Friday, April 1, 2011

A is for Academia

Wikipedia defines academia as "the community of students and scholars engaged in higher education and research" (incidentally, that Wikipedia entry also goes into the origin of the term and the histories of the institutions involved in academia, if you are curious). 

I suppose I have been involved in academia since I stepped foot on Penn's campus as a freshman almost 15 years ago.  But as a student, or even as a graduate student or post-doc, you realize that this is just a transition, and for most people at universities, this is a stepping stone to something other than a career in academia.  I was fully inducted into academia until I became a professor this past fall.  I probably decided I wanted to become a professor while doing research at Georgia Tech during a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) in 1999.  Research up to that point had been a far cry and a refreshing change from undergraduate work: challenging, stimulating, and giving me the chance to actually create knowledge, instead of simply accumulating it.  Having a father that is an engineering professor did not hurt my motivation, though if he influenced me, it has been too subtle (or at too fundamental a level) for me to notice.

Since it ostensibly is one of the reasons I started this blog, I figured "A is for Academia" would be a good start to the Blogging from A to Z Challenge.  What is academia, beyond that Wikipedia definition?  Why do I like it (and why might you like it too)?  And what are the (very real) downsides?

It turns out that Wikipedia's definition of academia is pretty good, though I would rephrase it slightly.  It is a community of scholars (I consider students scholars as well, just at a different stage of development) engaged in knowledge creation and dissemination.  These are usually achieved through research and teaching, respectively, but dissemination of knowledge is an important part of research as well, and creating new knowledge can arise from the act of teaching, for both the teacher and the student.  This definition of academia also encompasses what I love about academia and being a professor:
  • Working with intelligent, motivated, and curious people (I suppose I mean inquisitive people, and not strange people, though they may be both) -- the "community of scholars".
  • A constantly evolving challenge -- because research always yields new questions, new conundrums, and new discoveries, you are forced to constantly learn and keep up.  I worked a couple summer desk jobs, I've heard other people talk about their jobs in both positive and negative lights, and for the most part other professions do not sound appealing to me. YMMV.
  • The ability to chart your own path and indulge your own curiosity -- if you can convince a university to give you a faculty position, and convince granting agencies and foundations to fund your work, you can research whatever excites your imagination and stimulates your intellect.  Aside from perhaps artists, musicians, and the self-employed, I know of few professions that offer such unparalleled freedom.  I love this!
  • The opportunity to mold future generations of scholars and experts in your field -- this is why I enjoy teaching, and also why I enjoy mentoring students and post-docs.  I want them to go out there and do well, I would like them to learn from my mistakes and my successes...and I like to feel like I am some sage dispensing words of wisdom to the supplicants that have climbed the mountain :)
  • The Eureka! moment -- whether it occurs when a student finally grasps a difficult concept in your class, or when your graduate student makes a leap she could not have made three months ago, or when the data you are looking at just scream, "This is what is happening!", the Eureka! feeling is second to none.
If these things I have listed sound good to you, maybe a career in academia would suit you.  However, with the good comes the bad.  Some of these I knew going in, and some I have discovered in my brief time as a newbie professor:
  • People's egos become more important than the science -- I do not understand how this happens.  Well, I understand it, because sometimes I can feel my own ego swelling, but science, particularly in research, is such a humbling endeavor.  You fail more often than you succeed, you (should) realize that you know very little and are guessing about a whole lot, and you are surrounded by extremely intelligent people with different perspectives and approaches that often outperform you.  So when people take criticisms of their research as personal attacks and fight back, I do not fully understand it, because that is what happens in research -- knowledge is created, hypotheses are tested and torn down, and most of the time your ideas are wrong, or at least incomplete.
  • A lot of passive-aggressive personalities in science, and maybe all of academia.  Enough said.
  • Though I said that charting your own intellectual path is a real positive, the reality is that getting funding for your pursuits has never been more difficult, and I am terrified just thinking about how I will fund my students and my lab for the next couple of years, let own the next couple of decades.  This is connected to the pressure you feel as you scratch and flaw your first five or six years towards tenure review, and it is the source, directly or indirectly, of most of the stress I deal with these days.
  • Politics -- not that this surprises me, because politics arise any time a group of people get together.  But I would like to think that, as scientists, my colleagues and I would be more objective and rationale.  That is generally not the case, and goes back to my first point about egos in academia.
  • The Ivory Tower syndrome -- people often talk about academia vs. the real world, as if academia is somehow disconnected from reality.  And it can be, especially if you are doing basic research, so it is important, I think, to ground yourself in something else, just as a reminder.  At the same time, I do believe in the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge's sake, so I do not think all academic pursuits must be obviously practical.  [As an aside, when someone in finance talks about the real world, and juxtaposes it against life as an academic (usually in a condescending way), I grit my teeth.  Really, moving electronic money around to make money, that is real, but my attempts at breast cancer research are "academic"?  Punch in the face.]
Wow, I wrote more than I expected.  And I am not sure it is coherent.  Or particularly informative.  But hopefully it gives a little bit of insight into why an academic career may or may not appeal to someone.

