field. It's incredibly refreshing to be hacking away at problems that don't involve the same old corporate data warehouse.

    • Wow, no kidding. I just bailed from my status of PhD student in a bio lab. In all my 6 years of working as a tech or grad peon, I have watched water drip through a tube 14 - 18 hours a day while enjoying the brisk 4 degree weather in the coldroom (protein purification), made miles of little spots on nitrocellulose (DNA hybridization), and added slightly different amounts of colorless liquid to other colorless liquid in truckloads of 96 well plates (cytotoxicity assays). It fucking sucked. You get to use your brain for 15 minutes, write it down for 15 minutes, and carry it out for approximately 10,000 hours. After it fails or your results aren't quite like they should be, you get to skip the writing and thinking and go straight to the repetition. Heck, even if it works perfectly, you need confirmation that its reproducable don't you? Don't worry, it'll screw up next time.

      I just talked to a much older friend, a professor of biology, who cut though my euphamisms with a flat "bio benchwork is boring as hell". Where the heck were you guys when I talked myself into doing this? =)

      Well, I'm off to give chemistry or engineering a stab. At least my projects won't mutate slowly or die because someone sneezed in their culture dish before putting it in the incubator beside mine.
    • As a molecular biologist (with a BS)

      I think that's your problem right there. To do anything really interesting in academia you need a PhD. The guys with a BS are going to be working in labs running PCR reactions, while the guys with PhDs (after a bit of experience) are going to have their own lab where they'll be coming up with the experiments you're carrying out and writing papers about the results (and attending conferences and such).

      Now that might not sound interesting either (especially if you hate writing papers and attending conferences), but it's what's usually thought of as "academia" -- the non-PhD guys who just work in the labs are just "employees" or "staff" rather than "faculty", and as such end up with the more crappy jobs (usually).

      [Note: I have no idea what industrial labs are like; I'm only referring to academic labs here.]
      • Postdoc (Score:5, Insightful)

        by jaoswald ( 63789 ) on Friday August 16, 2002 @02:19AM (#4081197) Homepage
        Note: for most academic positions in the sciences, you will be expected to go through at least one postdoctoral appointment (i.e. like grad school, but more pressure to create your own results in a very short time, somewhat better pay) before you are considered for tenure-track positions in academia.

        Especially in the biological sciences, postdocs have become cheap labor, and multiple postdoc appointments are not rare. In physics (my field), multiple postdocs are a kiss of death: they mean you weren't good enough in your first postdoc to get some permanent or tenure track appointment, but in biology, what I hear is that there is a need for skilled laboratory ability (read: glorified technicians) and supervisors for large groups.

        Even after a postdoc appointment, you'll aim for a tenure-track position, meaning you will have to work even harder for five to seven years, creating a research group from scratch, having to generate funding, while teaching the classes the senior profs don't feel like teaching. Then, if you've demonstrated an ability to bring research funding into the department, you might get tenure. Or, if you are turned down for tenure at a major research university, you might get offered tenure at a lower-ranked or four-year institution.

        The tenure track is extremely stressful. Marriages are often destroyed in the process.

        If you really want to be an academic in the sciences, it requires a great deal of sacrifice. Sure, there are theoretically other rewards. But it isn't easy to really find scientific problems that are simultaneously tractable, truly useful, haven't been done already, and can get funding. In theory, you can research whatever you want. In practice, if you can't get someone (government) to fund you, you aren't going to get very far.

        Perhaps I'm biased because my Ph.D. thesis advisor went into the private sector (and is much happier there).

        I recommend you read the book "A Ph.D. is not Enough!" for some insight into what is really required for success in academia.
        • Re:Postdoc (Score:3, Interesting)

          by Claudius ( 32768 )
          Multiple postdocs weren't necessarily the kiss of death in physics when I went through the process not that many years back; I did two postdocs and had the luxury of turning down a couple of faculty positions before taking a staff position at a national lab. Either things have changed somewhat, or else much must depend on the field and the circumstances.

          Alas, you never never never (never!) want to get passed over for tenure. If ever there were a genuine kiss of academic death, this would be it--no self-respecting university would opt to wear Princeton's or Stanford's hand-me-downs when they could just advertise in Physics Today and get 50+ highly qualified applicants who don't carry this baggage.

          Personally, I just don't see what the allure is of academic life over, say, being a staff scientist at a national lab. I'd much rather just do research full-time and advise the occasional grad student and postdoc than put up with 300+ student intro courses, faculty committees from hell, petty university politics, and the pressure of bringing in enough research cash to satisfy a tenure committee. Your research ends up being very narrowly focussed while you try to carve a niche for yourself; this is the antithesis of creative scientific enterprise, IMO, and a great way of burning out during your most creative and productive years. All this while wearing the obligatory "I'm an assistant professor--kick me in the teeth" smile around the more senior faculty who control your fate.

          I second the recommendation of "A Ph.D. is Not Enough!." It is an outstanding read and valuable information for those masochists who wish to try the academic route.
  • by chill ( 34294 ) on Thursday August 15, 2002 @09:33PM (#4080281) Journal
    Politics in academia can be a nightmare. Also, if you think you are escaping the bean counter mentality, it depends on where you end up.

    Was it Slashdot that linked a story a couple of days ago on some Canadian University inking a deal with Microsoft and in return all CS/EE majors would need a class in C# to graduate?

    And the link between corporate money and University research is something else you need to be wary of. Heaven forbid your project funding is cut because it won't be "marketable".

    Still, it can certainly be more rewarding at times.
    • by elmegil ( 12001 ) on Thursday August 15, 2002 @10:02PM (#4080403) Homepage Journal
      Still, it can certainly be more rewarding at times.

      And at other times it can be maddening. I went the other way, sort of. I was a University sysadmin, and I now work doing support for Sun. I have to say I like the corporate world MUCH better. I never had any money for training in adademia. I had to teach myself, buy my own books, got to go to one conference in 7 years, etc. I was appreciated, but only extremely rarely in any meaningful way. Had to do everything with nothing, in other words. And while these days things are so fat in the corporate world as they used to be, they're still way better in terms of the resources I have to draw on than they ever were on even the best days at the university.

  • Alternative (Score:4, Insightful)

    by weregeek ( 578174 ) <.logan. .at.> on Thursday August 15, 2002 @09:34PM (#4080285)
    You might also find a more comfortable fit doing building/maintaining infrastructure for a university or college. Gives you a chance to experiment, and worry about something other than financial services for a change. You get a chance to work with the students in most cases, and there is always something interesting going on. I thought about moving toward science, and instead ended up very happy doing the things I love working for a University. It's a wonderful change from the corporate grind.
  • It all depends... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by HisMother ( 413313 ) on Thursday August 15, 2002 @09:34PM (#4080286)
    You don't say what your current qualifications are, or whether you're willing to go back to school, and if so, for how long. "Going into Science" could mean anything from being a sysadmin for a biotech company, to getting a Ph.D in Chemistry and becoming a Professor who does research in computational chemistry.

    It's hard to become a professor. There are typically hundreds of applicants for every opening. Unless you're really hot stuff, it's not much of a career plan -- only a few notches above "win the lottery," actually. And it takes years to get the degree.

