And I’m OK With That
I’m leaving academia.
I will still do science.
That is, I will start a job, at a company, doing something a lot like science, very soon. I have signed a contract.
It was popular a few years ago to write about this experience. We called it ‘quit lit’. Documents in the genre tended to run long, and alternated between detailed accounts of fairly torrid career experiences (which were interesting) with additional self-indulgent drivel about values and feelings (which were not).
Well, if everyone else gets to play, so do I. My attempt to join this genre here is as terse as I can make it, while still being comprehensive.
The reason for it existing is not because you need a full exegesis of my feelings, but because: while I would prefer to be understood, I would like to explain the circumstances here. These might be useful to other people.
Or maybe you’re curious.
These are in approximate order of increasing importance.
There are a few reasons I do error detection work (that is, I try to discover methods of finding inconsistent or impossible scientific papers, and occasionally have them removed from publication). The main one is, because I think it’s important and can’t stand the idea of it not being done.
The others are more personal:
(a) it’s aggressive, and so am I. Some people would say ‘needlessly’ and they’re as entitled to their wrong opinion as anyone else,
(b) it moves quickly, and so do I. In a normal crisis, not one ripping the world apart, I am quite at home.
(c) it is compelling, and I work well when I am compelled and poorly when I am bored.
This is why I have done this work for no money, sometimes to the detriment of my health — because it suits me.
Other tasks suit me less. A corollary to the above: I am uncomfortable with turgidity, and gradual progress, and inching towards things. I like saber cuts and bold steps. I get bored.
The main way I have dealt with this is by being an adult, and doing things anyway. But it is a compromise.
Age / pedigree / temperament
Age: I have it. Many people I know who are assistant or even associate professors are younger than me. Some of them are tenured. There is an association of what it means to be an ‘up and comer’, moving through the scientific ranks at a speed supposedly commensurate with your skill. I don’t fit this expectation. It isn’t an insurmountable barrier, but it makes it harder.
Pedigree: I don’t have it. I did not do my PhD in a Famous Lab. I did not do it in ANY lab, actually, it was largely self-motivated / self-managed. This is a good pathway for skill development and confidence, if you live through the experience. But it means you exist outside of normal academic networks. It makes it harder.
Temperament: it’s wrong. I can be … occasionally obstreperous. I hand out respect slowly. I do not like a lot of scientific work that I see, and have a tendency to point that out. I loathe delay. I imagine this is not so different to other people, perhaps I’m just too childish to hide it. I have developed, carefully, over a period of years, a split personality which allows me to work on tasks that I don’t enjoy, that I don’t respect, that I would have designed differently. But, it makes it harder.
There have been big grants, big opportunities, big spaces, that have opened up over the last few years. They would have changed this narrative, a lot.
However, they have failed to materialise. This is not anyone’s fault (well, maybe a few grant reviewers). It is simply impossible to make long term decisions, to really catch a hold of something fruitful and useful, when we are continually fighting for short-to-medium term money on patchworks of assembled projects with the right money.
I’m working out of state, but I refuse to uproot my wife, who has an excellent job where we live and doesn’t want to move for very good reasons, and my cat, who I’m afraid is now chronically ill, for an allegedly-tenured job at a university in a state which mainly grows corn and racism.
We make a lot of compromises in this job. I’m not making that one.
If I *am* moving, but still continuing to live ‘at home’, I want [a] partial telecommuting time [b] partial ground time ie. split time between cities [c] enough money to pay for the flights etc.
Is that unreasonable, maybe arrogant? Don’t care.
I’m not ripping up my life, again, just to stay on the treadmill.
In the next fiscal year, I will make three times the amount of money that I did in the last. I’ll tell you more about the details soon. Let’s talk instead about what it means.
Triple your own salary in your head.
Seriously, do it. You know the number. Times 3.
Think about the effect on how you live, for how you execute your life, for what you worry about, for how you plan for retirement.
I’m not particularly motivated by money. It’s a little like attention or lethal military hardware to me — it’s very useful for achieving certain ends, but if you have the pathological desire for it, there’s something wrong with you.
Being an immigrant (‘ex-pat’ is stupid, I was a very indifferent ‘pat’ to begin with) will knock a few dents in this, though. Even if you’re a fancy Australian person, one of the ‘good’ immigrants (typing that concept makes me throw up in my mouth, but the attitude is real), the process has a few brickbats waiting for you.
Let me make that concrete: when we moved to the US, we bought flights, flew the cat (it isn’t cheap), and then immediately had to pay four months rent up front for an apartment at a weird time outside the rental cycle (first and last month, broker’s fee, security deposit). With the unfortunate exchange rate, that was all the money I had.
All of it.
And that was immediately followed by seven months of sitting around, because my PhD hadn’t been marked yet, unable to start a postdoctoral fellowship I had already been awarded, because I didn’t have a PhD yet, technically.
I filled the time with something useful, of course. I worked on research, I read, I went to the gym, but I couldn’t even do odd jobs — it was illegal. I had a similar experience waiting for my work visa to get filed.
