Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Ten reasons to leave academia

I've been in academia for 9 years now (counting from the beginning my PhD), and I don't actually hate my job most of the time. But sometimes I do, and then I wonder why I'm continuing in academia rather than finding a more stable, more well-paid job. There are different things that make me wonder about that on a regular basis.

Why write a blogpost about those things? As a selfish reason, I hope that venting will make me feel better. As an altruistic reason, I think it's important, for any aspiring academic, to be aware of the problems associated with this career path. I'm not sure if striving towards an academic career is a rational thing to do. Either way, I'd recommend to anyone starting on this path to consider alternatives, and to make sure they acquire skills that will help them on the non-academic job market.

The list that I made describes my experiences, and most of them do not universally apply to academia across the board. These problems may not exist in other countries, universities, or fields of study, and conversely, there will be other things that other people hate about working in academia that I don't notice in my everyday life. Also, I've never worked outside of academia (other than a few student jobs), so I don't know whether the things that sometimes drive me insane in academia are better elsewhere. In short, any reader is encouraged to decide for themselves whether these things apply to their own academic system, and whether they would be bothered by these issues.

So, here is my list:

1) Lack of stability: Starting an academic career involves, first, doing a PhD, and then continuing with a post-doc. What happens afterwards depends on the country. In some countries it's relatively easy to get a lecturer's position after one or two post-docs (or even straight out of the PhD). In others, you do one post-doc after the other, only to end up with no professorship or tenure, no more post-doc funding, and being too old to get a good job outside of academia. In some countries, it's perfectly normal to meet post-docs who are in their late 40s. A post-doc position is fun and all when you're out of your PhD. However, at some stage, every extension of a post-doc contract feels like both a blessing and a curse, with no guarantee that it will be extended again and the knowledge that you're postponing the problem of finding a stable job for another 2 years, when it might already be more difficult to change your career path.

Often, it's expected that researchers change labs and countries every few years. This is an aspect of academia which I enjoyed very much - until I met my husband. As soon as one wants to settle down, one might find it impossible to get a permanent academic job (or any kind of academic job, for that matter) in the same place as the partner.

2) Bad long-term perspectives: There are more PhD students than post-doc positions, and way more post-doc positions than professorships. Statistically, this means that getting from the beginning of an academic career all the way to a professorship position is not very likely. The extent to which this is true depends on the country where you live. In Germany, the permanent positions are limited to professorships, which means that unless you get a professorship, there is no stability, and you probably won't get a professorship. 

3) Writing grants: If you want the opportunity to work on your own project, you need to get a grant. If you don't already have a position, you can apply for a grant that pays your salary. Some grants are so prestigious that they come with a guarantee of a permanent position for after the project is finished, such as the ERC Starting Grant. If you manage to get this kind of grant, Problems 1 and 2 from above are solved. The catch is: they're very competitive. The probability of success depends on the quality of your proposal, your track record, political issues (whom do you know? whom does your supervisor know?), and luck. The ratio of these four things is unknown (to me). However, luck is a big factor. Don't believe me? Write a mock proposal, and ask 10 different colleagues to give you feedback. Count the number of pieces of advice that you get that are in direct conflict with each other. Your reviewers could share any one of these different opinions: Which piece of advice do you incorporate, and which one do you ignore? Aside from the huge role that luck plays in getting grants: The high competitiveness means that, in the most likely scenario, you'll spend a lot of time writing a proposal that will bring you absolutely no benefit.

4) Publish or perish: For all three of the above points, your success depends a lot on where you publish. Ideally, you publish lots of papers in high impact-factor (IF) journals that get cited a lot and featured in the media. A high IF does not correspond to higher quality: if anything, the correlation between IF and different markers of quality is negative. Still, publishing in high IF journals is necessary not only for your own career, but also for your department: at our faculty, the income of the department is calculated through a system called "Leistungsorientierte Mittelvergabe" (LOM for short, translating to something like "achievement-based distribution of funds"). I am told that each additional IF point translates to roughly an additional 1,000 Euros that the department will get. This LOM also takes into account the amount of grant money you bring in and, to a lesser extent, the amount of teaching. If you don't publish a lot and don't get any grants, you're pretty much useless to your department.

Whether or not you manage to publish in a high-IF journal is again, to some extent, a matter of luck and connections. Recently, I was asked to review a paper for a relatively high-IF journal. This paper was simply not good: sloppy design, messy results. The other reviewers were also not overly enthusiastic. Yet, though in my experience such reviews normally lead to rejection, even in lesser-IF journals, the editor's verdict was "major revision". After a couple of rounds of review, I decided that my comments didn't make much of a difference, anyway, and declined to review the next version. The paper was, of course, eventually published, and I realised why the editor had supported it, despite its so-so quality: there were a couple of big names among the authors. Here's a looming theme that applies to all of the points to some extent: Success in academia is a lot about having connections with big names, which, of course, leads to systematic discrimination of anyone who doesn't have the means to establish such connections.