    OTOH, There are plenty of places to sysadmin besides ISPs. You might find that supporting intelligent, educated researchers was more gratifying than supported clueless dialup lusers.

    • You might find that supporting intelligent, educated researchers was more gratifying than supported clueless dialup lusers.
      I have found that when it comes to computers, supporting most intelligent, educated science researchers is barely one half-step up from clueless dialup lusers. More often than not, they are no more tech-saavy (hey, someone has to go home after a hard day in the lab and be the clueless dialup luser at night) and maybe even more pushy than your regular dipstick behind the keyboard (they like to think they're a step ahead of a WebTV user). In the end, that means you have users under you who are experimenting with things they shouldn't, crashing things and not telling anyone or restarting the system, and if it's a shared computer in the lab that you're being asked to work on...god help you. If you do go out to find a sysadmin job in academia, be sure to survey the damage before you say yes and determine whether the user base is as good with computers as they hope they are in their prospective degrees. Trust me.
    • I agree, we really need more information here. In addition to the questions in the parent post, one big question is whether you're interested in teaching. I teach physics at a community college, and it's the hardest job I've ever tried to do. IMHO, the world has enough university professors who only care about research, so if teaching doesn't interest you, do the world a favor and look for a science job that's not at a university.

      It's hard to become a professor. There are typically hundreds of applicants for every opening. Unless you're really hot stuff, it's not much of a career plan -- only a few notches above "win the lottery," actually.
      Well, yes and no. First of all, EdinBear refers to "Science/Research/Academia," and it's not clear what operator the / is: AND or OR. But assuming we are talking about a university job, yeah, they're generally extremely hard to get, but it depends on several things: (1) Is there a lot of funding for the kind of research you're doing? (2) Are you extremely talented? (3) Are you willing to put all other parts of your life on hold, and basically live in the lab? (4) Are you good at selling yourself, networking, schmoozing, etc.?

      Number 3 is what I think a lot of people don't realize -- they think research is some kind of easy gig, with lots of faculty teas and naps in the back of the seminar room. It's not that way. It's brutal. Basically, if you have kids, you'd better have a spouse who will stay home with them, and you'd better not expect to be able to go to their ball games and ballet recitals. Your spouse had also better be willing to move across the country at the drop of a hat. You also need to expect to spend 5-8 years getting a PhD, 2-6 years in one or more postdocs, 5-10 years in non-tenure-track positions, and then hope you can land a tenure-track job. In between each of these stages, you're turning your life upside down and moving to wherever the job is. At each stage, especially the later ones, there's a significant risk of not making it to the next stage.

  • by electroniceric ( 468976 ) on Thursday August 15, 2002 @09:36PM (#4080294)
    It has its ups and its downs.
    On the one hand, most research scientists are not money-motivated people at their core - they are interested in ideas and in the development of knowledge. If you relate to those goals, which it sounds like you do, you will relate well to the academic community. The scientific operations I've worked in are also less hierarchical than most business, and you get a strong team spirit from those you work with - you're working together on the same quest, rather than battling each other for approval.

    Academic organizations, despite being filled with free-thinking people, are incredibly staid - both in terms of being set in their ways, and in terms of not making the wrong kinds of waves. It makes straightforward negotiating about things rather difficult. This is a nuisance when it comes to doing things like introducing new software or migrating a server. A professor in my dept (I'm a grad student) still writes C and PostScript to make plots, and nobody can or will convince him otherwise. Furthermore, many scientists fancy themselves quite the computer expert by virtue of having written a model in FORTRAN or some such.
    Overall it's not a bad place to work, but the pace of things is very different from the corporate world.
    • Scientific programming is a different branch of the business. Often it focusses on simply automating a task. That's why you'll find a lot of programmers use Matlab. Fortran (in the later versions, 90, 95) does everything Matlab does, only faster and cheaper, so long as you don't want fancy graphics.

      It is a good tool for the job at hand. Scientists who do large codes (pretty much anything CFD oriented) use c, like the rest of the world.

      Simply being able to program doesn't mean you could do a better job (read more accurate, or quicker code writing), than someone with experience in the field. Especially, as is often the case, if the code to be written is about 90% scientific algorithm and 10% IO.
  • Well, if you go to one of the Enormous State Universities, it's likely to be a Research Empire. Meaning, you spend all your time writing proposals and grubbing for corporate money. You have an array of graduate students to do all the interesting/real work for you.

    That's what I saw when I was getting my Ph.D. from a prestigious technical university (it's name begins with Georiga Tech).

  • by cDarwin ( 161053 ) on Thursday August 15, 2002 @09:42PM (#4080329) Homepage
    I made this transition about eighteen months ago; and, though your milage may vary, I found that it really did not satisfy my desire to 'be part of the solution'.

    What I encountered were a lot of very egocentric political schemers who were far more interested in self promotion than in the advancement of science, or in what we might call 'saving the planet'.

    None of the people to whom I was answerable had any knowledge of how to manage IT people and projects (I am not over-generalizing, really). Their demands were unrealistic. My hours were as insane as ever (with no over time). The pressure and deadlines were just as gruelling.

    Also, as you mention, the pay sucks in the academy (although, the benefits can be very decent).

    Now, I'm back in the private sector doing more interesting work with more interesting people for more money.

    Hope this helps, and good luck!

  • I have had a rather busy life as a programmer, sysadmin, and general hacker. I started off at a univerisity, worked at a major chip manufacturer, A Dot Com, and finally a science Museum. I have been at the science museum for 4 years, which is longer than any other company so far.

    You will find many of the same pressures, personalities, and conflicts in the non-profit sector. Do not kid yourself for a moment that job satisfaction is instantly had by working for the right cause.

    That said, why am I working for a non-profit? Well actually all of the tech companies I have ever worked for were running at a loss, so perhaps I should say 501c3 organization..

    But I digress. I work at the Museum for one simple reason: I am a shark in the guppy tank. The Alpha geek. When something needs to be done, they ask me how to do it.

    In 4 years I have redesigned the network, switched the datacenter to Linux, and introduced new concepts like Workorders, and Inventory Control. I can't think of a place in the world that would let me change so much in so little time.

    Alright who am I kidding. I really took the job sysadmining at the Science Museum because they have 2 T1 lines, 3 class C subnets worth of IP addresses, a toplevel domain I can spell over the phone, and a window overlooking my apartment from whence I use 802.11 wireless to suck down bandwidth like a dwarf on a firehose!!!

  • Volunteer work (Score:3, Interesting)

    by papasui ( 567265 ) on Thursday August 15, 2002 @09:46PM (#4080350) Homepage
    If you have a craving to feel like your actually making a difference yet still need a secure finacial future why not volunteer somewhere? I'm sure that their are lots of small charities, schools, etc. that very noble causes and could benefit from free or possibly very cheap professional services. If you just did this occasionally it may lead you some excellent contacts while fulfilling both your social and finacial goals.
  • by Artifex ( 18308 ) on Thursday August 15, 2002 @09:54PM (#4080371) Journal
    I used to be a reading tutor for disadvantaged elementary school kids, before graduating from university. I worked for an ISP for a few years because the pay/stock was good, but I always wished that I had gotten certified and taught kids instead.

