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The nature of academia

  1. May 3, 2014 #1
    I've been thinking about science academia as an employer, or a profession, rather than as a vocation.

    It's full of very high aptitude people who do a lot of work for very little money. Why? They say they enjoy it, and maybe many do. As do I. However the nature of the work doesn't seem dramatically different to that in any other technical job. Most physicists I know don't do significantly different work than engineers I know. The work environment in a physics lab with a big experiment doesn't seem dramatically different to that at a big engineering company where I interned.

    If you asked someone why be a physicist rather than an engineer, they might reply that they want to be involved in fundamental breakthroughs or something of the sort, but it doesn't seem like most people in academia are producing many of those. Most people I know have settled into a niche of some sort, and then spend a long time producing incremental improvements on results that are only interesting to a dozen or so other academics. Meanwhile major revolutions have taken place largely in the private sector, such as the emergence of the internet.

    My point is not that the private sector is necessarily superior to academia for producing technical advances, but I'm left wondering what's the pay-off for those working in academia in return for accepting the worse conditions? I'm increasingly coming to see PhDs and postdocs as just cheap labour, and the most successful people in academia in turn are mostly just managers and entrepreneurs (ie. people who are good at winning research grants). So like everywhere.

    I have an ugly sense that academia is driven by status-seeking, and that this status is itself pretty much confined within academia. It's not like politics, acting, or journalism, which are also initially low-paid, unstable fields where most entrants are eventually forced to drop out, but where at least the successful gain a lot of status and power in society as a whole. Academia has some of the attributes of a cult: a closed, stable internal value system that does not make sense when viewed by most on the outside.

    A lot of academics seem to feel a duty to expand the system and encourage others to join it, but I'm starting to feel the opposite.
  2. jcsd
  3. May 3, 2014 #2


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    For most people, you go to college to learn with the hope of getting a good paying job. While there the best and brightest are groomed for academia but they don't always take the bait. Internships have helped to open the eyes of students to whats going on in industry and they may decide to go that route for the money and/or interest in the job.

    For others the lure of academia takes hold and they decide to continue on to grad school and a PhD. During this time, people change their minds going back and forth until they've decided whether they want an academic life, or a professional life. Sometimes this struggle can go on for years until you finally convince yourself that you're where you want to be or you're going to retire soon and don't want to mess that up by changing careers.

    Both worlds have pressure and politics to be aware of and to overcome. For industry, you have to fight to get your ideas heard or leave for another company with the caveat that the old firm might come after you if you implement something they now see as valuable. For academia there are two kinds of professors, the ones who can get research grants and the ones who teach well. Colleges almost always favor the grant getters over the teachers. Both kinds of professors have to publish or perish and that will cement their standing at their institution.
  4. May 3, 2014 #3
    I don't really understand that lure, as if it's supposed to be something highly desirable?

    If you work for me for a minimum liveable wage for 10-15 years, I'll give you a 10-20% chance of receiving a permanent job at an average middle class salary. Then you can do whatever you like so long as it is related to the goals of a large organisation such as a funding council. Deal?

    I don't get it.
  5. May 3, 2014 #4


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    Can you please look at the Nobel prize winners in Chemistry, Medicine, and Physics for the past, say, 30 years, and look at their affiliation?

    Can you look at, say, some of the most important physics papers from the past 30 years, and see the affiliations of the authors?

    These are DATA! Do they fit into what you had described, which was not backed by ANY kind of evidence? If they don't, then you really have nothing to back your claim. We might be debating the usefulness of unicorns.

  6. May 3, 2014 #5
    What are you talking about? That has nothing to do with the nature of academia as a career, especially from the perspective of someone just starting out. I agree that if your only career goal is to win a Nobel Prize, and are willing to sacrifice any other goal in life, academia is the way to go. But that chance is still <1%.

    edit: The whole nature of the response is illustrative of the problem. What is the reward for an academic career? Prizes, papers in top journals, citations - status. And not top politician status, or even MD status, just status symbols no one really cares about or is even aware of outside a narrow group of other academic status-seekers. The Nobel Prize breaks through into the mainstream, but it's about as meaningful as saying that working for Walmart can be a high-paying job because the Waltons are really rich.

    I'd have a lot more respect for you if you said you just loved solving problems and building things, which I do too, but my experience is that most physicists don't get to do more of that than the people who built the internet or people who build airplanes, while in every other respect they're treated far worse.
    Last edited: May 3, 2014
  7. May 3, 2014 #6


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    I am asking you for evidence to support this assertion that you made:

    Thus, I asked you to look at ALL the major breakthrough in physics, and see the affiliations of those people when they made the breakthrough.

