The dark side of Academia — And how to know if it fits you
Working in Academia means flexible hours, following your passion and making the world a better place. Unfortunately, that’s only a partial picture of the whole story.
I grew up with the myth of the researcher. Researchers are the nerdy, usually clumsy, bad asses in movies. Think about the whole Marvel universe, wherever you look there is a scientist who turned himself into a superhuman by some explotions or who knows what kind of sofisticated injection. In the end, researchers of all disciplines are cool guys.
It is not surprising if you also want to become a scientist and aspire to get a Nobel prize, one day. I had the same dream. I was completely absorbed by the fantasy of working in a lab for years, applying myself to unravel the deepest misteries of nature. You are probably going to ask what’s wrong with that. Well, there is absolutely nothing wrong in wanting to know more and to apply knowledge to improve the quality of life of billions of people.
What I find tricky is the version of the academic world that we have in mind. It can be very misleading and we can find ourselves in a position where everything we thought about academia is more or less a distorted version of reality. Here is a list of what in my experience are the most disturbing features of academia.
1. There are no flexible hours
If with flexible hours you mean the opportunity to work from wherever you want, then academia has probably the highest flexibility out there. If flexible hours means the possibility to work whenever you want at the only condition that you get the job done, then you are going to be disenchanted and here is why.
When you work in academy, you have a long road ahead of you before having the opportunity to get a professorship. You need to go through a PhD, at least a couple of postdocs and then, if you have the right amount of articles published on top journals, you can compete with several other super trained researchers for the next step towards becoming a principal investigator (PI). Four years of PhD plus two postdocs of three years each means that after your Masters’ Degree, you have to go through other ten years of training, and we are talking about one of the rare best case scenarios.
I bet that you study whenever you can and you feel guilty even if cooking your dinner is taking too long
I’m pretty sure that you got the implications of my reasoning, didn’t you? In other words, you are constantly investing in yourself. During the Bachelor and Masters’ Degree, you needed to get high grades in a decent amount of time to show on you cv that you were smart. You invested in your studies sacrifying a great part of your life to win the competition against others like you and get to enter a PhD program. During your PhD, you still have to invest a lot of time to publish enough articles to be able to win another competition and get a postdoc, and so on and so forth.
How do you deal with a continuous investment? I bet that you study whenever you can and you feel guilty even if cooking your dinner is taking too long. So, you can work from home, at your favourite bar, on the train because research is very flexible and makes you feel free, but you won’t be able to switch your mind off. You will constantly worry about how you can improve your article, why your code gives an error or why the reviewers are taking so long to reply.
So, forget about flexible hours because you will end up working even during weekends and holidays. When you finally get a chance to rest, guilt will hug you and won’t leave you until you go back to work.
2. Fear fueld years
As a consequence of the lack of real flexible hours and of a highly competitive environment, chances are that you will spend years in fear. There are several fears that I and my PhD fellows shared. So when you attend conferences, dramatically extending your social network, you will talk to other PhD students and postdocs and you will find out that one common fear is that “someone else will publish first”. If you are not accustomed with the “publish or perish” expression, take a look at this very interesting article (Rawat et al) that points out how devastating the pressure to publish can be for the entire research and educational system. Putting it straightforward: if another research group manages to publish some results that can make your still-to-be-published research useless, then you are going to get quite frustrated, depressed and anxious.
If you have small chances to win, you will counterattack with the only resource that you master, working even harder
This brings us to the second major fear. It is very common in the academia to be afraid to not be able to find a job after your contract is over. Of course you are afraid and you have all the rights. As Rawat et al explains, “Many universities do not focus on teaching ability when they hire new faculty and simply look at the publications list”. If you don’t publish, you don’t have a juicy cv to show. No juicy cv, no chance to win the competition for an open position. The fear of the unknown kicks in and because you don’t want to live in fear, you are going to work an awful amount of time to maximize the chances to make your cv longer.
There are of course other factors that can prevent you from publishing. For instance, you might end up waiting months to finally get an answer from the reviewers. When then finally send you the coveted reply, your heart is pounding, your hopes are high, you are praying whatever god crosses your mind, and if you don’t believe in any god you will borrow some faith and pray anyway. You brace yourself and read the email just to realize that the reviewers rejected your paper. Most of the times, you won’t even get a professional and meaningful feedback.
It might also happen that you are part of a big group and you will never be the first author. As a consequence, you won’t be ranked among the top researchers. The list of possible factors that will interfere with your publishing and consequently with your career can be very long and painful to read.
The combination between the constant pressure to publish, the extremely competitive environment and the righteous anxiety about your future will trigger the third fear, no matter how hard your work it will never be enough. And the circle is closed. See how these three fears go hand in hand in making your years miserable? If you don’t publish, you don’t have a good cv. If you don’t have a good cv, the chances to win the competition for an open position will dramatically decrease. If you have small chances to win, you will counterattack with the only resource that you master, working even harder. The more you work (keeping in mind that you aim to publish), the more you lose if you won’t publish.
3. Complete alienation…workwise
To summarize, you want to invest in yourself, your education and your skills, but you will soon face a highly competitive world where your future will be very uncertain. The cure for this, you will soon realize, is to work even harder. The natural consequence of this scenario is that you become over specialized. Let me explain this idea with an example.
You can easily imagine how unsettling it can be to realize that what you do eventually matters to very few people
Imagine that you are an apprendice potter and you are about to follow a specialized training course. After you mastered how to create several basic shapes that you can then combine to make whatever your mind can conceive, you are ready to refine your skills and make lighter but sturdier pottery. You will learn more about colours, irregular shapes, baking techniques and so on. The aim is to make you an all-knowing god in pottery so that you can be in charge of creating whatever you like.
