At a recent meeting with my collaborators and their groups, I asked a collaborator's student, who is getting ready to graduate, if she planned on going on the academic track (postdoc, then tenure track). She said 'Oh, no way!' Another student, who will graduate in a few months, concurred that he would never ever consider going into academia.
My colleagues (the other faculty) and I looked at each other in mock disbelief. Actually, these days I almost never hear that students want to continue into academia. So we started chatting about why it is so, and what it is that we as faculty do to make academia look so unappealing to students. My collaborator's student said that she wanted to explore other things in life. For her, it was a question of whether she would get more deeply into her technical field or broaden her horizons professionally, and the latter is her choice.
The other student said he felt it was all too much about egos (I guess that doesn't bode well for us, the PIs!), and that he preferred working as part of a team (he had a previous position in industry before grad school). He missed that -- being able to work on technically focused projects, exchanging ideas and information, and not having to worry about self-promotion. One of my faculty collaborators pointed out that there was certainly some serious elbowing going on in industry if one wanted to rise through the ranks to, say, division manager, but that, yes, if my student wanted to stay on an elbow-light technical path, he could probably pull it off in a solid company.
Another student said that he thought that more flexibility in academia was a myth and that we were all enslaved by the granting agencies. He openly asked if we would ever do the project we were all meeting about if it hadn't been in a hot area, with a lot of funding, and we had been successful in getting the grant. I couldn't help but chuckle: I understand that from his romanticized perspective of what science is, jumping on the wagon to do work in one’s general area just because it is hot and fundable is somehow superficial or otherwise unseemly, and I remember thinking that too, a while ago. I now look at it as simply being in tune what other people actually care about and what goes on in the field. And, as a former professor of mine said once upon a time: "There are no trivial questions, regardless of area, as long as you are at the area's cutting edge."
My view of what we as academics do has grown progressively more cynical over the years, but I think I am also cured of quite a bit of snobbery I had going in. It used to be all about what I think is cool or technically challenging, regardless of what anyone else thought. Nowadays, what I do is much more driven, one way or another, by what other people care about: what the program manager wants to fund, what is hot in the field, what people want to read about and cite, and what my collaborators want to do. Of course, I am not advocating being constantly in a reactive mode in terms of research direction, but you have to keep abreast of what the rest of the world is doing, adjust your internal gauge to accommodate for the overall scientific trends, and have a healthy mix of projects that range from pure discovery-driven personal passion to hot new stuff where funding is being funneled. I feel that, unless you keep a mix, you either sink (no funds if projects are not hot) or you sell your soul (it’s no fun if all you ever do is chase the berries).
At the same meeting, a student of mine chimed in "Well, if you didn't have to teach and write grants and advise us, you'd have many more papers and do much more work on [my pet topic]." I told him that while I would certainly do much more on that one topic, I could not possibly do, on my own, all the work that he and all the other students before him have done cumulatively on all the different projects. As for my pet project of yore, I used to long to work on it and would savor the little chunks of time I could carve to devote to it. But I grew weary of it; I realized that there is a very, very small community thinking about these problems, which are really hard, and that most people were making incremental, nearly insignificant tweaks to known models. There are two or three really big, important questions to answer in the context of my pet topic, and I realized that if I am going to keep working on it, I might as well grab the bull by the horns or not engage at all. So there you have it, plans for my next sabbatical.
I know it took me a while to make peace with the fact that I now manage much more than I do research. However, I really enjoy reveling in the big picture and living vicariously through –- uhm, overseeing -- my students' work, going through the details of different, distinct projects with each one of them. I would never be able to have this much breadth if it was just me. And then, there is writing. Writing papers is my favorite part of a project: through writing, things fall into place, first in my mind and then in the manuscript. I love how writing helps me think and distill the picture into the essential science behind months of work. And then I get to talk to people about the work at conferences and get new ideas for follow-on work after I hear colleagues talk about their projects... What’s not to love?
I believe academic research is a wonderful pursuit, and I think that, if a person is realistic about what it takes to secure enough funding to sustain a viable group, one can actually still have a lot of flexibility and a lot of fun, with awesome, very smart people. Some of whom then grow up and tell you they think academia sucks and they would never ever do what you do. Oh well.
N.B. I wanted this post to somewhat balance out the many posts in the blogosphere that focus on too many people wanting to go into academia and no one being able to. My experience is quite the opposite: the students in my and my collaborators' groups are quite against going into academia. I was surprised by how passionately some students were against it. Rather, I was expecting that for more of them academia were an option, maybe not a too appealing one, but I didn't expect to hear we're selling out souls to the granting agencies or that students view our advising as a poor substitute for doing research on our own. None of the students involved in the discussion had families, so the work-family balance didn't come up, but it is a very important issue that does dissuade many people from an academic path (see, for instance, irongrrl's comment below). My take is that there are wonderful research and non-research opportunities out there for people with PhD's, and most of them pay significantly better than academia and are very intellectually stimulating. All of my graduated PhD students went to well-paid, supportive industry jobs or national labs and are doing great, so this article should not be construed as me passing judgment on non-academia track, quite the contrary. It's just that I was taken aback by how unappealing academia was perceived to be by the students at this particular meeting, but perhaps this is exactly how it deserves to be perceived nowadays, with competition too fierce and claims on one's life and sanity too high...