    Now that I've been laid off, I feel like I've been given a second chance, especially since the market is forcing me to look at alternatives anyway. But I wonder: is it really possible to suddenly live on 1/2 my former annual real salary? (I actually used to joke that I could pay someone else to do the job I wanted to do) Has anyone here really done this, without being married or having to get a roommate to help pay the rent? There's also the small complication of wanting to have my own house and kids someday.

    Am I nuts? If not, what are the best programs out there for certifying? How flexible are the entry requirements? (I have a BS degree but never had a great GPA) Am I simply too old (at 30) to really think of a long career teaching second graders?
    • I knew a guy who left his job at a bank here in Memphis to teach business classes and economics at the high school level. He was 30.. so I'd say, no, you are not too old. If you want to do it, go for it.
    • Living on a reduced income takes a little getting used to. My wife recently quit her day job to start her own business, interestingly enough, to teaching Seniors how to use the Internet. For a few months we scraped by.

      We had a few grand in the bank as a cushion, that helped. I stopped eating out. That REALLY helped. You also discover talking walks, instead of going to the movies. You find making coffee at home for $.02 a cup tastes every bit as good as $3.00 coffe at Starbucks. (I recommend splurging on a French Press.) If you find work within walking distance, you find you spend a lot less on gas and transit.

      You also discover that your "decrepid" machine that needed upgrading simply needed a reinstall. You find that a flaky battery is a fun "quirk" about your mobile, and not a reason to replace it.

      And at some point, you realize that you never really needed that much money. Unless of course, like me, you rang up a huge debt with school loans. At which point, keep plugging for the man. Only 8 more years of loan checks to go...

    • Living cheaply is easy. It's sad that more people don't realize this... I suspect it's because they didn't grow up that way, and have a distorted sense of value. It takes some time to readjust your internal sense of the value of a dollar -- once you've done that, voila!, you are living on less.

      But it does help a lot to have a SO in the same situation. Not just money-wise, but in terms of moral support. People with more money can be terribly insensitive about it sometimes. You just can't afford to go out drinking very often -- drinks at a bar are fucking expensive! -- and it can be weird if that's how you normally socialize with your friends. OTOH, you can get vodka in a plastic bottle and all hang out at someone's apartment, and it's pretty damn cheap. I suppose the more entertaining you are, the more likely your friends will follow you through your economic tribulations :) Otherwise you can just invite people over to your place for dinner, and stuff like that.

      It's also a lot easier to live on less when you choose to do it. It's not a failure, it's a choice, and you should feel proud about it really -- giving up the luxuries of priviledge is one of the more noble things the priviledged can do. Being stuck in poverty is something quite different, and unfortunately there is little nobility to it (Mother Theresa be damned).

      I haven't done certification, but I was seriously thinking about it at one time, and my mother's a teacher. From what I've seen and heard, most certification programs are pretty academically light -- almost painfully so. Better schools don't seem to have all that much better programs. It's kind of sad. I'd look for a quick and cheap program, and just plow through it as fast as I could. There's programs that have you teach in inner city areas while you get certification -- most of the ones I've seen are a bad deal. You get put in the worse, hardest classrooms with no training, you're payed less than certified teachers, and then you take classes on top of it, and you've entered into a commitment of several years to save a couple bucks on school (and you pay that money if you don't stick with it).

      You don't need a certificate to do substitute teaching in most places, though. This is an easy way to try it out -- you miss a lot of the fun parts, but you learn if you have it in you to lead a class (which is a distinct skill from teaching). I understand it's not uncommon to get offered a job if a principal likes you -- and without certification. Then once you have a job there's lots of incentives and subsidies to get the certification. A masters in teaching is also really easy to get, and in public school will lead to an automatic increase in pay. (This is in a city environment, it might be harder in a suburb -- it's probably incredibly easy in a rural area)

      You don't need certification to teach at a private school. Private schools are often much more satisfying an experience, but they pay quite poorly. Maybe about a third less than public school. Despite this, it's not necessarily any easier to get a job there. Grades and previous experience will mean more (not necessarily just teaching experience) -- in a public school, teaching experience seems the biggest part, but I don't know as much about the insides of them. A masters degree (that comes with certification) should get you a job fairly easily. You don't need a related bachelors degree to get a masters in teaching.

      So I'd suggest doing substitute teaching to see how it really feels to you -- it will be intimidating and difficult and tedious, but that part gets better. But not all of it -- teaching is hard. If it works out and you want to feel prepared, maybe get a masters, perhaps with a part time (related) job. 30 certainly isn't too late, but you should be sure about what you are getting into, because it's too late to start into it for five years and then learn it's wrong for you. And a lot of people realize after a while that they only wanted to want to be a teacher.

      • I was thinking a little bit more about myself, since I've thought about similar things, and thought I'd reinforce -- 30 is not too old at all. I realized myself that I didn't want it enough, that I wasn't confident enough to lead a class, and I didn't want to feel afraid about each day I went into class.

        I'm still not ready, but I feel I'm getting closer. I feel more confident in my own identity, and in the skills and wisdom I'd want to pass on as a teacher. At 30 you'll probably be a much better teacher than you would have been out of college. And that could mean the difference between sticking with it and just dabbling in it. My mother got a certificate in college, but didn't get a job teaching until her early 30s. She's still teaching 20 years later, and I'm sure she'll teach until she retires. That sort of thing is not uncommon (including 2nd grade teachers -- sometimes upity high school teachers give them no respect, but don't you listen to them ;)

  • Conrasts (Score:4, Interesting)

    by aleph+ ( 99924 ) on Thursday August 15, 2002 @09:55PM (#4080378)
    I had a tech job in a CS research group a few years back and traded it in for the consulting/small web company life. After a couple of years of that I've now realized that (1) companies don't want to spend money on their web sites anymore and (2) building good websites commercially doesn't particularly make the world a better place. So I too am considering a switch back towards the academic world. The purpose would be to work on software development projects that are sufficiently speculative that they are unlikely to be commercially funded.

    There are some difficulties going back to academia though. First off, qualifications ... there aren't too many jobs in academia that are both interesting and don't require at least a masters degree, if not a PhD. And getting one of those in the U.S. means about 5 years of rather minimal income. Another problem is that much University research is mired in politics, especially the politics of funding. The amount of time spent actually doing research work is significantly reduced by time spent aquiring money to fund the work and engaging in department and university politics.

    Most academic jobs also come with teaching responsibilities. Now if you want to be a teacher, that's all well and good, but if you want to be a researcher spending half your time in teaching related activities may not be very rewarding. And there are plenty of researchers who are lousy teachers for that reason.

    When I was in CS I noticed that a lot of good code was left to get moldy. The problem is that academic achievement is measured by published papers not usable code. A typical scenario is that the code gets written as part of a reseach project or PhD. The code demonstrates some new and interesting features, but isn't robust enough to be used in every day applications. Or if it is robust, then it isn't ported to the relevant platforms. Or it isn't packaged for distribution. Either way once the papers are published there's no further funding or recognition for developing the codebase, and any ideas that it encapsulated are typically lost. It seemed to me that it is the rule that academic software languishes and only the rare exception that a novel idea goes on to become an open source success or gets incorporated in a commercial product.

