Academia is a fantastical dream weaver and you need to wake up

Jun 08 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

Higher education in the US weaves, for many students, a fantastical dream. 

You can do what you want and people will pay you for it!

Any intellectual pursuit that interests your young brain will end up as a paying career! 

This explains why there are so many English majors who can't get jobs upon graduation. I know, an easy target. Also see Comm majors. 

But we academic scientists are the absolute worst at this. 
It results in a pool of postdoc scientist PhDs who are morally outraged to find out the world doesn't actually work that way. 

Yes. High JIF pubs and copious grant funding are viewed as more important than excellent teaching reviews and six-sigma chili peppers or wtfever.
In another context, yeah, maybe translational research is a tiny bit easier to fund than your obsession with esoteric basic research questions. 

29 responses so far

  • AcademicLurker says:

    Since English was my other major in undergrad, I feel the need to speak up against the myth.

    Traditional majors of most types (English, philosophy, mathematics, chemistry, & etc.) tend to do OK. It's the bogus pseudo-majors like "hospitality studies" that get hosed.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I am not suggesting that English majors don't "do okay". I am suggesting we weave them a fantasy of a career spouting nonsense about the turn of phrase of the latest obscure novelist

  • becca says:

    It's so cute when people think choice of major matters, rather than family of origin income.

    Our educational systems *drive* inequality. This is a Feature, not a Bug.

  • duke of neural says:

    "six-sigma chili peppers" is actually my favorite red hot chili peppers cover band. It's Jack Donaghy from 30 rock yelling their songs.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    @becca:

    If you haven't read Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality, I highly recommend it.

  • dr24 says:

    Sooner or later everyone wakes up to the idea that we don't get to work on what we want. We get to work on what someone else will pay for. Sometimes we get close to a confluence, usually we don't.

    It's not an injustice that we have to work on things that we don't *love*. And it is the height of entitled privilege that so many of us think it is.

  • sel says:

    I just forwarded the "we regret to inform you" letter and reviews from our recent proposal submission to the grad student on that particular project. Might as well wake them up to reality early.

  • Grumble says:

    "Sooner or later everyone wakes up to the idea that we don't get to work on what we want."

    So far I haven't woken up.

  • dr24 says:

    Grumble - then you're very lucky. But you shouldn't tell trainees that they can expect the same, or that they should fight for it and consider anything else a failure. That's what academia does, and why it's so toxic.

  • PaleoGould says:

    The majority of undergraduates, even with traditional majors, do not wish for careers in academia. Or at least not in the UK they didn't. They were quite happy to spent three years pursuing an intellectual interest with more or less rigor, then go off an live the rest of their lives.
    Those of us who wanted to go further. Well, that's more complicated.

  • mH says:

    "It's so cute when people think choice of major matters, rather than family of origin income."

    Exactly. It's like saying "finding yourself suddenly hovering above the rim palming the ball is the best predictor of scoring a basket in an NBA game."

  • jmz4 says:

    "Any intellectual pursuit that interests your young brain will end up as a paying career!"
    I do not think this is generally true. Rare or in demand skill sets (e.g. programming) have always been emphasized as good major choices.

    And then there's the point PaleoGould made, which is also explained here:
    http://blogs.wsj.com/experts/2016/06/01/why-i-was-wrong-about-liberal-arts-majors/

    I think there are plenty of people who view their biology BS or PhD as a time of intellectual inquiry that may have influenced their career options and aspirations, but was perhaps more or less tangential to them.

    There's more value to education than simply what jobs it allows you to get. Done properly, it offers perspective and intellectual tools that enrich one's life on multiple levels. Additionally, it provides some protection against small-mindedness, which I do think plagues some of my colleagues who were (self)selected out for STEM curricula at an early age.

  • Bill Nihilist says:

    The implicit bargain was that by renouncing the wages and prestige of being a doctor or a lawyer, the humble scientist could indulge in their passion. Maybe they had the quantitative chops to go the engineering route, but they wanted to keep one pinky toe in the creative realm, so they chose academic science. They shrugged and weighed the bargain, "at least I'll have my freedom"

    It was never thought to be a paradise, but it turns out even as a compromise it was a mirage.

