A recent Ph.D. from Berkeley named Dragan commented here:
Probably the biggest disappointment of my professional life was realizing that Universities are not very much like what I imagined them to be.
I asked him to elaborate. He replied:
My peers dreamed of being in the sports or movies, of being lawyers, of being rich. Those dreams didn’t seem so great to me. Instead I fantasized about being a scholar and later in life climbed up the educational ladder towards a PhD at a leading research university. The closer I came to becoming a professor — my professional goal in life — the more disappointed I became.
I am somewhat embarrassed to remember this, but I used to say things like: “Universities are places where people can devote themselves to a life of study, investigation, and imagination. In exchange for a home like this, we provide society with ideas. And, of course, we teach.” I guess I thought that there should be a home for people who are capable and devoted to intellectual pursuits, a rather naive notion it seems.
I wanted a place where I would be judged primarily by my intellectual and creative ability. Instead I have been made keenly aware of the importance of networking, of doing favors for the right people, of who to cite, whose criticism to acknowledge and whose to ignore. I used to despise such things, now they’re second nature. The irony, that I now know far more about popularity than I did back in high school. One of the first things I learned is that it is imperative to do research that brings money and/or prestige. In other words: popular research. I didn’t know such a thing existed.
What if I don’t want to do popular research? The most common advice I received during my graduate studies: “Wait till you’re tenured to do that,” always said with good intentions.
Only one person told me: “Do what you believe in. Tenure and accolades will come in time.” I liked this advice more. But the professor who gave it was fully tenured before I was born. Perhaps things were different in his time? I suspect they were. Last year, two retired professors, each from a major research university, assured me that they would never get tenure in this day and age. They took years with their research and published few yet original papers. “You have to wait until tenure nowadays,” they said.
This is not what I thought I’d find. Nor did I expect to find that efficiency and money-making are priorities here. I love what I do, or at least what I want to do. If I could afford to, I’d do it for free. I mean that as an academic, money seems relatively unimportant. Yet universities seem to be run by people who aren’t academics and whose primary interest is making money, rather than fostering research. It occurs to me that these two aims may be in conflict.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that academia is altogether bad. I can honestly say it beats unemployment and the handful of low-wage jobs I had as a teenager. And there are days when all the things I just wrote about seem less important and I focus on my research or my teaching. But other times I think, silly me. If only I was smart enough to get rich in the first place, I could have done anything I wanted to — like pursue research that actually interests me.
As a professor (with tenure) at Berkeley, I was fascinated by how mediocre I was. By the usual metrics, I was in the bottom quarter of the distribution. Yet I had made discoveries that I knew were important — for example, a surprising way to lose weight, a really surprising way to improve mood. Although these discoveries impressed me, they did not impress my colleagues.