In the case of academia, things are slightly different. If you think about a PhD in terms of pottery, then a doctorate is like learning how to make a specific coffee cup with a unique combination of design, colour, size and pattern. The cup is made to satisfy the needs of one specific person who will proundly drink coffee from your cup once per year. That’s more or less the level of specialization that you will get. Professor Matt Might brilliantly illustrates the concept in his guide to a PhD.
You can easily imagine how unsettling it can be to realize that what you do eventually matters to very few people. If you start having interviews with companies, nobody can fully grasp what you are doing. Be prepared to enthusiastically talk about your PhD thesis and receive blank faces. Sometimes people will start looking around nervously, sometimes they will cough to politely suggest that you change subject.
Anyway, the point is that you will be a perfect match for very few research groups and you will be like an alien for the rest of the job market.
4. A never-ending “start from scratch”
Now that you got an idea of how specialized you will be, you can easily see how dangerous for your mental peacefulness over specialization can be. Practically, there will be few open positions, if any, where you can continue to progress in line with your previous project. What does this mean? Clearly, when you win a postdoc you have to start from scratch. New mathematical models, new procedures, new code, new foundations to build with respect to the specific angle that the new project requires.
Granted, you will still have a lot of arrows in your quiver like experience, a consolidated background, a strong know-how in finding your way in the enormous amount of literature out there, a network of colleagues that can lead to future collaborations, probably your own code and so on. Nonetheless, you will probably need to change country or even continent and when I talk about starting from scratch I literally mean a fresh start. Getting to know the dynamics of a new group takes time. The task is made difficult by needing to getting acquainted with a new bureaucracy, a new culture and a new social life to build, eventually a new language to learn.
Clearly, when you win a postdoc you have to start from scratch
I am not neglecting the thrill of discovering a completely new social environment, but here we are talking about a career that can easily require more than four relocations. We are not talking about going somewhere on vacation for a couple of months. Starting a new life in another society takes time, patience and a lot of mental and emotional energy. Being an expat is not easy at all, as the survey by InterNations suggests.
How to cope with academia
Let’s not despair. Let’s take a look at what we can do to cope with the current situation. First of all, I don’t want to discourage you from pursuing the academic career. I want to put all the cards on the table, even the most uncomfortable ones so that you can make an educated guess of whether research fits you. I have three tips to help you be more aware of the choice that you are going to make.
Tip 1: Focus on the Lifestyle
Whether you want to work as potter, tennis player, rock star or researcher, please don’t focus on the perks of the job. Reconsider following your passion because you might end up narrowing your options. Every job has bright and dark sides. In my experience, one of the main factors to decide whether a job is for me is to look at the lifestyle that comes with it. So, when you talk to your peers, be curious about their lifestyle refraining yourself from any judgments. Just be curious about them and how they spend their time. Try to be in their shoes and see if they are comfortable for you as well.
If your heart melts at the thought of this kind of life, then go for it without any doubts
I met a lot of happy researchers. I saw them constatly talking about their projects, being perfectly at ease with reading articles before going to sleep. They are fine with writing proposals and articles, even when they are supposed to be on vacation. Basically, they fully embrace their lifestyle. If your heart melts at the thought of this kind of life, then go for it without any doubts. But if you feel some resistance, don’t be ashamed of it. It simply means that you are still in time to steer your career.
Tip 2: Nurture your Hobbies
If you don’t listen to the resistance that you might experience, you will be an easy prey of the pubblish or perish loop. Over specialization will make you a good fit for a very few open positions, remember? In order to counterbalance the disruptive consequences of the loop, a good habit is to nurture your hobbies, whatever they are. Keep an open mind and continue to get interested in new activities. You never know when those skills will show up to help you. As an example, I have been practicing martial arts for years and even though I am not active in a dojo, I can definitely benefit from the training. Over the years I became calmer, more in control of myself. In one word, diplomatic. I needed this skill when dealing with a new working culture. Diplomacy showed up unexpected and it served me well.
So, if you like playing an instrument, reading books, skateboarding, writing etc…don’t give up! Keep up devoting time to whatever hobby you have not because you need to balance some negative aspects of your life, but because you will make space for new opportunities. Nurturing your hobbies is the best validation that you are able to do other things than producing scientific results that only a bunch of people will understand.
Tip 3: Combine and Discover
Here is my last tip for you. Now that you gathered information about jobs and their lifestyles and you are motivated to continue practicing your hobbies, you can move forward. Your next step is to combine all the skills that you have. Be completely honest about yourself and if you find it hard, ask as many people as you can to describe you. It might be scary, but I am challenging you to do it anyway. Why? Because stepping outside of the comfort zone is probably the only way to really grow.
Once you group adjectives into skills, you have a profile
Once you have a list of your skills, look at the person that emerges. For example, if people tell you that you are funny, sometimes boring, clever, brutally honest, introvert and a good cook then you have something to work with. Use all the adjectives to look at yourself in your entirety. Don’t focus on the good adjectives only. Don’t cheat. It is tempting, but it won’t serve you in the long run. Thank your friends for being honest and try to work on the qualities that you consider as bad. After you have an idea of the features you have, turn them into skills. For instance, the adjectives that I mentioned above can be translated in good communicator and great team player, with the condition to work a bit on the boring and introvert side.
Once you group adjectives into skills, you have a profile. The last piece of the puzzle is to look for professional niches that can use a person with your profile. If you don’t like the profile that emerges, no problem at all because now that you know how to get it, you can go back to where the process starts and modify your way to be accordingly.
In conclusion, reasearch is a tough work environment where competition is the main feature. It can bring great fulfillment, but it comes at a high cost. If you can cope with the researcher lifestyle than you can sleep sound for years to come. But if you experience increasing discomfort and a feeling of not belonging, then it is time to investigate why you are doing what you are doing.