“Because those in a position to change the system do not” and other downsides of academia

I’m nearing the end of my PhD and starting to seek jobs, and I’ve been asked over and over again whether I’ll be staying on academia or I’ll be moving to industry. I haven’t signed a contract yet, so it’s still an open question for me. However, the fact that my own future is still nebulous might be why the following articles have stood out for me. They’re all about the downsides to academia, and reasons to leave it, written by women. The thing about these posts is that they’re not really just about academia: those of you in the tech industry are going to see some parallels. Those of you in other industries likely will too.

First, here’s a segment from Paraphernalian’s post about leaving the academy “Because: a manifesto

Because my talents, accomplishments, experiences, and hard work are not acknowledged or rewarded in this system.

Because I am not not nurtured, encouraged, or valued in this system.

Because those in a position to change the system do not.

Because I refuse to believe that a system that does not value me is the only one in which I can have worth.

Because I am enduring personal, financial, and professional hardship to no perceivable purpose.

Because I am being limited personally, financially, professionally, and creatively.

Because I already got what I came for–three advanced degrees and immersion in a subject I love.

Because I want to continue to love it.

And here’s a fragment from Laruian’s post about going to industry.

Here is the rub. I think many people are surprised that I didn’t go into academia… or, that I didn’t go to a research lab. Well, I don’t think. Many people said, “I’m surprised.” My advisor, in particular seems, well, for the lack of a better word, miffed.

Laurian lists several things that contributed to her decision:

  1. Teamwork. The odd joint grant is not the same as working with a team to produce a product.

    The problem is that from what I’ve seen in academia, when you become a professor there isn’t much team spirit. Yes, you collaborate on grants. Yes, sometimes you co-teach. But there doesn’t actually seem to be much team work. Meaning that what little benefits I see in being the second, third, or, god forbid, even a forth female faculty member are out weighed by the fact that most of my work is going to be individual.

  2. There’s no tenure track grind in industry.

    From what I’ve been told, you’ve got a whole bunch of stodgy white dudes in suits sitting around a table assessing if you are good enough for the university to invest in you for the rest of your career. It is fantastic if you get it. What job security! But, if you don’t, you no longer have a job.

  3. Sick of fighting the system

    In the ten years I’ve been gathering my various degrees the battle to change institutional policy has been one that has tired me out.

  4. Lack of role models

    My entire time at Virginia Tech I saw *one* female professor have a baby. I’m not just talking about in my department. I’m talking about the whole flipping university. One. Later I met a couple or women who have had kids while running for tenure here at Virginia Tech, but their stories were not encouraging. I had zero positive role models that said to me, “It is the best thing I’ve ever done and I have zero regrets.”

  5. Work with impact

    I can tell you what was my favorite moment of working at IBM Almaden. It was when the findings had been presented to Lotus, and they thought they were really important, valuable, and would contribute to future design. And then, when the final findings were given, and I get the same review. Ahhhh. Design with impact. What looked like a medium size user study actually made a difference and was implemented into the next Lotus. It was so different than what I’d experienced so far. The practicality of something that felt nebulous was a breath of fresh air. Academia doesn’t dabble much in practical.

And then the lack of impact and lack of collaboration is echoed again on College Ready Writing:

My academic research will not change the world. Don’t get me wrong, I love the authors I am currently studying, found fascinating all of the topics and areas I have previously written about. But at the end of the day, most people are not really interested in what I am doing, including most people in the academy or in my discipline.

Dr. Skallerup also asks some really valuable questions:

  • Are Academics really interested in “sharing”?

    While more and more scholars are using sites like Academia.edu or SlideShare, and even self-publishing, this type of sharing isn’t rewarded when it comes time for decisions on hiring, tenure and promotion. We are taught instead to hoard our research and findings to share with a potentially smaller audience in venues with more “prestige.” Why not work to improve Wikipedia in whatever field you specialize in? The entries on Dany Laferrière’s works are lacking, calling me to improve on them, hopefully introducing and informing a broader audience about the author. But because the medium is “crowdsourced” instead of peer-reviewed, career-wise, my work there would be meaningless.

  • Are we allowed to be ourselves?

