91

It is my understanding that academia as a nebulous whole has its own culture and speaks its own language that makes it a very different environment to work in compared to other so-called "industry" jobs.

Indeed, my own supervisor once referred to a former student of his as "having a job", meaning that she now works outside of academia. It's clear that for him, like many other academics, academia (or maybe their own particular field of research) is a vocation or calling, rather than a job.

My question, therefore, is this: why, within the culture of academia, is failure seen or felt to be different from failure in another career? What is special about academia that makes missing out on a postdoc or permanent job so different from missing out on any other industry job?

The question that inspired this one: How to deal with unavoidable failure? which asks how to deal with not being selected for a tenure-track job.

  • 72
    "academia [...] is a vocation or calling, rather than a job": An unfortunate belief that in the academic history has made more damage than a nuclear bomb, and the mother of many burnouts among young PhD students. – Massimo Ortolano Apr 22 '18 at 20:56
  • 77
    @MassimoOrtolano Why is this an unfortunate belief? The "professionalisation" perspective of academia has seeped in from the US to Europe after the war and the blessings of it are decidedly mixed: "publish or perish", "grants or grunts", "training" instead of "education", "customers" instead of "students", "scientific output gatekeeping through peer review" and so on. Your cited PhD burnout owes not insignificantly to this, rather than the vocational interpretation of academic jobs. The characterisation as unfortunate belief is not at all well argued. – Captain Emacs Apr 22 '18 at 21:18
  • 33
    I'll introduce a bit of skepticism. Do we actually know that failure in academia is seen or felt to be different to failure in another career? If so how do we know? What was measured? How different were they? – aparente001 Apr 23 '18 at 1:38
  • 11
    To the close-voters: what makes this question more opinion-based than e.g. our highest-voted question about how to deal with discouragement as a grad student? This question may not have a "definite" answer, but it has already attracted helpful and informative answers. – henning Apr 23 '18 at 9:43
  • 25
    @CaptainEmacs The non-professionalization of academia has fostered it's own negatives - a culture that doesn't believe in going home at the end of the day, the resistance to giving PIs any training in management, and, I suspect, a number of the cultural norms that allow abusive PIs to get away with it. But I do know a number of my peers who essentially got off the academic treadmill, and one of the things oft cited were much better working conditions. – Fomite Apr 23 '18 at 21:39

10 Answers 10

76

I think the reason is simply that a lot of people go into academia with the, often unrealistic, goal of becoming a professor. No matter the circumstances, if you don't get to the point where you want to be, well, you can call it a failure, can't you?

This is aggravated by the pyramid structure of academia, where there are fewer positions available for every stage of the career, and most early-career positions are temporary. So you are statistically unlikely to reach your goal in the first place, and if you don't manage to do it during the standard time period, well, going to e.g. industry is your best bet. Outside of academia, on the other hand, if you don't get that managerial promotion or raise this time, maybe there's another chance coming a couple of years down the line. And you can keep working on similar things in the meantime.

So, the 'failure' in industry is likely less permanent, causing less anxiety. On top of that, you have the survivorship bias due to those who got their permanent positions. It affects the academic atmosphere, and can influence what is seen as success and failure. This is also affected by the field: Compare say petroleum engineering and mathematics PhD candidates, and you'll likely see different attitudes about private jobs.

  • 1
    So you are statistically unlikely to reach your goal in the first place - Is this really true? At least in my field, I don't think the picture is so bleak (say for a path from grad school to faculty member), if you're not too specific about goals and you realize some people change goals over time. – Kimball Apr 22 '18 at 23:24
  • 15
    @Kimball I'm sure there are differences between fields, and I'm coming at this from a STEM perspective. My impression is also that a lot of people who change their goal do so in response to the odds, or the realization that industry offers more certain rewards for a reasonable level of effort. – Anyon Apr 23 '18 at 0:18
  • 1
    @SSimon Pure math. Do you have a different experience with applied math? – Kimball Apr 23 '18 at 2:51
  • 9
    ~50% of my field goes on to a tenure-track position, and my field has an unusually high placement rate. "Statistically unlikely" is absolutely the appropriate term. – Fomite Apr 23 '18 at 21:40
  • 3
    @mathreadler Non-tenure track positions, or research scientists in my field tend not to have the ticking clock problem, but they're also not very common, and may be on soft money. Anyway, I'm mainly thinking about people in the postdoc stage, or, more rarely, tenure track professors denied tenure (especially at lower ranked institutions). – Anyon Apr 25 '18 at 21:44
97

Many other careers are not structured around "success" and "failure" in the same way that academia is, and the jobs that are are acknowledged to be high stress. I agree strongly with what Anyon mentions about the pyramid structure of academia, as well as survivorship bias. Jack Aidley also nicely captures the difference that "In most careers you do not 'fail' you simply cease being promoted." Here are a few other ways that the idea of failure is omnipresent in academia. (This is from a U.S. perspective, and I do not know how widely it pertains elsewhere.)

