Giving up the day job

December 29, 1995

Fed up with the research assessment exercise? Is it your New Year's resolution to get out ofhigher education? Five former academics tell The THES how their extracurricular activities provideda means of escape.

A SYMBOLIC SUCCESS

"I spend more time thinking intellectually now I am running a company than I ever did when I was a professor." So says British-born Stephen Wolfram, professor of mathematics, physics and computer science at the University of Illinois until 1988 and former Wunderkind of Caltech, the California Institute of Technology - he got his doctorate there when he was just 20, having left Oxford after a year.

The success of his company, Wolfram Research, is founded on Mathematica, the computer program he devised for symbolic mathematics "that is now used by a million people", and its add-on packages for such areas as engineering and finance.

The company, based in Champaign, Illinois, employs about 200 people in the United States and "maybe a dozen" in Britain.

When he started it in 1987, Wolfram, now 35, was able to finance himself. "I had made some money as a consultant, and the capital requirements for setting up a software house aren't that large."

He has few regrets about leaving academia. "I can do more basic research than a standard professor. If you structure your company right you can delegate. But if you're a professor your university will say you should be on a committee concerned with cleaning the buildings or whatever. Being an academic administrator is very low on the list of things I want to do."

For Wolfram, teaching and research are "really rather different professions" and he does not miss teaching. "I'm very glad I got out. I strongly believe that American universities are going down in terms of being pleasant places to work. When you write a scientific paper, you never know how it's received. You can look at the index of citations - but it's much more satisfying to have made a product and to say 'look here's the customer list'. That's what I like." - John Davies

THE PYRAMID SELLER

"Thanks to fiction and to Egyptology, it is possible to share Rameses' hopes and fears, to live out his triumphs and his defeats, to meet the women he loved, to suffer the betrayals and relish the unwavering friendships, to fight the forces of evil and to seek the light from which all comes and to which all returns."

So writes French Egyptologist Christian Jacq in the foreword to his latest novel, the first 400-page volume of a four-part saga. Part one of Ramses II comes packaged with a free gift volume of Scottish painter David Roberts's Egyptian watercolours and the schedule for volumes two to four - guaranteed breathtaking adventures right up to January 1997.

Thanks to fiction and to Egyptology, 47-year-old Jacq's undisclosed income has allowed him to settle in Provence, set up a private institute of Egyptology and write, travel and teach as he pleases. Since 1987, his hardbacks have been selling around 100,000 copies before going into paperback; the market for Jacq's fiction is spreading across Europe and a translation into Korean is under way.

In the 1980s, Jacq was experiencing not the vicarious glories of Rameses's reign but the depressing reality of the academic bottle-neck, going from one temporary research contract to another at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. "I was looking for references to a temple one day when I came across Champollion," he explains. Fascinated by the travel diaries and notebooks of Jean Francois Champollion, Jacq decided to write a life of the 19th-century Egyptologist who deciphered the hieroglyphics on the Rosetta stone.

"When I showed the manuscript to my wife, she said, 'That's not a biography, it's a novel.' Without realising it, I had been filling in the blanks, fictionalising Champollion's life," Jacq recalls. He had hit the jackpot. Champollion l'Egyptien went into the bestseller list and Jacq did the rounds of TV and radio shows.

Jacq's relations with the Egyptologists of French academia are less than cordial. Along with the pulp Pharaoh-fiction, Jacq continues to publish serious essays on Egyptology and has sent up his most bitter detractors in a series of thinly veiled portraits.

"It's a real Pandora's box to discuss their relations," says CNRS architect Jean-Claude Golvin cryptically. "Any publications aimed at the general public draw criticism and a bestseller is not tolerated."

Jacq counts unlimited travel to Egypt among the advantages of his new lifestyle. "Except with the Rameses saga, I hardly have the time now," he laughs. - Stella Hughes

RESEARCH AND YOU WILL FIND

Until five years ago Clive Gabriel was a principal lecturer in psychology at the Polytechnic (now the University) of East London. Then one Monday morning, he says, "I woke up and told my wife I'd had enough. I was already thinking of packing it up, but now I gave myself 24 hours to decide finally. About Easter 1991 I said that I would leave in the summer, and started talking to people."

