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Culture of academia

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This page describes different aspects of the culture of academia. It complements the pages academia as a career option and social value of academia, and can help people decide whether academia is a good fit for them.

Peer group: what sort of people go into academia?

There are two reasons it is important to care about the sort of people who go into, and stay in, academia. First, it gives you some sense of what sort of people you'd be surrounded by if you stay in academia. Second, by looking at the qualities that these people have, and comparing with yourself, you can better figure out whether you will want to and be able to stay within academia.

Skills needed in academia

As in most other professions, intelligence, willingness to work hard, determination, conscientiousness, and willingness to play by the rules of the game all matter for success. Academia is somewhat unusual relative to other professions in that there is less day-to-day external pressure to perform. The pressure is there, but on a longer timescale. Thus, the ability to motivate oneself using long-term goals matters more in academia than in other disciplines, even high-skilled disciplines.

The main predictor of continuing in academia is whether one picks the right topics and gets in the groove

For people who enter as graduate students in technical subjects at top-tier universities, the intellectual skills or even the ability to work hard do not differ much between the ones who continue in academia beyond the Ph.D. and those who don't. The best predictor seems to be their Ph.D. experience. In particular:

  1. Those who picked topics and advisors where the job market has more options are more likely to stay within academia. This is partly a selection effect (people who prize staying within academia are more likely to pick topics and advisors that facilitate this) but there seems to also be a significant causal component. In particular, there are graduate students who pick unfashionable or hard topics because they're passionate about them, and don't consciously trade that off against the difficulty of getting a job later (or underestimate the difficulty thereof).
  2. Those who were able to get substantive publications in graduate school are more likely to stay within academia. There is again a combination of selection and treatment: selection in that the people who decide to leave graduate school during or immediately after the Ph.D. don't try to get lots of publications -- they try to do the bare minimum to get through, whereas those who want to continue would try harder to publish. However, there's also a causal component: people who publish more (both in terms of quantity and quality) are more likely to get good academic jobs. Even among those who do stay, the ones who have better publications can get more prestigious post-doctoral options.

(1) and (2) are related: people who pick more job market-friendly options and advisors are also likely to receive better guidance on what areas to concentrate their research in.

Those who stay within academia may not have higher general intellectual curiosity than those who leave

Since academia is a good venue for intellectual curiosity, intellectually curious people are more likely to be attracted to academia, and academia has more intellectually curious people than the general population. However, of the intellectually curious people who start within academia, the ones who stay aren't necessarily the ones who are the more intellectually curious. In fact, the correlation may be close to zero.

Here are some possible reasons:

  1. Overtly general intellectual curiosity: When people start graduate school, they haven't had much exposure both to their academic discipline and the world at large. Thus, to begin with, they may direct most of their intellectual curiosity to problems within the academic discipline. As time passes, and they learn more about the world,their intellectual interests may diversify, and the particular attraction of their academic discipline might diminish. Interestingly, people who are not generically intellectually curious may have more "lock-in" to their academic discipline because they lack the curiosity and interest to learn about other fields.
  2. Overtly specific intellectual curiosity: Some people who are passionately intellectually curious have very specific interests within their academic discipline. Thus, they may choose unfashionable subdisciplines and work on hard problems. These are both recipes for failure, as discussed above.

Interestingly, reasons (1) and (2) can coexist for some people -- their intellectual curiosity may be quite general, but within their academic discipline, they have a stronger aesthetic attraction to work on some problems than others.

Constrained optimization

One way of thinking of the formula for success within academia is: constrained optimization. Namely, people who succeed in academia are the ones who try hard to optimize for success within academia. These aren't necessarily people who are good at, or are even trying to, optimize for success in a holistic sense (for instance, they probably aren't optimizing for financial success, given that people successful in academia can usually earn much higher incomes outside). In some cases, they can appear to lack basic practical instincts or knowledge that would be necessary in non-academic contexts. However, within the academic context, they are very practical and have a clear sense.

Cultural elements

Nobody is your boss (note: this doesn't apply to lab work and joint projects)

One fundamental difference between academia and most professional contexts is that there is no explicit hierarchy: people do not have bosses that they need to report to. They do have advisors (in graduate school) and mentors/supervisors when doing post-doctoral work. However, the student isn't working for the advisor. Basically, in academia, everybody is working for themselves, and is evaluated by a group of peers and seniors. Advisors may try to help but their own professional standing is not adversely influenced by a student not doing a good job, so they have neither the incentive nor the authority to really enforce standards on the student.

This creates a dynamic where little external structure is enforced. People who want to succeed need to find a good internal rhythm to keep churning out high-quality material.

There are a few exceptions, which might be quantitatively significant:

  • For lab work and collaborative projects, people do have bosses, who may be the same as their thesis advisors or mentors. The incentives and constraints in these contexts more closely resemble non-academic high-skilled jobs.
  • Academics may have some teaching duties, and they generally have to report to teaching coordinators for their course or for the undergraduate program. Again, the incentives and constraints here come closer to real-world jobs.

The atmosphere is more collegiate, but not dramatically so

We can think of academia as an extension of the academic component of undergraduate life. Within academia, it's more customary (compared to other jobs) to just spend time discussing ideas, working out their ramifications, even when they are not directly related to one's research. This isn't necessarily because academics have more free time than people in other jobs, but more because their real work is close enough to general intellectual exploration that they find it easier to engage in such exploration when they have free time (somebody working in software engineering, finance, or consulting, may fall more out of touch with that sort of mindset).

That being said, there is still considerable domain-specificity. If you like to casually discuss algorithmic or programming puzzles, you'd find more of that in a software engineering job than in chemistry graduate school. If you are interested in talking about stock prices, you are more likely to be able to do that in conversation with colleagues in a finance job than in physics graduate school.

See also

Related reading