Anantha Kumar, PhD
Academic research institutions have been major pillars of fundamental scientific research, pushing the frontiers of our understanding of the world. Universities are not only involved in creating new knowledge but also serve as a launch pad for training next generation leaders and scientists. However, academics face several severe problems such as poor-pay scale, unsecure careers, long work hours, ‘publish or perish’ policies, and lack of secure long-term funding. So, it is not a surprise that PhD students across the world are under tremendous pressure to perform well, facing rampant and often unaddressed mental health challenges1.
The attitude that ‘only a tenure-track job in academia is considered attractive and any other job post PhD is a failure’ can be attributed as the root cause of almost all fundamental problems in the current academic system2. Creating more non-faculty research positions or teaching only positions at universities, promoting alternate career paths in industries or private sector, and offering incentives to start one’s own company are some measures by which we can lessen the current burdens of academic researchers. Thus, preventing them from overworking under stressful conditions just to land a tenure-track position.
A secondary consequence of these widespread problems are more systematic issues such as lack of representation of minorities, unpredictable career trajectories, data reproducibility issues and a skewed publishing industry. An average STEM tenure-track faculty position in the United States pays around $80,000 per year. To secure this much coveted faculty job, one must go through five years of postgraduate training and several more years of postdoctoral fellowship. On the other hand, a non-academic but research job at an industry or a bank can pay twice or three times the same amount and right after completion of a postgraduate degree. This disparity in pay leads to academia being a sink for candidates from rich and legacy families, and act as a filter against candidates from lower income backgrounds.
The highly competitive job market in academia has led to hiring committees assessing the merit of a candidate based on the name of the journal in which they publish their research rather than the quality of the research being published. This has created a rat race for early career scientists, rushing to publish their works in some of these respectable journals. In this process, researchers knowingly or unknowingly compromise on the quality and reproducibility of their work just to be able to publish before other competitive research groups. Often, some of these big journals also dictate what research question is worth answering and what questions are deemed unworthy? This problem in academic publishing is particularly prominent in life science and chemistry research. To overcome these barriers, the scientific community should promote the use of pre-prints to communicate findings. Journals such as e-life are a step in the right direction towards promoting responsible academic publishing3.
Despite all these bottlenecks, students are flocking to get PhD degrees4. This disproportionately high numbers of PhD graduates and low numbers of available faculty positions have led to researchers staying as underpaid postdoctoral fellows for several years with uncertain career prospects. Ultimately, such candidates also render themselves unfit for positions outside the university due to being overqualified. The main reason behind this trend is because academia offers people an opportunity to pursue fundamental, basic research that are not constrained by any commercial or translational applications. On the other hand, translational scientific research has been the forte of private companies whose primary aim is to develop a profitable product into the market. Funding for research at universities primarily comes from government sources that includes taxpayers’ money, whereas private companies fund their own research from their profits or from venture capital investors in the case of start-ups. This binary division of research interests and purposes are gradually changing, and the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated this change.
With companies like Moderna and BioNTech spearheading vaccines development for COVID-19 virus, there is a tremendous boom in the private sector research programs in STEM fields5. The successful contribution of these companies towards battling the pandemic has gotten the current generation of PhD scholars excited about prospects of working for them. Moreover, such companies also recognize the importance of decades of basic science (RNA modifications, lipid nano particle research) that went into ultimately creating the vaccines. They have therefore begun to expand their blue-sky exploratory research divisions with dedicated funding to work on risky out of the box basic science problems6.Most importantly, there has been a handful of biotech companies started in 2021 and early 2022 with a prime focus on discovering new biology rather than making drugs or medicine7,8. These companies are funded by venture capitalists and other angel investors who have understood the rewards of pursuing adventurous science in the hopes that one day it will lead to breakthrough medicines or technologies9. These newly established basic science companies offer a better pathway for researchers in academia who have been hesitant to switch to a private job so far. Moreover, these jobs will have all the perks of being employed in a real job such as health insurance, retirement plan etc. and at the same time will provide the freedom for the researchers to pursue one’s own scientific problems.
A common but flawed argument that is often made is that academics must put up with poor pay and uncertain careers because unlike other well-paying secure jobs that often involve mundane or repetitive tasks, an academic only engages in the pleasurable act of thinking about the world or nature, conducts experiments to test hypothesis, and creates new knowledge in the process. With the emergence of these new venture capital funded basic science parks and establishment of blue-sky research programs in big private firms, the current generation of young scholars will have a wide variety of attractive options to choose from. If academia wants to stay relevant and continue contributing to the development of human knowledge, it must undergo major institutional changes to create an equal, free, rewarding and just work environment.
Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education. Nat Biotechnol 36, 282–284, 2018. https://doi.org/10.1038/nbt.4089
Don’t let academia consume you, Adam Ruben, Science, June 2020.