Tuesday, March 19, 2013

About academic culture and reward/bullshit ratio

Dr. Isis’ blog was the first science blog I read when I was in grad school. I was always impressed by her upbeat way of writing about combining her life as a scientist with being a mom. She wrote it in a way that was both hilarious and sounded real. Today I asked on twitter why she hadn’t blogged in a couple weeks and that started a whole conversation about being a mom in academia. I storified the first part of that conversation here.  (It was my first time storifying something so am not sure if I included everything that was said, but it gives you a good impression). I often wonder whether someday I will regret all the time and energy devoted to science and Dr. Isis said:”TBH, I suspect we'll regret it.” Later, I asked her whether she was thinking of making major chances to her (academic) life and she answered:” I am thinking that I won't be in academia 6-9 mos from now.” She added that science is not necessarily harder than other things, but that it is not rewarded equally. Also, she added “Let's just be clear that I am in now way "failing." I am just reevaluating what makes me happy.” And later: “Again, this is not about success. It's about culture and reward/bullshit ratio”

To me, this was a shocking reality-check. Because if everyone’s favorite domestic and laboratory goddess reconsiders staying in academia then what does that mean for me? It feels a little like when I hear peers that published in better journals than me decide that science is not for them; it makes me feel that if they can’t do it, then neither can I. Do I work hard enough to ‘make it’ and more importantly: do I want to put in all this time and energy, especially now that the funding situation everywhere is so dire that we are competing for grants with a success rate of 10-15%? Or do I want to spend more of my time with BlueEyes (or in a job that asks less of my commitment)?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I do appreciate everyone’s honesty in this conversation. I like hearing other people’s experiences, and I would LOVE if Dr. Isis would someday blog about the things that drove her to make the decision to stay in academia or choose something else. In the mean time, I’m thinking about my plan B, and whether this should someday upgrade to plan A.

Edit: here are two other posts about the subject from Potnia Theron and Barefoot Doctoral
Edit 2: here's Dr. Isis' response


  1. Leaving academia doesn't mean you can't do academia. It doesn't mean a person is a failure. Deciding science is not for a person doesn't mean that that person cannot do science. Abilities are not the same as preferences. Academia is just a job. Just a job.

  2. I saw these tweets today and thought "Thank god people are finally having an honest conversation about how fucking hard it is." I'm sick of work/life balance discussions focusing on taking an afternoon off to go to a soccer game or being able to bring a sick kid to class with you. Those things are nice, but they completely overlook the fact that academia is a very, very demanding career path.

    But of course I couldn't add to the conversation because I can only access my non-pseudonym account from work and it's not OK to say these things out in the open. Instead we have to pretend like work/life balance isn't that hard and be cheerleaders who sucker the next generation of women into this fucking leaky pipe.

    I know I'm a good scientist, I know I could make academia work. But, I'm not sure it's worth it. I have had to make critical career decisions based on the fact that I am supporting a family. Postdocs that would have been *best* for my career would not have worked for my family. Positions that paid the most (i.e. covered the bills) haven't provided much mentoring or training.

    Honestly, my postdoc time has been hell on my family, and I can't imagine TT being any easier. My bullshit/reward ratio is very, very small.

    So what now? Do I stick out my shitty postdoc and keep applying for TT jobs because that's what I've been trained to do? Do I go for another postdoc and keep holding out for TT? Do I come up with a Plan B and leave on my own terms? There are no easy answers.


  3. Caution here. Academia is not one thing, or one place. Dr. Isis mentioned in her writing that she worked at "MRU" - major research university. Major research university is academia.

    So is "SLAC" - small liberal art college. That’s academia, too. And there are all points in between. And there are different pressures and expectations at all of those different kinds of institutions.

    Any one person’s story is not necessarily the story of all of academia.

  4. In many ways, being a researcher is like being a top athlete. Like athletes, scientists are extremely high trained people with exceptional talents. For instance, the average IQ of PhDs places them in the top extreme, leaving behind more than 90% of the population - and inteligence for sure is only one important talent needed for the job.

