Wednesday, August 3, 2011

What I wish I had known about academia (before I entered graduate school)

I'm entering my fifth year of graduate school this upcoming semester and, accordingly, have been increasingly thinking about my life afterward. Moments of reflection and talks with other students have revealed that there are a good number of things that I was unaware of concerning a career in academia when I began my graduate studies. Most of these things have taken me a long time to learn because the points were subtle or I was too naive to honestly assess the matter. Though these thoughts may not be true by the actual numbers (e. g. I haven't looked at the availability of teaching positions or the average income of post-docs), they certainly have found other voices, such as a few of the authors in this April Nature issue. And since the thought of a large number of people holds a good deal of influence regardless of its validity, I will take these thoughts to be true and offer them as advice to those who are considering a career in academia.

Career Point Number One: A career in academia—specifically in science—requires more hard work and dedication than most careers. This is due to a number of reasons, including a saturation of workers in the field, competition over resources, and a career trajectory that is difficult to advance through. Too many people within academia could be considered the cause of the competition over resources, but it's significant in its own right since it dilutes the quality of work being done. And as for a difficult career trajectory: a colleague told me the scariest thing one could do of all career moves is enter upon an assistant professorship with a family and mortgage with no guarantee of tenure.

CPN Two: Teaching positions are sparse (this was a surprise to me!). Many tenured professors or industry veterans enjoy retiring into academic teaching positions. There will not be much leverage for new graduates in obtaining a desired teaching position against those more experienced in the field.

CPN Three: No matter how amiable your advisor, it is not in their personal interest to graduate students. Losing experienced and knowledgeable students hurts their ability to publish, obtain funding, and generally proceed through their own academic career paths.

CPN Four: A post-doc may not be the best option for advancing a scientific/academic career. Many advisors interpret the post-doc role as one similar to a graduate student's but unencumbered by educational burdens such as attending class. A move to industry following graduation, however, may provide better networking opportunities and more chances to evolve one's professional skill set. One can always return to academia.

CP Five: One need not work in academia to retain one's interest in science. This was in no way obvious to me from the start. After having identified my interest in physics, I proceeded through my education with the idea that physics would be my career. But herein lies the most important distinction of all: science is not a career.

Science is the pursuit of truth and the delight in discovering new things through experimentation. It need not be grand in scale or require a large amount of resources. It is an unfortunate development that a career in academia and science have assumed the same position in most people's minds.

I admit that this assessment may appear a bit bleak at first, but for me it is rather liberating. I'm OK finding a career that is not centered squarely within academia because the requirements of such a job are too demanding given my other interests. This in no way means that my life or work can not contribute significantly to science. But to conclude that academia alone is the only way to significantly impact science is to commit a fallacy that could launch one onto a difficult and unsatisfying career path.