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"What I cannot create, I do not understand." – R. Feynman
Jonas Kubilius

Is an academic career still worth it?

(In preparation for Gestalt ReVision Summer School’s evening discussion.) Academia is great:

  • Freedom to pursue any topic of interest
  • Flexible working hours
  • Reputation-based system
  • Mutual care, trust, and willingness to cooperate
  • Possibility to educate the next generation
  • Oh, and nice trips every now and then

For years, these have been the selling points for academia despite some shortcomings (low salaries) and many people were glad to follow this path. But does this premise hold at all? Here is how we actually do things.

Freedom

Stop crowing about your new Impact Factors. They’re calculated like this. (tho at least here the sum is transparent) pic.twitter.com/uK9L8wvAJr — Steve Pettifer (@srp) July 30, 2014

To be successful in academia means to publish a lot. Don’t forget: funding comes from sources that have little understanding or interest, or time to evaluate what constitutes good science, so instead some really poor proxies are used: Impact Factors, number of publications and so on. Chances are increased if you capitalize on trendy topics and sexy new techniques. Freedom? Sure, if you don’t have to support your lab with money (see PhD Comics). Sure, after dealing with administrative stuff, writing grants, reviewing papers, teaching duties, also dealing with people in general – then sure, you have the freedom to explore your ideas (also see PhD Comics). But do you get more time than somebody doing her own thing after a nine-to-five job? More than the 20% rule in leading tech companies?

Flexible hours

Flexibility comes at a cost of long working hours. It is surely okay to come to work at 11am – if you also leave at 11pm. Don’t like long hours (no overtime pay included)? Nobody is going to force you but good luck keeping up with those who will spend insane hours (one final PhD Comics strip).

If you want to be the best, you will have to work hard, whether in academia or not. But then again – there is nothing really special about academia. Many companies nowadays recognize the importance of flexible hours, especially in positions where it does not matter that much anyway.

Meritocracy

When you’re piled with thousands of publications a year, finding the ones that matter is hard. So you will end up choosing what to read. A good rule of thumb: read people you know, ignore the rest. Thus, for newcomers, doing good stuff does not imply people will want to talk to you or review your paper. There is just too much going on, you cannot possibly spend the time treating everyone equally. But that means we are far from the declared ideal of “let the best idea win”. Rather, we have the usual “let the best PR win”.

Trust

I have not yet seen a crowd more conservative than scientists. Even the legendary Luddites might have been more willing to accept innovations than scientists. Open Science? Reproducible research? PeerJ? Comments online? I’m good with my Excel spreadsheet for now, thanks! Sharing ideas, discussing and working out problems together (in the true spirit of research) is the easiest it’s ever been in history yet we care more that someone is out there to steal our stuff. I find it ironic that people committed to expanding the limits of knowledge would be so utterly disinterested in enacting the same kind of innovations in their daily routines.

Of course, I also know the answer: none of these new things will increase your reputation or result in more funding.

Education

“My career since then has been a constant search for an academic home that would allow for me to teach with a focus on relevance, flexibility, self-awareness, real learning, and wisdom. That home is as hard to find as Shangri-La.” – John C. Beck, Why I’m No Longer a Professor

And more

Oh, did I forget to mention the broken publishing system? Poor job security and being flexible for relocation to nowhere? Women in science? Kids?

Bottom line

So is there anything special about academia, or did it simply outgrow its cosy community-based shoes and has to deal with the same reality as other huge enterprises? I certainly think the latter happened. Rather than subjecting itself to higher standards than the rest of the world – as these highly educated people could certainly have done – academia instead went with a wrong reward system, modeled after the perceived success of industry. We chose to quantify the value of research while being completely oblivious to the fact that research doesn’t work like that. It is not supposed to be done for some sort of “profit”. Yet deriving from industry, this reward system ends up transforming academia into a poor cousin of industry, one that has no earnings thus cannot offer the usual bonuses either.

Whether one should fight it, I cannot offer a clear answer. But at least people should be aware of the status quo before embarking on a PhD.