Tuesday, September 10, 2013
An academic has posted to his blog a letter sent
anonymously to all the researchers at his university by a student who has
decided to quit pursuing his Ph.D. just shy of completing his thesis work. I
agree with the blogger that it raises issues "worth thinking about" by anyone
who is or has been "in the academic world". Let me also echo both the author
and the blogger in making it clear that my personal experience has also
included numerous examples of good people doing good science. Science isn't
dead, but it's in deep trouble.
Three things strike me about this letter. The first is the author's overall concern:
... I'm starting to think of [academia] as a big money vacuum that takes in grants and spits out nebulous results, fueled by people whose main concerns are not to advance knowledge and to effect positive change, though they may talk of such things, but to build their CVs and to propel/maintain their careers...It is interesting to consider where most of this money comes from and how it is distributed (i.e., government grants doled out by scientists established in the sense of having a track record of publications) in light of the following concerns, which are also the second thing I wish to highlight:
... Very quickly after your initiation in the academic world, you learn that being "too honest" about your work is a bad thing and that stating your research's shortcomings "too openly" is a big faux pas. Instead, you are taught to "sell" your work, to worry about your "image", and to be strategic in your vocabulary and where you use it. Preference is given to good presentation over good content ...And, much later:
This seems to leave the student with a nasty ultimatum. Clearly, simply telling the advisor that the research is not promising/original does not work - the advisor has already invested too much of his time, reputation, and career into the topic and will not be convinced by someone half his age that he's made a mistake. If the student insists, [he] will be labeled as "stubborn" and, if the insisting is too strong, may not be able to obtain the PhD. The alternative, however unpleasant, is to lie to yourself and to find arguments that you're morally comfortable with that somehow convince you that what you're doing has important scientific value. For those for whom obtaining a PhD is a *must* (usually for financial reasons), the choice, however tragic, is obvious.We clearly have a system that, while not making it impossible to do good work, stacks the deck against those who want to judge its value objectively, as opposed to how it looks to others.
The real problem is that this habit can easily carry over into one's postgraduate studies, until the student [himself] becomes like the professor, with the backwards mentality of "it is important because I've spent too many years working on it".
And this brings me to the third salient point about this letter, and the one with which I disagree. The author, who I would surmise is as anti-capitalist as any other typical academic, seems to blame capitalism via the surrogate of common popular stereotypes about "business". (I'd say that to the extent there is truth in the stereotypes, it is due to the pragmatist (i.e., range-of-the-moment, expedience-minded) mentality shared by some businessmen and some academics.)
... With so many business-esque things to worry about, it's actually surprising that *any* scientific research still gets done these days. Or perhaps not, since it's precisely the naïve PhDs, still new to the ropes, who do almost all of it.And:
... [T]he majority of the world's academic research is actually being done by people like me, who don't even have a PhD degree. Many advisors, whom you would expect to truly be pushing science forward with their decades of experience, do surprisingly little and only appear to manage the PhD students, who slave away on papers that their advisors then put their names on as a sort of "fee" for having taken the time to read the document (sometimes, in particularly desperate cases, they may even try to steal first authorship)...It is simply wrong to claim (on the basis of time spent in a lab, at least) that non-PhD's are "doing most of the work". Karl Marx (and anyone he has influenced) is wrong to write off the intellectual and managerial effort of running a research lab as somehow not being work.
Perhaps it is the last point that is making it hard to see the relationship between the first two, to diagnose a possible cause, or for either the author or the blogger to see a solution to the problem.
If anything, academia needs to become much more like a business -- one that can't count on a government bailout if it fails -- rather than one of the many tentacles of the welfare state that it is now. I suspect that many of the problems the author describes above would disappear were money to come to those who deserve it, rather than to those who curry favor with those holding bags of loot.