Monday, 3 March 2014

The dream of academia

To anyone thinking of being an academic, I highly recommend it. The flexible hours, the long holidays, the international conferences, not having to wear a suit: yes, being an academic is fantastic. Becoming an academic, however, is a nightmare. That's the whole point. How could we academics feel so privileged and superior if anyone could do it?  In fact, we go much further than that. We get a truly wild giddy joy from the knowledge that practically no-one can do it. How do we know that? We repeat over and over the experiment of convincing smart, creative, ambitious, hard-working young people to begin a career in academia, and then watch them fail.

Is it cruel to encourage these hopeless dreams? Not at all. Having your infantile dreams relentlessly beaten out of you is what growing up is all about. Plus, when you do finally face reality, there are plenty of perfectly fine normal jobs waiting for you. That's the difference between trying to become an academic and trying to become a movie star. Budding movie stars flock to Hollywood. They work until they drop, demean and degrade themselves, forgo any hint of a personal life, alienate their family and betray their friends, and do that for year after year after year, until finally they either give up entirely and become a gibbering loser back in their old home town; or they enter the porn industry. Academia is just like that, except that the loser bit is replaced by, "respectable well-paying job", although sometimes still with the gibbering. The equivalent of the porn industry varies between disciplines; for failed physicists it's Finance.

Also: they are all given plenty of warning. Usually it comes just before that dire decision to begin a PhD.

I was warned early. When I was still at high school a chemistry teacher told me, "You don't want to do a PhD. You'll be 30 and still living in a dingy flat with mis-matching furniture." But who would ever trust the career judgement of someone who became a schoolteacher?

Later, as I was completing my undergraduate physics degree, a professor called me into his office and gave me more anti-PhD and anti-academia warnings. With tears in his eyes he told me tales of idealistic and brilliant young scientists who were now many years into temporary postdoctoral research posts, with families to support and no permanent job on the horizon. I waved aside his objections and walked out of his office. If I'd stayed I'm sure he would have signed me up to go door-to-door raising money for the "Help the physicists" charity, aimed at supporting those impoverished physicists who had reached the very edge, who could barely hold on any longer and who were, quite honestly, on the verge of giving up and getting rich. He probably expected the standard response to be, "Damn, I've just given all my money to help the blind and cure cancer; I should have kept it for you!"

People tried to save me even after I moved to America to start my PhD. I was alerted to the dangers by a senior postdoc, who was reputed to be a true genius who had done incredible work in quantum gravity, but had been a postdoc for over a decade. He was holding out for the permanent job that his supervisor had promised to arrange for him, but unfortunately his supervisor's raving-lunatic act turned out to be more than an amusing affectation, and no job was forthcoming. He told me, "If you love physics and want to do a PhD just for the fun of it, that's fine, so long as you're sure you don't mind wasting five years of your life." He clearly had no idea what he was talking about. I knew what I was doing. Not only was I being paid to live and travel in the United States, I was even given a high-speed internet connection during those blissful first years of Napster. I had my priorities clear.

Once the PhD is complete, there are no more warnings. If you don't quit then, everyone realises that you're beyond hope. Now it's just a waiting game. Will you successfully perform the mental contortions necessary to extricate yourself and at the same time believe that this was what you had planned all along, or will you just scream "Fuck it!" one day and remain twisted and scarred for the rest of your life? For the successful academics watching, this is the most tense and fascinating part. It's so rich in excessive human drama that I was tempted to write this entire blog in the guise of a frustrated and bitter ex-postdoc, venting his hilarious rage and riling against the evil machinations of the "system". But that seemed a little hypocritical. I thought of all the ex-physicists out there who would read it and think, "Shit! We quit academia, and he's still stealing our material!"

Is success possible? Certainly. But only if you remain fantastically naive. It is essential that, at each step, you weigh your options as honestly and carefully as possible, and then choose the most irresponsible path. Your worst enemies are clear-sightedness, a level head, and a sense of perspective. Your friends are arrogance, blindness and immaturity. And don't underestimate the importance of good advice: you need something to rebel against. The darkest days will be when you've discovered that you have become obsessed, think of nothing but work, can barely sleep, you are jealous and spiteful of all of your colleagues, your wife has started taking painkillers along with the booze, your kids are in counselling, and you have become utterly convinced to the depths of your miserable soul that permanent jobs go only to those who are limitlessly unscrupulous, sycophantic, and, ultimately and most galling of all, lucky.

