Why I Left Academia

A few months ago three good mates and I were walking through the halls of the South Australia Museum in Adelaide. It’s a very well done museum, and we enjoyed the exhibition on the Permian reptiles and the mass extinction which annihilated them; this period set the stage for all of later land vertebrate evolution. We also saw an exhibit on the Ediacaran fauna, fossils of some of the earliest multicellular animals, enigmatic creatures found only in a few settings. And for the first time I saw the bones of the extinct Australian megafauna, the cow-sized wombats and huge kangaroos which roamed the land tens of thousands of years ago. The walk through the halls of the museum was truly enthralling. My heart started beating faster from intellectual excitement.

When we stepped back into the hot South Australian summer sun, one of my mates turned to me and reflected. What he said was:

For an hour, I felt like the idealistic 18 year old again who decided to study science. Now it’s back to the bullshit”.

I wholeheartedly agreed. We had come to Adelaide for a conference and we were all university employees. We were mostly not happy campers. What had frustrated us to a degree that such a cynical statement would resonate?

At the core of many problems in modern academia, and indicative of its unhealthy competitive nature, is the competition for grant money. In the old days it used to be that research grants would fund only special and unusually costly projects. Then, holding a grant became such a token of academic prestige that it became a prerequisite for getting a good job, then for getting any job. Especially the growing ranks of the university bureaucrats, increasingly drawn from the corporate world and not from fellow intellectuals, were enthralled by the flow of grant money: it’s a way of relating science to cash and hence prestige. And it allows people who have little clue about science to assign a simple numerical value to a complicated research project. So grant writing became one of the main jobs of any university researcher in the early 21st century in most parts of the academic world.

Besides grant writing, my university employers kept me busy with complex rules regulating my conference travel, committees, updating lists on my committee memberships and errands like filling out an elaborate online system monitoring my progress and goals at work. I could never figure out if the people who run such an online system really thought that a 40 year old intellectual is not self-motivated enough to need such micromanagement or if they simply liked online forms; I could also never figure out if they appreciated the humor when I stated in the “future goals” box of their form that I planned to “not waste time with online forms” next year.

In the greater scientific community, I needed to spend considerable time arguing with the editors and reviewers of the academic journals in which I intended to publish my scientific work. Sometimes actual scientific issues were sorted out during this peer-review process, but often it was an exercise in petty-power by the anonymous reviewers assigned to judge my manuscripts. This does not come as a surprise, since publications provide the fundamentals for winning those cherished, and limited, research grants. Reviewers often had an obvious vested interest in making publishing difficult for me. So, at the end of many academic work weeks I found myself taking a displeased deep breath in my office on Friday around noon, surprised how little actual intellectual progress I had made on my research projects after taking care of all of these non-scientific or tangentially scientific demands.

Such weeks full of distractions then turn to years, and years turn into careers filled mostly with activities other than proper scientific research. As one of my European collaborators put it at the end of a too brief skype conversation about mathematics which he aborted to run to a bureaucratic meeting: “Me, the administrator!”. Many of my former colleagues are chasing a mythical state where they have taken care of all of these distractions and then can do science. Once they realize that they will never catch up with this magic dragon, they either retreat into cynicism, or quit.

Those aforementioned all-important grant applications were not merely a few pages of ideas what research I planned to do. They are thick documents where the scientific section is only a minor part; most of it is the professional record of everyone involved, the budget, and a hyperbolic description of the supposedly superb research environment in which the science will be conducted in. And in a successful grant application the brief scientific part must never be in any way daring or controversial! In a complete misunderstanding how science works some research funding agencies even require detailed statements about the expected outcomes of the planned research. Naturally and sadly, all these issues change the way science is done. Researchers become increasingly risk-adverse in their research, for fear of not having easily publishable results, subsequently not getting the next grant, and eventually missing out on the next job or promotion. Science becomes very incremental and much less exciting than it could be.