Then, later, my wife wore the same hat getting a work permit authorized through the visa I had for my second postdoc, waiting months for university administration to issue her with spousal status, so she could work. At a job someone really wanted to give her.
Now, recently, waiting for work authorization that comes in advance of my green card has been the same story.
This is the abridged version, leaving out four separate visa renewal trips out of the country and a good deal else that I won’t bore you with.
Suffice to say, we have lost ~36 months worth of salary since 2014 waiting for someone else to fill out or file a form.
(An aside: when describing the above, regular, non-emigrant citizens in the US never have the slightest familiarity with what I’m talking about. These indignities are instantly familiar to even the fanciest of us developed-world middle-class immigrants, but a perpetual surprise to citizens. If they have that little insight, you’ll probably grok why they can’t understand a Honduran lad with three socks and one shoe who’s running from a civil war.)
Anyway. Imagine that had happened, and then coldly consider what it means to get it all definitively resolved and then triple your salary.
I can’t ignore it.
Resistance / lack of options for the work I want to do
Now we’re getting to the big ones.
I research two things: how to get physiological signals out of a human body without breaking either the signal or the body, and how make those signals meaningful; and, only somewhat connected, how to detect inaccurate or impossible science in the published literature
The first topic is very important. It’s ensured that I always have work. I really like it. I remember being fascinated when I stumbled across my first paper on heart rate variability during task administration. I felt like I’d found something important. The shine hasn’t worn off.
The second informs the first, because it involves accuracy of measurement. But as a scientific task on its own, it feels urgent, necessary, and vital. If you let me do anything I want, my first choice for years has been running a small, independent research institute focused entirely on error detection — finding problems within science as a process, and on mitigating them.
There is no such formal or informal body, and we really, really need one. I cannot overemphasize how much bad scientific practice exists, and how much money and time we collectively waste. The best way I have of making that point is finding the stuff which is provably bad, and shining a massive searchlight on it — and that is a data-driven observation, not an opinion.
The work that I’ve done on this topic, in my spare time, from my couch, only rarely wearing pants, has been reported all over the world. It has been consequential. Or, at least, it feels that way. I’ve talked to several philanthropists, entrepreneurs, and assorted independent funders who have turned up in the wake of this publicity, and without exception, they are interested. To interested outsiders, it has the same immediacy that it has to me.
Primary scientific bodies, with very few exceptions, couldn’t give a shit. There are VERY FEW good opportunities to develop this work, ZERO specialty journals to publish it in, and while a lot of people are quite happy that I do the work, they are not going to do it themselves.
That’s all there is to say, really. Science as a culture will allow you to ameliorate problems through formal mechanisms, sort of. The median state of these mechanisms is impossibly slow, opaque, frustrating, and archaic, but they do exist. However, science will not support you in using those mechanisms, it will not call it ‘scientific work’ when you do it, and it will not let you build that work out systemically into a program of research. It is not a task we value in that way.
We have a story we tell ourselves about ‘frank and fearless criticism’ and quite another to developing, funding, supporting, or even paying attention to the criticism that exists.
Interrogating science is instead very firmly nailed into the scientific backdrop as something you do in your spare time. It is not a job, it is an afterthought. It is certainly not respectable.
This, to me, is unhinged. But isn’t my decision, and I can take a hint. I don’t have the patience left to hang around and find out.
All of the above is survivable, and on a good day might be dismissed as kvetching.
A few more years for the right project to hit. A change in attitude. More support.
Honestly, I CAN see it happening on a good day.
Because I’m not profoundly unhappy, I’m just dissatisfied. I don’t hate the people I work with, or my job. I am profoundly frustrated by elements of it — see above — but they’re not day-to-day level concerns. Generally, I wake up and navigate my day with, at a minimum, a grim sense of appreciation that things are not so bad.
But into all of the above, we throw … the Plague.
Universities, everywhere, are very seriously in the shit. A university in full semester is thousands or tens of thousands of people gathering together in small places, then breaking up and rapidly re-gathering into other small places, several times a day.
So, what happens to enrollments in this new plague breeding pen? And what happens to their structural state and federal funding? These never really recovered from the crisis of a decade ago. And what happens to the budgets of the grant schemes which pay indirect costs? And what happens to the cash cow they turned international students into who can’t travel? And what happens to physician payments universities recoup from the doctors in their medical research centers?
The answer is: they all get punched in the face, at the same time, very hard.
And what happens to bloated university administrations when they are forced to make cuts to themselves? The answer is: a bunch of sackcloth and ashes, and honking about ‘maintaining core functions’ with very little salary sacrifice or downsizing — and full hiring freezes for the people who actually teach and research stuff.
Not just total hiring freezes, of course, but less students, less structural support, and even more grant uncertainty than previously, and THESE WERE ALREADY HISTORICALLY BAD. Go into the metascientific literature and find statements on job numbers and grant award lines from 10–15 years ago — people were decrying how stuffed everything was, and they were twice as good as they are now.
