I’ve often talked about my childhood dreams of being a scientist. Then, I was so excited to start high school and finally be able to fire up a bunsen burner. I was equally thrilled to start university and be let loose in more specialised laboratories. I loved science!
Next, I was exhilarated during my honours year by the idea that I was finally researching. I volunteered in other labs and on other projects instead of having lunch or coffee breaks, just to squeeze get more research in. Starting my PhD was one of the best days of my life; it was the perfect admixture of excitement and fear. Now I was becoming more than a researcher – I would one day be an academic!
At that time, I thought there was an important distinction between being an academic and being a researcher. And I very much wanted to be an academic. To me, being an academic encompasses a vastly greater set of skills and expectations than being a researcher:
A researcher is likely a very highly skilled and specialised scientist*. A researcher can conceive, direct, oversee, undertake and publish a study, or even a sequence of studies constituting an expansive project. A researcher might also teach, supervise higher degree students and undertake involved or onerous service to their community
Grand challenges, grand visions
An academic, however, is someone invested in his or her discipline far beyond a researcher. The scope of an academic’s interest and investment in teaching and supervision is larger than that of a researcher. An academic considers teaching and research to be intricately linked and not easily separated from one another.
Researchers and academics are equally important. But here’s why I still want to be an academic:
An academic has considered the PhD and asked himself or herself, what’s the purpose of the PhD? What makes a good PhD? How many PhD students do I want to train and how can I best equip them for the future?
An academic considers the role of universities, higher education and research in a national and international context. In Australia, for example, an academic likely has a strong opinion about proposed legislation for university fee deregulation.
An academic has a vision for his or her discipline. An academic likely has an idea of what she or he thinks will be the grand challenges in the field of the next decade or two. He or she has thought about the great unknowns and uncertainties, emerging tools and techniques, and areas for cross-, multi- or trans- disciplinary research.
An academic is invested in science, in interrogating the role of science in society and the role of scientists in science. An academic considers the academy to be a great public institution. As such, communicating with the public and decision-makers in a transparent way is an essential part of his or her job.
The rise of mediocrity
Obviously, there is no singular way to be an academic. Not every academic is interested in teaching, not every academic is interested in writing feisty opinion articles, not every academic has good technical skills and as many of us intimately know, not every academic is capable of being a good PhD supervisor.
I’ve always argued that diversity is a great strength of academia. Our inability to agree on anything is one of our greatest strengths. It is also a great strength that we bring this miscellany of skills and interests to our collective work.
Our inability to utilise our human capital – those lovingly cultivated skills and interests – is a great weakness of academia. Ultimately, our individual skills do not count and we are measured against each other by the narrowest possible metric – research output. That is, we are rewarded only for being researchers, not academics.
I like to think I’m an academic, albeit an embryonic one. I prioritise time with my PhD students, I volunteer for any undergraduate teaching experience I can get my hands on, I sit on a suite of committees and think it is an essential part of my job to communicate my research clearly and broadly.
Of course, none of this matters in terms of performance metrics. I am considered a promising early career researcher because I am adept at producing solid, but unremarkable, peer-reviewed papers. I have been rewarded for undertaking bankable, low-risk research and gently, or sometimes firmly, steered away from new and exciting scientific frontiers.
My other academic interests are considered fringe activities. They must be moderated against the time taken away from my real job – research. At times, I have been encouraged to view these other responsibilities as hobbies, or volunteer work. That is, I have been actively discouraged from learning to be an academic.
Our future academics
In Australia, the research space is shifting rapidly around us. We have notoriously few opportunities to leap from early career researcher toward being established academics. The few options that remains seem to evaporate just about every time I check Twitter open a newspaper.
Of course, research and researching is important. Science and scientists, and the academy and academics, cannot be disentangled from research. Regardless of their particular skills and interests, all our seasoned academics have been talented researchers at some point in time.
In our current volatile environment, it seems to make sense that we bunker down and focus on the core business of research. Rewarding and encouraging young researchers with solid track records of turning data into papers seems like the obvious response to a flooded market of PhD graduates all vying for the same few tenured academic positions.
But in essence, this rewards the unadventurous and fosters a mediocre academy. That is, we are no longer training future academics but future researchers. It seems counterintuitive, but I fear that the emphasis on research output will be the death of the academic.
The academy should be a place for great thought – for our great scientific minds to delve deeper, wider, further and farther and for those bright and talented researchers whose skills are primarily research-based. A future academy comprised only of researchers is a sad thought, both for science and for society.
Inevitably, the lucky few of my generation of scientists will one day “make it”. They will become Professors. But will they ever have the opportunity, space and freedom to actually profess?
* Of course there are researchers and academics outside of science, but I’m a scientist, so that’s the space I’m focused on.