I have met many really smart and creative people who have allowed these thumbscrews to restrict their research. One colleague called a computer chip she was working on a “paper generator” – of limited intellectual or technological value, but guaranteed to form the basis of multiple publications in a currently fashionable sub-field. I’ve also had offers for collaboration declined because the proposed project would be mildly unusual and not fit squarely into the interests of one scientific sub-community. During the last 15 years I have done work in experimental and theoretical neurobiology, neural excitability and dendrites, and lately a bit in evolutionary biology. I tremendously enjoyed this interdisciplinary work, but it has actually been quantitatively shown to be a career detriment. In contrast, many of my former colleagues have stuck with one single field throughout their careers, hence maximizing their number of publications. Many academic CVs contain paper after paper with only a few words changed in-between titles, and I honestly doubt the intellectual weight of these redundant contributions.

But besides limiting promising scientists in what they feel that they can do, the current system of academia also attracts un-inspired folks who could equally well thrive as middle-managers in used car dealerships. I was often surprised how little some of my former colleagues were interested in actual science, and how much in grants, positions, and academic gossip. One of those former colleagues introduced himself to international visitors not by mentioning his field of research or country of origin, but by pointing out the administrative committee he was chairing! These are people who don’t “play the game” because they believe they have to in order to have a chance to do research, but they actually enjoy the “grant mill”, petty politics and administration unloaded onto contemporary academics. So besides hindering the work of people who are fascinated by science, modern academia also draws people who don’t have the curious mindset I believe a scientist should have, but instead have a lot of career ambition – and usually that group advances much faster up the university ranks.

As a further consequence of the ruthless battle for resources and a place close to the heart of the powerful university bureaucrats, I observed an embarrassing degree of conformism in academia. In a room full of academics I was often one of only two or three people who voiced their concerns when a bureaucrat came up with a new plan disruptive to actual research. Weren’t all of these colleagues sitting next to me supposed to be critical thinkers and paradigm-destroyers? They surely did not act like that!

I was also increasingly disgusted by the lack of inhibition of taking military funding. This eagerness to work on weapons systems or their possible components was not motivated by a misunderstood but honest patriotism, and a believe that a nation must defend itself well in a dangerous world. That’s a belief I don’t share, but respect. No, my “colleague’s” motivation was simply the greed for grant money paired with a lack of any morals. Jokes in poor taste about killing people, followed by uncomfortable laughter, at lab meetings made it quite clear that they understood what they were doing, but prioritized grant money higher than morally sound decisions.

At this point I have to take a step back in my rant and state: Not all was bad, of course! I learned a lot in my years in academic research, I got to travel to cool places, and I met very interesting people. I hope to stay in touch with many of them, and want to thank them for all the intellectually stimulating discussions if any of them are reading this! Many of these real scientists I met in academia (as opposed to the academic careerists faking to be scientists) tend to mostly agree with my lament here.

And of course I still feverishly love science. Every single day I am absolutely fascinated by the insights modern science has brought humanity. I don’t want to be misunderstood as arguing that academic science is simply a crooked business producing pseudo-insights only serving the career interests of its practitioners. Creepy anti-science campaigners like the proponents of creationism or anthropogenic-climate-change-denial seem to be convinced of some kind of conspiracy like that. This is absolutely not what I think is the case – rather, I believe that the results of modern science are for the very largest part correct, and often very, very interesting. However, science could be advancing faster, and with much less frustration and better working conditions for scientists world-wide, and it should advance in a more fundamental, less incremental way.

I am in fact rather surprised by the amount of good science which is still being done. I partially attribute this to the stubborn persistence of a number of top researchers. They are doing quality science despite the current system in which research is organized. I also do think that a few top institutions are still functioning in the interest of scientists and science. There are, to be sure, significant differences between different institutions. I personally had a great start at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt and the Salk Institute in San Diego. These are great places full of top intellectuals, and the Salk is even in an astonishingly beautiful location on the top of cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. I cherish the time I spent at Max Planck and Salk.

I then got a faculty position at newly founded research university in Japan. But while the place billed itself as international, few of my Japanese “colleagues” spoke reasonable English or were even interested in intellectual exchange with a foreigner. The amount of micromanagement was truly Kafkaesque – I will never forget the faculty meeting where we discussed the proper type of door for the women’s toilets. The xenophobia in rural Japan made it hard to recruit people, and frankly made it less than enjoyable to live there. So I did something unfathomable to most academics: I left a tenure track position over such minor issues like scientific climate and intellectual stimulation!