    So all in all, it seems like a mixed bag. Perhaps I'll just keep my day job in the world of commerce, and write interesting software on the weekends.
  • by tcc ( 140386 ) on Thursday August 15, 2002 @09:57PM (#4080383) Homepage Journal
    Science and technology. Right now we are at a R&D stage, with careful planning and intelligent budget decisions we got ourselves a nice working environment, of course universities sometimes have way more budgets than the private sector, but if we play our cards right, it might be not only interresting but also paying.

    There aren't a million of startup companies that can offer this, but in your case, what I'd suggest is to get yourself into a position where you can take decisions. You don't have to be a big name manager or a VP in the IT sector to be in control of budgets or buying decisions for hardware or planning... that's the beauty of it, there are so many people in IT, yet so few that are actually knowledgable and not only BSing, that if you are actually good, you can find a niche position that will make your job enjoyable, make a difference, supporting R&D effort and at the same time if the sector of R&D you are supporting is not too far off your knowledge, you can actually learn and even get a promotion involving you more directly in the project. In my case my knowledge was broad enough that I couldn't even fit my job description on one page, so I don't get bored doing the same thing, I manage my time, as long as I can deliver, I don't have anyone in my back pushing me or stressing me. The downside is that I wanted to start my own projects but I often spend more than 10 hours a day for my work (but then again, that's common in the IT sector so I wouldn't call that a downside, exept that in R&D often you don't get paid for those extra hours since you get an "annual contract". Still, when you have a job that you don't see as a job, spending 10-12 hours there isn't even an issue :).

    R&D people, scientists often need people to delegate the basic stuff that slows them down, while it's not as rewarding as being the scientist himself doing the main work, it's a very gratifying experience and besides, personnaly, making a total dumbass rich (especially if he's like most .com managers, Full of shit and overspending money for their personnal benefit instead of thinking about the good of the employees and the survival of the company), working hard to make people like that rich while you won't get the dust of a fraction of that money, pff..I'd rather make less and not having this on my conscience afterwards. Depends on the companies and the people I guess. Money is important, but money doesn't buy happyness in the workplace.

  • by TekkonKinkreet ( 237518 ) on Thursday August 15, 2002 @09:59PM (#4080386) Homepage
    I think you're going to get a lot of people giving you the Kissinger line: "Academic politics are so vicious precisely because so little is at stake". I have a different take.

    Last week I had lunch with a friend in the academic fold, to which I'm poised to return myself, and she complained with some rancour about the abundance of talentless hacks that cop credit and brown-nose their way to the top.

    After four years with a VC startup (now being lowered into the earth) it all sounded quaint to me. I'd rather have talentless hacks stealing my work for a few years than watch the PHB lie his ass off to the board quarter after quarter without even a concept of shame, while the entire ill-conceived edifice crumbles around us all.

    That is to say, go for it. Your reasons are exactly the ones I'd give, extrapolated a bit: I'd rather contribute in some infinitesimal way to the progress of science, however political or tedious the realities of research (who said "most of science is about as glamorous as ditch-digging", was it Asimov?), than help one more heinous moron pay off his SUV.

    As for the money, I bet I'm not the only one here prepared for noble poverty, if such a thing still exists under the sun. Go, don't look back!

    • > I think you're going to get a lot of people giving you the Kissinger line: "Academic politics are so vicious precisely because so little is at stake"

      I think Kissinger might have actually been right about, say, being an English professor and having to defend your Marxist interpretation of some obscure Middle English poem against a rival's Feminist interpretation, but in the natural sciences it seems to be possible to actually do some constructive work.

      That's not to say there aren't disputes, office politics, turf battles, administrators on their own agendas, etc., but at least Kissinger's accusation of intrinsic pettiness in the subject matter seems to be off base.

      EdinBear may want to visit a library and browse the journals of his chosen field to see what kind of stuff is being published. That should give some idea of how politicized/trivialized/etc the basic subject matter of the field is. The office politics is probably an invariant, whether in academia, industry, politics, or any other field where people are brought together into an organization.

      • I think Kissinger might have actually been right about, say, being an English professor and having to defend your Marxist interpretation of some obscure Middle English poem against a rival's Feminist interpretation, but in the natural sciences it seems to be possible to actually do some constructive work.

        Natural sciences overcompensated inferiority complex, classic example of. In actual fact, academic politics is much much worse in the natural sciences departments (though real-world political differences are usually less). The reason for this is that you are completely wrong; two interpretations of a poem are usually complementary, but natural sciences require expensive equipment, putting the academics in direct competition with one another for funding.

  • I'm not sure I really understand what you want to do. Let me explain.

    Presently, you're a SysAdmin in a Web services company. And you want to change job, to get something less "commercial" and more "big picture", like Science/Research/Academia.

    Are you aiming a SysAdmin job in that kind of environment (by opposition to where you are presently), or are you looking forward to do some science/research in a Academia environment? IE, is your target a teacher's or reasearcher's job, or a SysAdmin's job?

    You're not asking about actual day to day job differences, just salary and job satisfaction, so I'm inclined to think that you want to remain a SysAdmin, but a confirmation from you could help us better answer your questions.
  • by t0qer ( 230538 ) on Thursday August 15, 2002 @10:01PM (#4080401) Homepage Journal
    Just yesterday on oprah they had a story about a whistleblower at a pharmacutical company.

    Basically what was happening was Doctors were recieving kickbacks from the pharmacutical company for prescribing their pills. These kicksbacks ranged from vcr's and tv's all the way up to exotic trips to lavish resorts.

    It didn't just stop at bribary either. The phamacutical company went as far as to show doctors how to overcharge medicare and keep the difference..

    Unless you're digging ditches or pushing a lawn mower, most corporations are devoid of morals. Bottom line is to make investors happy, screw the employees and customers.

    My best advice, do whatever the hell makes you happy and keeps your interest. Yeah times are hard now on all of us computer geeks. My friends that worked construction during the .com boom love to remind me of how i'm out of work now. I love to remind them that I have to charge them now VS fixing their computers for free. It's funny to watch their faces turn white when I tell them $50@hour
  • I worked for a ground water research institute at a university for 3 years after getting my MS. I was involved in ground water modeling, some system administration work, some project management, and various other things. I left that job about 4.5 years ago for a job at a large corporation and do not regret it at all. I work fewer hours and enjoy my new job a lot more than the one I had at the University.

    Academia, in many ways, it not a lot different than the corporate world.... if you work at a state univeristy you are always having to deal with funding issues and your raises and promotions are always at the whim of the legislature or the board of regents... when things get tight, higher education is almost always (unfortunately) one the things that gets cut. I doubt if things at private universities are much better. If you want to do research, you've got to get funding. Writing research proposals to get money from corporate sponsors and government agencies or private foundations can be extremely frustrating. I've seen it take years for people to get proposals funded and then years to get their results published in journals. The academic world is just as cut-throat as the corporate world.