  • Curiosity says:

    Right on, jmz4. I emphasize to my trainees that the PhD is not a professional degree. It's more akin to a liberal arts thesis. What they should be getting out of their education is experience developing a significant body of work. This process is enormous and multifaceted, and I would argue that, done well, it is unlike any kind of work experience they would normally be exposed to in other sectors. The opportunity to develop this body of work makes the PhD valuable unto itself for the trainee, even without a faculty position waiting somewhere. If they do it well, and make important, real discoveries, they might have the chops to continue in science. If they do it just ok, then it's not appropriate to consider moving up in academic science -- only laterally if they like it so much -- but more appropriately into teaching, industry, or a compete career change. This is why I would argue that a big part of the cull should be at the postdoc level: the PhD is valuable on its own; the 'postdoc' is a career stepping stone and nothing else. Stepping stones to the abyss are not stepping stones we should support.

  • DJMH says:

    *Someone's* grouchy about Bernie's purported idealism turning out to be ego-stoking.

  • PepProf says:

    The 'fundability' issue is one I still haven't come to terms with. I received an R01 and R21 for projects that have morphed into something so boring that I have no interest to pursue them. I feel fortunate and grateful, but I certainly don't feel like I've 'won'. What I am grateful for is that it nowfunding gives me the freedom to pursue my true research interests (read esoteric). Maybe such a philosophical shift at this stage in my career is a huge mistake, but I'd rather follow my passion that try to extract joy from hollow victories.

  • Jonathan Badger says:

    "In another context, yeah, maybe translational research is a tiny bit easier to fund than your obsession with esoteric basic research questions. "

    I agree in the sense that I myself transitioned into the biomedical field for reasons of practicality, but I still hang out with a lot of basic environmental scientists and it is important to understand that they aren't just studying basic science for the pure fun of it. They kind of have a point that it really doesn't matter if cancer or Alzheimer's is cured if society manages to destroy itself through environmental destruction. A lot of "basic science" is actually more critical in the big scheme of things than biomedical science.

  • Anonymous says:

    "The implicit bargain was that by renouncing the wages and prestige of being a doctor or a lawyer, the humble scientist could indulge in their passion."

    Yup -- so true!

  • Zuska says:

    Curiosity's comment so beautifully lays out the view that teaching, industry, anything else at all, really, are the second-rate careers for second-rate scientists that must be culled from the herd to protect its vigor. Rather than, you know, meaningful career options thoughtfully chosen by people perfectly capable of doing academic science but who would rather have their fingernails pulled out with pliers because academic science is such a clusterfuck for so, so, so many reasons.

    Or, you know, just because of all the available options, academic science - gasp! - was not the most appealing!!!

    Most of the postdoc glut is overproduction but some is surely due to brainwashing PhDs that anything less than academia is second-rate failure.

  • PaleoGould says:

    " Rather than, you know, meaningful career options thoughtfully chosen by people perfectly capable of doing academic science but who would rather have their fingernails pulled out with pliers because academic science is such a clusterfuck for so, so, so many reasons." Thank you Zuska. The snobbery about other jobs that so pervades much academic discussion is disheartening, and self destructive.
    And my earlier comment was about undergraduate degrees, not PhDs.

  • jmz4 says:

    "Curiosity's comment so beautifully lays out the view that teaching, industry, anything else at all, really, are the second-rate careers for second-rate scientists that must be culled from the herd to protect its vigor."
    I think you're reading in a bit there for intent. But yeah, the idea that academic science is pure life of the mind is probably only slightly true unless you are pretty lucky. It's a bill of goods.

    When I was in grad school, we were all clued in enough to know we probably wouldn't make it to faculty positions (well, they wouldn't make it. Obviously I'm special). But the thinking was, well, it's a sweet life if you can get it. Now that I'm a bit closer with some new PIs. I can see that's not really true, unless you take an inordinate joy in science and the culture of science (or are a domineering asse looking for a fiefdom).

  • Another Assistant Prof says:

    I have a student who has amassed a pretty great publication record and who wants to ultimately become a PI. I try to tell her that she might consider other options because being an assistant professor is a pretty terrible gig these days. I wouldn't wish the stress of being a 5th year unfunded assistant professor on anyone. On the other hand, my colleagues tell me that all I need is that one student who makes it to a faculty position so that I can write about what a great mentor I am on all of my training grants and fellowship apps for the rest of my career. It's really a catch 22. I want to be supportive of all my students and their career decisions, but it's much better for me if they stay in academics.

  • Grumble says:

    @dr24:
    "Grumble - then you're very lucky." [that I still haven't woken from the dream]

    Actually, I don't think it's entirely luck. It's a refusal to compromise in areas where others see no hope of following their dream. I don't generally chase RFAs and end up doing experiments I have no interest in. I don't jump on trendy bandwagons and end up trying to compete in areas where others can do it much better than I can. I write grants that usually describe experiments I actually want to do, and that I've carefully planned and gotten pilot data for. I don't get every grant I apply for, but the reason why the funded grants get funded is partly because the reviewers recognize passion and commitment when they see it.

