Monday, June 17, 2013

Scientists leaving the academy: Pushed, or pulled?

Several of my friends have shared and commented on this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education: "On Leaving Academe."  The author is Terran Lane, a former computer science professor at the University of New Mexico.

The article starts with the (shocking!) revelation that he is leaving his position as a professor to work for Google.  Lane then lists nine reasons for leaving:

  1. Making a difference
  2. Work-life imbalance
  3. Centralization of authority and decrease of autonomy
  4. Budget climate
  5. Hyperspecialization, insularity, and narrowness of vision
  6. Poor incentives
  7. Mass production of education
  8. Salaries
  9. Anti-intellectualism, anti-education, and attacks on science and academe

The tone is of the article is very negative.  Lane frames most of his complaints as forces that are pushing him out of the University. Honestly, it feels a little bit bitter.

As I've discussed this with friends, I've decided that I disagree with the tone, if not the reasons.  I've also made a similar decision to -- temporarily, at least -- leave the academy for the private sector.  But I see the whole experience in a much more positive light.

As I see it, there are growing incentives to find applications for science outside the academy. Since I've got into the startup world, I've met lots of psychologists, economists, and even the occasional political scientist who are building consumer-facing tools based on well-founded theories of social science.

To me, this feels like an emerging renaissance in applied social science. In other words, it's not just the case that smart, ambitious people are being pushed out of academia; they're being pulled out as well.

In the past, most careers paths allowed you to seek the truth OR change the world, but not both.  I'm optimistic that the rising volume and value of data is going to give more scientifically-minded people the chance to have their cake and analyze it too.  Eliminating artificial distinctions between "thinkers" and "doers" is good for society overall.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Crazy walls and dissertation graph insanity

Here's my dissertation to-do list from last week.  It's basically my own crazy wall (more here), on a clipboard.

More evidence of dissertation-induced insanity:
I made this graph last week, late at night, to answer a real research question.  ("What are the effective krippendorff's alpha scores of averaged ensembles of five mechanical turkers, given individual alphas of .2, .3, .4, and .5?")

When I woke up in the morning and looked at it again (and tried to explain it to Erin), I realized that the graph made no sense, and the process I had used to create it was completely bonkers.

I'm going to get through this thing.  But after the defense, I think I'm going to need some serious mental detox.

Moral of the story: friends don't let friends do PhDs.

Monday, June 3, 2013

A map of me: Life-tracking with funf

I've been running funf ever since I arrived in California -- almost six months now.  If you haven't seen it before, funf is a great little android app for passive life logging.  It can track anything your phone can track: GPS, accelerometer, battery, text messages, etc.

The downside is that it's buggy.  I ended up having to use a very hacky workaround solution to get my data off: exporting data via email, downloading the zips, then running the funf_analyze_mac script to parse them all to sql. It's a clunky pipeline, but works for the moment.

Here's the first payoff: a map of everywhere I went between November and February. It's pretty neat to be able to see the neighborhood where I work in San Francisco, the train line along the edge of the bay, the two cities where I've lived since moving here, and a few trips south and west to Los Gatos and San Jose.

I haven't done much work to make this beautiful, but I find it very engaging anyway.  (It's my data, after all.)

My next plan is to write a script to isolate places where I go often or spend a lot of time, and then mash those locations up with data from other sources based on timestamps.