Most people are now aware of this letter of resignation by an EPFL PhD student. The letter has had enormous impact. In the resignation, the student, who was supposedly within months of completing his PhD, outlined his reasons for his disillusionment with the culture of science. The letter went viral, garnering tens of thousands of hits in a matter of hours. It clearly struck a chord with many postgraduate, postdoctoral and veteran researchers alike. The author listed a number of reasons for giving up, including the belief that academia was no more than a business; that young researchers were exploited by their academic bosses; that the whole system encouraged mediocrity instead of originality; that academics were obsessed with the quantity of their output rather than the quality; that academia was infested with egomaniacs and that much of academic research was effectively worthless.
There is something more than a little tragic about all of this. Much of what the student had to say is true – or at least partly true – but it’s hard not to think that he needed someone to just take him aside, put a metaphorical arm around his shoulder, listen with some empathy to what he had to say, and encourage him to at least see his PhD through to the end. He has made a huge decision to abandon it now and I hope he doesn’t live to regret what he has done.
The whole furore got me thinking about why I actually love being an academic. Here are ten reasons in no particular order of importance.
1. Opportunities for creativity
I know deep down that much academic research, including my own, doesn’t amount to the proverbial hill of beans in the grand scheme of things but there is something almost uniquely satisfying about being able to make one’s own contribution, however small, to the sum of human knowledge. Even though one of your papers might only have a handful of citations it may contain knowledge that you and only you have created or discovered. That’s a good feeling.
2. Academia is task-oriented
The academic job has an almost unnatural amount of freedom in terms of the way one can schedule the day’s activities. The job is not about ‘putting in the time’ but achieving certain objectives. This can often be done in a way that suits family life, amongst other things, albeit with the price that the boundary between work and home life becomes blurred.
3. The variety
The academic job has a huge amount of variety: mundane administrative tasks like arranging lab groups; core activities like giving lectures; creative tasks like doing research and writing papers; challenging but rewarding activities like supervising postgrads; altruistic things like reviewing manuscripts and helping out at stands at careers exhibitions in the RDS; bonus stuff like writing this blog; even the potentially boring stuff like going to meetings. It’s all there.
4. Freedom of speech
Academics can voice their opinions even if it is to be critical of their own university. Imagine trying to challenge the consensus in the cult-like atmosphere of a biopharma multinational.
5. Individuality is respected
Whenever I’m on the Luas around Sandyford and I see all the employees of Microsoft, Vodafone and others getting on and off, I give thanks that I work in a university where it is possible to be yourself and not to have to conform to a company image. My nightmare would be to walk around an open plan office in a shirt and tie with my staff ID around my neck.
6. Working with students
Working with students can be frustrating but in the main it’s very enjoyable and rewarding. It keeps you young.
7. I like learning new things
Every year I learn something new not because I go out of my way to do so but because it’s just part of the job. Last year for, example, I learned that there was a connection between ultrafiltration – a technology in which I am supposedly an ‘expert’ – and Prime Numbers of all things!
8. Writing is fun
Writing is a big part of working in academia – a lot of my DCU time is spent tapping away on my word processor – that suits me.
9. Education is important
Apart from Health, I cannot think of any other sector of society that is more important than Education.
10. I can have ‘Important’ discussions and arguments
Occasionally, just occasionally of course, the academic intrigue is worth gossiping about!