Before you read my take on academia below, I want to start with a disclosure: I will fully admit I’m jaded at the moment as I work on finishing my dissertation, writing postdoc applications, and working as a full time teaching assistant. At the same time, I still hope to one day hold a job in academia as I love to teach but also love research, and there really just aren’t that many places to do both that don’t involve working at a college or university.
If any of you are getting ready to send your kids off to college, and you are talking about what you want to get out of college, consider this: R1 universities are fantastic if your student wants the chance to potentially work in a lab, is extremely independent regarding their learning, and doesn’t care if their professors and teaching assistants only put minimal effort towards teaching them. However, if you actually view college as higher education, I recommend you look elsewhere. These universities have placed their emphasis on research for years (hence the R1 designation), but this has become even worse as more and more funding is cut from grant agencies (e.g. NSF and NIH) and states continue to cut funding to education. The money must come from somewhere, and although tuition does bring in much of the budget, it is not nearly enough to pay for the exorbitant salaries of the coaches and high ranking administrative officials (NOTE: not the faculty that teach the students), while running a small city (as most universities are). Much of the funding is expected to come from endowments (which decrease during economic troubles) and overhead from grants. For those of you that don’t know what I’m writing about, universities automatically take a sum (often 50%) of any grant a faculty member brings in for research. So when you see the papers talking about the thousands of dollars being spent on a scientific study, please keep in mind that only 1/2 of that money actually goes towards research.
To get grants, faculty members must write detailed proposals for the work they will do, and make sure to publish the results from the work they have already done to show that they can accomplish such work. Because there is less and less money available for grants, it is more and more competitive to have access to any money, so any given researcher must write several proposals a year. As for the publications, remember those term papers you had to do in college, the ones where you had to have 5-10 sources and write 10 pages? Imagine doing that, but being expected to know all of the research that has been accomplished on that topic, reference all of the most relevant papers, summarize years worth of data in a few tables and figures. Then, you have to fit it to the specific format of whatever journal you are trying to publish it in, have several people read through your work (many of which don’t have the time to truly devote to reading it, but are more likely to be nitpicky then just say, oh, okay), and hope that they deem the work worthy to be published. Then, if accepted, you have to PAY to have your article published. Note, you probably already pay a yearly dues to be a member of the society that supports such work, and the school pays huge amounts of money to have access to such articles. (Did I also mention the reviewers are not paid to read through the articles?) In the meantime, you’re also making sure your current research is proceeding, serving on various committees for your college and department, oh yes, and teaching a course or two. The president, provost, dean, and department chairs are all pressuring you to bring in more grant money and publish more papers. So, how much time would you spend planning your lessons and writing your assignments and tests?
The only way this will change is if faculty stand up and refuse to fall into the vicious cycle (unfortunately not likely), or if funding increases to research grant agencies and institutions of higher learning. We are a capitalist society, and therefore even schooling revolves around money. So, think about where your tax dollars go, pick your schools wisely, and make sure your children and students know what they are getting themselves into.