Day: November 9, 2021

Academic Prophecies

AssProfLyfe asks

Wondering what your thoughts are about the future of academia overall – this comes up in casual convos with seminar speakers when they come through the department. The bloating admin, the less number of college-age students available to attend, the steady paylines of grants that don’t scale with inflation and increased payroll for students/postdocs (which is needed/deserved!). As an assistant professor, these really make me question of if I can have long-term stability in the academy. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on what you think academia will look like in 20+ years.

I think this is somewhat field-dependent and definitely differs between smaller, primarily undergraduate institutions (and even there, small public campuses differ from elite SLACs) and big research schools. My perspective is that of someone at a big public school, and I will share what I can given the limitations of what I know. 

I am not very optimistic, to be honest. I admit the job (faculty job at a big university) isn’t what I had envisioned, and the constant grant grind and overwhelming service are getting the best of me and basically spoiling all the enjoyment and efficiency of doing the other parts. During a semester like this one, when I am teaching a new course, I could easily spend 100% of my time on teaching, grant writing, and miscellaneous service. I love teaching, and I love the idea-generating and even the writing part of grant writing, but it is a struggle to find the time to meet with my students and even more so to write papers, and the stress associated with needing to get grants funded in order to keep going is just punishing. 

I know that graduate students in my subfield don’t want to pursue academia. Maybe I am not a good role model as I am clearly exhausted by the grant race. But who can blame them? Doing a PhD, likely years of a postdoc, just for a chance to compete? In my subfield, you can get well-paying jobs with big, successful companies and do really interesting work with brilliant collaborators. Unless you really put a premium on not having a boss (as I do, but it turns out that most people don’t), industry jobs really do offer a lot of benefits.  

There will be big closures or cuts to the small campuses of state university systems. It is happening already, so I’m not being particularly prophetic here. Schools are competing for enrollments, and, with dwindling state support, low enrollments will mean closures. 

There is increasing competition for donor dollars, and that affects all layers of administration. The roles of department chairs and deans include plenty of schmoozing with those who have big pockets. There are multiple new positions sprouting that are devoted to publicity and fundraising. There are also higher-admin positions being added to deal with students, diversity, etc. while, perhaps unsurprisingly at least from the budgetary standpoint, the positions dealing with students and faculty at the department level, where they’re needed, are being rolled back. We have 1/2 or even 1/3 of the department staff we had when I started out (nearly 20 yeas ago — JFC, it’s been a long time).  

Don’t get me started on the ridiculousness of grant math. Grant sizes have been stagnant during my time as faculty, while the overhead rates have steadily climbed and student and postdoc salaries, as well as grad-student tuitions have somewhat more slowly but still steadily climbed. We can literally do less science per dollar than a decade or two ago. Moreover, funding rates have dwindled to single-digit percentages, in part because people write more because one grant supports less than it used to.  

One thing that worries me about funding in my field is that big funding mechanisms (centers) seem to have overtaken agencies. There is far less money all around for single-PI or very small teams (2-3 PIs). Having been part of these centers, I can tell you I don’t like their politics and hierarchy, and I don’t think they are a good use of many PI’s time or talents. 

Overall, well-funded people and center leaders at big, prominent schools will continue to do well, probably better than ever. Smaller players everywhere, be it PIs or smaller schools, will continue to face an uphill battle to keep the lights on. Admin will  continue to proliferate and eat up resources. Undergrads will continue to be educated, if they are lucky, by dedicated faculty or permanent instructional staff, or else by grad students or underpaid adjuncts. They will pay ever more for that education. The best and the brightest among graduate students, except for those with impeccable PhD pedigrees, will not be pursing academic careers.  

What say you, blogosphere? How do you envision the (near) future of academia?