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An academic myth May 15, 2009

Posted by fetzthechemist in Careers.
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In talking to professors and graduate and post-doctoral students, two different views of the academic world emerge. Professors describe their jobs as administrative and managerial in nature. They write research proposals, administer grants, handle budgets and the associated timelines, deal with people issues within their groups, serve on departmental and other committees, and other non-research tasks. On top of these tasks, teaching consumes much more than the hours in classroom lecturing.

Most professors, after their initial pre-tenure period of starting a group, seldom have the time to actually do lab work. Most students get a small inkling of this because their research advisors/ principle investigators are rarely seen in the lab. They, however, seldom have a good idea of all of the paperwork and bureaucratic work of a professor. They are shielded from it or are oblivious to it. They retain a mythical image of academia where professors do much more lab work and science directly than their counterparts in other venues.

This can lead to a sense of overwhelming disillusionment for those who choose academia over government and industrial lab work. These former students find that science often involves only reading the literature in bits and pieces, listening to updates from one’s students, and going to talks at conferences. The joy of “playing in the lab” is lost for most professors (it actually is still part of most scientists work throughout the careers in the other two venues!).

Other factors that throw a young scientist off stride are the financial and personnel dealings a professor must deal with. A student who hates balancing a checkbook or keeping to a personal budget will probably find managing the funding to be a chore. A student who dislikes personal confrontations will not enjoy dealing with the all too common personality clashes, jealousy, competitiveness, and egos within their research group. 

Can things be changed so that students are better prepared for academia and choose that path knowing what to expect? Of course the answers are yes. Professors must let their students who are interested in an academic career see more of the workings of the group. Post-docs especially can even be relied on to sub-manage some of these tasks for the PI. They can help write progress reports to the granting agency for a project they are involved in or they manage some of the resource allocation or budget for a project. If a young scientist sees these and other aspects, she or he might learn that these are not onerous or may find them painful enough to rethink academia as a career.

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