Friday, December 6, 2019

Why Academia Sucks

Getting a college degree doesn't guarantee you a good job - even if you get a good college degree.

A lot of ink has been spilled over the last decade about student loan debt and how "unfair" it is these kids are not offered CEO positions right out of school, after majoring in sensitivity studies with a 3.0 grade average. They were promised good jobs - by their parents, their high-school guidance counselor, the media, and their college professors!   Sadly, no one bothered to ask employers about this promise, which they never made.

I mentioned before that getting a good college education can be worthwhile, if it leads to employment, but even then, you should minimize the costs involved.   It is hard for me to feel sorry for kids today who went on "Spring Break" in Florida for four years in a row, and then complain about student loan debt.  In my fourteen years of college, I never once took a "vacation" as I didn't feel that college students deserved them.    But maybe I have weird ideas.

I also mentioned that for the most part, I went to college to get degrees not to get a job but to keep the job I already had.   I was designing circuits before I graduated from Engineering school.  And quite frankly, I learned more by doing than in class.  Sure, you need to know basic circuit design to start - Kirchhoff's voltage law and all of that - but they never taught in school what you should do when your boss comes into your office and tells you to take $1.75 out of the circuit design.   That's where it gets tricky, figuring out where you can cut corners and still make a reliable product - or spend hours talking to suppliers and perusing catalogs, looking for cheaper components that will still work satisfactorily.   Or even changing the design to reduce component count.

Sounds boring - and it is - but that is real Engineering.  What you learn in a book is nice theory.  What you learn in real life is that products have to be made to be reliable and also affordable.  Otherwise, no one would ever, ever buy them.

This is not to say my college experience was worthless, only that it was incomplete. You need experience to get a job - something that graduates discover much to their dismay, when no one is chomping at the bit to hire them, based on four years of study.   While it took me 14 years to get my degrees, the experience I garnered during that time, working for GM, UTC, the Patent Office, and a law firm, meant that I could get a job upon graduation, and in fact, already had the job before graduation.

One of my classmates eschewed co-op and part-time work on the grounds that the sooner he graduated, the sooner he would make "the big bucks".   So his theory was, it was better to graduate in four years (or even less, with summer school) and get a job right away, than to spend five years in a co-op program (and working summers as well) and graduate with an education and work experience.  Perhaps in some fields this is true, but increasingly, even in high-demand fields, employers are demanding experience, not just credentials.

And often what you learn in academia is useless or worse than useless.  When I was an Engineering student at S.U. in the 1980's, "computer science" wasn't considered part of the Engineering curriculum, but a kind of "liberal arts."  Hardware was king, and we looked down at those "programmers" learning to write in "C" language.

The Engineers? We were forced to take a course in something called "APL" which cleverly stood for "A Programming Language".   It used Greek symbols instead of the 26 characters of our alphabet, and the first thing  you had to do, to learn it, was remove the keys from your keyboard and replace them with Greek symbols.   The language was based on matrices and tellingly, one of the tenured professors at the school was responsible (in part) for its creation.   A basic course in programming "C" would have served us far better in our careers.  APL was so obtuse and unrelated to any other computer language, that anything we learned from it was utterly useless to us later on in life.

Put it this way.  You learn Latin - that is a dead language.  But Latin can help you understand any one of the "romance" languages or any Western language for that matter.   It can make it easier to understand Spanish, French, English or even German.   But taking a course in Chinese isn't going to help you understand Spanish - and yes, you'll have to remove and replace all the keys on your keyboard to learn Chinese, too.

Of course, learning Chinese is worthwhile, as billions of people speak it.   But no one programs in APL - it is as dead as Latin, without the usefulness of it.   In terms of mathematical calculation, it has its uses - and many today admit it is more of a calculation tool than a programming language per se.   All I know is, as a graduate, I would have been far more employable learning C or C+ than something as useless as APL.

And that's the problem with academia - it follows, but does not lead.   APL came from an era of the mainframe computer - developed in the early 1960's - when "computing" meant crunching numbers.  When the people who developed this grew white hairs and became college professors, this is what they taught - what they knew from "back then" and not what was going to be hot tomorrow.

It is the nature of the beast and cannot be fixed.  It is very hard to learn "cutting edge" technology from a college professor - those who can't do, teach.   We had one professor at S.U. who was working with GE in gallium arsenide technology for semiconductor transistors.  Interesting stuff, with real-world applications.  But of course, silicon still rules. When it comes to cheap materials to make semiconductor chips from, you just can't beat sand!

The point is, even a "good" education in Electrical Engineering wasn't enough for me to land a job.   Having work experience is what made the difference.  And the same is true with my law degree.  Again, I ran into classmates who told me that finishing law school full-time in three years was better than four years of night school because they would enter the job market that much quicker and "make money sooner."

Interesting concept, but then again, since they were not working for three years, they had no paycheck during that time (and I did - making over 50 grand a year).  Not only that, no one was offering to help pay for tuition and books (as the USPTO did). The full-time student had to borrow more money to pay for rent, food, clothing and other living expenses, whereas I had an income to live on.

But the big deal was experience.  I graduated with five years of experience in the Patent business (having been an Examiner the year before law school as well) whereas my "smart" friend who cut to the end of the line had none.   Guess what?   Even in the go-go days of the Patent business in the 1990's, not many were hiring people with zippo experience in practice.  No one wants to waste a year's salary on an associate who has to be taught every damn thing and who will likely leave to another, higher-paying firm, the moment he gets experience.

Again, college doesn't always teach experience and sometimes not current experience.  While GW had some courses in Patent Law, you could not learn how to write a Patent Application from those courses - you only learned theory.  And a lot of the other required courses - such as Criminal Law - were useful for passing the bar exam, but not really relevant to us in the Patent field.  Again, this the nature of academia, not a critique of it.   You can't expect a college education to be all that is required to learn a trade - it is only part of the picture, often only a small part showing you have the intelligence to grasp at a credential.

By the 2000's, I was getting resumes from young associates who wanted me to hire them - people with impressive college credentials but no real work experience.   They didn't understand that as a small practitioner, I could not afford to pay them the salary they thought they "deserved" (often a number higher than I was making!) when in reality their billable hours would hardly cover overhead.  They were as mystified as the young graduates today as to why no one would hire them.

Pretty simple deal - it all comes down to money.  If I hire an associate for $80,000 a year, he had better be billing two or three times that amount to cover his salary, payroll taxes, insurance, benefits, overhead, and of course, a profit to me.   Why should I hire someone just to break even?  Worse yet, why should I hire someone at a loss?   In fact, that is what happened to me, which is why I went back to being a solo practitioner - it was a lot less hassle and a lot more profitable.

Academics are fine and all.  Getting a worthwhile college degree at a reasonable cost can be a good bargain.   And of course, if you can get top grades at a top "name" school like Harvard or Yale, maybe work experience is less important than those credentials and the connections you make.  But for the rest of us, experience trumps the term paper you wrote in Freshman English.  Or learning to program in APL.

Since my days at SU, they have built a new Engineering building, and now offer degrees in Computer "Science" as a B.S. not B.A. degree.  I don't think they teach APL anymore though!  In retrospect, it is one of the things I felt I was most shortchanged in my college career.