Things I'll miss about working at a university.
1. The coffee cart
Hear me out on this one, because it's not about the coffee. It's about the student energy, all the crazy posters and activities going on. It's about overhearing researchers and teachers from other departments talking about things they're working on. Reading the campus magazine.
Sure, there are always meetings and visiting people giving talks, etc. But the sheer variety of options is much broader at a university. Even if I rarely made it over to hear about art and literature (or whatever), I could sometimes do that if I wanted to. Just knowing it was there, just seeing it listed on the campus calendar, was somehow soothing to me. Not being trapped in too narrow of a bubble.
3. The women's center
Something about this, and the LGBT office, just warms my heart. Sure, there are all kinds of organizations devoted to women in various careers, blah blah blah. There are always the book clubs. But this was amazing, going to hear successful women PIs talking about how they got where they are, despite all the crap that goes on. Trying to strategize. Okay, so it never helped me much in any tangible way, but it was comforting to know that even if I was alone in my lab, since I was on a campus, I was not alone.
4. Fresh blood
By that I mean, the constant influx of students and postdocs and young faculty from all over the world doing all kinds of things. Yeah, sometimes the internationality of it gets old, like having to remove all English idioms from your speech because none of the non-native speakers know what you mean, etc. But there's something to be said for having students around, always asking new questions that no one else has the perspective or guts to ask. And because having students around means you'll never again truly be the bottom of the totem pole.
5. Cutting edge toys just for the sake of playing with them
Where else can you get so much new stuff just for the sake of seeing what it can do? With no pressure to produce something profitable anytime soon?
6. History and future
This one is hard to measure, but there's something about an established school. It doesn't have to be about the age of the place, just that people put a lot of hopes and dreams into the location, and they plan to be around for a while longer even if you don't stay. Even better, some of the jerks might leave, and it will probably still be there, only better.
I think this is different from working at a company, where you never know if or when the whole place might completely go under. Sure, I hated grad school and used to wish mine would burn to the ground, but with the soft focus blur of time gone by, I don't feel that way about it anymore. In a Stockholm Syndrome kind of way, I actually enjoy going back there once in a while. Almost exactly how I feel about my other, real home.
One of the things that drew me to science in the first place was, oddly enough, my perception that working whatever hours were required would make it easier to have kids. Lo and behold, I ended up feeling like I didn't really want kids, even as it became obvious that the flexible hours thing doesn't help much unless you have the ideal partner... and ideally, daycare too.
I still take advantage of the flexibility, working weekends when I'm not wanting to see too many people, or working from home when I need to. I only have a few meetings a week that occur at set times; the rest is up to me. I can't imagine there are too many jobs that work this way, where you can pretty much come and go as you please.
Perhaps the thing I'll miss most is the idea that I could be my own boss eventually if I just worked hard enough. I know this isn't really true, you still have to pander to a variety of jerks to keep your grants afloat and your papers in press, but the delusion that I could choose was very motivating for my creative tendencies.
The idea of going to work on someone else's vision just doesn't have the same appeal. Sure, maybe it's time to grow up and get a Real Job, or whatever they call it these days (rent?). But I don't think there are that many arenas where creative independence is such a hot commodity that hundreds of people are climbing over each other just to get the chance to try to have it.