In many countries in Europe, you need to study for 8+ years in order to be ready to become a researcher, a proper academic. Think 3 years bachelor, 2 years master, 3 years PhD.

However, that is the case today.

As research advances and Academia builds on its knowledge, the required prerequisites for being able to understand what's going on and be able to contribute will increase as well. Thus, those 8+ years I mentioned ... they will increase as well.

Soon, it will get to a point where in order to be able to reach a point of being a "proper researcher", you will need to put in 10, 15, 20 years of study. At that point, it will simply not be feasible to become a researcher. People need to earn money, live life. Studying 15 years for a PhD makes zero sense.

So, is Academia a dying field?

Summary: As academics build on their knowledge, they also build on the prerequisites required to be able to become an important contributor. It will soon get to a point where the effort required to meet the prerequisites cannot feasibly be met.

  • Predictions are hard, especially about the future, and I think this is at risk of being closed as "opinion based". That said, you have a lot of unjustified assumptions and oversimplifications here. Improvements in teaching can allow people to learn more material in less time. Also, research tends to become more specialized: 500 years ago, a "proper researcher" could be expected to understand all of known mathematics. Today, that is impossible for any one person, but a "proper researcher" is only expected to understand a sub-subfield, so they can still get to that point in reasonable time. Aug 1, 2018 at 22:26
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    You assume that the study time will increase. What do you base that assumption on (other than your opinion)? Is it a justified extrapolation of the last, say, 50 years? Do you have any data to support that claim?
    – user68958
    Aug 1, 2018 at 22:26
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    Considering how hard it is to get an academic job, no. Aug 1, 2018 at 22:37
  • The 2 years of masters you mention can be combined with PhD for a total of 3 years not 5...
    – Solar Mike
    Aug 1, 2018 at 22:53
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    My education after secondary school took 11 years. I started in the mid 1960's and was full time thereafter through the doctorate. At the time 8 was about the standard and approximate minimum in the US. But not everyone got there in the minimum. You can't account for everything, especially in research. It is what it is for each student.
    – Buffy
    Aug 1, 2018 at 23:01

1 Answer 1


No, what you say is not true. There are a number of factors that prevent required background from building up beyond reason. I can only speak for theoretical physics, but most reasons should hold for other sciences as well.

The first reason is scientific revolution. Periodically there will be dramatic paradigm changes that open up huge new areas of exploration. Even well-established facts become fresh again, as scientists need to explain them anew in the new theory. In the 1800's, celestial mechanics was an intensely mathematical field communicated through thousand-page monographs like Delauney's Théorie du mouvement de la lune. By 1920, it was unclear how to even describe planetary motion at all starting from the Schrodinger equation.

The second reason is technological progress. Staying with the example of celestial mechanics, many ingenious and complex mathematical techniques were invented to reduce problems "to quadratures", i.e. to a set of single integrals whose values could be found in tables. Nowadays almost nobody is taught these techniques, not even astrophysicists, because numerics has largely replaced them. The old methods still work, but they're not easier, so they're not emphasized.

The third reason is experimental invalidation. For instance, through the 1990's and 2000's, many increasingly complicated models of low-energy supersymmetry were devised, in the hopes that they would be confirmed at the LHC. They haven't been, and many of them have been outright ruled out. That's a few hundred papers I don't have to read.

The fourth reason is pedagogical improvement. We still teach students the material in Newton's Principia Mathematica, but the core material of this dense tome, once understood by only a few mathematicians in all of Europe, has been condensed into carefully edited textbooks, and disseminated in blog posts and Youtube videos. In general, 90% of everything, even masterpieces, is cruft that can be condensed away. For example, Newton insisted on using pure Euclidean geometry for many of his proofs, many of which are much shorter in modern calculus (which also now has much better notation!).

The fifth reason is increasing specialization. There once was a time when a physicist was expected to be able to understand just about any paper in physics, and that time was over 100 years ago. These days the Physical Review is not one journal, but over ten. The ArXiv has over 25 categories, with most people not even following all the literature in one. This might have been what you were getting at, but the point is that things have evolved gradually to keep requirements reasonable. Nobody requires a Ph.D student to understand every subfield, because that would indeed take forever.

The sixth reason is hindsight. This is related to the other ones, but distinct. Often research is only hard because there's a haze of confusion hanging around a new topic. The pioneers of quantum mechanics and quantum field theory wrote lots of papers that weren't wrong, but were quite confused. (And that's not to insult them; we are still confused now, just about different things.) They weren't sure about many things we take for granted today, and spent a lot of time checking things that are obvious in the modern formalism. So the energy needed to read one of their papers now is quite a bit less than was required right when it was published.

And the final reason is irrelevance. At the end of the day research is a human activity. If your theories become too complicated for anybody to understand, they just simply won't be read. Research is not a linear thing where everybody takes turns putting a brick on top of the tower; it's a branching tree. If nobody wants to build on your theory, if it's too complicated for the benefits it provides, they'll just do something else. (I will not name examples.) Suffice it to say there are many things working against the 'inevitable' trend you see here.

  • +1, of course. It only seems like forever to a doctoral student. But the time required (in the US) has increased. Part of that, though, is that undergraduates take longer due to funding and other societal pressures.
    – Buffy
    Aug 1, 2018 at 22:50
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    @Buffy Yeah, I think there are several dynamics at work here, plus dependence on the country. It is true that the "shortest path to research" is getting longer, but not nearly as much as the total size of the literature would suggest. Keeping with the tree analogy it's more like $O(\log n)$ or perhaps $O(n^{1/3})$ than $O(n)$.
    – knzhou
    Aug 1, 2018 at 22:54

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