First, success or failure is very personalized and visible in academia. Academics are not very interchangeable: like artists and few other professions, everyone does the job differently and produces creative output. It is often hard to separate yourself from your work (whether being critiqued or praised). Further, on the research side each person is essentially an entrepreneur who is their own publicity, branding, fundraising, management (if there's a lab or students to supervise), R&D, and administrative department. There's a lot of personal investment in this job, and failure cuts deeper into the sense of self than in other jobs.

Second, in other jobs, most people are rarely evaluated by strangers, and often the people evaluating them are invested in their success. Performance evaluations in offices are usually with co-workers and they are often two-way. Managers and HR folks often care about improving the workforce they have, rather than going through the hiring process again. In contrast, the entire tenure process seems designed to give people anxiety (which a professor complained to me about when I was a grad student--he was worried another professor was working against his tenure case). The tenure process is a years-long audition, after which you can be essentially told that you no longer have a job in whatever tiny college town you uprooted yourself to live in. In most industry or government jobs, there's much more flexibility to move between jobs (not just one big annual switch), less stigma about switching jobs, and often lots of small evaluations rather than a few huge hurdles.

Third, academics need to "hustle," constantly seeking new opportunities for funding, research materials, ideas, and labor. Both applying for funding and submitting papers are processes with routine failure built in, and it can be somewhat opaque what is being sought. (Not to mention that the content of research may turn out not to lead anywhere interesting, after all.) However, many jobs don't have such stark success and failure. Annual sales income is a continuous number, or the quality of a project is within a range of acceptability. In many occupations you can gain or lose clients, but usually no one client is crucial. In the industries where grants or contracts are key sources of funding, there are large teams devoted to the project, and often a lot of projects in the pipeline. In contrast, academics are often pretty much alone in their success or failure, and for someone "on the tenure clock," how a particular project turns out--which may have a large random component to it--may change their tenure case substantially.

Fourth, professors are hired not only for what they can do right now, but an entire track record of what they have done and how they are likely to adapt over time in the future. Especially in combination with the large number of people with PhDs competing for a small number of tenure track jobs, this rewards people who have very linear career paths, moving from success to success. Many people worry about deviations from the norm, as well as about failures.

Some of these components are present in other jobs. I mention these other jobs not to compare who has it better, but to point out that things like high-stakes evaluation based on partly random outcomes is not a universal trait of many jobs, while it characterizes investment banking and (I argue) academic research.

  • Investment bankers are often individually held responsible for their performance, a lot of which relies on investment markets, which have a large random component.

  • Writers face a lot of the same problems with submissions and rejections, but writing is very rarely their main job. (That has its own problems...)

  • Salespeople have to deal with a lot of rejection and often work on commission. Their job and their salary are contingent on their success. However, there are low hurdles to switch in and out of sales, and often people can hedge their bets by working part-time at another job. (The precarity that goes with sales and service jobs is also part of what adjunct instructors--aspiring academics--face.)

  • Doctors need to pass a lot of hurdles on the way to their profession, and not getting past a hurdle may mean that one is saddled with lots of debt without a lucrative career. Then, depending on which field of medicine, failure may mean a patient dies or has bad complications. These sorts of consequences have a legal and financial complications, on top of the large emotional toll. Doctors may also have to relocate nationally or internationally if/when they switch jobs.

  • Founders of start-up businesses will have many of the same pressures as professors (the same people must develop and execute ideas while securing funding, with large personal investment). However, failure is a celebrated part of the culture in, say, Silicon Valley, and the potential financial rewards are tremendous. (The restaurant industry also has serial entrepreneurs, though with less potential payoff.)

While each of those jobs mentioned above has a lot of judgment of and consequences around failure, those descriptions hopefully remind you that these extreme conditions around failure are largely NOT present in many other common jobs (service industry, teacher, programmer, manager, IT person, mechanic, engineer, nurse, technician, counselor, administrator, banker, accountant, office clerk, interpreter...).