    That said...The work you do can be rewarding but in my experience it's no more or less rewarding than the work I do now. For me, a rewarding job/career is one that allows me to continue to learn new things and improve my skills. Though I had that opportunity at my univeristy job, I've found I've grown a lot more within my current environment.

    Many people have very rewarding careers in academia, but you'll find that many of the people you will have to deal with will be just as unpleasant as the ones you deal with in the corporate world. You just have to find something that makes you happy and helps you to achieve your personal goals. For me, that's been a career in the corporate world- not academia.

    (please forgive the typos... i am tired ;)
  • IT may be greener (Score:5, Informative)

    by Java Ape ( 528857 ) <mike.briggs@3[ ]net ['60.' in gap]> on Thursday August 15, 2002 @10:21PM (#4080471) Homepage

    I used to work as an aquatic biologist. Since I only have an M.S. it's possible that my experience is substancially different than those with PhD's. But I've been much happier as a geek.

    Funding for primary research has pretty well dried up, and directed research systems tend to be very intense, short-sighted, and goal oriented -- not a good environment for good science. The primary research positions are underfunded, and staffed by the "old dogs" with twenty years of publications under their belt -- you won't get a shot there easily.

    The scarcity of funding has led to other undersirable characterists: disposable labor and fraudulent research. Basically, many programs are hiring staff as they need 'em, working them like dogs, then letting them go when they quit working 70 hour weeks. There have also been many disturbing rumors of falsified research, and of course almost nobody is wasting time reproducing other's work.

    In addition, unlike the science of the last few decades, information is no longer freely distributed among researchers -- the push is to make money by patenting every little discovery. In short, the ivory tower has crumbled, and what's left is a dirty little sweatshop pursuing the almighty dollar with the same intensity as the most callous prostitute. I've been in IT for a number of years now, but work extensively with large numbers of scientists and engineers. They envy me, and I daresay rightly so, which is unfortunate -- science was my first love.

  • Here's a solution! (Score:3, Informative)

    by irishkev ( 457679 ) on Thursday August 15, 2002 @10:40PM (#4080544) Homepage
    Are you sick of doing the bidding of idiot PHBs, slaving away for nothing? I'm convinced that the answer is not, "More school." You'll just wind up in a different hamster cage or a non-corporate PHB structure, i.e. a university. The answer: Let's all move to Oregon and build a Yurt village! If you think I'm kidding, think again:

    * Yurts are incredible! I've actually visited Pacific Yurts in Oregon. Too many benefits to list. Check out

    * We can build our own wireless freaknet with cheap 802.11 gear, and bring the Internet (WAN) connection down from the skies. Hell, we may be able to get a cable modem connection.

    * Organic gardening.

    * Totally off grid: Solar, wind, hydro.

    * Chicken tractors. Again, if you think I'm kidding, type "chicken tractor" into google.

    * No mortgage!

    * No PHBs for miles and miles!

    * Once your show is set up, what will the costs be? Once you cut out the mortgage/rent and other allegedly essential BS, it's not that expensive to live.

    Getting off the hamster wheel is NOT easy. We need bold action. This isn't thinking outside the box, it's saying, "I'm not playing this game anymore."

    Now, clearly, this isn't for everyone, but I suspect that there are a bunch of potential off-grid yurt freaks lingering in the slashdot crowd. Hey, let's fire it up. Let me know!

  • I've been trying. I've got more than 30 years computing, IT, financial math, business, tax strategies, income recognition, statistics, data analysis, data management, all that stuff that deals with dollars by the billions analytically, etc. I made good money doing that, but guys who put the truth ahead of the company kind of top out their income potential early and wind up face-to-face with too many people who make me real nervous, face-to-face. I worked as a consultant for a while, but now the companies all want a company man whom they own or a big-name firm that will wallpaper over their flaws. Not for me any more. I'd like to do science, ie do some kind of useful work in medical or health care or education, or whatever. I'm willing to work for what someone with a degree and minimal experience might take, but I can't get anything. No medical system experience -- no jobs in healtcare field. No computer graphics and animation -- no educational software work. No advanced degree -- no research positions. Award winning software developer can't get a job teaching software development at the community college without the right pieces of paper. I guess everyone thinks I'll go back to honey-fugling when the economy turns again. I'd rather be a decent human being doing something I can be proud of with integrity, but that's looking to be an unattainable option for me anymore.
  • I did it (Score:4, Interesting)

    by trandles ( 135223 ) on Thursday August 15, 2002 @10:42PM (#4080551) Journal
    I was a coder in industry for 4 years before going back to the university department I graduated from...physics. I went back as a linux/unix systems administrator and the department webmaster and have loved every minute of it.

    The past 2.5 years have been bliss as I've been able to develop really great working relationships with several research groups and have even participated in their research from a computing perspective. My boss let's me develop my own projects. A university's organization is a lot more flat, with greater flexibility in picking/choosing/developing the work you'll do. Industry just doesn't have the luxury of time that a university does. You can take months really doing a project right without having some PHB breathing down your neck wondering why your deadline is slipping. Besides, an academic setting is totally tailored to the development of new ideas and research...

  • back again (Score:2, Informative)

    by pyrrho ( 167252 )
    I'm a software engineer working in science again after 10 years working for commercial network companies. I did work a long time at single companies, the companies did succeed in various degrees (well, the last folded early when the board realized there was no more IPO market). Still, although I am proud of the code I wrote in the private sector and it's still in use and widely deployed, many of the incidental things I did in science still had more romantic appeal. In science I watched Voyager approach neptune by daily grabbing Voyager images from JPL via DecNET, I was listed as coauthor on scientific papers, etc. But I think the main thing I like is the "big picture" aspect. There is a long term set of goals toward which progress will be made. The problems are unique.

    Pay wise I'm making half of what I made previously (I've been here about a year), but more than when I was unemployed (little joke/joke there). It's not a happy happy world, there are some politics and aggravations because it's still just life. BUT: the goal is cooler, the value of long term thinking is stronger, and the resources are fantastic. Internet2 anyone?

    Go to science if you can!
  • Political views (Score:3, Interesting)

    by mc6809e ( 214243 ) on Thursday August 15, 2002 @11:15PM (#4080660)
    People have brought-up the issue of personal politics, but your general political views are also important. I work at a university with my wife who is a member of the faculty.

    People don't get hired if they don't have the right political views. I'm not kidding.

    Now, if you are politically very left, thats okay. You shouldn't have a problem. But if you are not, don't let your true feelings come out. Don't lie, but don't give them anything that they'll use against you.

    A popular technique I've seen is the casual lunch. "Oh, lets have lunch while you're here for the interview." Say something verboten like "I think vouchers are a good idea" (real-example) and you are out of there.

    Like I said, if you can agree with their political positions, or can shut-up about your own, then okay.

    Just warning you.

  • The market isn't doing THAT bad
  • I think that computer science is more of a tool for the other sciences. Granted, a few years ago one could simply get a CS degree and land a job real quick with only that. But it seems more and more you need to know something in addition to the degree that you earned. I think the faculty at my university had something like this in mind when they laid out the curriculum. Why else did they make me take chemistry and physics and biology?