That's the final hurdle: the question, "If I do get a permanent job, how will I ever live with myself, thinking of those crowds of the more talented and more deserving, who didn't make it?" Fear not. The human capacity for self-delusion is unbounded. The moment you achieve academic nirvana, the full truth will be revealed to you. "Yes!" you'll cry. "The system really does work after all! How just and fair and good it is! Now, get away from me you snivelling losers!"  

There may be nagging pangs of guilt, but they will soon be pushed aside by a whole new problem: the rewards of academia aren't quite living up to your exalted expectations. Yes, you can stroll into the office at whatever hour you wish, or even decide to "work at home" whenever you feel like it. But you can also stay up all night writing grant proposals, and work all weekend preparing classes, and in fact you'll have to if you want to keep doing any of that exciting research that you were so gung-ho about all those years ago. In fact, you'll have to work in the evenings and on weekends and forgo many of that generous number of holidays you've been given, even if you don't bother to try and get any research done. And meanwhile the "losers" who quit appear to be living in much bigger houses in much swankier suburbs, and instead of getting "free trips" to glamourous locations to attend conferences, they can afford to spend their own money to go to the same places to see tourist sites other than the local convention centre. The only perk you seem to be left with is that you don't have to wear a suit -- at least not until you're put on an academic advisory panel, or a university committee, or... Ok, in the end, you probably get the suit as well.

At this point, we discover the true reason why all of that intellectual cannon fodder is necessary: to make us academics feel better. So long as there's a steady stream of suckers who we can ensure will always, deep down, bitterly regret that they can't be like us, we can live with the fact that they have otherwise much better lives.


[Update: further thoughts in his guest post, as part of my Adventures in Real Science Fiction.]



More on academia...
1. What's wrong with science seminars, and
2. How to (radically) fix them

26 comments:

  1. SInce you are new, please consider changing to anything but white text on black. It is unreadable.

    -drl

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  2. Thanks for the suggestion. Does anyone else have this problem?

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    1. Yep, I've got to paste it to somewhere else to read. My eyes hurt.

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    2. Richard Gaylord29 April 2014 at 10:59

      yes. i am unable to read white on black. increasing the font size would also help a lot.

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    3. Yes, cange. But not blue on white!

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    4. It's actually very trippy, but completely unreadable.

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    5. Six weeks later, I've finally changed the colour scheme.
      (And in the process, made all of these old comments very confusing...)

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  3. Yes. White on black in indeed unreadable.

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  4. Nope! I find the text much less of a strain on the eyes than the standard blinding white background.

    Thanks for this post, which I was directed to by Peter Woit's blog. I'm a grad student in math and I'm finding myself at in the throes of an existential crisis similar to what you're describing. My motivation for getting a PhD was simply a love for mathematics, and the impression that academia was the career that would allow me to "do mathematics," whatever that means to me, at work. Now it seems like there's always going to be one more hurdle to clear before I get to actually do what I love- maybe if I get through the postdocs, the publishing, the networking, the job-finding, the tenure-earning, maybe THEN I can find the time to pursue the intellectual challenges I sought out in the first place. So, maybe when I'm 50 or so? I know delayed gratification is an inescapable part of being a student, but at some point delayed gratification becomes unsustainable delusion.

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    1. Thanks for letting me know where all this sudden traffic is coming from. If anyone sees Peter Woit, give him a big hug from me.

      A PhD can be a drag, and sometimes a nightmare, but what else are you going to do with your time?

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    2. I hear this guy decided to try doing a startup instead.

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  5. Dude, you live on an academic salary in CARDIFF and you think your ex-students bitterly regret not being like you? What the f*** are they doing? A lot of the ex-physicists I know are currently in San Francisco with their choice of Silicon Valley jobs. Where they also have flexible hours, no suits, ludicrous perks, more than 3 days of sun per year, and pretty interesting jobs in neural nets, for example. And a better than even chance of being retired by 45. Don't think Cardiff is high on their list of regrets.

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    1. I'm sorry to hear about the failures of your ex-physicist friends. I hope their wealth is some comfort. That wouldn't work for me, of course, because I shun all material wealth and live a life of intellectual purity. But if there are any openings, let me know...

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    2. And I take exception to your nasty lies about Cardiff. We have FOUR days of sun per year.

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  6. I for one love the white on black

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  7. Great post! I too dislike white on black. If black on white is too dazzling, black on some other lightly colored background might work.

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  8. From "The Hunger Games":
    Hope.
    It is the only thing... stronger than fear.
    A little hope is effective.

