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Academia is fucked-up. So why isn’t anyone doing something about it? (2017) (backreaction.blogspot.com)
63 points by fouc on Dec 16, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 27 comments

Financial uncertainties, publish or parish culture and inappropriate performance metrics seem like the perfect cocktail for depression and anxiety. Probably why the rate of mental health issues for academics surges. I just finished my masters in physics and while I like the romantic idea of dedicating the next portion of my life to research and aim for a PhD, when I think about it I also see all the sad, tired and stressed out faces of PhD students and postdocs in my institute, most of them working well beyond 60hr/week, many of them having mental health issues and somehow everyone is just accepting it. The companies I worked at part time during my studies, while also putting some pressure on the workforce, have not shown this level of dispair. I don't really know what to do and feel a little lost on the subject. I just wish things were better in academia.

It depends on the specific professor. There are stressful and relaxed ones. It trickles down from the professors to their assistants to their PhD students. Here's my ad-hoc list of bad signs. Avoid those.


* don't have time for feedback

* have no interest in their PhD students' work

* are known to steal results (and put their names on it)

* are ideologically/religiously driven and judge you and everybody else accordingly

* don't open their network to their PhD students

* jump from one hot/trendy topic to the next and burn their PhD students on it

* blame others/circumstances for anything bad


* members pride themselves for devoting their lives to the cause

* members do long work days, have little sleep

* has little budget it spends on its PhD students

* feels toxic (Sayre's Law: "Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.")

PhD students

* do overtime

* rarely/never publish

* publish in irrelevant magazines

* publish with their names on the nth position (after doing all the work)

* don't or rarely attend conferences

* don't or rarely work on what they signed up for

* take long to finish (or don't finish at all)

* blame others/circumstances for their bad situation

Talk to PhD students, ask on the net, listen to speeches and lectures the professors gave.

A lot of advice given at HN about whether to join a startup applies to academia as well. Unnecessary work, little pay, vague promises, inconsistent management, insider circles. I wonder what academia's equivalent of stock options is. Aiming for tenureship perhaps?

Why don't you pick up programming and do freelance work half the time, then physics the rest? You can work on whatever you want with no pressure.

If physics is just going to be a hobby, treat it like a hobby (and timebox it accordingly). Definitely don't let somebody else destroy your life for it.

I hated it at the time, but my lying, psychopathic "project advisor" where I got my Bachelor's in Physics did me a big favor by helping me realize the last thing I wanted was people like him in control of my life.

Related - "Don't Do For Money What Others Do For Love" - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=16792942

At the moment no matter how much you protest there's a stream of chumps happy to take your spot. We need to start examining the ROI of academia the way we would for anything else demanding such a huge chunk of your life and sanity.

I'm not suggesting it be a hobby, actually I'm saying you should take it more seriously than just a job. For me it's a personal mission - I don't think academia is the best avenue to pursue so I find my own money and focus on what I find important.

That's the worst possible thing you can do. Citation: I did this.

That's exactly what I am doing now. I have been enrolled as a PhD student in computer science and working at the same time for almost 3 years.

I cannot really recommend it, mainly because of the workload. However there are things to be learnt both from academia and from the private sector. Moreover, being a PhD student won't make you earn any real money any time soon, nor give you any valuable work experience, IMO.

> You can work on whatever you want with no pressure.

Nor being a PhD candidate, nor being a freelancer guarantee that you can work on whatever you want with no pressure. And doing both at the same time will only make things harder to manage your time and actually do it "with no pressure".

Do you see another way to do whatever research you want to do, while not being in academia?

Or do you mean, just don't do research on your own?

Why was it such a bad experience for you?

Not OP, but I considered doing something similar.

I believe the problem is that you cannot well concentrate on either, constant switching of completely different mental tasks will be very taxing.

Also, when you're "in the flow" in one area it's difficult to suddenly switch to the other. So it's hard to manage that time split.

I try to do it in big chunks to minimize context switching; so 3 months making money full-time, 9 months doing my own research.

Michael Stonebraker (INGRES, Postgres, Vertica, VoltDB, SciDB - Turing Award winner for fundamental contributions to the concepts and practices underlying modern database systems - got a PhD in 1971 with zero publications, tenure from Berkeley in 1976 with 5) about the same problem, https://youtu.be/DJFKl_5JTnA?t=14m17s

People are doing things about it; it’s just that they are outside of the system. You see countless articles, blog posts, and so forth about scientists going rogue, biologists getting certifications to run labs out of their garages, and individuals self-funding or even starting their own hedge funds to fund the research they want to do. Most of that isn’t mainstream. The future of academia is the academics, not the institution itself.

I once received an email from an academic in a field close to my field where he offered 70$ for every time I would cite one of his papers. I never responded to the email but I imagine that many would be tempted.

