Have you ever noticed that most of the people teaching at universities don't have any formal training or qualifications in teaching, and are therefore just hobbyist educators? It's true, most universities don't require their faculty to get training in teaching or use evidence-based teaching practices.
Have you ever noticed that most of the research going on at universities doesn't add much value to society? It can be hard to see that if you've never been part of the academic system.
So are academics really just hobbyist educators who don't add much value to society? Is it justified for them to think of themselves as the pillars of discovery and invention?
Imagine for a moment, the long list that could be made of people who've had great ideas that changed the world, but they didn't work at universities.
Imagine for a moment, the long list that could be made of inventions that changed the world, but which weren't invented at universities.
So why then do academics think of themselves as the pillars of discovery and invention if discovery and invention are not exclusive to academia?
When you start to think about it, it's not surprising that public opinion often considers academics as just a bunch of pretentious snobs, strutting around and acting important, while spending great amounts of time, energy, and money doing worthless nonsense. Is it any surprise there is a streak of anti-intellectualism running through the American national psyche? My belief is that it's not actually anti-intellectualism, it's anti-academism. People are tired of the obvious disconnect between what the pretentious academics are doing, and what's actually expected of them.
I had a career in academia for some 17 years, if you include the time I was studying for my undergraduate degree. However I wasn't cut out for it and so I left academia 14 years ago, and ever since then I've worked in the radio communications industry, supporting and doing research that has helped to develop various electronic devices, particularly in the field of cell phones. So I never actually left research, I just moved to a field that applies science and puts it to work for society. Some of the projects I've worked on have resulted in technologies and products that literally billions of people use every day, and these are technologies and products that have had an enormous impact on our global society and the culture of information exchange and online interaction.
Meanwhile, back at the research school where I studied, they're still doing research on underwater basket weaving and its effects on the sociology of tribal dance.... or something equally useless. I actually have a PhD in neuroscience, a biomedical field, but as far as I can tell neuroscience hasn't contributed much to society in the last 20 years since I finished my PhD, at least not compared to the cell phone industry where I work now. Cell phones have been revolutionary, particularly since 2007 when the first iPhone came out and changed the industry entirely. Cell phones are not even just phones anymore, they're internet-connected pocket computers. When I look at this field, and then look back at my former career in academia, it becomes clear that not one of the researchers, professors, and other people I worked with in academia, many of whom now have big important-sounding titles, has ever made any really meaningful contribution to society in their entire lives, and as far as I can tell they're unlikely to ever do so.
I'm certainly not the first ex-academic to think like this. There was a time around the middle of the 20th century and before, when universities added a lot of value to society. It was a golden age of science and discovery. However the feeling I got from my 17 years in academia was that universities have rested on their laurels, and a career in academia is now just a way for the children of the wealthy to get a career with an important sounding title, at an important sounding institution, with minimal job pressure and deadlines, ample fringe benefits, and little demand to actually produce anything of practical worth. Eventually these people become so coddled by their years in the university system that they're no longer able to function and compete in the outside world, and they become isolated and largely unaware of the dynamic world of industry and commerce going on around them. They become like monks in a monastery, basking in the glory of science while forgetting their purpose in society.
Back in the mid-20th century the value of universities was obvious, and public support and funding for them was justified. Today, with a changing world and a greater focus on data-driven policy-making, there's a lot more uncertainty about whether higher education improves the lives of graduates and is beneficial to society as a whole. Along with this has come the idea that funding these universities has become somewhat of a money pit: that money goes in and very little of value comes out.
I have several friends who have careers in academia, in field biology, land management, economics, and neuroscience. There is no doubt from my 17 year experience that academics tend to believe in “academic exceptionalism”. That is, they believe their jobs are not work and their work need not address practical concerns. They've forgotten that the privileges granted to them by society in the form of tenure, intellectual freedoms, and academic lifestyle, are given in exchange for the value they're expected to add to society.
