Well of course after singing the praises of academia, it was only inevitable I would turn to the areas I do not enjoy quite so much. At the risk of becoming a caricature of myself, I will try not to complain too much, but frankly it is hard. The issue really is the absurdity of it all and the way it is portrayed by those who do not realise the problems and pressures we face. While I am hardly political, it is difficult to swallow the endless platitudes about how important science is and how we must protect academic freedom, and maintain standards when grants are cut, salaries are a joke, competition for jobs is fierce to the point of brutal, and job security is virtually non existent. I may have to revisit some of these ideas later as they genuinely are that important to the problems faced by academics as a whole, but for now I will try to keep it short.
These are of course my opinions based on my experiences, but I do have friends in other branches of science and academia and the complaints I am sure are recognisable to many and not unique to me. As before, in no special order:
1. Jobs. There are not enough jobs, the pay is terrible and there is no job security (most contracts at the postdoc level are 2-3 years). Now that is true of many jobs, but when you have to train for about 10 years with little or no money (higher school education, degree, masters, PhD) to then be stuck in a market where there are few jobs, all on short-term contracts and with poor pay and then the government wonders why everyone leaves to work in the city, you cannot help but think that they are blind. I simply could not have afforded to do what I do without financial support from my family, and by not having a family of my own to support. I know too many people who have had to leave academia because they have just run out of money, or can’t get a job. I am not saying there should not be competition – there is not enough money to employ everyone who wants to be a palaeontologist and not everyone can be a professor, but you can’t keep training more and more people and expect them to fill fewer and fewer positions.
2. Time to qualify. Part of 1 really, but part of the reason the pay is so bad is you are typically 3-5 years behind all your peers who have been working since they got a batchelors degree, and with a company who will promote you, give you a pension, shares and the rest. Age 35 I know people still paying off their student debts and who earn less than the starting salary of a junior clerk in a bank who is 18. We don’t want huge salaries – we do it because we love it, but we are forced to leave to earn a living wage *after* taking years to become qulaified for jobs that no longer exist. Thanks for that.
3. Sexy science. If you don’t work on the topic that is hot right now, you can watch you chances of getting a grant or job diminish by the day. For biology right now it is Evo-Devo, before that whole genome sequences, and before that molecular based phylogenies. The money is not handed out equally and it shows. While PhD hunting years ago, in one day I counted a total of 58 positions in ‘biology’, 2 of them were not based on molecular / DNA work. And again, they wonder why they are running out of taxonomists, or why anatomy is so far behind.
4. Awkward customers. As in any job or career, not everyone you will meet or work with is nice and friendly and helpful, and of course some are downright difficult, awkward or nasty. Now in a normal job you could move to a different company, swap to a new department or regional office, or if things were reall difficult, appeal to the company HR, boss or whoever. Of course that is true to an extent within departments or individual research institutes, but if you need access to a specimen and it is denied to you, or someone is repeatedly rejecting your papers or grant applications, or whatever it can be diffiuclt to even find out that it is happening (thanks to the general anonymity of peer review) let alone act on it. With academic jobs few and far between and competiton fierce, if you are having a disagreement with someone, a job in that place will not be appealing (and if they are on the hiring committee, you probably won’t get it either). Again, this is not uncommon in the ‘real world’, but if you are a banker there are lots of banks you can work for, with lots of offices, not true if you are a palaeontologist.
5. Work pressure. With the competitiveness for jobs and grants, young academics especially are forced to work very long hours. Contract work, as I have mentioned before, often gives you little scope to explore your own research, or spend time writing you own grants. A good grant application can take weeks of full-time work to produce, and with your commitments to research and teaching, that often has to be done on your own time. But the time they take means you will only be able to complete two or three applications (and probably more likely just one) for a given round (generally two a year). Fail here and you are out of a job. Fail again, and you almost become unemployable – if you are out of a job for 18 months or two years you are too far behind to catch up.
6. Personal loss. Between all the extra hours you work, short contracts mean you are often moving city or country, poor pay, long absences for fieldwork or museum visits and the rest, it is perhaps no wonder so may people drop out. Even the travel can be a drag. You fly out on a Saturday (your day off), work for three weeks (missing three weekends with no overtime or extra days off in lieu, stuck in a hotel on your own in the middle of nowhere to get to some provincial museum), and come back on a Saturday (your day off, now jetlagged from a 12 hour flight) and then back to work on Monday. Nice.
7. Peer review. As discussed here before, it is bad. It could be a lot worse, but it is not great. The worst thing of course is the lack of control, a brilliant paper can be rejected repeatedly over bad reviews where it has simply been misunderstood. When you are competing for grants as a young researcher when a good publication list can make the difference between success and failure, and it takes six months to get a rejection, it does not help. Papers can be held up for years by referees and slow journals and it can seriously affect your chances of getting a job or a grant if you have nothing published to show for all your work because it is all in review. Incidentally this goes for grants too – having them rejected for outrageous reasons by ignorant referees is a real issue, and unlike a paper, you can hardly resubmit it, or send a letter to the grant body director once the deadline has gone and the money has been allocated.
8. Unrealisitic expectations. Apparently it is fine to expect us to keep on working long hours without overtime, lose our weekends to our work without days off, make trips in our own time, accept low pay, low job security, limited contracts, pressure to publish, excessive administration, and the rest because we enjoy our jobs. Well, yeah, we do – we do them in spite of those things, but that is hardly a reason to continue if you expect the next generation to enter academia as a career. It is hardly the best motivator and it will actively discourage people who cannot afford to get so far behind with debt, or have a family to support, or just do not feel they can give up an even vaguely decent standard of living to pursue a career with so little going for it.
It is hard not for me to come over bitter in all of this, but that is probably because I am a little. I am doing this because I want to and because I enjoy it, but I do see the pressures it puts on my friends and colleagues and I know people who have dropped out and continue to drop out because of these reasons. I am not a fool, we are palaeontologists, we are not looking for cancer cures, or into renewable energy but science is not supposed to work (quite) like that. I don’t expect us to be valued as much as brain surgeons, but I do expect us to be valued more than train drivers or street cleaners. We give our own time and expense to gain our qualifications to be less valued that those without any higher education. We are in a capitalist system, and we will only be paid according to the market forces, but then our salary also comes from the government ultimately, so they can pay us more if they really want. We also make them money with new patents, new lines of medical research, new tecnhologies and the rest, but if we do ot have the necessary salary or support we will leave and where will they come from then?
If science is important to a society it needs to be supported, and cutting positions, cutting grants, and keeping wages at a frustratingly low level while somehow claiming it is comparable to industy salaries (let alone business) is frankly ludicrous. It simply isn’t, and if people expect us to continue to work under these conditions, and more, expect the next generation to accept them, then they are making a mistake. The idealism and naivete of youth? Perhaps, but I do see the effects and I feel them myself. I know how lucky I was to have the support to get me through my training, and I therfore know that others who do not have it, cannot make it no matter how talented, and these people are lost to science, and that is sad for both them and academia.
This is a revised Mk.1 post, to see the original with comments etc., go here.