    Otherwise, you are stating it without evidence. And your post is illustrative of the problem of "When did you stop beating your wife?" question, which is trying to discuss the causes of something before establishing that the something actually exists in the first place!

    So let's see some evidence to support what you are saying, or are you expecting that we simply accept what you said is valid without justification?

    BTW, the internet was the brain child of the US military. No private sector would think of something like that which they can't control and profit from. Look up the history of the internet if you don't believe me.

  8. May 3, 2014 #7


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    1. I doubt anyone cares if a random on the internet has respect for them.

    2. Your experience must have been with at best zero physicists because what you said is simply not true.

    3. What in the world is the point of this thread? It is filled with grossly inaccurate blanket statements made with absolutely no evidence to support them.
  9. May 3, 2014 #8
    I don't understand what assertion you think requires evidence. You seem to think the OP was about whether the private sector or academia have made the most contributions to technological advances. The truth is both have, and I am not denying that. The OP is about what sort of prospects academia offers a median entrant, compared to engineering or computer science. There would be a clear explanation if ALL interesting advances happened in academia, but that's just not true.

    The US military btw pays the market rate for their engineers, because engineers don't have a special fixation for working for the US military. Again it's not an issue of public vs private sector, but rather academia versus "industry".

    What's your experience with people who make airplanes or made the internet?

    I have experience with all three. I find they're much the same sort of person doing much the same sort of job, only the airplane and internet people aren't so obviously exploited by their employers.

    I originally posted this thread in the careers forum which is literally chock full of people complaining they were never told that only 10% of PhD ever get a faculty job and that they are having problems starting a private sector career from scratch at age 32.

    edit: Your profile says you are 19.
    Last edited: May 3, 2014
  10. May 3, 2014 #9


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    For example, from the OP: "It's full of very high aptitude people who do a lot of work for very little money."

    And another assertion from the OP: "but I'm left wondering what's the pay-off for those working in academia in return for accepting the worse conditions."

    And more, "academia is driven by status-seeking, and that this status is itself pretty much confined within academia. It's not like politics, acting, or journalism, which are also initially low-paid, unstable fields where most entrants are eventually forced to drop out, but where at least the successful gain a lot of status and power in society as a whole."

    With such generalized claims/assertions, we expect some evidence, which is part of what PF is about.

    From our decades of experience, ZapperZ and I would take exception to your biased and anecdotal account of academia.
    Academia (university/college) is about education and research. Primary school (elementary/primary and secondary) are mostly about education. Obviously, given a complex society, there is a need for teachers/academics.

    One seems to express a very limited and biased experience.

    At university, there are different levels/layers of academia, e.g., assistant professor, associate professor, [full] professor, and various management positions, e.g., department chair, college/school chair, research chair, various deputy/assistant deans and deans, chancellor, etc. Generally, the higher the position, the higher the salary. This structure generally exists in all large research and commercial organizations. At the engineering/research firms in which I've worked, and at the various client organizations with which I've worked, there are hierarchies of professional positions, from entry level scientist/engineer through various grades based on skill and experience, e.g., consultant/junior engineer, senior engineer/consultant, principal engineer, consulting engineer, and various layers of management, through VP, President, CFO, COO, CTO, CEO. So in that sense, there is very little difference between academia (unviersity), a large research organization (e.g., DOE lab, NASA, or other private research org.), or a commercial company like IBM, GE, 3M, UTC, Boeing, . . . , although the labs and commerical companies do not have education as their primary institutional function.

    Within these organizations, there are certainly those who seek status, but that's a personal thing. I've known people who strive for status and who are very sensitive to their title, and I've known others who let their work/accomplishments speak for their capabilities without worry about titles and awards.

    Compensation is often tied to experience and accomplishment, and I've known many very well paid academics, all the way up to presidents and chancellors of universities, as well as top level managers in commercial organizations. I've known very successful people in academia, national labs and the private sector, and I've know people who were not so successful.

    If one is very successful in academia, one can earn much more than a 'minimum liveable wage', and one can work in industry for a few years or decades before returning to academica. I've also known academics who publish books (often text books), many who consult with the private sector, and others who start one or more businesses, even while continuing to teach in academia in some cases.

    Certainly, the Nobel Prize represents a pinnacle in the areas for which the prize is awarded, and it is achieved by fewer people than those who reach the summit of Mt. Everest or K2, however, ZapperZ's point is that academia, as well as the government and private sector research labs do provide individuals the foundation to accomplish research that in some cases does lead to a Noble Prize.
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