    Exactly what you say. Exactly my impression.
    Greetings from J-Town.

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    1. Or Tolkien.
      - "We have no hope."
      - "Then we must continue without hope."
      The Lord of the Rings (every 20 pages or so)

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  9. You have written the most honest, gut-wrenching account of the process of becoming/failing to become an academic I ever read. You should consider quitting whatever it is that you are doing and become a writer (even harder I hear). Your blog is in my favorite list now. Good luck!

    Oh, one more thing, may I suggest yellow on green?

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    1. Thanks! I'll consider your advice -- both on career and colours.

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  10. Bravo, nice one!

    It's all too true, as I can attest to after finding against the odds a tenure-track faculty position a few years ago after a ridiculous number of years postdoccing.

    I'd just like to add to your astute observations that finally getting the elusive faculty position brings another great reward: you get to experience what it is like to be treated as a human being by the academics after all those years of being a piece of dirt. The novelty of that only lasts about a year though. After that the memory of being a piece of dirt starts to fade, and you become conscious of the fact that while yes you are now a human being you are nevertheless a very small, insignificant and expendable member of that species. Your tenured colleagues will happily expend you later without a second thought if they find your talent for sycophancy to be lacking. It can be compared to going from 10+ years of being an intern (postdoc) to finally gaining an entry level position in a large corporation. Wonderful!

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  11. Really beautifully written - I'll be looking fw to more on your blog.
    All best!

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  12. But now on reflection I'm a bit confused - I assumed this post was a kind of satire written a senior postdoc (you are on some fellowship there in Cardiff, right?). But in another post you describe yourself as having a permanent position. In the latter case, some of what you write seems to be sending a message along these lines:
    "Despite what people say, pursuing the academic career path (PhD, postdocs) is not so bad because even though you probably wont get a faculty position at the end of it you will still find a nice job outside academia which allows you to live better (more money, better working conditions) than a typical academic."
    I don't know if this is what you meant to say (it's a bit hard to tell when you are being satirical or serious or both at the same time). But in case it was an intended message it's important to add some caveats:

    1) If you want to get that nice well-paid quant job in finance you better have the right background. In the UK this means your undergraduate degree should be from Oxford, Cambridge or Imperial. Then they will say "Ah, he's one of us, let's hire him" (or her). If you're degree isn't from one of those universities then I suppose you might still have a chance if in your research you have built up strong expertise in useful topics - numerical analysis, computer-related stuff, etc. (Although in that case your quant boss will hold his nose while signing your contract. And I wouldn't want to be you when the retrenchments start.)

    In USA it is worse since they have this silly and annoying cultural expectation of competence - ivy league university background by itself is not enough; they also expect you to be able to do something useful for them.

    Former postdocs who don't have the aforementioned background can look forward to considerably less nice jobs when they leave academia. Maybe being a regular computer programmer. Or teaching high school kids how to differentiate polynomials. Their salaries, work conditions etc are not going to be better than a university academic (permanent faculty) in general. And it's the majority of former postdocs whole fall into this category in fields such as theoretical particle physics and many other fields too I imagine.

    2) Remember we are talking about "smart, creative, ambitious, hard-working young people" In fact some of the smartest, most creative, ambitious and hard-working young people in society. In normal circumstances they should aspire to and expect to get "very nice" jobs, not simply "nice" ones that pay them better than a measly academic salary. So to suggest that it is an acceptable career outcome for them to get a nice (or simply average) job after doing PhD and many years on the postdoc treadmill is just insulting. It's a continuation of the message academia beats into them throughout their PhD and postdoc years: "You are dirt, so be grateful for any little scrap you get."

    Finally, here's a question for you: When your son grows up, and, after having excelled in academics and shown himself to be a very smart kid, declares that he wants to follow in dad's footsteps and join the theoretical physics priesthood, what will you say to him?
    Will you tell him "Sure son, go for it. You probably won't succeed, but don't worry, you won't end up being a taxi driver at the end of it either so it's all good." Or will you tell him something completely different?
    Will there be any difference between what you tell him and what you tell prospective PhD students who come to you for advice about the academic career path?

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    1. What do I do if my son decides to become a theoretical physicist? I love it -- that sounds like a great idea for a blog post. Or a book.

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  13. Of course I have a permanent position -- what postdoc would be crazy enough to waste their precious paper-writing, job-applying, self-promoting, sucking-up time writing a whimsical blog!

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