Academia: a view from the bottom

This post is part of a series called Is Academia Broken? It relates the experiences of Jeff, Authorea’s Community coordinator, and weighing the options on pursuing a PhD. Be sure to check out Alberto’s first blog post, on the perils of early career interdisciplinary research, and his second, on the overabundance of PhDs and dearth of academic positions.

“My name is Jeff and I might want to be an academic.”
“Hi Jeff.”

About a year ago, I finished undergrad with degrees in biochemistry, biology, and chemistry. Without reading Alberto’s own perils of interdisciplinary study, I knew this was a bad idea: I was exhausted. Besides bouncing between related but dense majors (near to meeting all the requirements, I just went for it), I worked in a protein-engineering lab and taught lab classes.

Far from relieved at graduation, I was nervous. I had a few months of teaching and temp work until I had to decide if and how and where (and why) I would go to graduate school. It always seemed (despite never knowing the reason) like the logical next step.

And the step after that? A postdoc?

Okay, and then what? A professor? Industry?

These were solid enough plans, I thought. Especially when I talked to professors. Or people in industry. Despite their differing outlooks, both groups seemed to agree on one thing: go straight to your PhD.

Skeptical inquiry, however, wouldn’t let me stop and enjoy the summer. I did a little research. Against the academic path, I found a Nature essay by Dr. Jessica Polka that found only 10% of recent biology PhDs end up in tenure-track faculty positions. This stark but necessary analysis was exactly what I needed to read.

Industry it was, then! After a PhD of course.

But then I started researching those numbers.

Starting pay for many qualified doctorates in my field was little more than that of a postdoc. That is, if...

  • ...they were actually doing science. Ending up on Wall Street or consulting negated why I pursued science in the first place.

  • ...their specialty was even industrially relevant. Most basic research done by grad students is years from commercial applications.

  • ...enough industry jobs even exist. The myth of the “STEM shortage” has become increasingly obvious.

With time running out to take the GRE, secure recommendation letters, and apply, I barely knew which way was up, let alone the way forward. What was the point of pursuing academia, a cut-throat route of publish-or-perish anxiety due to scarcity? But industry was effectively the same thing, substituting a focus on shareholder value for inane metrics like “impact” and h-index.

Then I heard about Authorea.

They were looking to change the entire approach of scholarship. They wanted to experiment with how metrics and peer review worked.

And they were hiring.

When I contacted Alberto, we quickly saw eye-to-eye on many issues plaguing academia we wished to help solve. And so here I am.

If I do go back (the PhD problem ever on my mind), what I know now from working to give researchers better dissemination tools will only strengthen my experiences and work, but I’m still not sure if it’s worth it...

Let me know what you think in the comments!

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