On Academia

So we have had a lot of faculty candidates come in to interview and present their work to the department (actually 2 departments for 3 positions). I have had the good fortune to meet with most of them and talk about careers and listen to their stories of how they got where they are now. I have been mostly underwhelmed by the whole experience and really it makes me want to be done being a grad student more than ever. Its not so much that I want to be where they are now but more a sense that I should be where they are now. In all likelihood, a few of these individuals will be hired as full time tenure-track faculty and while that’s nice…I was hoping they would be more outstanding. I wanted to know that there was something to aspire to for the next 2-4 years as I travel down a similar path. These people have essentially solidified the idea that I’m not going to go all that much farther in the next four years, or if I do advance farther it will not necessarily be of much benefit. I seriously hope I’m wrong about the whole thing but after seeing faculty at our university and others who are really kind of clueless, the pedestal of academia has been lowered substantially. That famed ivory tower seems more manageable but not in that good way. I was truly hoping that the idealism would last a bit longer as motivation for long hours, mediocre wages, and little recognition. Instead, I feel myself pulled towards a job in industry as an academic “sell out.” I suppose I’m probably judging things a bit too harshly and that this is all reactionary to some degree but the consistent pull to have a job that is certainly less stressful day to day (unless you risk being fired or your company bought out), and better pay has some degree of appeal. I’m thinking now that a post-doctoral appointment someplace may be the last  foray into academia for me. It’s a shame really because I think I could have been a decent professor but at the same time, I think that academia(especially the sciences) is going in truly the wrong direction for the future. Professors obsess over funding of research and in that pursuit are forced to kill many creative ideas as being too risky to suggest. Instead our major funding agencies look for sure things with immediate relevance when they should be looking for things that are innovative approaches to problems. They are terrified of the unknown instead of being excited by it. Furthermore, the transition of academic culture into an institution of training and a product to be sold is a bit disheartening. While the transition is by my own standards the way things were destined to be; when faced with it day to day…I’m not sure I like it. I guess its all symbolic of the infantilizing of a generation and my own romanticizing of the past. An age past wherein you turned 18 and were a man in your own right who could work, support a family, fight a war, or any combination of those things. Now we have high school part 2 where young men and women can avoid being men and women for 4-6 years while someone else foots the bill. It seems entirely sensible to me that we should abandon the paradigm  that individuals attend college immediately after high school. Rather a system where college is just one of many options presented with no particularly greater or lesser value ascribed to it which might avoid the relegation of a fairly noble institution to a 4 year holding pattern for life. Some students will emerge from their basic primary education and have an earnest curiosity and desire to expand their intellectual pursuits and may go to college or may choose to study on their own and seek out their own individual training in such things. Others may pursue a trade or start a family and may find that college merely gets in the way of those certainly noble goals. And still others may choose to do nothing, indeed, many of those people (the do-nothings) in this day would go to college as only a pre-emption of their continuing to do nothing upon their matriculation into life. Why not just save the money and time and get a head start on life and what’s worthwhile. Furthermore, some jobs for which our society demands a college education…just plain old don’t need one. These are the jobs that were filled for decades by people without a piece of paper saying they sat in classrooms for four years doing crosswords. We need to reevaluate the place of academia in society and for better or for worse, understand that its not for everyone; that is to make it that much better for those who would truly benefit from it. I am a firm believer that no amount of formal education will make a person into a creative, functioning, driven adult and that rather these are purely personal pursuits that no amount of tuition paid will hasten to completion. Maybe I should have trained as a blacksmith or something…Patrick OUT!!!


marie said...

I'm no authority on academia, but it's a big world out there with lots of academic institutions...WPI is just one of them, Massachusetts is just one state, the U.S. is just one country...I don't know. I thought your idea of a post-doc somewhere new + different would be a great experience and opportunity that could offer another perspective, but I think you're trying to make a decision a few years in advance.

In short - is it really the same everywhere? I think you should consider the U.K. for post-doc or at least visit some universities there in your exploratory process for any longer-term planning; they may have a better system but there are enough cultural similarities/familiarities to make one feel comfortable.

Patrick said...

I am confident that the trends I outlined here are not very much particular to WPI or to massachusetts and maybe not even just to the US. I will admit that the problems are perhaps bigger in the US than elsewhere but I can't say for sure. I will likely still do a post-doc but the point of the matter is that, I am not confident that the system in academia as it stands now is fit for me. While my time on this side of the issue has been short, I am definately not alone in my opinions (professors, post-docs, grad students, etc. have all shared similar concerns). Some people choose to work within the system and I think I might be better suited to work outside of it. I came to this conclusion because I don't see the problem improving but rather getting worse as years go by. I'm just pressing for a reevaluation of the plac of academia...in some instances it needs to have its value increased for those that would benefit from it and in some other ways, a degree is largely over-valued and that should also be corrected. I hope I'm wrong.

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