You might reasonably ask why vacation didn’t last longer. To those not in the academic game, summer must seem idyllic: three months to travel or lie on the beach or just veg out. Of course the reality is not quite like that. First, faculty don’t get paid for those three months. More important, no one can just stop their professional activities for more than a modest period — life here may not literally be publish or perish, but one has to keep up. So the summer offers a change of pace and perhaps different kinds of things, but it’s not for totally goofing off. One works, just differently.
My version of “working differently” was to spend a while at Google in New York, writing code to explore some especially grimy data with the hope of finding ways to make it better. This was a typical summer intern gig: exceptional people, great fun, lots to learn and almost sure to have no effect whatsoever, positive or negative, on the company’s bottom line. I shared a Dilbert-like cube with three other programmers whose combined ages barely exceeded my own. One of them, poor guy, was a Princeton undergrad who had been in my class a year earlier. I’m sure he would have preferred to escape the all-encompassing Princeton bubble, but he took enforced togetherness with great good grace, and it was a pleasure to have a friend sharing the space.
For me, programming at Google was a way to keep up with real-world software development. For students, summer internships offer more, because they are a remarkably effective way to decide what kind of “permanent” job might appeal. (The quotes around “permanent” acknowledge the realities of today’s perilous economy.) When I was an undergrad long ago, I spent a summer working in an office for the Ontario highways department. The people were nice, and I got to see some early computers in action, which helped steer me toward a lifetime interest, but the job itself was so indescribably boring that it convinced me that I would never again work for a government agency. By contrast, as a grad student, I had a wonderful summer at MIT, using the first time-sharing operating system to help build the next version. I made friends that I still see from time to time, and the job provided contacts and experience that led to fantastic jobs at Bell Labs for the next two summers. Those internships told me that I had found employment paradise, and I went there permanently (well, for 30 years) right after finishing grad school.
Not every internship works out well, but even a bad experience teaches us something about environments and about ourselves. In effect, a summer job is an interview that lasts two or three months, with each party assessing the other for long enough that decisions are based on enough time together that they are likely to be sound. No hasty marriages; better to live together for a while first.
But now, vacations and internships are finished, and summer, much too short, is over. In spite of that, I’m glad that September is here again. One of the appealing parts of the academic life is the big annual cycle. In June, we all head off for vacations and internships. Every fall there’s a fresh burst of energy as everyone comes back to campus. We greet old friends and make new ones. The freshman class is eager and enthusiastic. (That will diminish around midterm week and be noticeably reduced by sophomore year.) People who live and work in the real world don’t have this wonderful experience — their treadmills run at a pretty steady pace throughout the year, and there isn’t a lot to distinguish one part from another. We’re lucky to get an annual rejuvenation, so enjoy it while you can. Welcome back! How was your summer?
Brian Kernighan GS ’69 is a computer science professor and a Forbes faculty adviser. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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