The sigh of the last lecture of the semester

I shook hands with some of my students. Patted a few on the back. I walked out of class having finished my last lecture of the semester. I had one last learning objective on professionalism and career that I wanted to polish off with my students. We talked a lot about the difference between a job, a career and our lives. I used some pithy statements like, “A job is not a career and a career is not a life.” Trying to cement in the minds of my students that you are a collection of experiences and perhaps your professional reputation is much more about who you are than what you do.

It is now time for some professional introspection. Many of my students will go on to work in government or academia. Most of my students for the short term will be back next year. I am reflecting on where I will be and where I want to be in the future. I really enjoy my job at Purdue. I like teaching, I like writing and doing research, and I like the freedom of being an academic. I’m not one to see the “the grass is greener” I know I have it pretty good. I don’t like the abysmal pay, the constant erosion of benefits, the constant suggestion by the larger society I don’t do anything worthwhile, and I really don’t like the ironic phone calls. More on that in a bit.

Since the Dean of the College of Technology decided that the best course of action was to belittle, yell, and demand fealty to a set of ideals, well, I’ve not been happy with the politics of my job. A year ago standing in front of the entire College of Technology faculty he told us do it his way or GTFO of his College. I stood up to one of his tirades in a meeting and since then I’ve been told by numerous senior faculty I may have been right, but I’ll never see full professor in my life time. So, I’ve been testing the water applying for a few jobs or talking to different companies about opportunities. There is always the possibility that the grass is greener on your side due to abundant fertilizer.

Broader society looks at a guy like me with a PhD and a tenured academic job and says “Ivory tower intellectual.” Which is kind of funny. I teach applied digital forensics, with extensive hands on laboratory environments, dealing with real world problems, but in a broader context than most companies could ever hope to support. All, while standing on the head of a budgetary unfunded needle and with a dozen people watching. Meanwhile I maintain a research enterprise that has me leading dozens of people through the research process and has received accolades and awards.

So, I get these ironic phone calls. You all know who you are. Usually I get an email from some c-suite or senior executive management type. It may be from some detective out in the hinterlands, but it is the big companies that I think are ironic. I call them back when it is convent for them. This c-suite executive has just sat through some meeting with his incident response or security team. They have thrown dozens of issues at him and he wants to talk. I walk him through the options, give him my opinion, and we part amicably. They say, “You rock Sam! Thank you so much.” So, over the last year I’ve applied at some companies and I get the, “You are an academic and would not fit in well with our company culture” treatment. In most cases I just wanted summer employment, but in other cases I could have had a fun career with them. After all their bosses are the ones who called me first. And, no I don’t call back the c-suite types and say “HEY!” as you have to work with those people at the leaves.

I’ve gotten some job offers over the last year. It hasn’t been a barren or fruitless engagement. I’ve been focusing on the “coolness” factor of jobs, on the “oh that would be freaking awesome!” kind of gigs. To be sure my wife has explained to me on numerous occasions that I am basically under employed and my take home pay keeps getting smaller as Purdue rebalances (cuts) benefits. So, a paycheck at least double my 9 month salary is indicated for domestic bliss. To put that in perspective it will basically mean the same salary I was making when I left industry 11 years ago. I also don’t want to just crush code 10 hours a day, or do event correlation 24X7 because people can’t figure out how to tune their SIEM.

The politics of Purdue where the Dean of Technology yells at the faculty, and a chair of Information Technology department says digital forensics doesn’t belong (more specifically I shouldn’t be in her department) is bad, but nowhere as bad as a job you don’t want after a month. Those two people define resources, schedules, and have an outsized impact on my ability to do my job. If they don’t like you. Then you are screwed. I realize the pressures on academic leadership and the continuing destruction and disenfranchisement of higher education is a broad and pervasive problem. It isn’t me it is the entire community that is having issues. That doesn’t mean I have to agree with their strategy or mechanisms of dealing with the stresses.

There have been some movements within Purdue to create a college of security studies. That would be an interesting solution if it embraces the trans-disciplinary nature of the science of security. In the budgeting short falls, the monetary stresses on the university, and the political landscape at this time I don’t know if there is enough leadership to allow it to happen. I balance that on the personal career short falls of this last year. With millions in submitted proposals I had an entirely dry year on grants, contracts, and gifts.

Pretty much like the phone calls I get where I’m good enough to help a major corporation solve problems. I as a researcher am good enough to help define the research agenda but I am not good enough to fund. I have been to Washington DC on numerous occasions to help agencies define the research agenda, but when I submit proposals closely aligned with that research agenda I am denied at all turns. I can be the best teacher in the world (check out my teaching scores on my CV). I can be one of the best academic leaders in the world (check out my productivity or research with my students and service). I can be the subject matter expert (check out my editorships and writings). Yet, in a research university I am an abysmal failure without grants, contracts and gifts.

A senior faculty member was pretty blunt with me. The incentives of being an academic are not teaching, making the world more secure, helping companies solve their problems, or writing and scholarship. The incentives and rewards of the university are around grants, contracts and gifts. If you aren’t getting them you should be seeking them. Then you can do all of those other things. They aren’t wrong and I need to own my failures and realize my choices led me to this place. Doing things my way isn’t going to be rewarded unless it is aligned with their way. That means I have to decide if I am going get on board with “their way.”

One of those titans of industry said I should be the head of the “intractable problems department” at some corporation. I admit to not being an “expert” at anything other than solving problems. I can write software if I have to, know enough networking to make it work, have enough breadth of incident response to talk authoritatively, can play with the hackers without embarrassing them or myself, and have enough leadership that people are willing to read my TL;DR blog posts 🙂 I mentor my graduate students, I mentor other faculty members graduate students, I help define and enhance the research of dozens. Yet I look at what I’ve done and see nothing but failure under the incentives of the university.  Sour grapes?

I know what I define as a worthwhile use of my time. I see it in my day to day interactions. I got ordained on the Internet so I could “marry” two of my students. I have been the first person my students called after having gave birth. I am the one moms call to say thank you for straightening out their kid. From time to time bottles of Scotch show up with “I owe the promotion to you” on a card. Students out of the blue reach out and say some tidbit, some piece of advice in passing, had some dramatic effect on their life. I have had students to my house on every major national holiday because they had nowhere else to go. Students from other universities call me and ask my advice on career, classes, and life. Students from other nations put their entire lives on hold to come study with me for a semester. I share my family, roof, food, time, and life with students.

Yet even with all of that I am missing some significant “something”. I’ve never won an award for teaching. Which leads me to suspect I may not be as good as I would like to think. As they say, “pride goeth before the fall.” I tease my students about buying me an endowed chair when they get rich.  Yet in reality I have no expectation of that. In fact I’d find any kind of reward for teaching to be embarrassing. Getting an award for being a good person seems kind of lame. Introspection suggests I likely am not up to snuff in my teaching. I do my best, and I can live with the delta between perfection defined by others and my ability demonstrated.

I’ll finish the grading. I’ve finished the lecturing and laboratories. It is time for some end of the year introspection and recharging of the batteries. Maybe a new challenge. We’ll see.


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