    [B]rowse the blogs of junior faculty members, graduate students and recent PhD graduates and you will notice one thing – they are almost all anonymous. Why? Why can’t we blog about not just our narrow research interests but everything we are interested in or want to write about? Is academia that insecure that it can’t take a little criticism or allow for a professor to be more than a talking head in front of the classroom or byline on a book or article?

I really want to end on a positive note, but I’m not sure I can here without writing another whole essay worth, and besides, no one sent me articles about staying in academia this month, and what does that say? So instead, I’m going to end on a more thoughtful note, again from Dr. Skallerup:

My research may not change the world (or ever be read), but it is far from meaningless. My outside interests may be meaningless according to the academy, but may help change the world. Academia has such a narrow view of what is meaningful, and I, for one, have stopped listening to what higher ed narrowly thinks I should be and started defining it for myself.

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About terriko

Terri has a PhD in horribleness, assuming we can all agree that web security is kind of horrible. She stopped working on skynet (err, automated program repair and AI) before robots from the future came to kill her and got a job in open source, which at least sounds safer. Now, she gets paid to break things and tell people they're wrong, and maybe help fix things so that people won't agree so readily with the first sentence of this bio in the future. Terri writes/tweets under the name terriko, enjoys making things and mentoring others and has a plain ol' home page at http://terri.toybox.ca.

9 thoughts on ““Because those in a position to change the system do not” and other downsides of academia

  1. bug_girl

    Don’t forget, academia is a cult:



    I should say that having worked in several different universities and colleges, there are wildly different cultures in each one. Some were better than others at addressing work-life balance.

    I did like industry best, though, for a lot of the reasons listed here; mostly that bad behavior was not tolerated, and immediately addressed.

  2. Shinobi

    Glad to be reading this today. I am an industry person thinking about heading back into academia to get my Masters or my PHd and then stay there. I just feel like if I’m going to be using my research skills I should be researching something moderately more interesting than which cereal formulation 12 year olds prefer.

    Well maybe I’m NOT glad to be reading this, because now I have no idea what to do.

    1. Terri

      Well, to start with, don’t take these as gospel. For example: I’ve heard as many depressing stories about changing the system within industry as I have from academia, so that’s likely pretty organizationally-dependent.

      A word of advice: if you’re going to go back and plan to stay, do the PhD and don’t stop at a Masters. This may not be true world-wide, but in my experience and that of my friends, Masters-only folk are often second-class citizens in academia: it’s harder to get enough lecturer spots to make a living, it’s assumed constantly that you’re just not done yet, or worse that there’s some intellectual reason you failed to continue. It’s apparently quite frustrating at times.

      Early on in my relationship with my current supervisor, I asked him about why he’d chosen to stay in academia rather than go to industry given that I know he had decent offers there, and research was really his prime reason: in many ways, there’s a lot more intellectual freedom when it comes to choosing and owning your research. So if research is what you want to do, that may be the right choice for you.

      Intellectual freedom is one thing I’m going to miss if I go to industry. Every time I interview with industry, I have to ask the company whether I will be able to continue work on my current open source project, or whether that will constitute a conflict of interest. I’ve worked short-term jobs where I simply didn’t work on any open source stuff because the lawyers and I couldn’t come to an agreement. I expect that every time I want to join a new project, I’ll have to make sure it doesn’t violate any company policies. In academia? Frankly, no one cares what I do in my spare time, and they certainly wouldn’t presume to own it. But your mileage may vary (I’m in a Canadian university and I gather there’s a lot more freedom in mine than in most.)

      I’m sort of hoping someone will link a few pro-academia/anti-industry articles so that we can have both sides up, because there are most definitely advantages and disadvantages to both options.

      1. Terri

        Oh! And regarding research: getting a PhD seems to open up a lot of research possibilities even outside of academia, so don’t assume by going back you’ll have to stay there to take advantage of the PhD!

      2. Mary

        In academia? Frankly, no one cares what I do in my spare time, and they certainly wouldn’t presume to own it.

        This varies geographically, actually. At my Australian university as both a PhD student and as staff there is some work-for-hire claim on generated intellectual property and I’ve had to discuss open source cases with them.

        … basically, I guess you always need to check this, everywhere.

  3. Elizabeth G.

    Thank you for posting about this. I read it a the day it was posted but I only have the time to respond now and I actually don’t have the time but I think my advisors email is down so i don’t have an email that I need to immediately respond to and I am taking a break/avoiding revising my model code.