Academic research tends to be just that: academic. The problem has gone far beyond parody in some fields. In the field of social psychology for example, there are studies to determine whether the smell of artificial fart spray alters people's moral judgments, and whether forcing people to hold a pencil between their teeth makes them feel happy.
The usual rebuttal, heard mostly from academics, is that basic science has an impact later in unexpected ways. That's true, but much less often than we realize and only because some other researchers took the trouble to apply those basic discoveries to practical applications. Often academics embrace a false dichotomy of “basic versus applied research", rather than trying to do both. In my experience, the practical elements of scientific discovery are more often made by companies who are doing research in their industry for a specific purpose, to solve a particular problem, so they can achieve a specific goal.
As for the teaching side of academia, as I said before, they are merely hobbyist educators with no formal training in teaching. I can say with absolute certainty that I learned more from 8 years working at a major semiconductor manufacturer than in all my years at universities.
In a recent discussion on Facebook, someone told me that "Colleges and universities are the very best dollars we spend on promoting, preserving democracy, freedom, peace in the world" and that they "would gladly increase the number of such institutions, allow more foreign students, such education, and enlightenment."
I responded that it would be interesting if we could be more scientific and measure and quantify how much democracy, freedom, and peace universities have added to the world, rather than just throw that out there as an unfounded, unscientific statement. However, accurate numbers for such nebulous things would probably be hard to determine, and of course this makes it easier for academics to espouse such things without being challenged. Similarly, university staff often talk about broadening people's horizons. Once again, they provide no quantification of that, it's just something unfounded they like to say to sound impressive. From my own personal university experiences, I can say that my horizon was broadened by about 10 kilometers from my childhood home and no more. As far as I can tell there is nothing that happens at universities that does not happen within companies, businesses, and industries, except for a lack of practical application of science.
Today, after decades of growing public investment in universities, scientists are producing more data than ever before. Today there are about 2.5 million scientific articles published each year and over 28,000 active scholarly peer-reviewed journals, covering an ever-expanding array of ever-narrowing fields. We currently have far more scientific data than we can ever use. Despite critical examination and peer-review, some of this supposed knowledge has turned out to be contestable, unreliable, or just plain wrong. The majority of it is simply unusable because it has no practical application to anything. Along the way it is also undermining the four-hundred-year-old idea that wise human action can be built on a foundation of independently verifiable truths. Science is trapped in a self-destructive vortex, and to escape it will need to give up its privileged political status and embrace its limits and become more accountable to the rest of society.
When you look at the statistics, it’s hard not to conclude that the current training pathway for scientists, formally known as a Doctor of Philosophy degree or PhD, is fundamentally broken. For a start, mental health issues are rife: approximately one-third of PhD students are at risk of having or developing a psychiatric disorder like depression. This is not surprising considering the unhealthy levels of obsessive-compulsive disorder and semi-autistic personality traits required to be successful as a scientist. The high level of dropouts is also worrying. Research suggests that an average 50% of PhD students leave graduate school without finishing, with numbers higher at some institutions.
Although 80% of science students start their PhD with the intention of pursuing a career in science, their enthusiasm typically wanes to the point that just 55% plan to continue in academia as they near graduation. In any case, most are unlikely to be able to continue their academic careers. One study found that for every 200 people who complete a PhD, only seven will get a permanent academic post and only one will become a professor. That's 3.5% and 0.5% respectively. Those are not good odds, and an academic career in science is hardly something you would consider if you knew these numbers beforehand.
Many academics enter science to change the world for the better. Yet it often feels like contemporary academia is more about chasing citations. The expression "publish or perish" is well known throughout academia. The idea is that you get yourself two publications per year and that will keep your career afloat. The truth however is that hardly anyone is reading the articles being published. An average academic journal article is read in its entirety by about 10 people. Even worse, the journals they publish their work in are very obscure, and they often require an expensive paid subscription to read them. So most academic work is hidden away from public view and shared with only a tiny audience in a narrow sub-corner of the scientific community, rather than with policy-makers or businesses that would use the information. This makes the work of most academics entirely disconnected from practicality. Universities are slowly starting to realize this, but of course, as with much of what goes on at universities, real change only happens at glacial speeds.
