Moving Between Consulting and Academia

by Andy Polaine on January 8, 2008

in General

Jon Kolko’s article, Out of the Frying Pan, into the Fire: Life lessons from consulting to academia, and back again over at Core77, was a particularly pertinent read for me. As someone who still operates between both academia and consulting (and working as a journalist) I find myself alternately frustrated and relieved by both sides of the fence.

Kolko breaks down several myths of academia and consulting, one of which being the amount of work (or not) that academics do.

On paper, two thirds of the year as vacation seems like a dream come true, and I suppose it actually is for a number of people. But upon reflecting on my five years of teaching, I realized that I was working harder, longer, and on more things than ever before. Between mentoring students, writing papers, grading papers, structuring classes, attending presentations and lectures, traveling for conferences, sitting on committees, and—oh, right, teaching classes—I was approaching the seventy or eighty hour work weeks that I was used to from my previous life as a software designer.

Now, it’s true that in every institution there are some academics who basically scam the system and are “dead inside” as Kolko describes. But there are a equal numbers of those that work very hard indeed, care about the students and their education as well as trying to build up departments, etc.

The difference is that it’s much harder to fire the slackers in academia (and that includes the students).

I’ve worked equally hard in the commercial world, but it is more bursty and less relentlessly grinding. Also, teaching takes it out of you if you do it properly. If you don’t believe me, try standing and painstakingly explaining how you do what you do to out loud for eight hours. Plenty of great, talented people are completely exhausted from writing and giving a one-hour talk. Once.

The best thing about Kolko’s article is that it highlights what both sides can learn from each other. Too often academics believe those working commercially are intellectually inferior sell-outs. Designers and consultants working commercially think academics are talentless eggheads. Yet if the commercial world had some of the ethics and rigour of academia and the academic world had some of the zest and speed of commercial decision making things would be much better all round.

It’s one of the reasons I like to do both.

[tags]academia, education, teaching, Core77, Kolko, design, consulting[/tags]

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 tim buesing January 9, 2008 at 12:44 am

hang in there, andy! having crossed over to do a few final exam and course advisory engagements, i can guess how frustrating it must be when the student results are mediocre or the paperwork is getting out of hand…

2 Andy Polaine January 9, 2008 at 11:39 am

I’m not particularly complaining here about academia, rather trying point out that neither side is better nor worse than the other. They’re different and they’re both hard work.

The rewards are different too. Working on some great digital campaign that gets launched in the public realm satisfies the ego, certainly. But seeing someone produce a decent project having had no idea where to start 14 weeks before is satisfying in a more fundamental way.

On the other hand, sitting in a three-hour meeting discussing what we’re going to discuss in the next three-hour meeting is really tedious. The time pressure that an eye on the money creates is sometimes very useful. I’ve sat in creative meetings at agencies (like Poke or magneticNorth) and we’ve worked out ideas very fast without a big ego clash going on and then simply got on with making great work. I like that too.

I don’t think it’s unrealistic to think that educational institutions could tread a middle line, in fact I think they would be really successful if they did. But then you have to reward those working there on different criteria otherwise they won’t get the generational change they need.

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