I work at one of the world’s leading drone companies. I am their scientific program director, which is a blended role of business development for collaborative partners (commercial, academic, government), marketing, and sales.
I get asked fairly often if I miss academia and being a professor.
Let me first say I love my new role. Just like being a professor, I get to wear a lot of different hats. I am an intermediary between an emerging technology and a very diverse community of users, be it hobbyist drone nerds, photographers, first responders, farmers, construction companies, software developers, or roboticists.
I learn new things every day and its so much fun!
One minute I might be talking to high-powered business people, the next I am giving interviews for Youtube bloggers, the next I’ll be outside doing a mapping demos for university deans.
What about teaching? Don’t I miss being in the classroom?
Actually, I get to teach every day. I am sharing what I am learning about drone technology with others constantly. Whether it’s at a drone conference, a visiting lecture to a community college classroom, or about what drones can do to help someone’s business, I still feel like I am an instructor. It certainly satisfies that craving to teach others and help save them the time to try to teach themselves by scouring the internet for muddled information about drones.
What about writing? Won’t my publication record dry up?
I am still writing. A lot actually. I published a recent article for advice for ecologists on using drones and I am a collaborator on a couple of different projects still yielding ecological manuscripts.
Most of my writing though is for blog posts, user stories for our marketing team, and some internal reports. Thought not citable on ISI, these outlets don’t have the pressure of peer-review, impact factors, reviewers, editors, and page fees. For the most part, I simple think about creating good content for our company, clients, and collaborators.
Generally speaker, I am still doing most of the things I really enjoy about academia, but at a faster pace. As I have written about in other posts, academia is painfully slow when it comes to adopting and innovating in the drone space. Most faculty have limited funds to invest in hardware, limited time to learn how to use drone software fully, and limited fluidity to pivot as the industry changes. Consequently, most academics (not all, of course) don’t have the ability at the moment to see the big picture and what the interesting questions are when it comes to drones. Its typically the students and postdocs who are most excited and they don’t have the budget to carry them out.
And I wouldn’t be unique if I were still running my own lab.
I would be just as far behind in understanding the potential of drones to transform how data are collected because I wouldn’t be living and breathing drones every day. I would be spending most of my time writing grants to get small amounts of funding, sitting on committees, preparing lectures, going to faculty meetings or grading papers, rather than out in the field (which I still get to be a day or two a week).
As a faculty member, I was always trying to think about what’s next. What is the next big question? The next big experiment? Now I don’t have to wonder, I know what is coming down the pipeline in the company roadmap, one of the largest and most innovative drone companies in the world. I can see where the industry is headed (well…as much as anyone can predict at this point). I can tell you it’s amazing to watch from my vantage point and I feel incredibly fortunate to be where I am at.
It is really fun, however, when I do get to put on my ecological hat again and chat about novel ways to plug the new hardware/software/sensors into contemporary ecological questions. It satisfies the scientist in me.
I try to help advise the academic community, and ecologists in particular, as best I can. I work closely with the ecological innovators and early adopters who want to collaborate. I am hopeful the rest of the academic community will catch up at some point a few years down the line and I will be there waiting for them. Instead of running my own lab, I am in a unique position of helping all the labs (or as many that want to listen), which is a pretty cool and satisfying position to be in.
To summarize my thoughts here. I am surrounded by innovation on a daily basis in an industry that is skyrocketing. It’s a rare that you get to be in the heart of something that is changing the world.
So, do I miss academia?
Without hesitation, the answer is no (well, except for sabbaticals). Joining the drone industry has been the best move I could have made for my academic career…even if it meant leaving it.