    We have to work hard to stay 'in the game', let alone becoming and staying 'world class'. When I am out of the lab for too long I find myself struggling to get into the scientific thinking mode, again, just as athletes often struggle to make it back to their former fitness, after they were forced to pause in training. I know other scientists have the same problem, indicating that we are operating at the limits of intelect, which can only be achieved by constantly forceing our brains to perform exceptionally. Like athletes, most scientists can keep this up only for so long, especially when new priorities emerge.

    Funding/sponsoring depends on your performance, in sports and in science. The competition is harsh (in many fields) and one 'loses' more often then one 'wins'.

    Nobody blames top athletes for ending their carreers. We should not consider ourselves failures, either, when we end the academic phase of our life. A change in priorities and the choice to switch carreers is part of life.

    Even if one feels to make the choice unwillingly, which might be called failing, this is not the end of happiness. Life moves on and one finds new ways to be happy.

    I am purposefully not talking about the women and babies thing. Men have similar problems when they have spouses and become fathers, taking responsibility for the well being of their families, trying to balance face-time with the need (and urge) to provide for them financially and otherwise materialistically. It appears that this dilemma is publicly treated as non-existent, but I see many young daddies suffering.

    Nobody has to think less of anybody, including themselves, for making the decision to leave academia. Instead one should be proud to have made it that far.

  5. People decide that science is not for them for many reasons. Some people realize that they are unhappy with the lifestyle for some reason or another, (too much politics, too many rejections, not enough pay/certainty) or they got a better job offer in a different sector. If they are moving to something that makes them happier, I tend to be happy for them. If I perceive them as better scientists than me, that secretly makes me feel better "great there's more room up at the top now."

    On the other hand, if someone is leaving or feeling forced out (wanted a job but, didn't get one; feeling overworked; family needs becoming urgent or overwhelming, but not wanting to stop doing science) I do feel bad for them to the extent that they are not happy with their decision. If they are a role model for me, it scares me a lot.

    Saying that this decision is personal and each situation is unique is both true and and trite. So I will only point out that my doubts about academia were greater the first few years of Epsilon's life. As he has grown older and more independent, (and my partner and I more used to part time single parenting) the work life balance has become easier. Not easy, but within acceptable limits of hardship.

  6. Thanks for your comments everyone. It's interesting that nicoleandmaggie say that science is just another job, whereas Dennis Eckmeier compares scientists with top athletes. I think I agree more with nicoleandmaggie.
    And Dr. Zen, you're totally right that not all academia is the same and that there are multiple options for doing science both inside and outside academia.

    Also, this is not just about women with children, it's about every scientist (or any other career really), where you have to sacrifice time with your partner, family, sports you like to do, hobbies or whatever. The question we all ask ourselves I think is where we want to dedicate our time and whether it makes us happiest.

    And to make myself clear: I do not AT ALL think that leaving academia makes you a failure and I also do not AT ALL think that so called alternative careers are in any way less than becoming an academic professor. I just find it hard to decide whether the path that I had in mind (PhD student - postdoc - professor) is the path that I want to take or not, and I find it even harder to decide what I want to do if I decide not to take that path.

  7. The answer to Dennis & Dr. Zen and nicoleandmaggie is yes. You are right. Its a big pond out there, and room for lots of niches for different kinds of ecological strategies. I'm old enough (he he he) to have made some of those choices a long time ago. Do I have regrets? No. Do I acknowledge that other paths would have had other outcomes? Yes. Life is not a ceteris paribis experiment.

  8. To me science and research is a passion and I would do it for free if I had to. With that said I am constantly reassessing my own life right now as science becomes less and less about "science" and more about writing grants, money and prestige. I knew what to expect coming into it many years ago, but nobody in their right mind could have anticipated how drastically things have gone downhill in recent times. It's a sad and depressing state.

    Knowing everything that I know now, would I choose the same career path? The answer up until a year or two ago was always a definite YES, but recently that is a much more difficult question to answer and, right now, it is a firm MAYBE. If I was a PhD student now, however, I would run as fast as I could in the opposite direction. I would turn my back on science and never look back.