I have no idea where or when this horrible train ride will stop, what exceptions are to being a passenger, or what advice to give you if you bought a ticket. But the bald reality is: I’m assuming this has an excellent chance of making the labor market worse, quite a slim chance of leaving it essentially unchanged, and zero chance of making it better.
That’s me being cautious. The worst case scenario, which is entirely possible, is a historical bloodletting in academic research unlike which you have never seen. This shoe will take a few years to drop. A virus is fast, a budget is slow. Right now everyone is still spending the money they have. It’s the ‘getting more of it’ that will become curly, and that’s still yet to fully materialize.
I realise that’s quite a range of predictions, and a lot of very serious uncertainty. But, as might be expected from the above, and like many of you, I am already entirely burned out on uncertainty. Everything— big projects, grants, papers, jobs, opportunities — is all plate-juggling with destiny, all the time.
This is EXACTLY the wrong time in modern history to try to become a professor. We have colossal oversupply of educated labor, trying desperately to differentiate themselves into a system which rewards uniformity, lack of risk, box-ticking, and over-publication. If ‘he who fills out the most applications wins’, then your game is dented.
And, that was before. Then blow up the economy, cut the revenue base, infect all the students, close all the airports, and cancel all the grants, etc.
It’s shit. Would it be that it were otherwise.
Finally: some heroic work has been done on COVID, but it has also produced the most astonishing array of horseshit and crab-bucketing, some of it appropriating the mechanisms of open science without the slightest regard for how they were supposed to be used. The whole thing made me wrathful, and then, just bone-tired and seriously disappointed. This coffin didn’t need an extra nail, but it certainly did get one from The Plague.
I don’t expect you to feel sorry for me, because the cold reality is: I’ll be fine. I’ve always had a back-up plan, one that has been executed and put in place over a series of years. Now I’ve pushed the button on it. Consider this the opposite of hand-wringing, and crying ‘what will I do now?’ to the sky. I planned, I executed.
If I was ever sentimental about a professorship, that was a long time ago. Industries change, so do dreams. Get a new dream. That’s the nice part about imagination — it’s yours. Don’t rent it out to someone else’s stories.
Of course, I regret leaving some things on the table, especially ideas that may never come to fruition. But everyone always has regrets. You don’t get everything you want. So, no jeremiads.
Now, here’s three things you’ll like:
(1) I’m not going to die. I’ll still be here. I may actually have more time to talk. I may be interested in new things. Everything Hertz will be entirely unaffected — in fact, we’ll have a new slant on things. I want to do a few episodes on alt-ac careers, feels like it would be useful right now.
(2) Also, I’m still going to *do* science. I may even *publish* science. I will still have academic collaborations at work, AND my own projects. I’ll probably still go to conferences, if we ever have them again.
(3) I am fresh out of people to impress. I never tried much, but now I don’t have to try at all. I feel like I have the space to be more forthright. So, let’s enjoy that.
I’m just leaving the world that most people who read this will live in, probably forever. Time will tell.
Good luck with keeping the lights on. You’ll need it.
Neither of the following played any part in my thinking whatsoever, and I am including them here after the fact because it is amusing to me to mock them:
- The allegedly left wing excesses and ‘vicious environment of political correctness’ in academia. This is popular to talk about, but to me is coded language for one of three things:
[a]‘I am incapable of navigating difficult conversations about sensitive topics without annoying people, due to either the imprecision of my language and/or my latent ignorance’,
[b] ‘I require an opposition to set my ideas against, and vicious PC culture actually perversely supports my perpetual quest for attention’, or
[c] ‘I am a big fat racist, and I wish it was more convenient to be a racist’.
I find people who continually prosecute this argument extremely boring. I would also note here that while being very fucking un-PC I have somehow managed to navigate this allegedly sensitive environment through the simple process of people knowing what I’m about.
Oh, and if you write to me to express how wrong I am about this, I won’t read it and you don’t matter.
- Personal attacks / ‘chilling’ environments of hyper-critical internet naughtiness in science. This idea was, and has always been, facile crap. The academic slappyfights of the past, in the Time Before HR, far exceed anything that happens on Twitter in their viciousness and persistence. It used to be a lot more common for people to try to destroy each other. The ‘chilling’ environment is a dumb trope that lazy senior academics love because it absolves them the responsibility of understanding and responding to criticism. It does this by painting critics as acting mindlessly or in bad faith. This is both untrue and tiresome.
As above, don’t write me. I’m not interested in your gatekeeping masquerading as sensitivity. Clutch your pearls elsewhere, but before you go, please know the world that science will eventually have to build — maybe not soon, but hopefully in our lifetimes — will run over your empty values. You are a confused faun on the busy motorway of empirical progress, and you’re going to be badly organised pâté soon enough. Sleep well.
I have included this picture of a cat, because (1) Medium articles look terrible if they auto-populate the graphic with nothing, and (2) I think it’s a very pretty cat.