Why do I want to stay in academia?

During the early part of my career, I was only worried about whether I was enjoying what I was doing, as that was the advice I got. As I moved through my postdoc, I learned a lot of what academics do by being involved with the work of more senior people, such as helping with supervision or helping with the administrative side of large grant applications. However, the jobs I was doing seemed to be disjointed and had no common purpose, even though I enjoyed them.

I was prompted to think about the broader role of academics within society, because of three things. One is the review in Australia about intellectual freedom and freedom of speech in in early 2019. The second is the long-running debate around the efficacy of universities in providing skills to industry. The final, was more personal, and involved my health and a couple of significant life events which I will not mention here.

I was in the process of recalibration. I felt lost, and I didn’t know why I was doing what I was doing anymore. I decided to reflect on what I enjoyed in my work at the university, and what I didn’t enjoy. It still seemed random, the things I was doing. I’m a scientist, so I naturally tried to make an abstraction of all of these things, a model to make sense of all of the data.

The conclusions I made at the end, was that an academic’s purpose is threefold: (1) to keep knowledge alive, (2) to generate new knowledge, and (3) to train the next generation on these two things. The different academic levels of reflect the different types of technical competence, and later the leadership, you need as you progress in your career.

Keep knowledge alive: It is very difficult to read a paper that is not in your field, and understand what’s going on. Expertise in a field is representative of keeping that particular area of knowledge alive. This makes it faster to implement a new idea in that field. By having expertise, we are able to recognise novelty when we see it.

Generate new knowledge: My supervisor once told me that part of a scientist’s job is to document our work. As Adam Savage says, “The difference between screwing around and science is writing it down.” That’s why we publish papers, why we peer review manuscripts, why we acknowledge previous work. Our expertise means that we are able to construct a logical and cohesive argument for the validity of a new piece of knowledge in our field, in the context of the evidence.

This is also why academic freedom is important, we must ask the questions that will increase our body of knowledge. Sometimes that question is unpopular in the field, sometimes it’s been forgotten because we didn’t have the tools to investigate it further. But I think a possible limitation to academic freedom is that it must be relevant to the topic.

Train the next generation: Our limited working life means that both our knowledge and our ability to generate new knowledge must be passed onto students. This is why we teach coursework so the students can gain the requisite technical skills. This is why we train PhD students, so they can become experts on a topic, as well as learn how to construct a thorough argument for a new piece of knowledge.

Different levels: This is something that I don’t really know much about for higher level, as I am a mid-career researcher. I do have experience and insights up to this point.

An undergraduate student gains the skills and knowledge in an area. They are able to say, “I have a question, I don’t know the answer, but I know how to find it.”

A PhD student learns how generate new knowledge. They can say, “I have a question, I don’t know the answer, I can’t find the answer, but I can develop a method to find out.”

A postdoc is a professional researcher, who is usually collaborating on an existing project, but has the skills to perform the research. They say, “I have a question, I don’t know the answer, the answer doesn’t exist, but I can find out.”

The further levels above me are sketchy. But from my understanding, progressing up the academic career ladder involves leadership. My understanding of research leadership is asking the question, “What are the questions?”

By understanding how the pieces fit together, I had a better understanding of what academia means to me. During my PhD, I used to tell the other PhD students about my ideas, which usually were not technically feasible. We called these sessions “crackpotting” because they were usually crackpot ideas! But I remember them fondly. At the end of the day, the job is fun, but having the opportunity to advance society, by pushing the boundaries of human understanding, is part of the calling of academia.