Saturday, 4 April 2015

Musings on an academic career - Part 2

A long rainy Easter weekend in Sydney. And, as promised, here's some additional musings on an academic career. I thought I would tackle a big one and present the question that all ECRs and wannabe-academics should be asking themselves from day one, and it's a question that all academics should ask themselves periodically (where the period of periodically can be as short as 5 minutes). Namely, "Do I really want an academic career?"

Now, I am sure that some of you reading this, especially the more junior researchers of you, will be thinking "Well, duh! Ain't that obvious?" But, in fact, I think this goes to the heart of many of the touted problems with regards to academia, and it's a problem of our own making, and I mean all of us.

But before I start, the usual caveats apply. While this year marks two decades since I got my PhD and so I have a long history with academia, and while I am a professor at a large, prestigious university, I have limited experience of the entire world, and what I write here is a reflection of what I have seen in this time. Furthermore, a lot of what is below has accumulated over the years, and I did not get to where I am through the execution of some well developed plan; I got here through sweat, stress and lucky breaks. Of course, my experience is limited to science, physics and astronomy. It could be very different for the historians and economists out there.

So, buyer beware, although, honestly, I wish I had realised a lot of this a long time ago.

The Romantic Academic
I am pretty sure that if I did a straw-poll of researchers on why they are in this game, the answer would be very similar. When we start off as undergraduates we get a taste of research projects, thinking that we are unlocking the mysteries of the universe (without realising that we are doing research projects with training wheels attached). Research is fun, it's exciting, it's stressful and, when it works, it can be fulfilling. I love doing research. I love thinking about all sorts of different things, trying new methods, spending the afternoon with someone at the whiteboard scribbling an erasing. Hey, it may not cure cancer, but I will understand the chemical composition of clouds of gas ten billion light years away!

I don't know about everyone else reading this, but once I was bitten but the research bug, I could not let it go. I have a hard time thinking about anything else (although, I do not only research astronomy and physics - but that's for another story). I can't imagine a day where I don't learn something new. The thought of a "job" out there banging widgets, working in finance, or running a company, just strikes us as boring (although often we are making the case from ignorance as we really don't know what these jobs comprise of). Clearly, we want a career that still allows us to continue down this research word, and looking around we see the Drs and Professors of academia who supervise and employ us, and it is obvious that we need to follow the same trajectory.

However, the everything is not as it seems, but more of that in a moment.

A Life in Research
But there is a way to have a long and fruitful career in research, a career where you can do what you want, when you want, attend the conferences you want, with nobody to answer to than yourself. Such a career is the dream of virtually every academic I have ever met, and it is possible. Want to know the secret?

Well, skip the PhD and spend the twenties making your fortune. Get a few million in the bank by the time you are thirty and then live of your investments. Effectively retire into research and become a "Gentleman scientist" (and they were virtually all men) of a bygone age.

You might be spluttering on your corn flakes at this point and be thinking that I have gone mad. But think about it.

Why do you do a PhD? To learn, of course, but you don't need to do this in the context of a degree do you? You could learn the same stuff in your living room with access to the internet and a boxset of "House of Cards" in the background. Maybe you are after the title, but what is that really for? Well, it's the next step towards an academic career, but has a journal ever asked you if you have a PhD before considering your paper? To legitimise yourself as a researcher? The Dr in front of your name means little if you don't have publications to back it all up.

So, really, why do it? If you are going to fund yourself, why do you need it? If you really want one, do one after you have made your fortune, but I don't think it is really necessary.

Now you are probably thinking that you can't do that. You don't understand finances and investing and all that stuff. It all sounds very complicated. But you are supposed to be smart, and you should realise that there are many people out there who make their fortune who don't have a PhD in astrophysics or nano-photonics or whatever. What is stopping you is that you haven't learnt how it works (but, in the end, it is just more research). Yes, there is a risk that you won't make it, but risk is a topic we'll come back to later.

But after ten years of graft, you should be set up to do what you like for the rest of your life. Impossible? Not really. It does happen.

Academic SuperStar
OK, so you don't want to make your fortune and do what you want to, but you want to continue into academia and want the next best thing. You want to do research as an academic. Well, to be able to devote yourself to research, and only research, you need to either get yourself a fantastic fellowship from a grant agency (and acknowledge that these only last a limited amount of time) or get into completely research-focused departments.

Such positions can be relatively cushy, with funding for your salary, for travel, for research costs and people. You don't have complete autonomy as you will have had to written a proposal that was assessed and you will have to follow, and here will be lovely middle-management people whose roll it is to spot you spending your funds (or at least ensuring you are spending it on what you were supposed to), but it is not bad.

And, as you can guess, these are extremely competitive and you better have all of the things on your CV that people are expecting, lots of papers, lots of citations, prizes and well connected with the right people saying the right things about you. In short, you better be pretty smart and on-the-ball, especially in terms of career management. I'll choose my words carefully here, but we all know that some are better at gathering those career-boosting bits-and-pieces than others. But it takes a lot of management on top of everything else.

Of course, as well as being very competitive, such positions are also relatively rare, and even if you have all those bits and pieces you might not get one. You might have to become an everyday academic.

Everyday Academia
So this brings us to people like me, every day academics. And if you look round the world, in the web and in the new, we appear to be a quite whiney lot. Lots of complaints about workload and the lack of time. The life of a modern everyday academic is anything but hours of musing about the mysteries of the Universe, but time is consumed by administration and teaching (two things that have hard, finite deadlines that cannot be missed), plus all of these roles that we have not been trained in, including financial and people management. The reward for research success, such as attracting more grants and students, is typically more work.

And, if we go back to the start, the reason that we got into this game was research, but time for research actually becomes often vanishingly small when one gets the coveted permanent position. It is funny that I am productive in terms of output and grant success, but it is only because I have group of students and postdocs to work with (and, in fact, working with these people remains the highlight of my everyday academia).

Not only that, but I realise that I am the lucky one to get here at all, as many able researchers leave the field as the opportunities become rarer and rarer, and the competition becomes fiercer. I actually finding it funny that people who are so risk adverse that they would not really consider alternative careers or making your own fortune to support themselves continue blindly down one of the riskiest pathways of all, namely that of trying to secure a permanent position at a good university.

Wrapping it all up
I've written a lot here, but for the students and ECRs I would like you to think about the question of whether the academic career, and it is most likely going to be an everyday academic if you stay in the field, is really what you want. If not, then it is never to early to think about managing and directing your career to at least give you the best chance of what you want.

In closing, I often hear that those that leave at the various stages towards becoming an everyday academic have somehow failed, but in reality I wonder if the real failure is us successes finding ourselves locked into careers that squeeze the prospect of doing hand-on research out of the day.

Why don't I put my money where my mouth is and walk so I can spend my copious leisure time researching what I want? Maybe I will, maybe I will.