    It's like math. Getting a degree in math might help you to solve some problems, but you need knowledge of the problems you are trying to solve. If you learn only math, it won't be much use to anyone else (except as a math teacher). I think as time goes on we will find computer science is more of a tool to help solve problems rather than a solution in itself.

    I have a degree in computer science. Right now I am working for a biochemistry research facility at WAZZU. Not knowing anything about biochemistry hinders my potential somewhat. Likewise, my supervisor not knowing anything about computer science hinders things as well.

    Having said that I would like to point out that my experience working in non-profit is far more enjoyable than the corporate world. If you enjoy learning, as I do, I would recommend finding something in research. That's probably what your degree is for anyway.

    A big plus is that I get to take classes for free. In two weeks I will be taking my first biochemistry class.

  • I to am a SysAdmin. My mind has been wandering though. I have often considered moving towards science. The pay is not my major concern more the need to be creative once again. Has anyone crossed from Computer Geek to Computer Artist and found it more fulfilling? I would like to enter a computer animation, photoshop, something-more-creative-field? Anyone have any insight into this?
    • Art is a Science. And hard work. I moved from Arts into the Software developement field. I'm trying to mix both.
      Don't fool yourself. Being a good artist and coming to the stuff that's fun to do and rewardable requires skill and long pratice. A day can go by with you being totally worked out without a thing achieved. Yet there's a very big upside in the computer related art field, which I actually (plan to) ride on:
      If you know how computers work or even can programm and have the artists skill to make good stuff that has awing potential you can go anywhere, achieve things the best artist couldn't achive and have a good chance of finding a 'license to print money'.
      My advice: Take drawing lessons and achieve a master skill level. Once you've learned the 'thinking around the corner' way of creative art with one skill (you have to go all the way in order to do so!) you can switch to any other by only learning the craft which then leaves you to choose whatever you wanna do: 3D, 2D vector, 2D pixel, Layout(web), Movie CGI/FX or - the big future - video gaming. It'll take a few years and you'll run into some walls, but it shure is cool. Good luck.
  • by fpepin ( 61704 ) <fpepin&aei,ca> on Friday August 16, 2002 @12:07AM (#4080817)
    I've been working in various university labs in the last couple years (as an undergrad and now starting my Master's), and competent sysadmins are prized people there. Especially when you don't have any sysadmin at all (let alone a competent one). I've seen this especially in biology-related lab.

    Successful profs will have pretty large amounts of money under their disposal, and a part of that goes on computers. But profs don't necessarily know anything about computers, and networks there have a tendency to grow by evolving rather than being organized.

    Unfortunately, lots of them don't realize the value of a good sysadmin. They're afraid of spending the money there and don't realize how much of a difference it can make.

    Of course, if you have an interest in biology and are not bad at programming/algorithms, a job with a bio-informatics component can be a blast (I'm biassed there, that's what I'm going into).

    Even an ability to analyze the packages that exist out there and helping them decide what is relevant/useful for them. Then you can look at the algorithms used and see the pros/cons in each.

    Of course, the pay is probably not that high there, and other people have posted a bit more about the work environment and such, but if you want to make a difference, that's one pretty good place.

    And if you want to try science and stay in the corporate world, there are a bunch of scientific companies out there too, like pharmaceutical companies, that have big IT staffs there.
  • by forkboy ( 8644 ) on Friday August 16, 2002 @12:16AM (#4080852) Homepage
    Yep, after the third employer in a row either laid off of huge amounts of staff or went tits-up, I decided to go back to school for chemistry. (I was a network engineer previously)

    I only had a year of college credits under my belt before, so I still have a ways to go before I finish my degree. I'm living off of loans and an 8.50/hr work study job in the chem lab. It's a far cry from the 70k salary I'm used to, but I don't live every day wondering if I'll have a job the next day and I don't have to carry a fucking pager/cell phone anymore. And I'm loving what I'm doing.

    By the time I finish school now, I'll be able to get a job doing anything from pharmaceutical research to law enforcement. (minoring in Criminal Justice)

    So, basically, if you can stand being poor again for a while, enjoy being free for a couple years while you get a degree in one of the sciences, and then enjoy your intellectual pursuits. It beats being on-call.

  • You got laid off too, huh?

  • Forget both, do culinary arts!

    In all seriousiness, I've been thinking about the same thing.. I've been into System Administration and Toolsmithing (programming but not a whole lot of science involved).. I've wanted to get more into programming and the computer science part of it. But I hear the same issues, people work on projects for months, even years, only to have them trashed because of budget cuts. Only a handful actually finish something they can be proud of.. Thats another reason why open source programming is more fullfilling then being a corporate drone, no one can tell you that you can't work on it anymore.

    However, after becoming a fan of Alton Brown, and yes this was way before Slashdot started talking about him, I've seen him take great pride and joy in something simple like pickling a carrot, or making a macaroni and cheese casserole. And more and more after watching him, I get interested in taking up culinary arts..

    Then again, to each his own.

  • by oingoboingo ( 179159 ) on Friday August 16, 2002 @01:15AM (#4081047)
    You will find that in either a commercial or academic scientific setting, that it will be very hard to attain any level of real responsibility or scientific leadership without a PhD. In IT, if you can demonstrate the right skills in the field, I think it's less important to necessarily have a degree to back it up with. But in science, without a PhD, you're generally just the guy that the PhDs come to and tell what to do. Routine experimental science can wear you down after a while if you only have minimal intellectual input into it.

    I've been somewhat lucky, as while I don't have PhD, I've got experience in both experimental biology and IT, so I'm not as restricted by the same prejudices that are often applied against biologists without PhDs. Really good bioinformatics staff are still hard to come by, especially in proteomics, where mass spectrometers, 2D-gel image analysis etc etc really haven't penetrated the general scientific community as deeply as things like DNA sequencing have yet. That might change soon with the influx of fresh bioinformatics undergrads, but nothing beats experience.
  • Weigh your options (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Teknix ( 4806 )

    I can only echo many of the comments made by others who have been in this position from either side (private sector first, then univ., or vice versa). The general consensus is as you'd expect, there are pros and cons, and it will depend on your specific situation.

    I left college to go work for a small startup ISP in 1996. Three years later, after learning more than anyone ever could from years of classes, I left a thriving mid-sized ISP that I helped build, only to end up at a multi-billion dollar corporation whose idea of an ISP was to buy out four mid-sized ISPs and piece them together into a coherent, synergistic, profitable arm of the parent company. Of course, they tasked this overwhelming 500,000 user job to the sysadmins who weren't wise enough at the time to jump ship. Did I mention that they were a multi-billion dollar company? Did I mention that they paid worse than your typical privately funded University? "We'll give you stock options!" they said. Pfft.

    Six months into the biggest thing since the titanic, I finally got fed up with the corporate america top-down decision making process, and started working at a well known, well respected University.. making over $20k more. Working as a career sysadmin in academia has many advantages (build beowulf clusters, work on self-motivated projects), but it takes a lot of effort to gain and keep respect from faculty and other scientists, especially those that know just enough about computing to be really dangerous. You will inevitably have to deal with the politics (you do no matter where you are), but if you learn the process, you can have it work to your advantage in many cases.

