On facing reality

Originally posted 2011-10-08

Addendum: Since changing over to physics/biophysics, I can see that the travesties described in this essay are particularly widespread in the chemistry world, but less common in the physics world.

We all know that what should be, and what is, are two different things. It’s unfortunate, but reality often gets in the way of our idealism. When this happens, some of us turn to cynicism, some turn to denial, and some simply walk away. But I think the most tragic outcome is to take what is, and convince oneself that that it is in fact, what should be. The world may be an ugly place, but it doesn’t have to be so, nor should it be so.

I’ve found that academia is nothing like the idealistic vision of curiosity-driven scientists pursuing a deeper understanding of the world that many high school and college students have. Graduate students who come from idyllic liberal arts schools are often shocked and disillusioned by the dystopian, well-lubricated machine that is modern academia.

Intellectual Freedom
Intellectual Freedom

What I see is a bureaucracy sustained by parochial, unimaginative, and career-driven people. As my classmates and I go through the lab rotations here, what I see is a microcosm of academia. A friend is currently rotating with a famous professor, where there is fierce competition for the few open slots in the group that year. Of the ten or more students who had come to Harvard hoping to work for this professor, most have already given up. The hopefuls had heard that this professor had strong political clout in securing academic positions for his students, and that by joining this professor’s lab, their careers would be set. The few that remain in the running all have big name fellowships, and are eager to demonstrate that they belong to this lab by working 90-100 hour weeks during a four-week rotation period. The professor is of course, glad to take these students - at the very least, their fellowship status means that he doesn’t have to worry about writing grants. And who wouldn’t want a student who burns his own soul away on the midnight lamp? The professor gets to take in “good” students, where “good” means that you’ve spent your undergrad years doing research, publishing a few papers, getting good grades, and winning fellowships. These students who have slaved away their undergraduate years and who have spent their four week rotations entirely in lab will continue to work 80+ hours/week as graduate students. They’ll work hard, advance their career, and have first dibs on becoming tenured professors at top research institutions. This will compound the professor’s fame, which is also exactly what the professor wants.

But all that aside, seriously, what the hell? This isn’t a rotation process, it’s a fraternity rush, and everyone wants to be in the frat for the “winners”. Is competition so rampant, is the path to professorship so well worn and formulaic, that people will follow Professor Famous like sheep?

It feels to me that academia is very much a place of strict order, if you want to eventually become a professor. There are many hoops you must jump through, and if you do, then you’ll be awarded appropriately. The hoops are a hazing ritual and a filter, to encourage you to enforce the same hoops when you join the inner circle. The one month rotation period, has become a one-month time period in which you attempt to signal your professorial fitness (with analogy to sexual fitness) to your potential advisor. Throughout this entire process, the emphasis on good science is decidedly secondary. Instead of good science dictating reputation, it is instead reputation that dictates reputation, and reputation that dictates what “good” science should be.

If academia is such a vile place to be, then so be it. I’m not going to try and convince myself that I should force myself through this meat grinder so that I can be “successful”. I’m just not going to do it. If you tell me that I “have to” work hard for grades so that I can get a fellowship, so that I can get into a top research group for my PhD, or that I “have to” work 80 hours a week so that I can publish lots of papers in grad school so that I can get into a good postdoc position, so that I can land that tenure-track assistant professor position at a top research university… my answer is, no I don’t “have to” do any of this. To submit to such a meat grinder and come out the other end as a nondescript slab of ground beef would be to lose all imagination. There are so many ways you can live your life, there’s no reason to believe that you “have to” do all of these things with your life. (To answer the obvious question, “Why are you still here, then?”, I would answer, “I wouldn’t be, except that by staying here, I get an opportunity to study abiogenesis, which has for a long time been a big question in my mind.”)

I’ve heard various arguments on why you should submit to this brutal process for a slim chance at obtaining professorship. “You get the freedom to research whatever you want”. “I like teaching, so I want to become a professor”. “The pay might suck as a grad student/postdoc, but if you can land tenure, then you have a stable job”. All of these reasons are a rather poor post-hoc rationalization. If these are the perks that you really want, there are so many more efficient and self-preserving ways to obtain them. Open your eyes, people! You’ve been festering in this pile of feces for so long that you’ve begun to believe that what is is what should be.

You might argue that no, not all academia is that bad, and that I’m focusing on the bad apples. But as is often the case, it’s the entire system that’s become rotten. The bad apples are the rule, rather than the exception, and that over time, it will only become more and more true.

I end this tale with a cautionary note: Universities will get exactly what they’re looking for. I mean this both in the tautological sense, and in a deeper sense. If universities are looking to give tenure to career-focused candidates who have done everything just right (good grades, fellowships, good PhD, good postdocs, etc.), then they will get exactly those kinds of people. The professoriate of today may be a more eclectic, interesting group of people - holdovers from a bygone era. I predict that the professoriate of tomorrow will be a much more monotonous, anti-curious, and unimaginative group of people.