  • 1
    Other jobs are frequently evaluated by strangers, and people are their own publicist, branding expert and fundraiser. To take the fairly common example of someone who wants to turn a 12 month contract into a permanent job, convincing your direct supervisor that, if they had the budget, they should spend it on you is the easy part. Getting them the information they need to get that budget is the hard part, and it cannot be done without convincing people you don't (or barely) know – Scott Apr 23 '18 at 1:36
  • 11
    "There's a lot of personal investment in this job" I think this is the most important one, as it seems present at all stages of a career in academia. Apart from failure having a larger impact, this also can lead to failing to create healthy work boundaries, which risks burn-outs or other problems. – Discrete lizard Apr 23 '18 at 10:10
  • 6
    Some of this answer ("tenure", "tiny college town", and doctors saddled with a lot of debt) is quite specific to the US (and possibly Canada). – gerrit Apr 23 '18 at 10:43
  • 2
    Really excellent summary of academic life. This should be expanded into a detailed essay and handed out to everyone who is contemplating a life in academia. Or even contemplating a PhD. – Faheem Mitha Apr 23 '18 at 13:09
  • 7
    @user2768 many entrepreneurs who later become successful will have previously have in their past a number of businesses which failed. Often, if it's due to market conditions, etc, this isn't seen as a problem. People even celebrate "lessons learnt" in their previous projects. This just doesn't happen in academia. You are pretty much dropped like a stone at your first substantial failure. There's no "coming out of bankruptcy" in academia: that's it, change career. – Dannie Apr 23 '18 at 16:55
42

I don't think anyone will be able to answer this question for certain. Here's my personal guess.

Many academics have never left academia before. Instead, they've gotten where they are by excelling in the traditional school system. They topped their high school class, their undergraduate class, and then their graduate class. At all stages they saw less-competent (for want of a better word) colleagues drop out and do something else. To fail to become a professor, then, is to acknowledge that one is also "less competent". For people who've always been the best among their peers, this is unacceptable. Hence they feel academic failure is different.

I suspect that people who have left academia before are much less concerned about academic failure. They have already left academia before, and are less afraid of doing it again.

  • @Science12345 Fascinating, I thought mostly this was an unspoken consensus, rather than something actually taught to the newcomers. – sgf Apr 4 at 12:47
  • @sgf fair enough that most of that (professors implying that one is a failure to leave academia, or the assumption that a newcomer grad student will continue to the PhD, postdoc, etc etc) is often implied rather than stated. – Science12345 Apr 16 at 20:37
25

In most careers you do not "fail" you simply cease being promoted.

What makes the academic career structure different is that the middle part of the career is a mire of temporary contracts in which it is usually not possible to stay. I cannot simply carry on being a Postdoc for the next twenty years, whereas in my previous career as a programmer I could have simply continued working at the same level for the rest of my working life. This effect is worsened because academic careers are not only temporary but also usually require mobility so that you lose not only secure employment but also established roots in an area.

Academia is, of course, not alone in this, and some careers - e.g. acting - have even worse career progressions but it is distinct from, I would say, most careers where relative stasis is possible. It is still possible to fail in these careers by being fired, failing to get into them in the first place, etc. but this is different from the narrowing, insecure, structure of academia.

  • 5
    Many military tracks are like this. For example, commissioned officers in the US Navy are generally considered "up or out" tracks. You can spend a few years as a Lt. Officer of the Watch on some destroyer, but if that's all you want to do you will eventually be forced into retirement and replaced with some Lt. who has his eye on the Captain's chair. – Robert Columbia Apr 23 '18 at 15:42
  • But this is the case in academia too! You can stop "advancing" at PhD / post doc level, get a position as research engineer, assistant professor or lecturer in a group and if the full professor and department likes you you can likely stay for the next 20-30 years. – mathreadler Apr 27 '18 at 9:48
  • 1
    It seems then that the Peter Principle doesn't apply to Academia. – henning Apr 29 '18 at 15:30
  • Exactly this: you can't keep doing postdocs forever because a) those contracts are usually temporary and B), and after a while staying a postdoc for too long makes it harder to get a permanent position. So it makes it impossible to "stagnate" at this point of your career. And I don't really see you can stop "advancing" without "failing" - research engineer positions are still often regarded as non-academic ( = "academic failure"), and lecturer is already a permanent position, and a big step up and achievement from PhD / postdoc. – penelope Oct 15 '18 at 13:50
  • Plus, unlike industry, in academia it is very hard if not impossible to "get back to it later". (As somebody who only spent a few months working in industry), my feeling is that it is much simpler to switch focus or topic in industry, acquire new expertise and keep moving between same-(middle)-level positions. As a postdoc ("middle" position between a PhD and a permanent post), if you decide to "do something different" (e.g. go to industry) for a few years, the gap left in your publication record makes it very difficult to restart that career. – penelope Oct 15 '18 at 13:53
14

I suspect that it is not generally true that failure is so different in academia and outside academia and that this depends (at least a little) on the academic system.