And so begins a month of blogging, from A to Z!  If you are wondering, there will be several themes running throughout, but overall I expect my 26 entries to be pretty eclectic.


  1. Interesting post. The definitions got me thinking about the differences between blogging and academia. Blogging certainly involves dissemination of knowledge. We are also a community.

    Do we create knowledge? Not in the way that it is created in academia--perhaps not with the same rigor--but if I wasn't learning and growing, then I wouldn't bother blogging.

    Anyway, welcome to A-Z! I enjoyed your post.

  2. Wow. We've been developing the concept of Academia quite a bit at Riskail, so this is a great reference to keep in mind. You really covered a good deal of ground and made us think, both awesome accomplishments in our book. Excellent post. Looking forward to your next ones...

  3. As a lover of eternal learning, this word intrigued me. Definitely food for thought.

  4. Excellent summary of the pros and cons, Adrian. And that second list is why I'm not a teacher. (Actually, it's because I feel I'd be a horrible one, in part because I have a low tolerance for stupid people.) Therefore, I'll leave you, and some of my family and friends (one of them in Philly) to fight the good fight for me. You're a better man than I.

  5. Hi Adrian, greetings from a fellow academic, I guess I should say, even though most of the time I don't consider myself one.

    I recognise a lot of what you write, both the pros and cons, even though both are less extreme where I work, as it's a university of applied sciences, which does have a slightly different feel.

    Interesting post. I'm looking forward to the other 25 :-)

  6. @Heidi -- I have always thought that scientists should use blogs and wikis more to communicate and discuss their ideas. Unfortunately, competition is such that people are sometimes reticent to discuss their ideas and unpublished findings, for fear of being "scooped." I am an idealist and believe that what we do should be public, but when and how is a good question.

    @Nate -- the second list is really about being a professor, which for me encompasses research, teaching, and service (in and outside the university), roughly in that order of importance. Teaching in and of itself has its own pros and cons, I have found.

  7. I liked being a teacher when I taught for two very short semesters.

    What I didn't like back then was the need to be punctual, a terrible inflexibility of the schedule. It's unavoidable if you want to teach a class, of course. Maybe the concept of class-based teaching is not for me.

    Back at university when they asked me whether I wanted to pursue a Ph.D. I had just finished writing my diploma thesis and was disgusted by the apparent intellectual dishonesty (claiming that research failures were successes), lab politics (the humanity of it all), power grabbing (who controls the funds), and workaholics (some were said to shave in their car because that's how little time they had). It didn't seem at all interesting.

    I also realized that I'd rather read a good science book than do the Eppendorferjuggle required to write said books.

  8. Haha, "Eppendorferjuggle", I bet that is actually a real German word :)