    Background: I spent 2 years in industry before returning to full time graduate school.

    The reasons I went to industry are strangely similar to the reasons I left to return to academia, I was burnt out on a system. First, I was so tired of school and really like the idea of being able to save money and make a car payment. In academia there is no respect for personal time. My senior year one professor assigned a project over the long Thanksgiving weekend. When students complained he told us that in the “real world” work often needed to be done over holidays and we should get used to it. But in the “real world”, industry, I found out that is actually not at all the case. I filled out time sheets even as an engineer on salary because we worked on contract that billed for engineer hours. If th contract said I was only supposed to spend 40 hours on a task but I decided I wanted to do the most awesome job ever and spend 80 well tough cookies because the charge-code would be dry after 40 and an over charge would get a visit from my boss. My Boss was a family man who really objected to people working 12 hour days regularly. If a due date got moved up and we had to come in on the weekend he bought us bagels and pizza.

    However, after two years of constantly having to reach “consensus” on how a project should be done. Taking 80 hours of work and compressing it into 40 or even worse taking 10 hours and stretching it into 40 by basically staring at a screen I was cynical and crabby. I used to tell people that the thing I hated about work was that they expected you to show up every day! (It is funnier if you hear me say it because the emphasis adds to the humor.) I wanted an environment where we didn’t count hours but only outcomes. I wanted to learn things again. I really wanted to work with young people at a similar stage in their lives. And I really, really wanted to wear flip-flops again. So here I am. I juggle the research I get tuition and stipend for with the research I get a degree for and the course work. I work in a tiny room with 4 other grad students instead of a cubicle. My advisor gets crabby if I don’t get enough done over Christmas break and I broke.

    I realize that this post was about grander issues than which place is more fun and that is why I enjoyed it. I just wanted to share my story of the grass being greener on the other side. I am not sure that one place is so much better than the other. If I had been working in another company, on different projects I might have had more flexible schedule and been able to wear the foot wear of my choice. Different advisors or professors would mean a different environment. I am sure that there are valid generalizations for industry and academia but I am not sure that the reasons I switch are valid generalizations for all of academia.

    1. Terri

      Thank you for sharing your story. You managed to get a really nice balance of positive, negative, and grass is greener points in there!

      Taking 80 hours of work and compressing it into 40 or even worse taking 10 hours and stretching it into 40 by basically staring at a screen I was cynical and crabby.

      The whole correlation between work and time is just so very messed up at times. I’ve seen it in industry and I see it in academia, but it feels like even though there’s overlap the most common logical fallacies regarding time and work seem to be different depending on where you are…

  4. Z

    My guess is that the author of Because: a manifesto was denied tenure.

    The tenure process is probably the worst part of academia. The great parts include having enormous control over your work. Have a great idea? Go for it. If it works out you can publish papers, get grants, give talks, take it to the next step. And while I work a lot, A LOT, to a great extent I get to decide when/where to do it. Gorgeous day, want to take a hike, go for it. Rainy day, want to work on the couch in front of a fire — cool. Sabbatical year in Paris — absolutely.

    There are upsides and downsides to both academia and industry — having been in both — academia wins hands down.

    1. Terri

      I don’t think it’s fair at all to assume that tenure was the issue here, and it’s rather insulting to the author to make that assumption.

      As someone in academia, there are a LOT of different issues that I can imagine triggering such a response. For example, changing curricula at my university seems to be an equally draining, frustrating and thankless process that takes years and sometimes yields little actual benefit to the students. It’s been a hot topic here for years and years, with only minimal gains at times. Hiring boards, similar deal, especially since sometimes after all this time spent interviewing and evaluating candidates, the position can magically disappear and you get no one. Just getting papers published can be a struggle at times — some of my colleagues hold more controversial views or publish in tighter-knit communities and they get review after review of people who are so personally affronted by their work that they can’t see the actual data backing it up. And then there’s the day that I started asking around and realized that the woman I heard crying in the bathroom after a terrible altercation with a rude prof and TA wasn’t alone: one of my friends said she heard someone sobbing in the stalls of other washrooms once a month.

      There’s lots of reasons to be frustrated with academia — no need to imply that frustration with the system is somehow a reflection upon the author’s ability to get tenure.

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