Disillusionment With Academia: Why Leave the Research World?

An invited speaker's talk from the 2023 March Meeting of the American Physical Society. The March Meeting is one of two major, annual conferences held by APS, bringing together a global crowd of researchers and students to present their findings and gauge the field's progress. | Source: American Physical Society

The beauty of physics research, outside of the publication reviews, conferences, symposiums, and talks, lies in its fundamentality. To describe any phenomenon, whether it be something as simple as the trajectory of a ball, or something as complex as the measurement of quantum dot resonators, means searching for symmetries, mathematical systems, along experimental data to solidify explanations. The span of this sprawling field, filled with descriptions of reality at every scale, yields countless research possibilities. Such an opportunity to explore even the most unusual or intricate systems of energy and matter requires not just academic curiosity but also exorbitant amounts of deliberation and collaboration with other researchers.

To an extent, mathematics research shares many similarities with its physics counterpart. Though it lacks the physical experiments to check theoretical results against, the process of inquiry into various subfields (or perhaps, subrings) based on formal mathematical logic via axioms, intermediate lemmas, and previously derived theorems, mirrors that of theoretical physics. As is the case with numerous sects of modern research, creativity, and abstraction play a substantial role in the inquiry process. (NB: Though there is overlap between multiple academic fields besides mathematics and physics, the two are sprawling systems of research and instruction themselves, so the pair of subjects are focused on for both relevance and brevity.)

With relative job security, especially for tenure-track and tenured professors, the opportunity to explore an academic interest to its fullest extent seems idyllic. Still, a brief search through academic forums and question sites yields disgruntled graduate students, post-doctoral researchers, and, though rarer, fully tenured professors, each with unique sets of qualms regarding the current state of academia. Whether these reasons are financial, socio-cultural, or simple dissatisfaction with the career track, it appears there exists no singular, identifiable flaw in the academic system, and thus, there exists no apt solution. As such, faculty or students initially on a track towards university faculty careers may instead veer towards industry jobs (for physics or mathematics researchers, this is often in quantitative finance), national laboratory positions, or “clinical” teaching positions.

In this regard, faculty from the Physics and Mathematics departments at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy (IMSA) may be in a relatively unique position. Of course, as secondary school instructors, and considering IMSA does not operate as a research institution with post-docs and tenure tracks, their passion for teaching takes priority. Still, the prevalence of Ph.D.s and former researchers within the two departments means IMSA faculty still hold passions within the research world, just now in a different format due to IMSA’s organizational structure. To gauge the opinions of culture and the prevalence of disillusionment with academia among researchers, three members of the Mathematics and Physics departments were selected to share their thoughts:

Each faculty member was asked to share their thoughts on the following subjects: their personal experience with academia, beginning with graduate school, the flaws in academia that lead to disillusionment or negative opinions towards academic culture, potential changes that may alleviate the challenges researchers face, and whether or not they have ever considered a career shift to industry or national laboratory work.

Experience in Academia

Dr. Dong:

I started out doing experimental particle physics in grad school – I did my research at the CDF experiment at Fermilab, looking for electroweak single top quark production (which we eventually found). My specialty was programming, and I did well with statistics – I was kind of useless in an actual lab, though I did do some hardware work. So the work I do now is basically the same thing at a different experiment – the CMS detector at CERN. My current analysis is on multi-lepton final states, specifically doubly charged Higgs bosons and dark photons. It’s a little different but not very different from what I did for my Ph.D., and things have not changed too much, though the computers are faster and the code is better written. I don’t have any independent research besides this – that’s quite enough to occupy my time!

Dr. Fogel:

All-in-all, though, academia is still the best career to think differently and express yourself while enjoying relative job security. Yes, recent trends have been toward non-tenure-track appointments to save money, and there has been lots of talk about changing the nature of, or doing away with, tenure because it allows non-academics with political points of view to fire people who disagree with them. But it hasn’t happened yet.

I’d much rather work in academia than in the corporate world. “Out there” you make a lot more money, but you are also subjected to corporate whims, mass layoffs, the vagaries of the stock market, NDA’s, and other things that restrict you from speaking openly, criticizing your employer (or government, or…) or simply spreading your research far and wide. Government, too–how much mathematics has been learned at the NSA that has not been allowed to spread beyond its walls?

Dr. Trimm:

I didn’t get a Ph.D. to make tons of money or to get a particular job; I just really enjoy learning and I wanted to do research that I liked and hopefully be able to make a living at it. I was fortunate to attend the University of Texas at Austin, where I could learn from many excellent physicists and mathematicians. I liked my Ph.D. advisor a lot, as well as my other teachers and collaborators, and had a great experience in grad school. I went to a lot of conferences over the years, and made friends all over. I had an NSF-funded fellowship at IMPU in Tokyo in my last year of grad school. It was again an awesome experience and everyone I interacted with was very welcoming and I learned a lot from them. I like working on problems that I find interesting, so the thought of working in the private sector and being told what to work on has never been attractive to me.

Financial Unreliability and Competition

Dr. Trimm:

I knew when I started grad school that there were very few jobs in quantum field / string theory, and that the pay was not going to be great. I was young and single at the time, so I was ok with this and I thought at the time that moving every two years to some new location sounded fun. However, by the time I finished my Ph.D. I had a wife and kid, which came with a lot more needs and responsibilities. My research experience in my postdoc at Seoul National University was great; my boss had worked with my advisor while they were both at Princeton in the late 80s / early 90s, so I was excited to work with him. There was a great research community in Seoul, and I again went to many conferences and made a lot of friends.

