The Academic Mindset and Me

As I come towards the end of my Ph.D, it’s hard not to look back on it and reflect. Those who know me in person know that I almost dropped out once and now, even though I didn’t go that far, I am still certain that I don’t want a job in academia.

There’s nothing wrong with academia, it’s just not the place for me.

A Difference in Archetype

My research has been in concurrency testing. I think most developers who have had to debug concurrent programs would agree that it’s a pain, and that they’d love tools which make it easier.

Well, wouldn’t you love to hear that there’s a concurrency testing tool for Linux/pthread programs! It works by instrumenting, and then repeatedly executing, the compiled binary, so the cognitive overhead of using it is low. This tool is called Maple, it’s described in an OOPSLA paper from 2012, and… it hasn’t really been updated since then. It received a few maintenance commits up until early 2015, but that’s it. It doesn’t run on anything newer than Ubuntu 12.04.

Maple could be a fantastically useful tool. It could easily have become a standard tool for Linux developers in the five years since its release. But instead it was used to get a paper written about how the approach was feasible, and then discarded.

I’m not saying the authors are wrong for having done this, but it’s a good illustration of an archetype I have come to call the Researcher. Researchers may do practically focused research, and they may well do so out of a genuine motivation to enable better tooling or processes for working programmers. But they are not interested in maintaining this tooling, just in working out its theory.

Now let’s look at my research. I wrote the Déjà Fu library to test concurrent Haskell programs. While I did research in the process of implementing it, the research was primarily motivated by wanting to make Déjà Fu better. I’ve put a lot of effort into making it user-friendly, and I do have a couple of users now! I do non-researchy things like work on documentation and think about what makes a convenient API. I fall into an archetype I call the Developer.

Overstating the matter to make the difference clear: the Developer is interested in making things and in doing research to make those things better; whereas the Researcher is interested in doing research about things and may, regrettably, have to on occasion implement a thing to evaluate their work.

Both archetypes can do “implementation-driven” research, which is the previous wording I used to try and describe this difference in motivation. Understandably, the person I was trying to communicate this to didn’t get it: they were a Researcher and from their perspective their research is implementation-driven. But not in the way which I meant it.

Most people in academia, at least in a university setting, are Researchers out of necessity. I suspect Developers would be more common in industry research labs, where the concerns and motivations are typically more practical and more short-term.

Where else?

So I don’t want to be a researcher at a university, though I do enjoy doing research and like to think about hard problems.

For now I’m looking for jobs in interesting areas like infosec and distributed systems. While not exactly research, there are a lot of hard problems, and being able to keep up with what’s coming out of academia will probably be a useful skill.