On academic ambivalence (UPDATEDx2)

There’s a great new post from grad student Caroline Tucker at The EEB and Flow on academic ambivalence. Was going to link to it in the Friday linkfest and comment briefly, but my comments ended up being long enough that I decided a separate post was in order.

Why do so many grad students and postdocs work so hard for so long, and for so little tangible reward, chasing so few tenure-track academic positions? And what are the consequences of that? Caroline suggests that the intense competition selects for a certain sort of person (basically, a workaholic). I wouldn’t disagree. But I think it’s difficult to see how to change this in any major way, given that employers and funding agencies surely want to (and ought to!) select for people who produce more, better science. Don’t misunderstand me, I absolutely agree with Caroline that we can improve policies that help support people in their efforts to raise families and find work-life balance. But at some level, as long as people are free to allocate their time as they choose, and as long as allocating more time to science lets you produce more and better science, it’s going to be hard to avoid indirectly selecting for workaholics, isn’t it?

And on the issue of why so many people continue to pursue academia for as long as they can despite the low odds of getting a tenure-track job, I’ll suggest two answers, one happy, one sad. They aren’t mutually exclusive, and indeed may be two different versions of the same answer (glass half-full vs. glass half-empty, if you like).

The happy answer is that tenure-track academic positions are some of the best jobs around, and that the training process, while not lucrative, has many enjoyable aspects for the people choosing to undertake it. Basically, there are lots of smart people in the world who love doing science, and can hardly imagine themselves doing anything else. Those people are happy to take a shot at making a career of doing science, figuring that, if it doesn’t work out in the long term, at least they got to do science for a while before having to fall back on some less-desirable-but-still-decent job. That was more or less my attitude.

The sad answer is that, for reasons that we could argue long into the night about, the alternatives (e.g., doctor, lawyer, schoolteacher…) increasingly are long shots as well. And the alternative careers that aren’t long shots mostly don’t pay well and aren’t very desirable in other respects. So even if lots of people who are currently trying to make it in science could easily see themselves doing other things, it’s not clear to me that they wouldn’t choose science anyway, given that there are no easy alternatives. The world is not overflowing with careers that offer some intellectual stimulation, reasonably good pay, reasonable job security, and some measure of responsibility and decision-making authority. Certainly not relative to the demand for such careers, anyway.

What to do about this? Short of “somehow reverse various decades-long trends in macroeconomics and government fiscal policies”? Well, supervisors can make sure grad students thinking of a career in academia know what they’re getting into. Graduate programs can do more to help grad students acquire skills and contacts required for jobs outside academia (e.g., see here and here). Maybe scientific funding agencies should be looking at ways to fund fewer grad students and more lab managers/technicians/research associates, so that that becomes a more viable and desirable long term career path for more people. Although if that would result in less, or less good, science getting done, then it’s hard to see funding agencies going down that road. After all, it’s their job to fund as much good science as they can, not to make sure that everyone who wants a career doing science can have one.

But these are just thoughts off the top of my head, so they’re probably not worth much. Indeed, re-reading this post just now I have the vague feeling that everything I’ve said is either dead obvious or wrong (is it?), but somehow more intelligent remarks aren’t coming to me. Sorry, I don’t have any great ideas here. Maybe there aren’t any.

UPDATE: Over at The EEB and Flow, Marc Cadotte follows up by linking to some sobering data on the academic job market compiled by The Atlantic magazine.

UPDATE #2: Biological Posteriors chimes in with more data and comments on other professional fields vs. science. Bottom line: employment prospects are indeed limited, and work hours long, in all fields. Science isn’t unique. I agree with his suggestion that focusing on job prospects and working hours for scientists is to focus too narrowly.

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4 thoughts on “On academic ambivalence (UPDATEDx2)

  1. One of the underlying assumptions of Caroline’s article is that “being an academic” is a single job description and everyone in academia works in a particular way. That’s far from the truth as those of us who have worked in universities for a long time know very well. Perhaps it’s important that we get this message across to the coming generations of academics? I’ve always seen my job as a triangle of responsibilities – research, teaching and “admin” (though the latter covers a lot of roles including committees, form filling, organisation, etc.) Depending on the type of university you are in, the relative sizes of each side of the triangle will vary. And they will also vary depending on the stage of your career and how you choose to interpret the (often vague) job description of being an academic.