    A little over two years later, and I'm working at another University doing more fun and interesting [] things. My job moves are primarily dictated by my wife's career, which is solidly rooted in computational biology and bioinformatics). I can say that I would prefer never to go back to the private sector (unless the culture changes), and I would be quite comfortable working in a University environment for many years to come. And the fact that I have time to do consulting on the side at my leisure makes up for any lack of salary associated with the University environment (I take job satisfaction over inflated salary any day).

    My work is my life is my play. But that's just me.
  • Work Differences (Score:2, Informative)

    by Spazmania ( 174582 )
    I've had some experience in four major areas:

    I've worked in a University environment
    I've worked as a federal employee
    I've worked as a self-employed entrepreneur
    I've worked as in the private sector

    The pay sucks in academia. No one will pay you less for your skills than a school. The politics are vicious. There isn't enough money to go around, and if you don't constantly fight for it you won't get new light bulbs for your broom closet of an office, let alone a new computer. The day starts at 9 and ends at 5. You can stay after 5 if you want (its unrewarded), but God help you if you're not there again at 8:55. And rules... Rules are a part of the politics. What you can do, what you can't. Mess up and you can expect the proverbial knife in your back. And P.S. they own your ass. Anything you invent or create or imagine is theirs. The one thing which recommends academia, the only thing, is that if you hook on to the right researchers then a couple of times a year you'll have the opportunity to do work which is truly profound.

    Government is dead opposite. The pay is not great, but its livable. Your job is absolutely secure. You will get raises on a schedule. Outside of the top echelons, the office politics are largely muted. You'll get a new computer on schedule, and it'll be a reasonbly good one. The rules are endless, but that's just a surface veneer given lip service, used to stymie anyone who's overbearing. The work gets done behind the scenes based on your ever more extensive network on contacts. On the down side, good luck finding meaningful work. Ever. And you can pretty much forget about merit-based promotion. Its so slow, you can hardly tell the difference between it and the seniority based promotion. However, work ends at 5 after which you can do anything you please. Such as write open source for posterity.

    As an entrepreneur, you can pick the work you're going to do, and you can pick whatever meaningful work you want. You make the rules and pick just about every aspect of your job. Here's the bad news: The hours are long. In fact, they don't end. You're on call 24/7, and no matter how much you do, there is always something more. And here's worse news: Someone with cash has to find your work valuable enough to pay you for it. Its a little like being a starving artist; everybody appreciates your work, but they're not willing to pay money for it until after you're dead.

    Private sector is a mixed bag. Some places have good pay, some bad. Some places have rigid rules, some loose. Some places are rigidly seniority based, others promote only on merit. Some places provide an office with a view, others a tiny cube. The universal rules, you've already discovered: If your work doesn't directly impact the bottom line, you're nobody. And news flash: Work of worldly significance tends to help your competitor as much as it does you. If your company is already on top, it helps your competitor more. So guess how much worldly work they want you to do?
  • Don't generalize (Score:2, Insightful)

    by fozwinkel ( 265919 )
    There are good and bad jobs in both sectors. Pound the pavement and see what you can find. You want a job in a small research group led by a relatively young professor who is still passionate, but has been around enough to have some funding going. Ask about the funding - is it part of a large program, or is it a one-shot grant. Does the group have proposals out? Are they publishing? That's what keeps the $$$ coming. Money issues aside, the group should be doing things that interest you. There are many researchers who did their computing time as students who are happy to give the job to a full time assistant. Grad students are always leaving, so someone needs to keep the memory of where the data and programs are. That's your niche. Good luck!
  • I went from writing home productivity software to writing embedded control software and analysis tools for a company bringing to market a new design of mass spectrometer.

    There's all the usual teething pains of any startup, but it's the most use I've gotten from my degree in Physics *ever*. And it's a lot of fun watching people when you tell them not to touch the circuitry because the high voltage could make the joints in their arms explode. :-)

  • Some references (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Davorama ( 11731 ) on Friday August 16, 2002 @03:14AM (#4081307) Journal
    I had a master's in engineering and was ABD with good career prospects when I finally realized that I was only moving towards being successful at becoming a miserable cog in the system

    I came to the conclusion that for all but the true geniuses and egomaniacle sub-geniouses (the majority) happiness and job satisfaction were rare in the scientific community. Of course this is a gross generalization and I've gotten over it for the most part sence then but there is an element of truth to it.

    Here's two references to give you a clue as to how I got so cynical about this.

    Ziolkowski, T. (1990). The Ph.D. Squid. The American Scholar, 59(2), 177-195.

    Imposters in the Temple, by Anderson, Martin

  • by Anonymous Coward
    The life of a university academic is nothing like it's cracked up to be. Sure, the popular perception of academia is one of eccentric scientists pottering around doing amazing, cerebrally-oriented activities, altruistic and all that.

    But the reality of university academic life is nothing like that, unless you're either exceptionally lucky or brilliant, (and I mean the sort of brilliant that universities will bend over backwards just to have you join their ranks, that is, seriously world-class level).

    No, the reality for most academics is one of



    slim budgets,

    disaffected students who don't really give a stuff about what you're trying to lecture to them; they just want to graduate with a degree so they can get the sort of job you hate; you'll be training the students to do something you don't agree with,

    universities, who, just like most profit-driven organisations, don't give two hoots about "the big picture" and just want to make bucks by pushing as many students through the production line as they can,

    loads of unpaid overtime, marking essays, exams, etc

    and somewhere between all this, trying to find time to do your own research.

    So it's really just like any other job, not cushy at all like many people think.

    Ask yourself this: do you really care about "the big picture", or are you just trying to escape a workstyle you don't like? If it's the second reason, then you won't find much sanctuary in academic life. Sorry if this is not what you wanted to hear, but it's pretty much the truth.

  • Lovin' Astronomy (Score:3, Insightful)

    by gnarly ( 133072 ) on Friday August 16, 2002 @03:19AM (#4081315) Homepage
    I made $20,000 per year or less for the first 32 years of my life. Last year, I got my PhD & now feel rich making over 40k/year as an astronomy postdoc, and yes I love my job. Most real working people are blown away when I tell them what I do for a living. They don't think its possible. Then they a sad look like "gee I wish I enjoyed my job that much." Luckilly I don't have any expensive habits like cars & TV.

    The Academic environment provides a lot more freedom...just look at what D. Toresky has been able to do...(any Verizon employees want to try that on company time?). But yes there are ruts... if you aren't really excited about the kind of science you are doing, might as well to back to the corporate world.

    WHO you work with is just as important as what you are doing. In most fields of science (especially the not-even-remotely-profitable ones like mine) you are expected to work hard, but if the results do not turn out as expected, or hoped, well that's part of the discovery process. This contrasts with the business world, where if expectations are not met, it is mandadory to find someone to blame.