Thus it seems that the primary goal of contemporary academia has become to publish material that will get cited by other authors, rather than about changing the world. Impractical academic work of this kind, which is certainly in the majority from my observations, symbolizes everything that’s broken in academia. Academics love citations rather than solutions. They chase kudos within their academic community rather than trying to discover something new that will be useful and have a real impact on society.
As a solution to the problem, new PhDs should go out into the field and talk to businesses and policy-makers from day one of their research, rather than spending the first year or more reading obscure academic literature. Students would then co-create the content of their theses with their supervisor as well as the practitioners in their field of research. I've heard academics say that the best PhD students come from industry because they know the kinds of problems that need to be solved. I have to disagree. If there were problems that an industry really needed to solve, the research would already be happening at companies within that industry, rather than in the stagnant backwater of a university where it will be lost and forgotten in the pages of some obscure scientific journal.
Instead of laboring over every sentence of a 100,000 word dissertation locked away in an office, PhD students should share a concise 2,000 word draft with people who actually make practical use of that knowledge, so they can collect targeted feedback. They would finish their PhD only when they've made a difference in the real world.
It’s time to disrupt the current PhD system. We need to move away from a self-referential culture in which academics talk only to their peers. One of the core principles of academia should be to apply knowledge, rather than to just collect it. Reminding ourselves of this may help to fix the broken PhD machine.
Dr. David J. Bad Person PhD, Assistant Associate Hyper-Professor and Uber-Director at the Department of Extremely Important Impractical Studies, within the Institute for Overly Lengthy and Pretentious Titles, at the University of Useless Knowledge Collecting.
I sent this blog post to 10 academics I know in the USA, Australia, France, and Canada. Not a single one of them replied. I also shared it with a friend of mine who is a major contributor to the Marine Biology field but does not work in academia, but he thoroughly believes in the value of academia. His response was to unfriend me on Facebook. I messaged him about that and then he blocked me. It was as if all these people are saying...
"How dare you question the ultimate authority of the university system, especially after 17 years of being a part of it, followed by 14 years of working in research outside of it. What could you possibly have to say that's of any relevance?"
I often liken academics to monks in a monastery, the same culture from which universities are derived. They sit in their ivory towers isolated from the outside world. The lack of responses to my contact with them felt like...
"Quick, close the gates of the monastery, the big scary world outside is peering in and telling us things we don't ever want to hear, and they might see all the butt fucking we get up to!"
Well I have a big surprise for academics from my experience in commerical R&D: most of the research going on in the world doesn't happen at universities. Academics produce irrelevant publications, which are read by hardly anyone, and are of little significance to the world.
Their lack of replies was simply another one of their mental and verbal defence mechanisms: the extinction of the discussion by non-response.
Academic mental and verbal defense mechanism #1: extinction of the discussion by non-response.
Another mental and verbal defence mechanism that I've seen academics use multiple times is to remind dissenting individuals, such as myself, about some great scientist or academic from the mid-20th century, and then praise the work of that scientist and liken themselves to them. For example: "Well Albert Einstein did some very esoteric research but ended up with theories that revolutionized physics, and his work has had many practical applications since then. So you see how the work of academics like myself is of great value". This is just another defence mechanism. First of all the academic who says this is not Albert Einstein and usually isn't even close to being of the same caliber and worth as Einstein. Second, Albert Einstein died way back in 1955, so why don't they have a more recent example?
Academic mental and verbal defense mechanism #2: likening themselves to a famous scientist from the mid-20th century.
Meanwhile back in reality, people are solving problems and making the world a better place, while the primary goal of most academics is to "publish or perish". That is, to make bits of paper that hardly anyone reads so they can maintain their own self-absorbed career, their easy going academic lifestyle, and their minimal contribution to society.
