academia (n.): The academic world or community; scholastic life.
academic (n.): 1) An ancient philosopher of the Academy.
2) A member of a college or university.
3) A member of a society for promoting art or science
At every academic conference I attend, I hear a constant refrain: “How does it feel to have left academia?” The tone changes dependent on who is doing the asking. Sometimes, it’s pure curiosity or puzzlement, fascination at my choice. At other times, there’s a hint of condescension, as though the question is actually: “Couldn’t make it in academia, eh? Stuck in industry, eh?” I try not to bristle at this but I do find myself getting defensive and trying to explain my position at Microsoft Research over and over again. So I couldn’t help but think that maybe it’s time to write it down.
Microsoft Research is an industrial research lab in the old skool sense. In the world of computer science, the industrial research lab is well understood; it has a long history of success in producing valuable, field-changing research. Like AT&T Bell Labs or Xerox PARC, the halls of MSR are filled with scientists of the highest caliber. People who invented things that you take for granted. MSR grew out of this tradition. It’s primarily filled with computer scientists (and engineers, physicists, mathematicians). Researchers are encouraged to pursue research questions that they feel are important and they are evaluated based on their publication record, contributions to the scholarly community, and innovative research that produces “tech transfer.”
Being a social scientist in one of these labs is peculiar, but not new. I have long admired the anthropological contributions Lucy Suchman made to research while at PARC. Being a social scientist at an industrial research lab can be a tricky balance. There are plenty of anthropologists and other social scientists who do applied work at Microsoft, focused on specific product needs. This is extremely important work, but it’s different than scholarly research. It’s also tricky to say what constitutes “tech transfer” as a social scientist. I don’t really produce IP in the traditional sense, but my work contributes to the company in other ways.
Yet, tech transfer is only a fraction of what I do. The vast majority of my time is spent doing the same type of research that I’ve been doing for years. I follow topics that interest me and dive head first in, regardless of whether or not it involves Microsoft’s current or future products. I publish articles without seeking approval from anyone. I blog about my research without vetting it through Microsoft. I attend academic conferences, review papers, and contribute to scholarly discourse. It looks a whole lot like academia to me. Yet, I hear all sorts of remarks that indicate that folks don’t believe that what I do is akin to academia. I feel the need to account for these and offer a different perspective.
But you’re working for a corporation! Since when are universities not corporations? Best that I can tell, most universities are fundamentally real estate barons who gain public credibility by offering higher education. The difference is that Microsoft’s products are very visible and related to the types of research that they seek to support. Both Microsoft and the university invest in research in the hopes that it will benefit the corporation as a whole, directly through the production (and protection) of IP or indirectly by creating an atmosphere where productive work can take place. The outcomes may look different, but both Microsoft and the university are large corporations with a fiscal mindset.
But a company makes you focus on the company’s bottom line! There is no doubt that Microsoft would love to have research that benefits it financially, but the dynamic is far more symbiotic than parasitic. We’re welcome to do the research we’re most passionate about, but we get financial bonuses for creating patents or for producing quality research that benefits the company. It’s an incentives system. On the contrary, I would argue that the university model is predominantly parasitic. Researchers at universities must run around begging external agencies for money so that they can do the research they love to do. When they finally succeed in getting a grant, how does the university respond? It takes 30-60% for “overhead.” And when they don’t get funding, they’re punished with lack of research resources and students. Furthermore, most university researchers don’t get to do as they please – they do what they (think they) can get funding for. I suspect I have far more freedom in terms of my research agenda than most university scholars.
Still, you have to spend time helping the company directly! Yes, I spend time working with product groups. But I like to think of it as my teaching duty. Rather than teaching Soc 101 to hung-over 18-year-olds who didn’t bother doing the reading, I teach an interactive form of Soc 101 to engineers who are filled with questions that start with “but why?” and “but how?” I have a hard time imagining that my engagement with product groups takes up more of my time than teaching, office hours, and prep. And it’s often quite fun and thought-provoking.
Well, there’s no tenure! What exactly is tenure? The promise that the university will promise you a salary in return for perpetual grant begging? Tenure guarantees a job, but it doesn’t guarantee an enjoyable one. There’s no promise of a pay raise or good classes to teach. Microsoft Research does have the right to fire me but, from what I can see, it’s more common for people to leave when they don’t gel well (just like in universities). The bigger threat is whether or not Microsoft will be around in N years (arguably, also true with many universities). I suspect that my job is just as solid as it would be in most university environments. The difference really comes down to bonuses. At the university, there are no performance-based bonuses. At Microsoft Research, a large chunk of my salary is linked to performance. Thus, I have an incentive to do well. There are also promotions that parallel university levels; Researcher = Assistant Professor, Senior Researcher = Associate Professor, Principle Researcher = Full Professor. This may not offer the on-paper guarantee of tenure, but it is pretty darn equivalent.
It’s not like you have students! Most professors love having students because of the collaboration potential. (Some enjoy the empire building but that’s not my bent.) Of course, this varies by field. Some scholars feel as though they need students to complete their work; in other fields, students are more an opportunity to mentor. My approach to students is more of collaboration and mentorship rather than slave labor. It’s true that I don’t have students, but I have the fortune of being able to take a handful of interns each year for 12 weeks each. These interns are primarily post-quals PhD students who have the skills and passion for collaboratively working on a constrained research project. No, it is not the same as 7-year students that you get to watch grow, but it’s not like I’m not engaged with younger scholars. My time with them is just more constrained and focused. There are also postdocs who come for 1-2 years. And when I’m craving collaboration, I can bring in visiting researchers to work with me. So it’s a bit more hodge-podge, but there’s still tremendous opportunities for engagement with scholars at all levels.
Whatever… it’s not real research. This is what it always comes down to… “Real” research comes from the university, suggesting that what comes out of industrial research labs is “fake.” I’m never quite sure how to best respond to this except to commit to proving folks wrong.
I feel very fortunate to have a position at Microsoft Research, even if lots of folks don’t seem to get why it’s a good deal. In many ways, this environment is far more academic than what I witnessed at MIT’s Media Lab or Berkeley’s iSchool. The biggest downside is that it’s not helping with my disciplinary identity crisis. If I had joined a specific disciplinary department, I might have had a clearer sense of the “top” journals, relevant conferences, and whether or not publishing a book is a must to succeed. Perhaps not, but I like to think so. Instead, I’m as confused as ever about where to publish and how to best disseminate my research in a manner that is generally useful. Thus, instead of becoming a proper -ist, I’m continuing to pave a strange path that may or may not bite me in the ass in the future. Of course, this identity crisis is pure academia. And one of the clearest reminders that I’m still an academic through-and-through.
I may not be a professor, but I’m still a scholar and, arguably, an academic. The title of “Researcher” may not seem very impressive or academic in social science realms, but practically speaking, it’s akin to “Assistant Professor” (and that’s even how people discuss it internally). What I do looks a lot like what any university researcher does, but with fewer restrictions. I don’t have to beg for grants. I don’t have to battle onerous IRBs (note: dealing directly with lawyers is MUCH easier than dealing with academics who are worrying about the legal repercussions of research). I can travel when I need to for research. I can do research that I think is important. I can collaborate with whomever I please. In return, I make certain that my research (and that of others) is translated into language that product people can understand. Personally, I think it’s a pretty amazing trade-off.