Why did he want to leave the world of academic psychology? "It wasn't the life I went into - it was no longer the life for a gentleman. I thought, if I'm going to be part of a sausage machine, I can be part of one for a lot more money. So you could say it was the Thatcherism what done it."

The result: he is now joint managing director of Gabriel Ashworth, an Islington-based market research firm he set up on his own that is expected to turn over Pounds 1.3 million this year. The company employs five full-time staff and a couple of part-timers and does market research in information technology, finance, publishing and the food industry.

In setting up his business Gabriel had the benefit of having done "a bit of consultancy on the side" while still a lecturer. (His special area was qualitative research methods.) "It put me in the position of knowing what the world was like out there," he says. And his start-up costs were small. "Being a service industry, I didn't need to spend a lot. I was able to finance myself - I took advantage of the recession. There were loads of empty offices, so hiring things and renting premises was dirt cheap."

Not that the new job has meant an easier time for Gabriel: he is "without any doubt" working longer hours than he ever did as a lecturer. He is also earning more. But the main reward for escaping from academia is "not being pissed around by a load of maniacs" - by which he means "people who themselves are in a position of much responsibility and little authority, some of whom are just depressed and some of whom try to create arbitrary worlds of authority for themselves." - John Davies

LABOUR EXCHANGE

When he won the Cannock and Burntwood parliamentary seat for Labour in 1992, Tony Wright left his job as reader in politics at Birmingham University. But he has "not necessarily" left academia for good.

Did he always plan to be an MP? "No - but I was always interested. I was a candidate in 1979 (in Kidderminster), but then we had children. That and the determination of the Labour party not to be elected meant I had never seriously gone looking for a seat." But times changed and he was "almost accidentally" selected to stand in 1992 at Cannock, where he turned a previous Conservative advantage of 2,689 votes into a 1,506 majority for Labour.

Now that he is free of day-to-day academic concerns it is possible to step back and take a longer view of higher education. Being an MP "has enabled me to think widely again," says Wright, who goes on to talk about the "idiocies" of research assessment exercises. "I see former colleagues under enormous pressure to write things they don't want to write and which no one will want to read.

"I was working in a continuing studies department and I was troubled by the direction it was all taking - there was a preoccupation with process rather than product."

In his new role, Wright finds similarities and differences between academic and parliamentary life. "The autonomy of personal time" is similar in both occupations. But there are different ways of thinking to get used to as well: "If you've been an academic for a long time, you get accustomed to encouraging students to think for themselves and to try to see all sides of a question. There's a culture clash between that and the daily grind of adversarial politics. I had to struggle with that to start with."

Which brings him to a worry that spending too long as a parliamentarian might make him unable to return to academia. "After a time many MPs find it difficult to do anything else. If I ever felt I couldn't get a job elsewhere, that would be the time to go." - John Davies

GOING BY THE BOOK

He is now a successful travel writer, critic and novelist, but back in the late 1960s Jonathan Raban spent four years as a lecturer in English at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, and the University of East Anglia.

"When I got into university teaching it was still a growth industry," he says. "It was the heyday of new curricula, new teaching styles - at East Anglia there was seminar teaching instead of lectures."

Meanwhile, Raban was also writing. His output while still at UEA included New Statesman reviews, a book of criticism and a television play. "In 1969 I saw that my income from writing over the previous year had equalled my earnings as a lecturer, so I went to the dean and said I would just like to teach and write, give me a salary and spare me the administering."

The inevitable "dusty answer" - which, says Raban, "seemed unreasonable then, but looking back now seems quite reasonable" - resulted in his leaving Norwich for a freelance writer's life. "It was an easy transition," he recalls. "Literary London was like leaving one academy and entering another."

He had already abandoned work on a further degree. "I had started a doctorate but then I wrote a book instead. In those days (in liberal arts departments) there was a kind of snobbery that the fewer degrees you had the better."

After leaving UEA "for a long time I felt I was a university teacher on a sabbatical. I felt the years as academic years. Then in 1979 the climate changed and it became very hard for any ex-university teacher to feel anything but sympathy for his former colleagues.'' Although he now lives in Seattle, Raban still keeps in touch with British academia; one of his closest friends still teaches at UEA and he talks with feeling of the "general contempt of successive Conservative governments for liberal arts teaching". - John Davies

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