After the lack of responses, I took several paragraphs from this Epilogue and sent it back to them. Only one of them replied, an economist in Canada.
If you asked me out for a beer I’d be happy to discuss and point out where I think you’re right and where you’re wrong and important ideas that your analysis ignores. But cc’ing a blog post to a bunch of people and expecting them to drop everything to read your complaints about academia and respond to either 1) justify their careers or 2) admit that they're leeches on the public purse or a waste of a good brain is all costs and no benefits (for me at least). It’s not surprising that no one responded, but it doesn’t really prove anything important. I get random screeds against economists from civilians all the time. I’d never get anything done if I responded to all of them.
This is pretty well-trodden territory. I scanned over what you wrote. I’ve heard these arguments before. I could spend a bunch of time arguing about it with you, but I’ve also got a lot of other things to do, and some of them come with benefits for me, or my students, or people close to me. Including friends who are willing to offer a beer or a few minutes of their company in exchange for my thoughts on their ideas rather than emailing to get me to respond to a blog post. I’ve just chosen to prioritize my time differently than you want me to. I wouldn’t read anything more into it than that.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s great that you think about stuff like this. More people should. I just don’t see that I or anyone on this list is obligated to drop everything and be your sounding board when you want one.
Apologies for the “reply-all” but apparently I’m a big enough academic wanker to think others on this list might be interested in my thoughts. ;)
My reply to this was as follows, and I also made sure to "Reply All".
Well I'd love to hear your rebuttals in some concise form. I know you have enough time to tell me how busy you are on a Saturday morning, but not enough time to make a valid point in even one single sentence of your reply, other than to suggest some of my points are invalid without providing evidence, and that perhaps some drunken banter over beers will provide me with all the enlightenment I'm missing. Of course we both know such drunken banter will never happen due to our geographical separation, so it's safe to throw that out there as yet another defence mechanism, one that I've seen used before: "Oh well I'd answer you over some beers if we didn't live so far apart, and then I could discount it all as drunken blithering the next morning". Isn't it strange how the nebulous and double-standard world of academia works?
Academic mental and verbal defense mechanism #3: proposing to discuss the matter over beers because they supposedly don't have time to do it right now. Notice how they have time to tell you how busy they are, but not the time to provide a single sentence of actual evidence-based rebuttal. The concept of having beers together sends a friendly message of peace to calm the critic. I've pressed people before for these beer discussions but quickly found that the goal was to ply me with alcohol to befuddle my mind, and then discount the entire discussion as drunken nonsense the next morning.
My reply continued...
Meanwhile, at my work, we're working on testing the new 5G wireless technology, so that billions of people can have even higher speed wireless data networks on their pocket computers. Cars on the road will also be communicating directly with each other soon. How many people do you know with a pocket computer that has high speed wireless internet in most places? I'll bet it's many orders of magnitude more than the few dozen people that read your research papers. That's called making a difference, putting science to work for society, and none of the R&D that makes it happen takes place at universities.
Fires in Australia? The academics had no answers when my family home burned down 17 years ago, they have no answers now, other than to blame global warming, and when it happens again in about 20 years as it has done for millennia, they'll still have no answers. Yet they ensure us we should make wise actions and policies based on their vast knowledge and expertise of fires and land management. These so-called experts have to say something because they need to "publish or perish". They certainly can't allow themselves to say that their land management policies and practices have been a complete failure.
Perhaps I could make another computer model of the electrical properties of a motorneuron to make a difference in the world? That was my PhD thesis. Even the emails I wrote back home over the course of my two year postdoc in Switzerland contained more words than my PhD thesis, took less time to write, were more interesting, and were read by more people.
There are good reasons we don't like to hire PhDs in industry, and it's because they've been coddled by the university system and don't know how to produce on deliverables. Academia is a lifestyle choice, like being a monk in a monastery, living on handouts, and isolating yourself from the real world and real solutions.
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More than most academic research papers!