The New York Magazine regularly publishes an ‘approval matrix’ of current cultural and news events. It's interesting to make your own as it relates to your job. Here's a personal opinion from a materials scientist in academia who was once in industry and has adjusted over time to the delights and frustrations of a life behind the hallowed walls of a university. (In my case, it's actually behind the palm trees and alligator watering holes, but somehow that doesn't seem to conjure the old image of the selfless and absent-minded professor. We also wear golf shirts and sport a tan year round in Florida, but we still cling to the idea of the selfless professor with tweed jacket, rumpled appearance, and pasty complexion.)

The figure opposite shows my own personal ranking of many of my activities. For example, getting tenure is at the top, since it insulates one from changes in academic fashion and gives one the freedom to pursue areas of research of most interest to me – at least, within limits, since I still need to secure grants to cover the cost of the research.

At the other end of the spectrum, I despise the ‘busy work’ nature of much of university existence that is imposed on us by the administrators of these fine institutions.

After about a year of my new university job, I noticed that the ‘to do’ pile of paper had reached over a foot high. In desperation, I decided on the radical step of simply pushing it into the trash bin and then denying I had ever received the offending documents. In industry, this could buy a short respite, before you were tracked down and the replacement efficiently provided. Failure to complete paperwork had consequences.

To my delight and amazement, no one at the university ever contacted me to demand why I had not completed this survey or that form. I now revel in the ability to simply push the delete button on e-mail messages that contain work I do not consider valuable. Nirvana!

Trying to get tenure is also a less pleasant activity, requiring the kind of effort expended by medical interns. The young professor must display the ability to write many papers, bring in many grants, and all the while carefully tending their relationship with the senior professors who vote on his/her fate.

I also find faculty meetings to be tedious examples of the old maxim that ‘none of us is as dumb as all of us’. We academics are not known for our brevity, making some faculty meetings a test of one's bladder and ability to remain awake under extreme nonstimulation conditions.

I like to give invited presentations at scientific conferences, but the location of such meetings seems to play an increasing role in my acceptance of an invitation. As a purely hypothetical example, one might prefer Las Vegas to Detroit as a destination, based on their relative tourism popularity rankings. In either case, the trip to the conference is likely to be an unpleasant experience given the current state of airline travel.

Once at the conference, the registration procedure is antiquated and an unfortunate opportunity to run into that postdoc who has written to you three times for a job or that book editor who has a new project he'd desperately like to talk to you about. I have day-dreamed about using sunglasses and a hat pulled low to avoid these well-known conference unfortunates.

I do not like to grade exams, but do so since it is my responsibility and gives me the opportunity to see that the students have understood my lectures. I also do not like the trend to downsize basic research at companies in the short-term interest of the bottom line. It gives students less choice in their future careers and, at some point, must be a problem for basic science in general.

So feel free to argue my relative rankings of the activities of an academic materials scientist. It's a useful exercise now that you don't have to fill out paperwork from the university.

The approval matrix for academia
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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(07)70161-X