July 2008

Hello friends,

No account of university life is complete without the people who run them - the professors. Before stepping into this minefield, I should stress that I am not writing about my supervisors, U of T, or computer science in particular, and some things are rumors I heard from other people in different places.

I'll start with the worst. There are people who made their career on ideas invented by others. Sometimes, like Nobel-prize controversies, it could be the fault of the community that credit is not given to the first inventors. But it also happens that professors publish work of their students without informing them. Another way is to anonymously review a large number of papers. Most papers are rejected, but they could have good ideas that can be used in a different context, and the original authors have no way to know. Even worse, not long ago it was found that someone broke into the system of a major conference and downloaded all submissions.

At the second level there are hypocrites. They preach how to do science right, but when it comes to their work, you'll here excuses like "we didn't have time" or "that's what everybody is doing". Somewhat related are "Midas" professors. Everything they say is correct, everything they do is simple and elegant. The problems start when other people try to do exactly the same things.

A new category is "modern professors". These people are technically strong, but have no intention to look at serious questions. They just peruse academic career, as if science is weighted in kilograms and the only thing that counts is the papers count. As a consequence, they publish like a printing house. If science progressed at the speed they publish by now we were living on Mars.

Since "modern professors" are filling up universities, very few "clumsy professors" left around. These are people born to do well only one thing, research. They are always late, forget meetings, can't answer simple questions, etc. It is hard to understand how these weird people became professors. But in academia their unconventional thinking turns out to be an advantage, and every couple of years they come up with original ideas that nobody else would think about.

Finally, the "superman professors". These are the best experts in the world. They can point you to a paper hot from the press or dig seminal paper from fifty years ago. Unfortunately they are very busy. They tour the world, edit journals, write books, organize conferences, guide students, manage their departments and labs, consult companies, and last (and often least), teach courses. They run a disciplined lifestyle of a professional athlete. The difference is that athletes retire after 10 years, while these professors are active for 30 years. If you are lucky to meet these people, you'll notice they are very serious and oftentimes pedantic (though in their own eyes they are not perfectionists enough). They are not interested in playing games or publicity. The last thing they need is NY Times headline "prof. X said...". They already got that. They are interested in the big questions. And they have religious faith that maybe they will not solve them, maybe they will not be solved in their lifetime, but there is no magic and there should be good answers. For all these reasons they don't sleep at night. Which is why I am confident that no serious professor will waste his time reading this and write on the types of graduate students.