I next joined a University in Australia. While the place was not at the level of Max Planck or Salk, I met a number of very interesting colleagues. The new position I took was fixed-term, but with a chance for promotion to a continuing position. I had this written out in my contract, and I was assured in no uncertain terms that such a promotion should be no problem if I published well. However, two years, some respectable publications and a grant later I was told by the Deputy Vice Chancellor (only one of many absurd titles of the university royalty) of our university that he did not believe in converting positions like mine and that he has no intention of honoring the assurances the university had given me. According to him there was not enough funding to secure my position in the future, an interesting statement to hear from him, a member of the massively over-paid university upper-class. It turned out that my contract was written in a way which allowed the university to act like that. Quite simply, modern universities are run by bureaucrats, for bureaucrats.

I also had no success in subsequent months with my applications for other academic positions, and I seriously started to doubt if I even wanted another such position. As the idealistic 18 year old conjured by my mate, I expected to trade lesser income and job security in academia for intellectual freedom and the leisure to intellectually explore. Academia had delivered quite well on the lesser income and the lacking job security – but failed to deliver properly on the intellectual freedom. The freedom to show up in the office late and a certain amount of social recognition and was pretty much all that was left for anyone hoping to remain employed in academia. To that I say: My ego can very well do without someone remarking at a party how smart I must be since I am working in a neuroscience lab.

For me, it was time to do something else. Fortunately I have other qualifications and passions: I am a scuba instructor, hold a number of additional advanced diving qualifications, plus I have had some success in underwater photography. I also have no mortgage to pay off, so I could switch careers without drastic consequences, and I did. But for a lot of other academics, this is a serious situation, both financially and in terms of their self-worth, which has been closely tied to their academic success since their graduate student days in their 20s. To me, these financial and psychological dependencies explain why such confident and bright young people are willing to put up with so much systemic harassment from university superiors and funding agencies.

Can it be beneficial for society if smart and motivated scientists are driven out of research institutions by the difficulties I described? Does it make sense that our intellectuals are becoming mid-level administrators, and our universities are mainly geared towards the careers of their top-tier administrators? Some of my former young colleagues from Max Planck and Salk ended up becoming language tutors, stay-at-home dads, entrepreneurs or business consultants. Few of those are careers where they are using their specialized knowledge in brain research. Many of them are personally quite happy, but they are not putting their lengthy education and brilliant brains to use for the improvement of human knowledge in their field.

It can be reasonably argued that ancient Chinese science and technology were suffocated by overt bureaucracy. The ancient Chinese invented a number of things centuries before Europe, most notably gunpowder and the printing press. But their science failed to take off the way it did in Europe in early modernity – the question why that is the case is known as the Needham question, after Joseph Needham, an American biochemist with great interest in Chinese culture and history. One reasonable answer to the Needham question is that a massively overburdening centralized bureaucracy was to blame for the technological and intellectual staling of the Chinese civilization. We might be well on our way to follow their example.

To be clear, I am quitting academia, not science. There is no need to be on the payroll of a university to think. In recent years, I have increasingly found myself doing actual scientific work on weekends, after a work week full of the aforementioned distractions. The days off and evenings will still be available for scientific work once I am working in my new career. A number of notable greats in the history of science, such as Alfred Russell Wallace (not that I mean to compare myself to him!), have never held a university appointment, while rightfully forgotten men sat on professorial chairs during their times. Hawaiian surfer and theoretical physicists Garrett Lisi is a modern example of a productive intellectual outside of academia. Theoretical work like the type I am doing does not need expensive gear and equipment. I will certainly keep trying what I wanted to do since my 20s – not to publish in a prestigious journal, not to get a grant, not to win an academic award and not to chair a university committee – but to find out how things in nature function.

1 Comment

  1. Dario

    Very lucid and insightful view about the current situation in most academic institutions Klaus. It’s a disgrace that curious and creative minds are alienated from the places where knowledge is meant to be generated. But as you said, the curious mind is never at rest and doesn’t necessarily need (although in most cases it helps) to be part of the system to continue its quests. As the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda said: ‘Podran cortar todas las flores pero no podran detener la primavera’ ( “They can mow all the flowers down but they can’t stop the spring”).

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