    PhD was required for my job, as with many, but there are some "loopholes" out there: for example part IT/admin and part research jobs which can evolve more in the research direction. These aren't easy to find, but you skip the 5 years+ of grad school...
  • I have 6 years experience as a postgraduate researcher in UK Universities and, since then 7 years in commercial environments and I really would never go back.

    By and large, people tend to optimise their behaviour to be appropriate to the environment that they are working in - in the commercial world this means making someone money (shareholders hoefully and maybe even yourself). In academia I got the impression that the underlying goals were pretty similar, people wanted their careers to advance, get promotion (and away from evil short term contracts that are very popular here in the UK) and this is almost purely done through publications. If you are an actual academic (rather than support staff) then maximising pulication output is usually the only goal. I observed that as publications were linked to people (the authors) there was was no 'team effort' - it really was everyone out for themselves. In this respect, the academic environment has actually made the various commerical environments I have worked in look relatively tame when it came to politics (and I have been on the board of a company that eventually IPO'ed [to no great effect]).

    In reality, as various other posters have alluded to, it comes down to the academic environment being good at some things: it really is an easier life (modulo politics), working environments can be fun and you can get more space to do your own stuff. Pay is not a strong point, but is often not that bad if you stick around long enough.

    I wouldn't go back myself, but I'm glad that I was there for a while and if you go into it with your eyes open and with some goals of your own then you can have some fun. Plan to get out and back to the RealWorld though (handy tip: if you want to drive academics insane with rage through references to the RealWorld into your conversation - its cruel to tease the poor things but amusing and as a taxpayer I feel I have to get value for money somehow).

  • by mshiltonj ( 220311 ) <(mshiltonj) (at) (> on Friday August 16, 2002 @05:31AM (#4081501) Homepage Journal
    The best academia is to be the guy that mops the floors in the math department at night. That way, in your spare time while the floor dries, you can solve the unsolvable equation left for the students on the chalk board. Maybe you will get to meet Robin Williams.
  • My Experience (Score:2, Informative)

    by CompVisGuy ( 587118 )
    I had a similar experience: I used to work as a programmer at a small company, but found the actual job I was doing quite different to what I signed up for (due to financial pressures I was shipped offsite and used as a tester, doing monkey work, or I spent a lot of time writing training courses). The level of pay and training I was getting were less than I was promised. I was going nowhere.

    I've been studying for a PhD for two years now. Although I get a hell of a lot less money (about 1/3 of my old salary), I'm a lot happier. The academic environment is very supportive and enabling, I'm always learning, I have complete freedom to work as and when I want/need. The people I work with are enlightened, intelligent and socially-aware people, versus the moneygrabbing, selfish and stupid people one often encounters in industry. Assuming I'm lucky enough to be able to make a career in academia, there's no way I'd go back to industry.

    That said, although I'm researching a topic that has direct impact on a significant public health issue, I don't feel like I am achieving something amazing. Science is about a whole bunch of people doing quality research in a methodical way, and then every once in a while a 'genius'-type coming along and drawing lots of research together and marking a milestone in the field. The important thing in science is to contribute, and not to worry too much if you are not that genius.

    If you need to see the fruits of your labour, then maybe science isn't for you.

    But working in an academic environment is far nicer than working in an industrial one (in my experience).
  • Yes, I misspelled Academia. But I meant to. You'll end up working with a bunch of PhD's who "know it all" and don't know the first thing about process.

    I ended up at a research group in Austin, TX bored out of my skull, stuck in an iterative programming process with a bunch of people who "knew they were right".

  • Science != Academia (Score:4, Informative)

    by StarkII ( 29864 ) on Friday August 16, 2002 @09:00AM (#4081957)
    There seems to be the assumption that working is pure sciences is equivalent to working for an academic institution. That is simply not the case. I have worked for two different companies for the last seven years that both specialize in research and pure science. My current employer specialized in artificial intelligence research. There are no politics involved in my job, just science. If you are interested in science, don't just look to academia, there are some truly interesting scientific organization out there that do not suffer from the same problems that academia does. (politics, pay, respect, etc.) p.s. My company has been in the black every year since I started.
  • by shoppa ( 464619 ) on Friday August 16, 2002 @09:28AM (#4082062)
    I now feel I want to move into Science to use my skills in a productive, 'big picture' kind of way, rather than just helping a client get more rich through financial services.

    Wanting to improve the "big picture" for many people, rather than just earn bucks for your employer, is an admirable goal. But you might be dissatisfied with a job in science/academia because very often the objectives are arcane and specialized and do not have any obvious "big picture" payoff.

    Think about what you could do to help a government agency, charity, church, organization achieve their goals via IT. There's a lot of unexploited opportunities for computers and the web in these realms. Many of these organizations are technologically backwards, which means two things:

    1. There are many opportunities to do obvious things. You may end up viewed as a technological savior just for coming in with relatively basic skills and knowing how to apply them.
    2. But there will be some (or much) organizational inertia against taking advantage of these opportunities. This can lead to frustration.
    Good luck!
  • by stopbit ( 444789 ) on Friday August 16, 2002 @09:32AM (#4082084)
    After earning a PhD in psychology in 1998 [perception & psychophysics research] I started working for the military in a post-doc position.....well, good old Bubba Clinton decided we didn't need military research anymore and closed tha base I was working on........since I did all my research on M$ and *NIX machines, I was able to land a quick job in the IT field without having a degree in it! {ahhh the good old days). I figured that I could do it for a couple of months until I could get back into academia. is is 4 years later and I am just getting back into academia! The past 4 years were HOT! Huge contracts with HUGE rates and frills meant easy student loan payoffs, houses, cars, etc. Then the other shoe dropped.......everyone was getting cut, contracts dried up, pay scales slid like so much California property into the ocean.......I was actually out of work for 3 months! LUCKILY....I grabbed and stashed all the dough I could when I was making it and managed never to buy any stock or take any options ["These days if you own anything but land, you own a popcorn fart!" Rodney Dangerfield, Caddyshack] I sold some stuff off and started looking. Here is what I found:

    Infrastructure support seems to have gone the way of the dodo.....there is no need to double staff when you have competent programmers who can also provide support [if they want a job, they will!]. Contracting agencies are more like pimps then anything these days and we lowly contractors are their techno whores....they know we are stuck and they take advantage of us to the hilt.....

    Once this realization hit...I started looking HARD at academia.....obviously the degree helped, but I was lucky enough to land a position at a VERY small libral arts college teaching stats software [SPSS] to undergraduate psychology students and support the psych dept M$ and MAC boxes........the position isn't faculty nor is it tenure-tract and the pay is A LOT lower then the contracting gigs but, it is PERMANENT and the benefits are HUGE. I work 9-4 [I am the work-a-holic of the department] and enjoy every July off.

    I don't think we will ever see another BOOM in IT again: the golden age is over, a 12 year old can become a MCSE now and he market is flooded with "certified" people willing to work for 1/2 of what you I am staying here for the rest of my life.

    If you can get into it.....I highly reccomend it. Try to stay out of administration, too many politics and too much with students, it is very rewarding and a lot more fun.

"An organization dries up if you don't challenge it with growth." -- Mark Shepherd, former President and CEO of Texas Instruments