Our students often ask us for recommendations and feedback about their career path and related topics. I find such types of conversations among the most important part of our job as educators. I would not dare to give advice in this letter, after all, as Oscar Wilde said, “I am not young enough to know everything.” Others are certainly much more qualified than me to advise, for example see President Richard H. Brodhead’s recent convocation speech for the class of 2017 (http://today.duke.edu/2013/08/rhbconvocation13). I simply want to share some of my personal experience and thoughts and invite the interested reader to go for a coffee (or tea in my case) to continue these important and fun conversations. For me academia has been the best job possible, and I will try to convey why.
Let me start by a brief biography since my life experience has without a doubt shaped me into who I am today. I left my country, Uruguay, at the age of 17. Leaving everything behind at such early age is a challenge, one that we as educators must understand since a large population of our students left their homes at a similar age. I first arrived at a Kibbutz in Israel, where I spent 6 marvelous months. Coming from a very socialist background, and after living the majority of my life under a military dictatorship, being in a Kibbutz was not only an incredible way to adapt to a new country, but also a way to experience what I have been reading about and discussing with my youth friends. After that unique experience, I moved to Haifa, and applied to the Technion, Israel Institute of Technology. Like many, I didn’t know what to study; after all, asking 17-18 years old what they want to do when they grow up is in the majority of the cases, a pointless question (I am now 47 and still don’t know what I want to do when I grow up). I knew I loved math (still do), and I thought about applying to the math department. One of my roommates explained to me that it was a mistake, since to get into the math department I had to only get about 75% in the admission exam, and that I should apply to electrical engineering where I needed to get about a perfect score (a simple consequence of supply and demand). So I did, got admitted, and from then, my academic life has been a dream! I spent 4 years working very hard, harder than ever, and got my degree. I loved it so much that I decided to continue to graduate school (or maybe I was running away from the responsibility of a real job?). I was fortunate to be accepted by David Malah to his team, and that was probably my first experience on what a great mentor is and how much he/she can influence the life of a student. Half of what I am today in academia is thanks to David, and the other half to my PhD advisor, Allen Tannenbaum. While I learned a lot about science, engineering and research from them, I learned as much about life. We are still very good friends, and they are the role models for me for the way I want to be with my own students. A good teacher, mentor, and advisor can help you to love what you do.
I loved the Technion, still do; I consider it the best university in the world (sorry Duke, but being second to the Technion is nothing to be ashamed of). I left to MIT for a year, already having a faculty position waiting for me back at the Technion: a dream job. That year was 20 years ago. How I ended up for 3 years at HP Labs in Palo Alto instead of going back to Israel is a long story for another occasion, but this was an industrial experience I recommend to everybody in our field. After that the possibility of moving to the University of Minnesota appeared, and I took it, I don’t regret it at all. I spent 15 great years in Minnesota before coming to Duke in 2012. I had and still have a blast in my job.
I was interviewed a few years ago by the main newspaper in Uruguay on the occasion of receiving the PECASE from the White House (yes, you get to visit the White House, unescorted!), and I was asked why I moved from industry back to academia. I gave many motives, but one (I will give a few more down below) was that I find universities a place where we don’t get old: we keep innovating, meeting new fabulous people, and new and naïve students with great ideas and questions. Students… they can make us so proud!
Let’s continue this line of thought. Every year we teach new students, and hopefully we positively shape their future, like my teachers and mentors helped me to shape mine. Even when we engage in innovative ways of teaching, like MOOCS, we meet new students. While I got engaged with Coursera for many motives, one being the fact that in science and in all new experiments we have to be players and not spectators, without any doubt for me the best part of my Coursera experience were the forums, and to see how naturally students help each other and how we can communicate with people otherwise we would have never had the chance to interact. Knowledge, and in particular the thirst for knowledge, transcends languages, political views, religion, and everything in between.
Academia also permits us to keep innovating scientifically. While all my research in the past 20 years is connected, what I am doing today is very different from what I did 20 years ago, and that is the case for most of my preferred colleagues. I am lucky that I am involved in very challenging research that can be life transformative as well, like our activities in deep brain stimulation (neurosurgery), HIV, and early child behavioral analysis. What can be more fun and rewarding than engaging in challenging activities that have the potential, one step at a time, of helping others?
This brings me to another key reason why I consider this the best job in the world. It allowed me to meet incredible colleagues and human beings. My closer collaborators are also among my best friends, often we first become friends and then collaborators, but sometimes the other way around also happens. I have so much fun, and have learned so much from my collaborators, that is sometimes incredible we get paid to do this (though don’t believe our salaries are so high of course). I don’t want to name all my close friends and collaborators here, we can do that when we get together for that coffee I mentioned above, but let me name one that very sadly, just passed away a few weeks ago: Vicent Caselles. The great friendship and academic collaboration we had is an example of how much I enjoy this work.
I find academia the perfect place to have a great balance between professional and family life. I feel privileged that the flexible time allowed me to pick my kids every early afternoon from school, for over 12 years, while my wife worked. It also allowed me to be at virtually every school event they have, including 9 consecutive years of camping with their school class. My family is my life, and my job allowed me to exercise this. A good friend once told me “the only free people in the world are very rich people and professors, since I can’t be in the first group, I chose to be in the second.” While we work very hard in academia, I believe that much harder than any other job we could do, we work in our own time, and that is priceless.
Yes, there are other great jobs out there, some as exciting as academia, and the world is very different today than it was when I became a professor. Yes, I was very privileged to have outstanding collaborators and students, outstanding program managers for my grants, and incredible support from the administration, and this certainly contributed to my happy life in academia. I always look for other challenges to combine with my current academic activities, other places to contribute and to become excited with. But academia is in my heart, and I hope everybody can enjoy their job as much as I enjoy mine.