5) Doing things for free: An advantage of academia is that a lot of people do it because they love it. And when people work on something that they love and truly believe in, they are willing to invest more than what they are paid for. And when people do things for free, there is the expectation that they will continue to do so. This means that you will be at a disadvantage if you don't do things for free. This leads to the next point: any nice thing that you do is no longer seen as a favour from your side, but is taken for granted, leading to a...

6) Lack of appreciation: Another advantage of academia is that you can work on a project that is very important to you. The problem is: everyone feels this way about their own project. You might be hoping for some occasional ego boost from your collaborators, colleagues, or reviewers. However, everyone else is busy with their own awesome projects and probably doesn't even have the time to read your latest paper.

7) Lack of communication: Ideally, academia should be a place of intellectual exchange. This is one of the parts that I love about my job: going to conferences and talks and learning about something new, discussing ideas with colleagues working on something completely different, and realising that you can use their approach in your own work. This hardly ever happens in real life: everyone is too busy with their own project. Any attempts to organise a reading group or after work drinks are greeted with great enthusiasm, and when the meetings actually start, the number of participants dwindles quickly from a handful of people to zero.

8) Bureaucracy: I've worked in three different countries, and in each of them, bureaucracy consumed too much time and energy. This seems to happen in different ways in different countries. In Australia, many decisions that, in other places, are made by academics, are made by the administration, which leads to solutions that are not necessarily helpful to create a good research environment (even when they are supposed to be). In Italy, bureaucracy is characterised by a lack of transparency, and in Germany, by a lack of flexibility. For example, I do some studies on reading ability in children. The easiest way to get participants would be to go to schools and test those children who have parental consent there: except the bureaucracy is so time-consuming that my colleagues advised me to not even try. Everyone spending any time at our department needs to have a medical certificate and up-to-date vaccines, as well as a police check, even if they have no contact with patients or participants. Of course, nobody knows what to do if a visiting researcher can't easily get a police check from their country of origin. For external PhD supervisors, a habilitation is required. I tried and failed to explain to an administration officer that habilitation is not a thing outside of Europe. In fact, it took months to convince the university administration to pay me a post-doc salary, because a formal requirement for getting a post-doc salary is that one has a masters degree, and as I have a Bachelor with Honours degree and a PhD, I was considered under(?)qualified. 

Bureaucracy is, of course, not specific to academia, and also makes everyday life difficult (if you're ever keen to hear a long and not-that-interesting story, ask me about getting my drivers license changed from an Australian to a German one). However, I imagine that companies which aim at making profit cut out a lot of bureaucracy that costs time and doesn't bring benefits (and is often directly damaging).

9) Salary: This is the last point on my list, because it doesn't bother me that much, personally. The salary is not bad, and I didn't go into academia because I wanted to get rich. However, if your goal is to have money, then you will probably get much more of that if you go to industry with your qualifications.

In Germany, the salaries in the public sector (including universities) are determined by a class system. The class system is the same across all of Germany, regardless of how expensive life in the city where you live is. Munich is very expensive: if you would like to buy property with an academic salary, that could be problematic. During your PhD, you should expect to have very little money, despite doing a job that requires postgraduate qualification (i.e., a masters). In Germany, for jobs that require a masters degree, the standard salary class is E13 - the same salary class that is given to junior postdocs, and that already constitutes a decent salary. However, as PhD students are expected to get a shitty salary, someone came up with the disingenuous idea to pay them only part-time - normally between 50%-75% - while expecting them to work full-time.

10) Actually, I ran out of things to complain about. I'm sure I'd think of something more if I thought about it a bit longer, but what I have so far should already give some food for thought for aspiring academics (and maybe some big shot, who stumbled across this blog post and actually has the power to change some of the above?).

This blogpost is, of course, very negative, but that doesn't mean that I don't think there are no reasons to stay in academia (I'm still here, right?). Academia, like all working environments, has pros and cons. However, in my experience the pros of academia are often overhyped, and the cons are brushed aside as sacrifices that you need to make if you want to be a real scientist. Leaving academia is often seen as a failure, and considering alternative careers as a betrayal of your ideals. This mindset is incredibly damaging, as it allows for exploitation of people who have been brainwashed to simply be grateful that they have the opportunity to strive for an academic career. So, even for readers who are not weighing up the pros and cons of staying in academia, I hope that the blogpost shows that academia is not perfect, and that there might be upsides to considering alternative careers. This realisation will make (especially) early career researchers less vulnerable to being abused and guilted into staying in academia. 

To end on a brighter note, perhaps I'll get around to writing about "Ten reasons to stay in academia" for the next blogpost.

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