My various blog posts about moving from academia to industry have prompted a number of conversations with PhD students who are considering academic careers. The most oft-cited reason for wanting a faculty job is “academic freedom,” which is typically described as “being able to work on anything you want.” This is a nice theory, but I think it’s important to understand the realities, especially for pre-tenure, junior faculty.
I don’t believe that most professors (even tenured ones) can genuinely work on “anything they want.” In practice, as a professor you are constrained by at least four things:
What you can get funding to do;
What you can publish (good) papers about;
What you can get students to help you with;
What you can do better than anyone else in the field.
These are important limitations to consider, and I want to take them one by one.