Academic follies, encore
Over at the Daily Transcript, there are two posts [1, 2], and associated comment threads, about "The Academy", at least in the life sciences, that are worth reading in their entirety, especially the comments.
[What, you're still reading this ? Fine.]
The summary: postdocs complain about the long hours, low pay, and lack of a life outside the lab required to even have a shot at a faculty position, never mind the insanity then required to achieve tenure. The response of a couple of professors, stripped down to its essentials: "Stop whining and suck it up, because we've got plenty more people where you came from that are willing to sacrifice everything. You should be grateful that you get to work on what interests you, with other smart people".
The first bit of the response is amazing not only in that it's addressed at highly educated, skilled people [not that it's something that should really be said to anybody] but also that they're willing to be spoken to and treated that way. And the defenses of academia in the second bit of the response are the standard "But look at the benefits !" justifications for the insane state of affairs, and stick in my craw every time I hear them.
"You get to work on what you want": Well, really, you get to work on what the funding agencies will give you money to work on. And, increasingly, these agencies are funding not individual investigators, but rather large, multi-investigator projects; see these posts about the decrease in funding rates and funding inequities between Big Biology and individual investigators, leading to what has been called a lost generation of individual researchers. So, it seems like there's a pretty good chance that, to survive, you may have to attach yourself to one of the mega-grants and end up working on something that's not exactly what you want to be doing. That's probably even more true if you're a junior faculty member, in which case you'll probably end up somewhere fairly low down on the author list of the published papers, which in turn isn't great for your career.
"... work with other smart people": Yes, that's definitely nice. But I'm always reminded of a simple numerical fact: most of the smart people in the world work somewhere else than wherever you currently happen to be. So that's not a good enough reason to put up with the execrable conditions.
... and from what I've seen, there are at least the same amount of bureaucracy and stiflingly boring tasks and meetings in academia as there are in industry. The only difference is that they're called "committee meetings", and probably drag on forever because nobody really has the final say over anything.
The other thing that I don't understand is why there is such an oversupply of PhDs [at least in the life sciences] who want to become academics. The possible reasons I've come up with so far are:
- a lack of awareness of alternatives, maybe due to being given bad career advice
- that the vast majority of them think of themselves as the PhDs of Lake Wobegon: all Above Average, and so the grim statistics don't apply to them
- such a pure, burning desire to explore the mysteries of Nature that, damn the torpedoes, any other course of action is inconceivable [and that word means what you think it means]. In which case, hey, go for it. But is that really the case for the majority of people ?
Don't get me wrong: I strongly believe that we need research universities and institutions, and basic research. I'm just amazed at the self-flagellation people are willing to inflict on themselves in order to join the academic club. And I wonder how long this pyramid scheme can keep going.