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.

Written by