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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Which Name Do You Play For?

A relative on Facebook posted the following note about baseball player Alex Rodriguez.
He plays for the name on the back of the jersey [Rodriguez] and not the front [Yankees].
How about us academics? Do I play for "Northwestern" or "Fortnow"? Even at Northwestern do I play for the department, the school (McCormick Engineering) or the university?

Americans, in general, change jobs more frequently than people in other countries. Academics a little less frequently, a bit because of the tenure system. Nevertheless academics do move around and I've had my share of job changes. But when we do take a new job we immediately put our loyalties there, now that I'm at Northwestern I want Northwestern to succeed at every level and I put in effort to help make that happen.

Even though I left University of Chicago, I had many good years there and I still want the department there to succeed. But I no longer play a role in that effort.

In the end you have to do what's best for your career and your family. Occasionally that means considering new opportunities. But when an institution supports you research, you have a responsibility to make it strong as well.

Luckily in baseball and academics these goals are often well aligned. When Alex Rodriguez hits a home run he helps himself and his team. Do great research and you make yourself and your university look good.

11 comments:

  1. Somewhat related:

    One of the things I noticed about MIT is that their news releases almost always introduce what is happening by referring to "an MIT scientist". Only a few paragraphs later (if not at the very end) do you see the name of the actual scientist. The reader associates the interesting research with MIT rather than the scientist. Most other schools have press releases that begin with the scientist's name.

    I wouldn't be surprised if this type of marketing helped to build the prestige of MIT. People hear about impressive research coming from this source and picture it not as the work of a number individuals, but as a single entity. Anyone associated with the entity ought to be equally impressive.

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  2. Suppose that you work for a state university and are mostly funded by higher-level grants (e.g. a Federal grant in the US, or a European grant) -- should you "play" for your university? state? Federation?

    Suppose that you are in department D in university U -- who should you help out more: department D' in U or department D in U'?

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  3. Are these the only choices? Why not play for the discipline? For the betterment of mankind? Or more honestly, just for fun?

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  4. More important question is what hat/tie will you wear when you are inducted into National Academy of Sciences/Engineering (That is usually the point of contention/controversy in Baseball - what hat does one wear when one is inducted into the baseball hall of fame)

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  5. To be honest, I'm really not sure what it means to "play for a team" or for an institution.

    Is there anyone in academia who would not leave their current institution if they got a better offer elsewhere? (Of course, "better" depends on more than salary and includes many other factors.)

    Even more strongly, I suspect that most people don't even particularly care for the institution they are at, in the sense that they would be about as happy working at any similarly ranked school.

    I tend to agree with Jeff: many people are motivated by self (which I'll equate with fun), and some are motivated by the pursuit of knowledge and/or betterment of mankind. Who is motivated by the institution that happens to pay their salary?

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  6. I think the point is that when you help your institution, you are also helping your self. People know what you have done for the institution. If you only do selfish things, then the prospect of getting a good offer is much lower. On the other hand, when an institution's reputation improves, it has direct effect on reputation of people working there.

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  7. In an academic department there are lots of service roles that do not provide an individual direct compensation. Many of these benefit a group or the department or the institution as a whole.

    Lance phrased things in terms of loyalty but I think that the question was really about how much/what we as faculty are willing to do for our "team" when that direct compensation to ourselves may be small. One phrase that is often used is "helping to row the boat". I think of it more in terms of community. How much are you willing to do to make things better for others around you?

    At one time a knock on A-Rod was that he tried for the big hits that would build his stats rather than try for the higher percentage team play by going for the kind of hits that would at least move the runners over if he failed.

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  8. Often side efforts only pay back in the long run, so it depends on your time scale. Baseball has a much shorter time scale, usually only a day or at most a season. Working against long time scales is that in academia, one usually advances by moving institutions.

    There are other ways of giving back besides research and departmental duties. Working on a blog both contributes to the community, in a different way, and effectively promotes yourself. There are also field-wide promotional efforts which pay back to the individual organizers. There is usually no publicity associated with handling departmental duties.

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  9. Historically, the question scientists and mathematicians used to ask themselves was "Do I play for the Moderate Enlightenment or do I play for the Radical Enlightenment?"

    Lance has answered his own question: nowadays pretty much *everyone* plays for the Moderate Enlightenment ... `cuz it's the only league in town.

    Except maybe ... hmmm ... I dunno ... Jane Goodall? Norman Borlaug? James Hansen?

    Perhaps Ed Wilson, with his recent book Anthill, has crossed-over to the Radicals?

    In any case, it's not clear (to me) that there are *any* modern mathematicians (or engineers either) who are playing effectively in the Radical League.

    We find this moderate-versus-radical perspective articulated in an early form in Steve Heims' eccentric but thought-provoking 1980 biography John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener: From Mathematics to the Technologies of Life and Death; articulated more recently (and at an awe-inspiring depth of scholarship) in Jonathan Israel's multi-volume history of the Enlightenment; and articulated very recently (in a more populist style) in John Gribbin's solidly populist account The Fellowship: Gilbert, Bacon, Harvey, Wren, Newton, and the Story of a Scientific Revolution, which is about the founding of the Royal Society ... the Royal Society having evolved into what is today among the world's leading exemplars of Moderate League math, science, and engineering.

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  10. My limited experience suggests that different institutions (departments) have quite different cultures, and different frequencies of "playing for the team". These cultures are self-reinforcing: if I'm in a community where I see everyone pitching in for the common good, I tend to want to pitch in. If I see colleagues mostly acting selfishly, why should I sacrifice for them? It's not exactly the prisoner's dilemma, but some places it does feel that way :)

    Some choices I've faced recently:

    a) Service (see Paul Beame's comments)

    b) Undergraduate Teaching: Do I put lots of effort into large undergraduate classes, thereby increasing the quality of the program, or do I spend little time on them to do more research?

    c) Graduate teaching: Should the graduate algorithms class focus on preparing my (theory) students for research, or should it be a broad class on basic techniques aimed at all incoming CS grad students? (Note: if you have only one algorithms class a year, as we do, you can't really do both.)

    d) Reviewing: do I accept to review a paper/proposal on which I'm an expert, but which will be very time-consuming, or do I punt so I can do work that I actually get credit for?

    I'd be curious to here what similar choices others have faced recently...

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  11. My limited experience suggests that different institutions (departments) have quite different cultures, and different frequencies of "playing for the team". These cultures are self-reinforcing: if I'm in a community where I see everyone pitching in for the common good, I tend to want to pitch in. If I see colleagues mostly acting selfishly, why should I sacrifice for them? It's not exactly the prisoner's dilemma, but some places it does feel that way :)

    Some choices I've faced recently:

    a) Service (see Paul Beame's comments)

    b) Undergraduate Teaching: Do I put lots of effort into large undergraduate classes, thereby increasing the quality of the program, or do I spend little time on them to do more research?

    c) Graduate teaching: Should the graduate algorithms class focus on preparing my (theory) students for research, or should it be a broad class on basic techniques aimed at all incoming CS grad students? (Note: if you have only one algorithms class a year, as we do, you can't really do both.)

    d) Reviewing: do I accept to review a paper/proposal on which I'm an expert, but which will be very time-consuming, or do I punt so I can do work that I actually get credit for?

    I'd be curious to here what similar choices others have faced recently...

    ReplyDelete