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Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Poor Academics

I've noticed that society is quite accepting and often sympathetic towards graduate students and academics who can barely make ends meet. I think that the reason behind the sympathy is that people think that academics are involved in something that that is beyond monetary reward:

  1. Academics contribute to the society by creating valuable knowledge
  2. Academics help students to improve their lives through education.

Having spent in academia many years I see how flawed these arguments are.

First of all, academia is no better than any other field. In fact, it can be much worse in terms of positive societal impact compared to other fields. While 1% of academics do push the boundaries of knowledge and help the society to solve its nascent problems, 99% are engaged in useless and trivial research and irrelevant teaching. Moreover, many high-impact inventions come from outside of academia: aspirin (Bayer), cars (Ford), copiers (Xerox), etc. Heck, even if we are talking about purely intellectual products, such as influential books, we see that many of those books were written by people without PhDs. So I just don't see how academia is somehow better in terms of its contribution to the society.

Secondly, professors are not providing education for free. Schools charge ridiculous amounts for tuition. The reason that many educators generally receive less money compared to the industry is due to the fact that education system is often very wasteful and has to pay less in order to compensate for the waste. Moreover, students often discover that the time and money spent is largely a waste and does not lead to any better lifestyle.

So, again, I don't see how the act of committing one's life to educating the young is more heroic than, let's say, committing your life to providing people with good food. Being sympathetic to a struggling academic is like being sympathetic to a store owner who doesn't sell anything that people are willing to buy.


  1. Good metaphor...

    A PhD is just a qualification with a "Dr." title before your name...

    For me, spending money and time on this could be a bit not practical...unless you are financially stable

    I strongly agree with you, that spending money and time for food or helping people is by far more meaningful...

    PhD is being promoted as great/intellectual/etc. but in fact, whether the research is really can some psitive impacts.. I still doubt about it.

    Or, maybe it is again rules by human: in order to enter university departments, PhD is just like another academic passport....

  2. I guess my point was that academia should not have that "sacred" status and shouldn't be exempt from basic economics.

  3. oh ok...

    Maybe people always think that education is still education...just for decoration?


  5. I disagree with this for a number of reasons. First of all knowledge builds upon knowledge! The car, copiers, life as we know it today are products of a great deal of research, of study and time and effort put in by a great number of people. I'm not defending the argument that academics or PhD students deserve sympathy. However you cannot deny that education is such a vital and fantastic opportunity to learn new truths about the world and improve the world we live in not only for ourselves but for others too. Developing technologies to provide clean water to people in less developed countries and vaccinations and health care are all areas that benefit and depend upon extensive research in some form or another. Expanding out knowledge and passing that knowledge on through education represents such a extraordinarily important aspect of our existence. We would not live in the world that we live in today without people who devote their lives to asking questions and striving to find answers. Please don't condemn all research/academics because of a bad experience.

  6. I agree with the Anonymous comment above. If you go into academia, you must do so with the realization that all of your hard work may not yield any fruit for you in your lifetime...but perhaps one day, it will yield fruit for someone else. I recall a few years ago there was a story of a research groups who completed a translation of a lost language. The research had begun nearly 100 years ago, and none of the original researchers were alive when the project was completed. They all died with nothing to show for their work, but future generations built on what they had begun. Academia is something which many people write off as a waste of time because unlike other jobs, there is seldom ever a finished product in a person's lifetime. If you get lucky, you might build on someone else's research and complete their project, but to start and finish something? It's improbable. So some, who are a bit less globally minded, might see a Ph.D. as a waste of time. However, one must keep in mind it's a choice. And it's one that shouldn't be made lightly.

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