    "But you shouldn't tell trainees that they can expect the same, or that they should fight for it and consider anything else a failure. That's what academia does, and why it's so toxic."

    The only ones I tell this to are those who are smarter than me, and who I think actually *can* compete by following their passion. I've started to make it a rule only to hire people who show evidence of being smarter than me, so I hope soon to be able to tell this to all my trainees.

    Is that toxic? I don't know. I do tell everyone I interview how unlikely it is that they will be sitting in my chair 10 or 15 years from now. I tell them all about the pain inflicted by low funding rates, and how they really should consider other careers.

  • Alex says:

    Another Assistant Prof-

    Thank you for your candor about the incentives baked into the system. I'm in a department that only trains undergrads, but we have similar incentives. NSF will load a catapult with gold bricks and start lobbing them at your building if you have a program to get people from economically vulnerable backgrounds to take their B.S. and immediately go into a low-paid grad school gig. The people who get these grants selectively quote misleading statistics to make it seem like a PhD is an unambiguously smart career choice.

    One guy actually showed me pay statistics from 1999--the height of the boom--to argue that a PhD is a safe move in 2014. He also showed me statistics that lump together all doctorates...never mind that those statistics include MDs, JDs, and also late-career PhDs who got their degrees decades ago when the industrial hiring landscape did not yet have as big of a glut.

    Meanwhile, I'm sitting over here and organizing alumni career panels and taking students to industry networking events and getting local industry managers to give seminars in my department. I don't see NSF loading any catapults with gold bricks and inscribing my name on said bricks.

  • Industry Drone says:

    So you're basically sending people from economically vulnerable backgrounds to industry? Because industry is known for treating working class people so well. You win a gold brick with the word "disingenuous lobbying"!

  • Alex says:

    Most students are going to wind up in industry one way or another. The only question is whether they will first spend a bunch of time making less money while getting acculturated to an environment that is quite different from industry. I'm trying to help them make that transition sooner and more smoothly, so they can start making money sooner. My colleagues want them to first get a PhD so that they can get their pipeline grants renewed.

  • I agree that the "you get to do what you want" comments might benefit from considering the funding climate a bit more. In addition, in fields where people tend to work in groups (like most sciences), I wonder how common it is to do exactly what you want, even if you do get funding for it. At the trainee level, you are doing what your mentor wants. Hopefully that's combined with what you want, but I think many people need to run their experiments differently or run different experiments than they wanted altogether because that is what their advisor told them to do. And at the faculty level, you're hopefully considering what your trainees want to do. That's not to say that people never get to do what they want, just, you're usually working on something that combines parts of what you want with parts of what other people want. I'm not sure that the "do what you want" comments are really conveying how communal academia (and science in particular) can be.

  • Unless you are self-employed, you never get to "do what you want". Some jobs more closely match this ideal than others, but academia is certainly not the only place where you get to pick at least some aspects of what you do day to day.

    I haven't graduated many students myself, but I've seen a lot go through the department. Most of the students in my department start their PhDs completely uninterested in academia as a career. They want to work in "industry" without any clue what that actually means. Most of them find jobs they are happy with. Sure, Pharma blew up, but companies focused on materials, devices, and characterization methods are still hiring PhDs. I've also seen lots of students take jobs where their employer uses the PhD as a marker that their recruits can learn quickly, think decently, and are persistent. The students going into those careers seem happy about it, even if they won't be using the specific experimental techniques they trained in.

    Living in a fantasy about academia seems more of an issue for postdocs and students in BSD labs than the run of the mill student at ProdigalU. I tell my students (especially the undergrads) outright that a PhD may not make them more employable, and that they should think about what they really want before committing 5-6 years to a PhD with a much lower salary (and no chance at raises or advancement). Then, I treat them like the adults they are and do my best to train them if they stay.

  • becca says:

    "NSF will load a catapult with gold bricks and start lobbing them at your building if you have a program to get people from economically vulnerable backgrounds to take their B.S. and immediately go into a low-paid grad school gig. The people who get these grants selectively quote misleading statistics to make it seem like a PhD is an unambiguously smart career choice."

    One thing I really wonder about is what the PhD does to lifetime earnings for people who start from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Leave a Reply