how academia unplugs from the outside world
Over at Cosmic Variance, there’s a recent post by Sean Carroll about getting tenure at a research university and if it’s really accurate in its description of what it takes to become a tenured researcher, I’m just glad that I am not aspiring to be a professor, much less at institutions which care only about doing research. The points we get from Sean seem to paint an image of establishments obsessed with restricting you to tidy little boxes to better quantify and measure what you do and who you are. You’re apparently not allowed to write books in a research area where only papers are required, you’re not allowed to have a intellectually stimulating hobby in any other academic field because you could be using that brainpower on research in the area you were hired to help advance, and blogging is out of the question. Breathing is allowed, but with some restrictions. Unless you’re an expert in breathing, someone may compare your breathing skills to those of a professional who has a track record of breathing papers in high impact journals and you’ll come off as an unfocused dabbler.
Is this really how research universities operate? I know for a fact that a research-intensive place puts a rather low priority on teaching undergraduates and prefers a more pliant workforce of grad students who really want to do some research themselves. And even then, every professor warns you that when you advance to a PhD candidature, you should really try your hardest not to take a TA job because the more time you spend in a lab, the faster you can finish your program and the more useful you are to your advisers. If you are unlucky and do get stuck teaching a few classes, when there’s a schedule conflict between doing your research and grading papers, your biggest priority is supposed to be your research. The undergrads can wait. But according to the picture Sean draws for us, you never graduate from that pressure of putting research above everything else. In fact, you’re then pressured to stay in the same area of expertise and bring in grant money to pay the often sky- high administrative salaries these universities have set for reasons only known to them. Does any academic bureaucrat do between $300,000 and $800,000 worth of work in a given year? We don’t know because unlike the researchers’ output, their contributions are very seldom measured in dollars and cents.
Again, we do know that parts of the academic process are broken and it’s very difficult to say that using grad students as a pliant and cheap workforce isn’t hurting academia and that the very restricted opportunities scientists must face aren’t also a serious part of the STEM enrollment shortages. We all know that political rhetoric lambasting good education is an even worse problem, especially coupled with budgetary neglect and public indifference, but there’s some blame that must rest with academia as well. While we tell our high school students to apply themselves so they can get into a good college, the system often ends up churning out young people with toxic debts and irrelevant degrees rather than future professionals whose education will match what they’ll actually do for a living, and some academics offer downright disastrous advice about the kind of coursework new college students should consider, advice that may be fine for someone whose goal is to be a lifelong academic and a bottomless pit of a trust fund, but financially ruinous for anyone else. I am certainly not saying that college is only for the wealthy and those looking to lock themselves into the ivory tower of professorship, but there is a serious and obvious disconnect between what colleges teach and what we expect from our degrees. And it gets even worse when you’re a grad student, even if you’re in a field where nothing bad can possibly happen from more math and design classes.
It all goes back to the question of what colleges are supposed to be doing. Are they supposed to get students ready for corporate jobs, or are they just supposed to teach the fundamentals and then companies will train a new workforce top apply all these fundamentals to their new jobs? Today, only the largest companies want to deal with actively training newly minted graduates and even then, only from certain colleges. Others consider that their most junior employees should already come with a year of corporate experience and it really doesn’t matter that new grads can get this kind of experience only when companies are willing to hire them and put in the time to bring them up to speed, then give them an actual project on which to cut their teeth. Junior workers just have to get this experience somewhere, somehow, and they better be kept at arm’s length from anything important, or they might ruin something or take more time to figure it out than someone far more senior. This is how the world is working but most colleges have not caught up, more worried about research and getting a steady stream of tuition checks from undergraduates who could become grad students, the cheap and highly reliable workers who help conduct the research professors will then use to get tenure, tenure that could well be denied if they apply any energy outside their lab. And if this state of affairs doesn’t just scream about a big disconnect between colleges and the world around them, I’m really not sure what would…