Here what I think why failure in the German academic system is different from failing in industry jobs (it is just a little exaggerated):

There are three kinds of jobs in the German academic system:

  1. Jobs that have a specific education as a goal.
  2. Jobs in projects.
  3. Permanent positions.

The jobs in category 1 and 2 are always on a time limited contract. The jobs in category 3 are almost exclusively professorships. If you plan to stay in academia permanently in Germany, you have to get a professorship (with very few exceptions). There is no inherent promotion like there is in many other sectors. No matter how great you are doing as a postdoc, the university will never promote you to a professor (it just can't - there are some rare exceptions, which may look and feel like promotions, but in fact are not).

So, there is a bar and it is set quite high. If you can't jump over it, you'll have to leave eventually.

It would be nice to complement this answer by an answer from a country which has some possibilities of promotion and permanent jobs in academia (as far as I know, France and the UK qualify)…

  • Exists in Sweden too. When I was a PhD student in Sweden, all group members apart from the PhD students were German, seeking a future in Sweden because chances at permanent positions are so much higher there. – gerrit Apr 23 '18 at 13:31
  • The situation in the UK is no better, and Germany benefits from better science funding and better pay for the lower levels (Postdoc pay is considerably higher, for example). – Jack Aidley Apr 23 '18 at 15:25
  • @jackaidley I won't argue with that, but your remark seems off topic here. The question is not about different systems in different countries. – Dirk Apr 23 '18 at 15:44
  • 1
    @Dirk I'm confused, I was replying to your question in the final paragraph. The UK does not have a better system than Germany for this (I did my PhD in the UK and am now doing a postdoc in Germany so I'm familiar with both) – Jack Aidley Apr 23 '18 at 20:19
  • "If you can jump over it, you'll have to leave eventually." I assume that should read "can't". – Faheem Mitha Apr 24 '18 at 5:49
12

I think it is not different than many other careers. A couple, both medical doctors, feeling their son (who wants to be a rock musician) is wasting his life. On the other hand, a talented musician who decides to go to medical school, so the other musicians are all saying, "What a waste!" Many of us tend to think our own profession is the most noble, most gratifying, most valuable. But is that not a form of "prejudice" when we consequently feel that others are somehow less?

Ph.D. advisors should prepare their charges not only for academic careers, but also for other careers. But they may not always do that.

  • 7
    Many of us tend to think our own profession is the most noble, most gratifying, most valuable. Citation needed, I disagree. 37% of British workers think their job is meaningless. Higher in London. Indeed, when I've spoken people who work in insurance or in procurement for a large consultancy company, they usually think my work as a climate scientist (albeit near the bottom of the pyramid with no prospects for a permanent position any time soon) seems a lot more interesting or relevant than their own. – gerrit Apr 23 '18 at 10:51
  • 4
    @gerrit It's true that a lot of jobs, particularly in service type industries, have little intrinsic interest. That's part of what draws people to academia/research. The chance at a life of meaningful work. Often, of course, it doesn't work out that way. – Faheem Mitha Apr 23 '18 at 13:18
  • 1
    @GEdgar Relatively high-powered "professionals" (for lack of a better term), might. Many people don't. I expect they comprise the numerical majority by far. Though, having said that "37% of working British adults say their job is not making a meaningful contribution to the world" seems high to me. That's a strong statement to make about one's own work. – Faheem Mitha Apr 23 '18 at 15:47
  • 3
    PhD advisers can't prepare people for jobs outside academia, and shouldn't. The one thing that you should learn in academia (solving complex problems) is the only real skill that's truly portable outside academia. – user21264 Apr 23 '18 at 19:42
  • 2
    It does not follow from the fact that many PhDs will not work in academia that advisors/programmes/whatever should prepare students for work outside academia, any more than a drama school should be preparing their students to work outside acting, or an accountancy course should teach people to be a footballer. – Jack Aidley Apr 24 '18 at 9:03
8

Because failure is often unrelated to the skills or effort. If it turns out your research question is badly chosen, that a new approach is worse compared to existing ones, if others publish your idea a couple of months ahead of you, if you cannot do the experiment needed because your advisor started a beef with the head of the lab your experiment is conducted in, if you get no more grant money, etc.