  9. Yes... the only way forward is to make choices and be content with them. We decided not to have kids for some of these reasons. There are occasional regrets (for me), but the many benefits of that decision manifest themselves daily as well.

    But none of our career/family decisions are wrong or failures if they are well-examined and honest and there is real communication between partners.

  10. > If everyone’s favorite domestic and laboratory goddess reconsiders staying in academia then what does that mean for me?..

    Yep. So true. That is scary. But at the same time Dr. Zen is right, and the Major University is a very special place, probably. And we don't know the alternatives, the choices each of us is making. They may all be very different: for somebody it's research university vs industry; for somebody else - university vs elite high school, or university vs non-profit educational organization, or something else, completely and entirely unexpected for both you and me. People are not just ranked based on their awesomeness and impact factor. Each situation is unique.

  11. I'm sorry you're experiencing this. Figuring out the path that will lead to happiness is hard for everyone, and made extra hard for women, particularly women who are or want to be mothers, because our society still adds extra constraints/burdens to our lives. So of course it is worrying when someone we consider a role model decides to take a different path, even as we acknowledge that everyone has unique needs/wants/constraints and that her new path might be just as awesome as the current one. We have so few examples to look at, and so many people telling us we're doing things all wrong.

    I obviously can't tell you what will make you happy, or whether you'll eventually make tenure track professor and feel like you were the type of mother you wanted to be. But there are three things I want to say, that may or may not be useful:

    1. Know that a lot of people have periods of doubt like this, even if they aren't in academia. I'm currently re-evaluating my own career, and may make some drastic changes (to a different career). I think it is normal to do this- I have a lot of options I could pursue. Of course I occasionally need to take some time to think about whether I'm pursuing the right one!

    2. However, with that said- the reason I'm re-evaluating at this particular time is that I'm not super happy with my current situation, so something is going to have to change- be that hiring more help, finding a different job, making a drastic career change... something. If I were super happy with my current situation, I'd probably just keep on keeping on.

    So that's one thing I'd recommend you do: think about whether you are happy with things RIGHT NOW. Not at some possible point in the future, but RIGHT NOW. If you are, great! Stop worrying. Really- just let the future happen as it happens. If at some point in the future you realize you don't like what you're doing, then you can make a change at that point. If you aren't happy RIGHT NOW, though, then you have to decide if you want to make a change.

    3. When you're evaluating what to do, remember to consider all options. It helps me to try to identify the actual problem first- i.e., "I don't feel challenged" or "I feel like I don't have enough time to do X" and then brainstorm ideas to solve that problem- all options on the table. Then I do thought experiments and try to sort out which option is best overall.

    Like I said, I don't know if that helps or not. I hope it does!

    1. Thanks for your comment. I totally agree with you that it's most important to be happy with the situation that we're in now. I generally am, but the reality of being a post-doc is that this situation is not going to last for ever, and even if I'm perfectly content now, I will have to apply for jobs and make the decision whether those will be academic, science, or other jobs. And with the current funding situation I bet there are more scientists, that even if they are happy with their situation, will need to look for something different, because the current situation might not last.
      I'm not pessimistic though, I look forward to exploring my options and thinking about what I want to do.

  12. Some people knew from a very young age that they were going to be scientists when they grew up -- I came to it much later, and I think that is one of the reasons why I never felt I had to stay in science necessarily. Even after the PhD, even being /this/ close to tenure, I don't know for sure that this is what I'll be doing with my life in 10 years. If I were 100% sure, I think I would feel trapped. My postdoc adviser told me that you are always on the job market, and he meant that you should always consider switching institutions. I think it should be applied more generally: we should always be thinking about whether options other than our current job and its sequelae would be more interesting/lucrative/a better fit.

    I'm in my 4th year TT at an R1, well-funded for now, but well aware that I won't always be. Mother to an amazing 7 year old, unsure how to make space in my life to have another 1 or 2.