I can only imagine him showing off how influential his work was when he asks for more grant money... maybe he was even funding this "campaign" of his with leftover grant money as an investment...

I believe this to be a somewhat clear example of how measuring people can lead to strange behaviour and rushed work at the cost of quality.

This is the blog of theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder, she just released a new book 'Lost in Math' where she describes just how bad things have become. She ends up focusing more on Physics than general Academia in the book due to pressure from her agent/editor. [0]

[0] https://www.overcomingbias.com/2018/12/can-foundational-phys...

Yes all these objective measures can easily be gamed.

The best solution is for a committee of disinterested objective people to make a holistic decision based on their intuition and experience.

That way, nothing can go wrong.

How to maintain a healthy working scientific community that produces output useful to the society that sustains it is not a black and white binary issue. Your kind of attitude is what hardens dysfunctional structures because it just spreads FUD to people who genuinely want to improve things without loosing what's good of the current system.

Well the publish or perish thing hasn't improved but there definitely are improvements to the publishing model itself. There's more opposition to Elsevier than ever, we have Arxiv, Sci-hub, OpenReview, and even some non-PDF publications like distill.pub.

Granted, most of that only applies to a few fields. Still kind of sucked if you are in medicine or engineering or whatever.

Isn't it that when money being the driving force, society shifts to hunters for 'likes', and people as smart as they are move along the path of least resistance will then as a consequence cause a disastrous situation? I agree with the author that the measures should change. Also the method for accepting new research candidates should be limited.

Thinking higher level: Human incentives are a dangerous thing, and it requires brave people to stand up to them and their socioeconomic complexes, even if those complexes will fail dramatically or kill people: see the NASA Groupthink Challenger Disaster. Or how does the Red Cross raise half a billion dollars for Haiti, and the money disappeared, having only built 6 homes[1]. Or when LA officials stole tiny homes from the homeless that people gave them. Wouldn't someone stand up and say 'wait a second, this isn't right, this isn't acceptable in the modern world' the way we think it should work? Whenever everyone talks about Nazi Germany, or Nanking, or religiois persecution in Europe, or British subjugation of the Americans, etc... and we said Never Again. And so we learn some lessons and make improvements, but then the circumstances and types of tyrannies change a little bit, but we still keep falling into these traps of being rotten humans.

But what I wonder about is if it's actually turned around and started getting worse? We certainly signal a lot that we are good today... but we have always focused a lot on signalling that we are good, it's just the trends and fashions of what makes someone good changes... Where are we actually going?

1 - https://www.propublica.org/article/how-the-red-cross-raised-...

It's very sad to see how normal people on the inside think this is. Even at the Master's level, for many people this is a bragging competition for who gets to sleep less and generally suffer more. That culture is completely toxic.

That being said there are still labs where you can enjoy your PhD. You just need to be very thorough when talking to PIs and people in each lab about what life there is like.

There are a number of symptoms & causes to these issues. One root cause is the systematic removal of the Philosophy of Science from scientific discourse. Philosophy is crucial in correctly interpreting the meaning of truth, identifying presuppositions, & relating models, results of experiments/studies within the greater context (e.g. unknown unknowns) of reality.

From the interviews I've seen, Einstein and Feynman spent far more time discussing philosophy than physics. And going by Newton's papers, every worked-out fluxion could be accompanied by a dive into theology or the occult.

That being said, I doubt that's the missing element. I'd blame it on the fact that most researchers are not free. They need the job; their peers also want the job. The brain only has so many cycles. I don't see how anyone can do their best work in a state of perpetual vigilance--so much backstabbing!

Newton, Einstein, & Feynman are also dead. All three of these scientists were connected to the upper echelons of society, had enormous cultural influence, & designed their models based on a philosophy. I think you are referring to lower level scientists who have to fit within the hegemonic framework. Same thing happens in programming (e.g. corporations want React developers instead of developers who can develop the most innovative & profitable idea).

Scientists used to be natural philosophers. Rigorous philosophical discussion has been slowly removed from the sciences in favor of consensus & presenting a unified political front. Pragmatics & predetermined social agendas has taken over.

The synical side of me says: "this is by design. Science coopted to become a tool of propaganda."

Giving the practitioners of Science the benefit of the doubt: "science is not practiced in a cultural vacuum. We build models based on our common understanding & interpret results based on our models."

Unfortunately, not a new situation. Nearly every insight which falls short of total incontrovertible victory--from Semelweis to Yudkin--is an invitation to a knee-capping by your peers.

au contraire, philosophy of science, (specifically only the feminist & structuralist part of it) has been widely adopted. The problem is all the other fields were left back.

Needs a (2017) tag

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