Academia: A Glass Painting

All graduate students spend a significant amount of their life at grad schools, for me it has been a quarter of my life to be exact. This time significantly changed me and my thoughts on how academia (or at least a part of academia) works. When I joined graduate school I was jubilant to escape my undergraduate institute. The graduate school I am in is considered one of the premier institutes in India. If you are an outsider, the look of the institute itself is enough to convince you to join. I had read and heard stories of great scientists who were and are working here, the passion these great scientists have for science and the extraordinary intelligence they carried in their big brains. Eventually I started my work in a theoretical field. I had my ideas of what I am going to do, as every naive person has; how I was going to understand all the beautiful ideas that existed, how I would learn science beyond my stream, and how I was going to think about deep problems and come up with new ideas. It was a beautiful glass painting. This glass painting developed so many cracks over the years that I don’t recognise it any more. 

It is generally quite hard to form balanced opinions about something when you are close to it.  Last year when the pandemic hit I was somehow unable to work. I got some time, and my thoughts could now walk away from my life in academia. For most of my time in graduate school it was all that I was entangled with. The more time I got, the further my thoughts walked. I was able to look at academia from an outsider’s perspective. From the perspective of the naive person I once was. This is an attempt to find my glass painting, or what remains of it and observe the cracks and ponder how each one of those were put in place.

When you join my institute, the department you join (i.e. the subgroups you will work with) is already decided, and theory is considered an elite field. Generally there is competition to get into this department and people in theory always had this “I am better than you” feel in their behaviour. Other streams are sometimes belittled as lesser science or soft science, mostly in the form of jokes but you could never tell if they were serious or joking. This behaviour is many times internalised and reproduced by the students. This trashtalk didn’t just take place across departments but even in the subgroups of the same department. A gradation of science was given to me, maybe I even believed it for a while. 

Initially the coursework kept us busy. These courses were taken by eminent scientists, we were at their mercy. The coursework was generally ‘meh’, I think I learned more from YouTube lectures. A particular course I remember, where the professor had the coarse notes ready and the idea was that we will read the notes and then the classes would be a discussion of the notes. This theorist was running an experiment on us! Sometimes he would walk out of the class in a fit of rage because we had not prepared enough. He would often denigrate the students, calling them to the board for not being able to reproduce some computation. Other faculties actually know about this and when freely talking to students accept that this is insufferable behaviour but none of them have been able to change anything. There are many like him but academia has lost the ability to reform any aspect of itself. 

This academic bullying does not just happen in the class and is not exclusive for students. It also happens when a speaker from another group comes to your institute. The idea apparently is to destroy the speaker in order to sound smart. I was told that this is the way many well-known scientists behave.

I don’t think I ever planned to pursue research in the specific topic that I completed my PhD in, it somehow just happened. I am not unhappy about it, just indifferent. One morning my supervisor walked up to me and said “Read this paper and let’s discuss at 5.” My stream is quite competitive. My seniors typically had 4-5 published papers by the end of their PhD, I had to do the same, a starter pistol was fired and I was in a race.

My advisor had an idea of a calculation that we can do, and it seemed pretty straight forward. A calculation can be done without knowing what you are doing. It was not that my supervisor thought that I knew what I was doing, I think at the time I was not even expected to know. Along with other collaborators, it took us about 8 months to put out the first preprint. I had no idea what I had produced, the physical implications, how it relates to other things that already exist, does it have a new idea? Nothing. This “let’s calculate what you can” attitude is a widely accepted theme now. It is the only way to produce more papers. Number of papers is a metric of how good a researcher you are but now this metric is the goal.

The widely accepted number which indicates the worth of your paper is the number of citations. So it’s not only a race to write more papers but also to get more citations. When I look back at my first paper I can’t justify its existence, the construction in the paper is extremely fine tuned and mathematically intricate but does not bring anything new to the table. Surprisingly it is my most cited work. The reason for this is that the paper belongs to a “hot topic”. A hot topic is a field which is legitimized and aggressively advertised by the big shots in the fields as the most important idea. You will see a flurry of papers in a brief time window after the first paper, and if you write your paper early enough in this window everybody who submits their work after you will cite you. In fact ignoring such a paper is considered rude. I also kept a tab on the new papers and promptly wrote mails to the author saying “If you find our work useful consider citing us.” It is a polite way to get a citation.

After completion of a PhD you HAVE TO spend some time as a postdoctoral fellow, you won’t get a job otherwise. The application process is quite stressful, the number of students in my field have consistently grown over the past decade but the postdoc positions and faculty position have not. This has created fierce competition. I hated myself when at times I was forced to look at my peers as adversaries. It also forced me to evaluate my own self worth, sadly using metrics like citations.  I have secured a postdoc now but I can’t help but wonder what really happens in the selection process. How am I judged? How do they know If I am worthy of the position? Looking beyond my own self at a general picture a key factor emerged. This is an open secret, nobody talks about it, and here it is: you will not get a good postdoc or a job if you are not connected to a godfather—an established academic who is well connected and respected in the field. They are mostly the people who have shaped the field themselves or are connected to people who have done so. In some cases they are just politically connected. This is not to say that students who are connected to a godfather and get good positions don’t deserve it, but if you are not one of them then academia seems to think that you don’t deserve it.

The subjects we all work on are all really interesting, and  have beautiful ideas, but the compartmentalised pressure cooker that academia is never allows for exchange of these ideas. I have hardly, in my duration as a graduate student, had such an exchange. Nobody talks about science anymore, students are forced to be narrow in their scope so that they can produce more papers. You no longer understand how your stream is connected to other streams, forget about other subjects. You are also under pressure to produce papers as fast as you can and on the hot topics. And the most important of all, you can never speak of problems of academia which expose academics as they decide your future. You are reduced to a scientific calculator, a thing which is not allowed to explore and create new ideas. The glass painting I had borrowed is unrecognisable to me; maybe something similar exists in some elite corners of academia, and I am in a perpetual race to get there.

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