You, my colleagues, are world-renowned researchers, entrepreneurs, educators, and leaders. I’d feel presumptuous offering you my thoughts on how to pursue research, entrepreneurship, etc. I might as well share my thoughts on basketball with Coach K. Thus, I’m going to focus on an issue that I perhaps spend more time thinking about: why I love my job. And yes, I do love my job – and not just because I can sit outside with a cup of coffee discussing new research ideas with brilliant students and call it “work.”
As professors in a department like Duke ECE, we have an unusual ability to shape our jobs. We get to choose our research topics, our collaborators, our students, and the classes we teach. We control our research group structures, and we can adjust how much time we devote to each aspect of our jobs. We can even control how much time we devote to work and which hours we choose to work.
Given that there is more that I’d like to do than I have time for doing well, I have tried to shape my job such that my time and energy are spent on the activities that I find most rewarding.
If I had to single out the part of my job that is the most fulfilling, it is seeing my former students succeed. To paraphrase a co-advisor of mine, our most important products as professors are our students. We have papers we’re particularly proud of, but we end up being most proud of our students.
I have had the great joy of mentoring many wonderful PhD students and undergraduates. I enjoy this part of my job and thus try to maximize my time for it. (I have had a few students who were difficult and not terribly enjoyable to advise, but they were thankfully in the minority.) I have intentionally kept my group fairly small—4 or 5 PhD students and 1 or 2 undergraduate research assistants—so that I have enough time to devote to each of them. My meetings with my students are usually the highlights of my week, and I don’t believe I could manage more students and still have the same kind of relationships with them. I fully realize that there are faculty, including colleagues here in Duke ECE, who can have more students and easily find time for all of them; I’m just not one of them. Perhaps my group size will increase when my kids are older and want less of my time. My group size decision is a conscious trade-off: there are certain projects that just can’t be done with a group of this size.
I very much enjoy teaching students who are genuinely interested in the topic, and I’m happy to devote time for that. I still get a kick out of that moment when the students realize that computers aren’t magic. At Duke, I’m extraordinarily lucky to teach a lot of superb students and relatively few slackers. I have found it tremendously rewarding when former students contact me or visit me to tell me about how they have used what they learned in their jobs and in graduate school. I do worry about eventually getting bored teaching the same courses over and over, but I hope that alternating among four different courses helps to stave that problem off.
The only part of teaching I dislike—other than grading, which I absolutely hate and thus delegate to TAs—is handling the requests for extensions, special consideration, make-up work, etc. Early on I discovered I could solve this problem by having a single one-size-fits-all policy (summary: “No”), and I could live with being considered “inflexible” (or other less tactful words one finds in one’s teacher/course evaluations). Then I discovered that I could pitch this policy as fairness, since how could I possibly judge the relative merits of 50 different excuses in a way that’s fair to all? Students bought that explanation and it has saved me time that I can devote to other activities. The only drawback is receiving less fodder for my Fault Tolerant Computing course, because I’m no longer told about as many instances of computers failing (or being stolen or possessed by gremlins) the night before assignments are due.
Service: Committees and Undergraduate Advising
Service is a necessary part of the job, but I doubt there are many of us who joined the department because of a burning desire to serve on the graduate studies committee. But, given that service is necessary, the key has been finding service jobs where I care about the outcome and where I may have something unique to offer. I was (relatively) happy to serve on IT committees because I rely on the IT infrastructure here and I’m often among the first ones to break a new service. I was (relatively) happy to serve on a joint CS/CE committee because the relationship between CS and Computer Engineering (and ECE, as a whole) is important to me. I was (relatively) happy to serve on faculty search committees because I care about who my new colleagues will be. All of these service jobs were preferable to alternatives, some of which I wasn’t clever enough to escape.
Early on, I discovered that undergraduate advising was a bimodal experience. I enjoyed advising ECE/CS double majors, and it was rewarding to be able to offer them useful career guidance and connect them to colleagues in academia and industry. However, it was miserable to advise BME majors, because I had nothing to offer them. A typical student question was something like “So, Prof. Sorin, what do you think of BME 273?” I don’t think about BME 273. (I offered less grouchy, but no more insightful, responses to the students.) At one point it occurred to me that I could ask promising ECE/CS double majors in my classes to switch to be my advisees. The key is making sure I take on enough new ECE/CS advisees so that the DUS doesn’t think I need any other advisees. I tend to end up with perhaps a few more advisees than I’d otherwise have if I was passive, but the advising is far more rewarding this way. (Yes, I realize that this approach isn’t scalable, so don’t all start doing this!)
One of the many aspects of Duke that drew me here was seeing that faculty could be highly successful and have families and lives. I cherish the ability to leave Duke early and be with my kids from around 4:30 until their bedtime, knowing that I can get my work done later. I consciously categorize my work into “must do at Duke” and “could do from home.” I like that you, my colleagues, care about what a faculty member accomplishes without needing to compete to see who can spend the most hours visibly working at Duke.
Personal Freedom vs. Departmental Service
So everything is great, right? We can shape our jobs in a way that we can be successful and apply our limited time and energy towards the activities we find most rewarding. But what if we all shape our jobs to suit ourselves? One problem is that we’d be unlikely to have a DGS, given that few of us would prioritize being DGS in terms of how rewarding it is (compared to, say, research). OK, so we can “incentivize” jobs like this with perks, although I’ve not yet figured out what perks would be required to persuade me to take on that job. But what about serving on committees? What about teaching large, core undergraduate courses (instead of small graduate seminars)? The operation of an academic department like Duke ECE fails Game Theory 101; the incentives are set up in a way that almost completely discourages time spent on service. We are rewarded for our research contributions—and, to a somewhat lesser extent, our teaching—and thus time spent on service is clearly counter-productive.
So why does our department (usually) function well despite the presence of disincentives to service? It’s because of you, my conscientious colleagues. We tend to do “the right thing” even when it’s not in our interests. It certainly helps that departmental leadership publicly recognizes our service, but I doubt most of us serve on committees because we’ll get recognized for that service. It seems like we should need to readjust the incentive system to encourage service, but I have not reconciled this goal with the justifiable all-importance of research.
Many colleagues of mine at other universities have left academia to take jobs in industry. Although some of them left for the understandable reason of wanting a new challenge or for financial reasons, others have told me about how they couldn’t find enough time to do the parts of their jobs that they enjoyed the most. I try to keep that thought in mind when I find myself drifting (“hey, that looks like it could be fun”) instead of being strategic with my time. Perhaps that’s why I still love my job.