How to fix a broken system?

Today, I received the message that a dear colleague collaborator would be leaving science, as a career opportunity in another sector managed to win them over. With this, academia – again – will lose a very talented, smart and kind woman in science. I say again, because it is not the first time I have seen this. In my short (~ six year) career, I have already seen dozens of people leave academia for better opportunities in industry, or for entrepreneurial adventures. Many, or most of these people were women, and almost all of them mothers.

I refuse to believe that these brilliant minds all suddenly lost the passion with which they worked on their subjects, or with which they inspired peers and younger generations. I’m not buying it. The reason, without any doubt in my mind, is that academia is a toxically competitive environment, with a dead end almost guaranteed! Permanence is rare, and you most likely will not get it, even if you work your ass off. Being amazing at what you do isn’t a guarantee. Yet, it’s the only thing you can do to try and secure something. And for this reason there are people that will work themselves to near-death. This is the level of competition that you are dealing with. And that’s a lot of pressure to take on, especially if other factors (i.e., kids) are competing for your time. I have felt this intense pressure weighing on me, too, and most strongly since I became a parent – at the end of my PhD. We need to provide food on the table, but also need to be there for our kids. I have noticed frowns from people whenever I protect my family time – and I protect it fiercely! But even if in our family we try to divide things fifty fifty, I’m fully aware that a father and a mother are not the same. No matter what I do, mommy is always the number one. There’s something about spending nine months in the womb and the early years in life, that is impossible to level with as a father, no matter how hard you try. No doubt; mothers have a tougher life. I cannot imagine what most mothers in academia must endure professionally. I have a comparatively easy life.

Here’s the problem. Many people in academia seem to think that you should work indefinitely, and value your career over anything. No! Normalizing this strategy is a huge problem. The current academic system benefits a subset of people, and these are not necessarily the smartest (although many may be). They are more likely the people that choose work over everything else. Perhaps this is not even the nicest segment of society, but let’s forget that for now. As a result, the current system is draining academia of talent and compassion, and it is selecting against people that choose to have a life and a family outside their work hours. Arguably, other aspects of life contribute greatly to your personal skill set. We should therefore value having these skilled and awesome people as a part of the academic community.

We need to improve this system…

The problem is, no one has any clue how… I personally think two things could work, or at least help to this end. The problem is complex, but it is clear to me that many young parents leave academia for the sake of not wanting the weight of 40 (or more) hours in this tough environment. One solution would be to allow part-time contracts, including the permanent ones. I have yet to see a 20-30 hour work week in academia, but I think it would be possible*. I have many weeks where I spend less than 20 hours on research, but I still manage to be sufficiently productive in those hours. This is why I think, in addition, it would be good to separate teaching duties and research duties. Specialization works. This has been shown over and over again. No one can be great at everything. Arguably one can be a perfect teacher or a perfect researcher, even in a part-time contract, but requiring people to excell at both in part- or even full-time contracts is going to be hard. I have the feeling that teaching duties make life in the competitive environment much harder. It simply limits resources. And I’m not sure this is at all necessary… I don’t know. Maybe these suggestions don’t solve everything, but I feel they may be a helpful step… Overall, as a third option, it would be nice if we could be nicer to each other. Or at least be less of an asshole, if being nice is too much to ask.

What would you suggest to make science a better place? Or is it not so bad, and am I overreacting? I’d love to hear other opinions!

* I would take a permanent research position for 20-30 hours any time. I work 40 hours because someone thought that’s a good standard. I’d be happy to work less.

Published by Robin Heinen

Father of two | Husband | Entomologist and Ecologist | Postdoctoral Researcher @ TUM | Traveler | Coffee Addict

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