25 December 2017

Goodbye Academia: On Academia as a Calling, Yet Again

I have talked before about the issue of academics thinking that academia is their calling. Anyway, I had an interaction with a former colleague recently about this issue. This former colleague emailed me, forwarding an ad looking for a postdoc, in a university in the Berlin area. I am sure that my former colleague meant well, but part of what he wrote was slightly puzzling. He asked whether I would be interested to come out of retirement. What does that actually mean? Does that mean that the only acceptable work for an academic is academia? Does that mean that even though I've been working in the industry now, what I have been doing doesn't really count as real work?

I am sure the phrase was just meant as a joke. But nevertheless it is evidence for an implicit attitude that academic work is a career above the rest. It glorifies academia, elevating it above other professions, and this is something that I now find myself against.

See, this job ad was for a postdoctoral position, limited to 5 years. It won't begin until Q4 2018. Given the limited term, not to mention the pay cut (when compared to my current job), plus the elevated stress levels that are attached to the academic environment, in addition to the fact that I would find myself to where I was in January 2017 once the 5-year-term is up (i.e., unemployed), then I really have no reason to see this as an attractive option. There is something wrong in academia: the academic community thinks that they are vanguards of knowledge, an elite class, privileged above the rest, yet in reality, the way they structure things suggest the opposite.

Take for example conferences. Academics want to say that they encourage networking, and sharing of research. They encourage graduate students to present at conferences and showcase their work. Heck, conference presentation is typically a metric of success, because these presentations typically are peer-reviewed, so presenting in one means that your story was externally validated to some extent. Yet when we talk about financial logistics such as reimbursement, academia typically makes it hard. In the past, I've had to pay things out of pocket first, and then only get reimbursed later by jumping through draconian bureaucratic rules. Sometimes there isn't even enough funding to go to conferences. I have friends who are struggling because of bureaucratic nightmares regarding funds and grant money.

Now when I compare that to my current experience, where I attended a corporate conference, and I didn't even pay out of pocket, and all payments were accomplished between the vendor and my company bypassing me, all with the press of a single button, then I find myself thinking that academics are talking the talk but not really walking the walk. Oh, did I not mention how I have so much more perks now compared to in academia? When I was in academia, we were limited to budget hotels, we never received work phones, not to mention the fact that the computers they offered were slow and of low quality, that I just found it easier to use my own.

So yes, I find it hard to imagine that academia is a calling. You might ask, well how would human knowledge progress, if academics abandon the ivory tower? I don't think academics would all desert it. There would still be someone who is masochistic enough to slave away and work in a lab, begging for funding left and right, at the same time teaching hours and hours in a university, or perhaps spending lots of time as an adjunct while qualifying for food stamps because what they earn as an adjunct is not enough. But that is just not me.

I never retired when I left the ivory tower. I got a lifestyle upgrade instead.


  1. Bit puzzling, indeed. As if you had taken the wrong road to his eyes...

    Not exactly the same situation, but well-meaning friends often email me job ads for permanent positions WHICH IS EXACTLY WHAT I HAD AND QUIT! I'm happy as a freelancer, really!

    1. Zhu,

      Yeah, I know they are well-meaning, but sometimes friends don't see the constraints you are facing, and so they recommend things that don't really make sense.