Unfortunately, money became a problem. My pay was not really sufficient to meet our basic needs, even with the subsidized food and housing I was receiving, and my wife was unable to have a career due to the language barrier and the tentative nature of my position. Since there are almost no permanent jobs in my field anyway, I decided not to seek another postdoc after that one.

Dr. Dong:

The problem with academia is that the only good positions are professorships, and they are far too rare. When I was in grad school, there were 6 new Ph.D.s for every new professorship, and that was in particle physics – just imagine what things are like in English. Because of that, institutions rarely need to make any concessions to get good professors – there are far too many great candidates. Because of this, they have no problem asking you to upend your entire life, repeatedly, for the sake of following your career. If you say “forget it”, well, there are plenty of other candidates they can choose instead.

As a result, you have a culture that is glad to dump everything on the new professors – “You had better do this for me, it will look good for your tenure review” because they have only five years to prove themselves before they might be fired. Postdocs are expected to uproot and move multiple times, and the famous “two-body problem” – how to go on the job market if you and your spouse are both in academia – makes for very difficult decisions that institutions generally ignore, unless they really really want you. This basically requires you to warp your personal life to match your work life – it discourages marriage or any stable relationship because of how it complicates the job market and takes time away from your work, and children are basically out of the question until you are a professor.

You might notice that the same is true of jobs at places like Goldman-Sachs, where you are implicitly encouraged to not to enter into any relationships so as to make yourself more hirable, easier to transfer and send around. The big difference is that professors don’t get the same kind of paycheck, though they probably do more to help society.

The Academic Bureaucracy

Dr. Fogel:

My disillusionment is with the corporatization of academia. For-profit institutions, administrative top-heavy institutions where rich alumni and football coaches make too many decisions, and government tampering with academic freedom are becoming real threats to the academic institution as it has been for hundreds of years. It would be a real loss to the intellectual world if that were to continue unabated.

Dr. Dong:

There’s also the problem of what professors do – primarily, go to meetings, teach classes, and write grant proposals. Most professors do not get to do actual research. My advisor in grad school really enjoyed research and always wanted to work on it, but he never had the time because of all the meetings and grant proposals he had to work on. So basically you find people who are very good at research and hire them not to do research, but to hire other people to do it for them. It works okay but it’s not really that enjoyable. One scientist I talked to thought of it as paying your dues back to the system – having achieved a nice position, you owe it to the field to do the boring administrative work so that young people can learn to do research. But it sure isn’t fun.

In Search of a Solution

Dr. Trimm:

I really enjoyed teaching while I was a grad student, and had built up quite a bit of teaching experience by the time I graduated. Since I don’t need a laboratory to do research, I figured I would just go back to teaching to pay the bills and then continue research on my own time. I was fortunate to get a faculty position teaching mathematics at a really good STEM school in the Atlanta suburbs, which is similar to IMSA, and I was able to publish several research papers and attend some conferences during this time. I haven’t been involved in research in the past few years due to having to get various teaching licenses while working a full-time job and having another kid. Also the pandemic messed things up for me for a while, but I ended up at IMSA because of it and I am very happy here so things worked out for the best. Now that I have been here for a couple of years and am more settled I am hoping to start getting back into research this summer. One positive result of the pandemic is that there are several excellent new conferences in my field that are now held completely online, making it easier to participate for someone like me who is not able to travel very frequently. Chicago also has many outstanding researchers in both physics and mathematics, and I am looking forward to attending upcoming local conferences as well.

Dr. Dong:

If there were obvious solutions, people would have tried them already. One big plus is that we maintain a very high quality of research output. It’s like the Harvard effect – there is nothing special about Harvard’s education, but simply because it is selective it is able to make sure that Harvard graduates are (mostly) very smart and talented and successful people. In the same way, universities can be so picky that even smaller, less well-known universities can get excellent researchers, and thus the quality of research we produce is excellent.

America still produces more great research than any other country (for now), and it’s partly because of this cutthroat, abusive system that prioritizes research over people’s basic humanity that we get such good research. And research is fun and interesting – a lot of people don’t really see a problem with the system, especially the ones who aren’t in a relationship or don’t want a family right now. It may possibly be a necessary evil, or a lesser of evils, if we want advancement in research.

Even amongst three faculty in closely-related departments at IMSA, the experiences and stances on the benefits and negatives of academic culture show an extreme range. This not only suggests that researchers face different, circumstantial struggles, but also may reflect the uniqueness of IMSA faculty compared to those at a standard research university. All three have diverse backgrounds in their paths, eventually arriving at IMSA to teach, clearly holding an underlying interest in the research of their fields, and staying involved within their respective academic communities.

Given a passion for exploring physical anomalies or mathematical structures, the creative research and teaching opportunities in physics and mathematics academia can be both immensely rewarding and disheartening. Though a popular solution to academic competition, financial inconsistency, and toxicity may not be readily available, the existence of the rarer secondary STEM education positions at institutions like IMSA may pose an alternative career direction to traditional university tenure or both non-research and research industries.

For those who find themselves to be, per Dr. Fogel, “more of a radical free-speech person than [they] would have admitted,” untraditional teaching positions that allow faculty to continue research contributions stand as a viable, academic option.

About the Author

Dheeran Wiggins
Hello, my name is Dheeran Wiggins '23, and I'm the founder and former director of The Acronym Physics Column, as well as a Staff Writer. I am now pursuing physics and mathematics research and journalism in my undergraduate career.

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