Academic life: The good, the bad and the ugly
The Danes love research and innovation. Currently ranking as the world’s number six in the latest Bloomberg Innovation Index, Denmark is busy producing and exporting knowledge through both companies and universities. In this article, we take a closer look at life in academic research.
Text: Natalia E.L. Madsen
The world of academic research is highly competitive, even in a friendly place like Denmark. So do the positives make up for all the unwritten rules, unrealistic expectations and constant battle for funding?
Allow me to start with some context. I did a PhD at Aarhus University, and it was great. I learned and grew immensely, and overall, I really enjoyed the experience. However, it is important to note that I didn’t get into research out of vocation, but more of a mixture of curiosity and sheer pragmatism (at the time, it meant a steady income for four years).
Keep that in mind when you continue reading. This is the view of someone who was excited but not passionate and who never really planned on going down the academic path in the first place.
If you love learning, then the academic world is a fantastic sandbox. You will be surrounded by people who are really passionate about their work and field of study – not only that, but the vast majority will also be genuinely eager to talk to you about it. And if you happen to be just as passionate about some of the same things, then the feeling of belonging is probably extraordinary. You may love your job every single day.
Academia is also a good place for those who enjoy freedom. During my PhD studies, I had my first child, and it was great to be able to work from home when my baby was sick or choose to see my family in Spain and work remotely. In my experience, that kind of decision-power is hard to come by as an employee in a private company.
Statistically speaking, advancing from a PhD all the way to a permanent position or a professorship is unlikely. And there are only so many post-docs one can do before the university says enough.
Those without tenure can often find themselves navigating uncertain waters and lacking job stability, especially if their area of study is not particularly trendy or monetisable. In any case, academic life comes with endless grant applications and project proposals – which you’re expected to write on your own time, much like your publications.
The truth is, there is the assumption that academics, driven by their unfaltering passion, will invest more than what they are paid for. This can easily blurry the boundaries between work and personal life – though I must say, I don’t remember anyone complaining.
Generally speaking, academia is not a meritocracy. I have heard stories about how having friends in high places (let us say, good journals) helps publish mediocre science. I know of several arrangements à la “you co-supervise my students and I’ll co-supervise yours” that people use to boost their number of publications. I was once accused by an editor of having split one of my experiments in two to have more publications, even though the experiments were done on different species, under different hypotheses and almost three years apart (oh, one was in the laboratory and the other in the field).
At the end of the day, your value as a researcher is measured by the number of publications and citations - and that value will determine whether your project and your department get funding or not. Thus, some people cheat.
You could be an outstanding researcher, and you would still be at the mercy of someone else’s opinion: editors, reviewers, professors, funding committees… a long list of people, all with their own agendas and biases, which will ultimately have a say on whether your research is worthy or not. Worst case scenario, you may have to give up on the research you want to do to do the research you can get paid for.
Sadly, yet unsurprisingly, the picture looks even worse if you’re a woman:
"Only 15 percent of full professors in European universities are women, and women are underrepresented on decision-making scientific boards in almost all European countries".
Yes, it is possible that the lack of job security, coupled with the demand to move around the world, just doesn’t appeal to women as much as it does to men. Perhaps. Another reason could be that the parameters used to hire researchers (number of publications and citations, mainly) favour men, who typically don’t see their careers interrupted by pregnancies and maternity leaves.
Be that as it may, we cannot ignore the fact that sexism and unconscious bias are very much alive and well in the academic world. The good news is, more and more scientists are uniting to raise awareness and change the status quo, paving the road for future generations of girls to enjoy a level playing field.
So, what’s all the fuzz about?
For some people, the academic world is a dream come true. In a way, being a researcher is like being a serial entrepreneur – only instead of companies, you have research projects. If you can sell the idea, there is the freedom to shape your job and make a difference in a meaningful way. As a result, many academics go to work every day knowing they do something they love – and that’s priceless.
If you feel academia is your calling, then, by all means, go for it. Denmark is actually a great place to do so, with regulated, decent salaries and an incredible amount of support. I know a lot of researchers who live very happy and fulfilled lives, despite my critical depiction. Of course, there’s a dark side to everything – but nothing that can’t be overcome with the right amounts of curiosity, willpower and determination.
Bloomberg, February 2021 (https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-02-03/south-korea-leads-world-in-innovation-u-s-drops-out-of-top-10)
European Commission. Directorate-General for Research. (2008). Mapping the maze: Getting more women to the top in research. Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, Luxembourg.
AU Key Statistics 2019: https://international.au.dk/about/profile/keystatistics/
OPINION: Female researcher’s piece on gender equality at AU was deleted: I didn’t want to paint a rosy picture. On the contrary: https://omnibus.au.dk/en/archive/show/artikel/opinion-female-researchers-piece-on-gender-equality-at-au-was-deleted-i-didnt-want-to-paint-a-ro
Call for papers: #MeToo, Discrimination, & Backlash - Special Issue Women, Gender & Research, 2020/2: https://koensforskning.soc.ku.dk/kkf/call_for_papers/cfp-kkf-20202/