Sunday, October 3, 2010
Science academia: Cutting edge or cut-throat?
A career in science academia is an attractive one. An academic career offers perks that just aren’t available in other lines of work. Research scientists enjoy a job with flexible hours, a high degree of autonomy, the chance to travel, and the luxury of choosing a research topic that is intellectually stimulating and challenging. Academia seduces many with its alluring mix of research and teaching, as well as the opportunity to make new discoveries and win respect from the international scientific community.
No doubt this is part of the reason why there are more people than ever studying for PhDs. A PhD is a huge commitment – 3 to 4 years in Australia, and 5 to 6 years in the U.S – and presumably a large proportion of students begin studying for a PhD with an academic career in mind. But are students sufficiently informed about the realities of academia before they begin such a huge undertaking? What is involved in climbing the academic ladder, and how many people fall off the ladder along the way?
Actually, the academic ladder is more like a pyramid; There are many more PhD graduates than there are post-doctoral positions, and many more post-docs than permanent tenured positions as lecturers. Job security for aspiring academics is precarious until they get a permanent position, and many people fall (or leap for dear life!) off the pyramid in their quest for greater job certainty. Competition for academic jobs is fierce in a world where your curriculum vitae boasts about the number of publications you have, what journal they are in, and the amount of grant money you have won.
But is such cutthroat competition really conducive to good research? Or are we compromising the quality of our science by placing researchers under such high levels of job stress? Such a highly competitive environment is certainly not a pre-requisite for good research, as the likes of Darwin and Einstein slowly (in Darwin’s case, this took decades) but carefully developed their revolutionary theories under the patronage of wealthy members of society.
Inevitably for some, the long hours and job stress of a modern academic career begin to take their toll on a researcher’s personal life. Frequently switching jobs (and often countries) often makes it difficult to sustain personal relationships. Those ‘significant others’ that do come along for the ride usually make large sacrifices for their partner’s academic career. Aspiring academics without sufficient financial support in tough times, either from family or partners, can also fall by the wayside. Carola Vinuesa, awarded the Science Minister’s prize for Life Scientist of the Year in 2008, recently wrote in Cosmos Magazine (August 2010) that prior to winning the prize she was struggling to manage her lab while also raising a toddler and baby at home. She said that the prize meant she could afford some domestic help, which saved her career. She wrote to thank one of her mentors in Britain, who replied bluntly that he “always suspected that every woman scientist needs a wife”.
I wonder how many students would still begin studying for a PhD if they knew that this was the case? Often by the time a PhD student works this out for themselves, many feel they come too far to turn back. So why then aren’t students warned about this before they start?  speculates that PhD students are often collateral damage in the highly-competitive world of modern-day science research, just a means to an end for the supervising academic to increase the research output and increase their success when applying for their own grants. This is certainly not the case for my own PhD supervisors, but frankly it seems to be the case for one or two academics that I know of.
Or is it simply the case that there are too many people doing PhDs out there, competing for too few jobs? I think it is important for students to understand that an academic career is not the only option after a PhD, and that choosing to opt out of academia is not something to be ashamed of. In order to graduate, PhD students must be highly self-motivated, show initiative, have superb organisational skills and, as my fellow PhD students will agree, be able to take constructive (and often not-so-constructive) criticism on board. These characteristics are highly sought-after in other careers that afford employees better work-life balance than academia.
So if you feel like academia is your true calling, go for it, but be aware of what hurdles you face along the way. If you do choose to do a PhD and then realise that academia isn’t for you, walk away with your head held high and find a career that satisfies you. Remember that your PhD was by no means a waste of time, but is an achievement that you should be proud of.
All comics are from www.phdcomics.com