Everybody knows that it could happen and do not judge failed academics that harshly. Usually people starting a PhD are smarter than the average.

The way out of failure is also kind of easy: go to industry or take a job in administration.

  • 1
    This is true and it is an important lesson to learn in life. Perseverance in the face of seemingly completely random stressful failures is king. Sooner or later one needs to learn that, (even if not on an academic path). – mathreadler Apr 25 '18 at 19:41
  • I found that there's an interesting discrepancy in the perceived risk of failure for projects: once, someone from the grant/funding agency who acted as external controller on one of our projects told us that this line of grant applications considers proposals only if they judge the risk of failure to be > 80%. Inside academia, failure of project is basically not contemplated... – cbeleites Apr 26 '18 at 16:17
5

There is no difference between failure per-se, but if you fail to get a follow-up position you are basically 'forced' to leave the academic world and find a job in the industry. Many people choose academia for a reason, and thus, switching to an industry job is basically not what they want, but academic jobs are often more rare than industry jobs. No matter why a person prefers the academic world over an industry job, if they have to leave, because they cannot find another academic position this is entails a larger personal change than if you have to switch from industry job to industry job, because you did not get the one industry job, you wanted.

  • 2
    Yes, the one-attempt part of academia is very difficult. Maybe it's like having the opportunity to qualify for the Olympics, where people who might be able to make it don't want to miss out on that rare window of opportunity. (You're right to bring up this aspect of academia, and it's hard to describe or think of any other parallels in other parts of life.) (Then again, in fields where there are "professors of practice" or where people have research jobs at professional schools, there may be more openness to people coming back to academia after working in industry.) – cactus_pardner Apr 24 '18 at 18:55
2

In my field, career success is driven mostly by getting lucky at multiple important points where it is determined if you get promoted or not. These points include:

  • Acceptance to top PhD program
  • Acceptance by a good advisor, where good is defined by having the ability, time, and interest in training and promoting their student
  • Acceptance of early work by conferences or journals
  • Acceptance into a high-status tenure-track position upon completion of the PhD

At each step, a good deal of luck is required to get the promotion.

This means many high ability people get rejected at each step, and many low ability people get promoted at each step.

The reason failure is looked on so harshly by the successful is it allows them to ignore the role of luck in their own success. If failures can be dismissed as low ability, it means all the successful must be high ability.

Academics are generally elitists who believe in and promote the myth of meritocracy. Yet most of them want tenure, which by definition is a rejection of meritocracy.

This is a strong example of the fundamental attribution error and self-serving bias, two types of attribution bias.

1

Failure in academia - as someone who has worked in academia for over 15 years, I can assure you there is no such thing as failure in academia. The way tenure track positions are given to candidates often lacks any metric scheme or logic for that matter. This has nothing to do with publication records or number of citations. In fact, I would go as far as to say that in 90% of all tenure track positions given, it doesn't go to the strongest candidate, but to the one who poses the least threat (in terms of competition) to the folks in the department. No search committee hires a candidate who is making any of them look bad.

Now, at Harvard, ETH, Cambridge, or schools of this calibre, this is likely to be different. Junior Professors there may have been on "watch lists" for a while and their hiring is almost entirely based on "success", and positions there go to top-notch candidates. This is a reason as to why these top schools are where they are. But to all those who scored a tenure track position at a mediocre Uni I have to say: congrats, you were most likely perceived as the least threat to your new colleagues!

Then, I have seen folks making it to be full Professor with a publication record that is easily topped by many "top-dog" postdocs from those better schools. The problem in academia is that once someone reaches tenure, there is usually no way someone can fail. As one comment above said: "in industry you cease to get promoted", unfortunately, in academia, promotion does not cease and there is also no mechanism to reprimand low performance or to hold an academic accountable for anything really (unless for grabbing a student's butt or so).

I fully agree, working outside of academic is like having a 'real job', because there are consequences to your actions, there are promotions and demotions, or redundancy. None of this applies to tenured academics, so it is not like a real job. It is like the rich kid from next door, who can afford to pursue his/her art career with the backing of their parents' cash.

Academia turns a nightmare for most who attempt and a dream for those who managed to get tenured. Its not a calling, its not a job, its like being fortunate to get well paid (often through pubic funds) to pursue a passion.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.