    Yes, being an academic can be hard work, but then it should be: it’s a position of responsibility in wider society and needs to be taken seriously. But lots of jobs are much harder work and much more stressful – nursing, fire fighting, police, etc. And none of these have anywhere near the level of freedom that academia allows. It remains a very privileged position even if it’s never quite what one imagines it will be as a grad student….

  2. Your post contains a lot of assumptions that I find dubious. Sure, the world is not overflowing with careers that are rewarding AND well-paying AND intellectually stimulating. But isn’t that a good reason to get started on one NOW, before academia chews you up and spits you out? The thing that is different about science from all of those others careers is this: in science, ALL THE REAL WORK IS DONE BY TRAINEES. Trainees who don’t even know what they’re training for.

    “Maybe scientific funding agencies should be looking at ways to fund fewer grad students and more lab managers/technicians/research associates, so that that becomes a more viable and desirable long term career path for more people. Although if that would result in less, or less good, science getting done …”

    Why? Isn’t this a case of assuming that they way we’ve always done it is the only way it can be done? The hidden costs of having all the work be done by people who we’ve been doing it for only a couple of years should be so obvious they don’t even need to be considered.

    • Hi Casey,

      Afraid I’m unclear what you find so dubious about my post. I hadn’t thought the post was saying anything especially non-obvious or controversial, so I’m surprised that anyone would find it, not only dubious, but obviously dubious.

      It seems like you may have misunderstood my intent, so I’ll try to clarify. Nothing in my post is an argument about what individual people should or shouldn’t do with their lives. My post is descriptive, not prescriptive. It is in fact the case that many more people go to grad school in the hopes of having an academic career than will in fact ever have an academic career. My post asks why that’s the case, speculates briefly about some of the consequences of that fact (e.g., does it mean that academia ends up selecting for workaholics?), and makes a few suggestions as to what could be done to change things, while noting that some of the key institutions involved in creating and perpetuating the current state of affairs don’t really have a reason to change things.

      In return, I hope you’ll clarify your comments, about which I have numerous questions:

      Your claim that all the “real” work in science is done by trainees implicitly assumes what’s “real” work and what’s not. That seems to me to be loaded language. I think more neutral language would be to say that certain sorts of work are done mostly by trainees (typically under the guidance of a trainer), while other sorts of work are done mostly by non-trainees. For instance, here at my very large and not-atypical research university, faculty are the ones who teach the lectures, while TAs run labs. Do you think teaching lectures isn’t “real” work, and that only running lab sections is? That’s just an example of course, I could pose to you the same sort of question about many other differences in the sort of work done by trainers vs. trainees. Is designing courses, designing labs, writing exams, etc. not “real” work, while marking lab assignments is? Is writing NSF grants not “real” work, but applying for scholarships is? Is deciding what data will be collected, and where, when and how they’ll be collected, not “real” work, while actually collecting them is? Etc.

      “The thing that’s different about science from all of those other careers is this: in science, all of the real work is done by trainees.”

      Um, I’m pretty sure that in lots of fields, there are trainees, and that they are trained by having them do different sorts of work than are done by those doing the training. Can you clarify why you think science is so different in this respect?

      “Isn’t this a case of assuming that the way we’ve always done things is the only way it can be done?”

      No. I’m afraid you lost me. You’re referring to a paragraph in which I suggested quite substantial changes to the way things are currently done, and accusing me of arguing for the status quo. Can you clarify?

      Afraid I’m also unclear on the putatively “obvious” hidden costs of having certain sorts of work done by trainees. They’re not at all obvious to me, and so I’ll need to ask you to spell them out. For instance, in any lab the supervisor will ensure that trainees are properly trained so that they can, e.g., correctly operate equipment, correctly identify the study organisms, etc. For instance, I’m no faster or more accurate at counting protists than are any of my trainees (a fact I verify with every new trainee). So I take it the costs you have in mind are not costs to, e.g., data quality?

      EDIT: Oh, and see also Jeff’s earlier comment about how the work that academic scientists do varies widely depending on their career stage, where they’re employed, and other factors.

  3. Pingback: Friday links: why do a Ph.D., and more | Dynamic Ecology

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