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? 

5 comments

  1. That about sums it up. It’s hard not to feel like this is the twilight of academia as we know it. What will happen I think depends a lot on the institution. What happens at Williams College vs. a <1000 student liberal arts college in PA vs Western Oregon vs. University of Colorado vs. Johns Hopkins, etc. will have very different trajectories.

    I'm glad I'm not just getting started.

  2. I tried to post my comment but it seems it was unsuccessful, so here it is again:

    I agree with what xykademiqz said. I’m a professor in the STEM field in a large state research university. Here are my observations:

    1. In the STEM field, most funding goes to big centers, leaving very little to individual PIs. This is a trend that is not going to stop for many years, unfortunately. I don’t fully understand why money is pouring into big centers, but it seems big centers are better for government funding agencies to manager their money and for their leaders to brag about their accomplishments. Big centers involves so many politics; the proposal is not just about science, you have to include diversity, job creation, global competitiveness, leadership, etc. Every big center must hire/appoint a diversity officer, even though we have people in such role at all levels from university to college and department. Looking back, what did those $20M centers produce? I would say the number of publications/inventions was far less than if the money had been spent on individual PIs.

    2. As a result of this trend, half faculty in my department are extremely well funded (with more money than they can spend) because of their affiliation with multiple centers within and across universities. The other half faculty are poorly funded (with no funding or a few small single-PI grants), who must teach more courses and do more services because of lack of funding. Most of my colleagues are pursuing big centers/big funding these days, which requires more personal skills/connections than scientific abilities. Once a person brings in a big center (>$10M), he/she immediately will become a titled professor with almost 30% increase in salary, that is very much guaranteed in my university.

    3. It is all about $$$. We must increase research expenditure (whether it is basic or applied research)! We must increase enrollment (no matter how big our classes are)! Let’s get more donations (hire more development staff who are paid higher than full professors to raise money)! We have to reduce faculty&staff benefits to save money (we know you can’t go anywhere else, cause you are tenured and you are stuck here)! Everything is about money. Quality in research and teaching matters much less these days. I heard a funny story about how an engineering department in our university selected a faculty for the department’s research award. The Awards Committee simply made a list of total funding of all faculty, and whoever raised highest funding would receive the Outstanding Research award. A colleague received the award because he raised $9M research funding that year (highest), but, wait a second, 70% of that $9M was used to develop a facility!

    4. The administration is bloated. There are vice president, senior vice president, associate dean, assistant dean, director of X, Y and Z, department chair, associate/assistant chair for A, B, C, and many others…. Each dean/chair/director must hire several staff working for them. Furthermore, there are all kinds of programs to enhance student experience, e.g, teaching/learning, diversity & inclusion, engagement, global program, study abroad, etc…. Running these programs require hiring lots of staff. I participated in one interview upon invitation and immediately realized how bloated our system had become. The interview was to hire an undergraduate student as a peer TA for $15 an hour. I was the faculty presentative on the interview and there were three staff from a program called something like Excellence in Student Learning. I was shocked, because four of us were gathering together for one hour, just to interview an undergraduate student who would receive $15 an hour, up to 10 hours a week, if hired! I went back to check the salaries of those three staffs, all of them were paid above $60K per year. We pay our staff to do these trivial things! (I must add some of these programs are good for our students, but they add cost and often unnecessary)

    5. Every administrator would come up with great ideas, new initiatives, etc, all of which require participation of faculty, even though most of us are already exhausted by research/teaching/service. The salary gap between administrators and regular faculty are increasing year by year. The influence of faculty on university policies is decreasing. The administrators are out of touch with the faculty; shared governance is less a reality. The Faculty Senate passes or fails lots of resolutions, which, however, has little influence on the decisions of the administration and the Board.

    Overall, I’m not optimistic. Universities are becoming companies, but without the economic return that companies give to their employees.

  3. Thanks for making a blog post about my question and also to @grumpymidcareerprofessor for your detailed perspective. Both of your points about centers stand out to me, as I didn’t realize that funding agencies have been relying on them more heavily. I agree that there’s much more politics involved that way and I’ve found collaborations to be a bit difficult to figure out. In that sense, single PI funding could result in some more focused results. The bloat of administration vs. department support also leads to a lot of wasted time at the department level. The anecdote that @grumpy provides is telling – it’s crazy what trivial things we end up getting paid for instead of the science we were trained for.

  4. Some centers are needed to handle large facilities or shared data sets (think CERN in particle physics or the UCSC Genome Institute in genomics). Large collaborations (like The Cancer Genome Atlas, Telomere-to-telomere Consortium, and Thousand Genomes project) provide a way to spread funding over many institutions while building a cohesive data set, providing an alternative to large centers (though large centers often anchor the consortia as “data hubs”).

    I think that some funding agencies have moved a bit too far towards funding “big science”—I was one of the PIs squeezed out by the lack of funding for small lab groups, though my department as a whole benefitted enormously from center and consortium funding.

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