What is so bad and great in academia?

When you are a scientist working in public service i.e. in academia, a major and constant question you ask will be about identifying deep-rooted problems in academia. While there are actually many bad aspects of academic working conditions, there are also great things about it. This post tries to give an objective pros vs. cons perspective to this question.

I started a list of bad and ugly things that are constantly deteriorating academic life. A list of great things follows below...

  • Pressure for your own future

    Well, no surprise here. If your study fails to find an effect, you are the first one that is affected. You wasted two years of your life and didn't make any progress, your boss lost interest in your project. Depending on the workplace culture you might have absorbed such risks if your project list was diverse enough, but generally the rule is that one person = one project. There is no mechanism currently that absorbs this type of risks. Result: Scientists are pressured to find something, creating overall a bias for falsely finding positive results.

  • Backward publication system

    We publish more or less as Fisher or even Newton. Well we do not really send a post mail but an electronic mail to the editorial office, that is true. But besides that the publication system has not seen a major improvement incorporating anything positive from the era of internet. This model is hackable by short-term benefit seekers and introduces biases in findings. A. Gelman discusses here how changing the publication system by shifting towards an open-post publication reviewing system can create novel incentives for the community.

  • Lack of crowd-based knowledge systems 
    Ratings: ★★★★☆
    412 scientists rated
    this broom with 4.12 stars.
    It is a great broom!

    We scientists read many many papers. But we somehow cannot give any opinions on them. Whereas a person selling a simplest plastic broom could receive harsh comments on Amazon, a person who is writing a bad paper in an high impact journal can easily get away with it. Why can we not simply rate papers online, why can't we create a crowd-sourced reputation system for papers that is fair and transparent in the same time?

  • Culture of mine

    As soon as you are born as a scientist, say when you start you master thesis, you will be assigned to one single project. When you grow up and get your own grant you will do the same, you will assign one project to one person. This makes you live in a bubble and cuts you completely from all sort of sharing tools and mindset that are simply the standard in industry. Unless you dedicate your own time you will never learn great practices of code sharing, writing a code for others, encapsulating your analysis as a toolbox. This is because you work alone for long long periods of time.

  • Pressure for publishing

    Publishing is a key activity in academia. The problem starts as soon as your qualities are judged solely by your publication track record. What about teaching, supervision, peer-reviewing, code sharing, diversity of your publication track record? Nope. At the end of the day, only the impact factor of the journals you published counts. If you started your career in a great lab, but has never published in high-impact journals, you have already started with one leg missing. Combined with the "culture of mine", this opens the way to authorship disputes, that are everywhere.

  • Pressure for short-term thinking 

    Most of the position in academia, are short-term contracts. Great masses are hired by a few professional elites. And these elites are equally free to either plan with you and invest in your career, or to exploit you like a vampire until your contract expires. There is no mechanism that evaluates supervisors in terms of the success of their students.

  • Lack of transparency in evaluation of your work 
    Reviewing papers anonymously.

    It takes on average few years to work on a project and finalize it as a manuscript. The evaluation takes 45 minutes per reviewer that are free too evaluate your manuscript as a crocodile or a sweet hedgehog. Accountability of reviewers is not in the equation, same for inter-reviewer reliability.

  • Predatory seniors

    Academia is a social service, the person who has the title of professor is a civil servant. However, there are no mechanisms that evaluate professors on their performance with this respect. A question like "What did you do to improve scientific practices last year and make the system more efficient ?" is missing.

  • Lack of recognition

    The fact that you can spend a lot of time working in academia and collect lots of expertise and experience, doesn't entitle you with anything significant. As far as I can talk for Germany, you are just an employee, not a hair-dresser, not a pharmacist, you are just an employee. Why don't we have a profession called "scientist"? This is mainly due to the lack of long-term contracts. And I believe very strongly that third party funding is damaging the academic sphere in favor of few strong elites and at the expense talented young scientists.

An article that focuses on only the bad sides cannot be useful for anything. So let's actually talk about what is great in academia.

  • Relative Freedom

    Not being constrained by a final product that needs to do something precise gives us great freedom in the way we work our way through something. As a professor, one reaches the peak of this freedom and can work on any topic at any time. It is just a great thing to be able to start a project any time on any topic without somebody telling "you have not published enough on this topic yet!".

  • Great colleagues

    Working with alike-minded colleagues around you, who are curious and have low thresholds for brainstorming on random topics is a great positive thing. Having a constant hunger for curiosity as a social norm is certainly a positive thing.

  • Publishing a great paper

    Dedicating your efforts on something and walking step by step on that direction is a great source of happiness. And additionally, crowning your final work with a great publication is a priceless reward. It is something you can show your grand (mo/fa)ther and evoke interest on totally random people.

  • Learning doing new things, creativity

    Being able to do things that the overwhelming majority of human population cannot is a great feeling. You have spent all your day doing this weird analysis and it turned out to be completely useless, but well you were unique and used your creativity. To the extent working in academia nourishes this craftsmanship it is an extremely pleasurable occupation.

  • Flexibility in working

    As an academic we are most of the time free on where and when we want to work. You can wake up at 11 and work until midnight or take the opposite approach, it is completely normal to not expect people to conform the regular working class habits.

This is a list I will constantly update and improve. However, this is a great point in time to hear about what people think about the good and bad sides of academia.