Dissatisfaction with Academia — from within

It took me three years to do my PhD, and it was not as intellectually exciting experience  as my Masters work, where I did indeed have A Great Thought (I’ve only ever had two of them). I went to Oxford, where the D.Phil was the equivalent, and people took much longer to complete them than had been the case at the ANU.

Then I went to the US, and discovered that the American PhD was altogether, in my view, a better preparation both for research and for teaching after it, which was what most PhDs were gong to do. When I finally returned to Australia I tried to engage my elders and betters in shifting the PhD more towards the American system, with coursework majors and minors and  a thesis that was shorter and punchier.

There was some sympathy from my boss, but it was hard going. The thesis was, for most PhD students, a baby with a long gestation period, but it was theirs, and they were sick of exams anyway. Today Australia has the PhD system I remember from fifty years ago.

I came across a lament from a student at a European research institute a month or so ago, and it stayed on in my mind. It’s long, and sad. It starts like this: I am writing to state that, after four years of hard but enjoyable PhD work at this school, I am planning to quit my thesis in January, just a few months shy of completion. 

Why? I’ve lost faith in today’s academia as being something that brings a positive benefit to the world/societies we live in. Rather, I’m starting to think of it as a big money vacuum that takes in grants and spits out nebulous results, fueled by people whose main concerns are not to advance knowledge and to effect positive change, though they may talk of such things, but to build their CVs and to propel/maintain their careers.

He goes on to say that while some of what he says is based on his experience, a lot comes from the experience of others. He gives eight reasons why ‘Academia’ is flawed. I’ve hugely abbreviated them, but they’re well worth reading in full.

1. Its not Science, It’s Business You should be brutally honest with yourself if you’re on the search for truth, but you quickly learn that you have to sell yourself…

2. Work Hard … So That One Day You Too May Manage  It is, he says, both funny and frightening that the majority of the world’s academic research is actually being done by people like me, who don’t even have a PhD degree. 

3.The Backwards Mentality Students too often have to research an area because of the supervisor’s backwards mentality of “it is important because I’ve spent too many years working on it”.

4. Where Originality Will Hurt You   I cannot help but get the impression that the majority of us are avoiding the real issues and pursuing minor, easy problems that we know can be solved and published. The result is a gigantic literature full of marginal/repetitive contributions. This, however, is not necessarily a bad thing if it’s a good CV that you’re after.

5. The Black Hole of Bandwagon Research Indeed, writing lots of papers of questionable value about a given popular topic seems to be a very good way to advance your academic career these days. The advantages are clear: there is no need to convince anyone that the topic is pertinent and you are very likely to be cited more since more people are likely to work on similar things. This will, in turn, raise your impact factor and will help to establish you as a credible researcher, regardless of whether your work is actually good/important or not… 

Unfortunately, not only does this lead to quantity over quality, but many researchers, having grown dependent on the bandwagon, then need to find ways to keep it alive even when the field begins to stagnate. The results are usually disastrous. 

6. Statistics Galore! [T]here seems to exist an unhealthy obsession among academics regarding their numbers of citations, impact factors, and numbers of publications. This leads to all sorts of nonsense, such as academics making “strategic citations”, writing “anonymous” peer reviews where they encourage the authors of the reviewed paper to cite their work, and gently trying to tell their colleagues about their recent work at conferences or other networking events…

7. The Violent Land of Giant Egos I often wonder if many people in academia come from insecure childhoods where they were never the strongest or the most popular among their peers, and, having studied more than their peers, are now out for revenge. I suspect that yes, since it is the only explanation I can give to explain why certain researchers attack, in the bad way, other researchers’ work. 

8. The Greatest Trick It Ever Pulled was Convincing the World That It (Academia) Was Necessary  Perhaps the most crucial, piercing question that the people in academia should ask themselves is this: “Are we really needed?” Year after year, the system takes in tons of money via all sorts of grants. Much of this money then goes to pay underpaid and underappreciated PhD students who, with or without the help of their advisors, produce some results. In many cases, these results are incomprehensible to all except a small circle, which makes their value difficult to evaluate in any sort of objective manner. 

This is a disturbing letter, because I think there is a lot of truth in it, especially in some fields, one of which (‘climate science’) I write about a lot. I encourage readers who have university experience to go to the source and read the whole letter. I ask myself, is it as bad as this in Australia?

Join the discussion 3 Comments

  • Alister McFarquhar says:

    Certainly as bad in UK

    So Consider……

    How did we get here?

    and how do we escape?

  • Len Walker says:

    Don. I had a hugely stimulating PhD at Cambridge UK in the 1960s, and a debilitating 4 years as an outside member of the faculty of Engineering in Melbourne in the 1970s from which I eventually resigned. The succinct summary you write is enough for me to agree wholeheartedly. But the growth and power of big Govt, big business and big education is a symptom of the times – probably irreversible. One response is the growth and power of social media, most effective based on emotionalism rather than rationality. Should we fear for the future or are we just getting old?

  • Don Aitkin says:

    Yes, to both Len and Alister: I don’t know how we will get out of it, but there tends to be a self-correctingmechanism when anything gets to be too large, and I think the first sign will be a reduction in funding, perhaps for climate science, but also for other areas where there is some real disquiet, like medical science.

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