16

My professor that I've worked for, and other professors that I've met in undergrad, often complain about how it is "publish or death" situation in their department. Specifically, they have told me that they feel like they are under heavy pressure to publish, often having to work for late nights and weekends. It's somewhat ironic because they thought that life would get much easier once they finish PhD and perhaps get a tenure, which is exactly what I'm thinking now.

However, they told me that they are often over-worked and burnt out as well, just like many other PhD students. It might be worst because for many of them, it's been a long marathon, working day and night to obtain PhD, just to compete with many outstanding candidates fighting for limited positions in universities, and if they have successfully secured the job, to work insanely to impress other colleagues and get tenured.

Even for tenured professors, while they won't be fired for not publishing, they have told me that they are often looked down upon if they don't publish many papers in good journals, especially since they are now 'senior researcher' in the department. While these are purely anecdotal with very limited sample, I feel that there might be some truth in their complaints.

My question is: Is it common for professors in university to be under such high pressure and constant competition? Why do people want to go into academia if they are under such stress?

I personally would not want to go into academia, if I know that for the rest of my career, I'd be under constant pressure to outperform others and publish as many papers as possible in the best journals. I may be naive, but I feel that workload in academia easily exceeds that of industry job with fixed 9-5 hours, and I doubt many industry jobs have such fierce competition among the 'best of the best'.

I'm aware that this may be field-dependent, so I'm interested to hear from people's experiences in many fields. I'm currently in US, but I want to hear from experiences in other countries if they have different cultures.

  • 1
    For a lot of fields all the people in the lab depend on the PI continually getting funding. A revise and resubmit on an article is an inconvenience, a revise and resubmit on a grant with a pay line of 10% can mean people do not eat. – StrongBad Mar 20 '17 at 16:22
  • 9
    life would get much easier once they finish PhD — nope. – gerrit Mar 20 '17 at 16:32
  • 3
    @xLeitix I agree that most jobs require competition to a healthy degree. However, while I may be naive, I feel that degree of competition and resulting workload in academia easily surpass that of industry jobs, and the sense that I get from my professors' stories is that such competition/stress in academia is no longer healthy. – Hosea Mar 20 '17 at 17:18
  • 4
    @Hosea I have a number of friends who have fairly high-level jobs in industry, and I can assure you that their workload is surely not inferior to that of anyone I know of in academia. Or as a recommendation for a friend of mine who is an industry manager says: "available 24/7". – Massimo Ortolano Mar 20 '17 at 18:27
  • 1
    That's pretty much my situation. Universities are now in competition with one another for prestige, and by extension students and funding. In turn, they need staff to perform. For a lot of people, it's no longer about the pursuit of science for science sake. Consequently, I no longer advise my students to go into academia. – Prof. Santa Claus Mar 20 '17 at 19:14
11

I'll tell you my experience in pure mathematics. Some departments (usually the more elite ones) are more competitive than others, and some fields are more competitive than others. While your field and environment certainly play a large role in how much pressure you feel, the amount of pressure you feel is also largely determined by your attitude toward your work.

I think my department is very friendly and uncompetitive, though I go through phases of feeling more pressure or less pressure, but these are mainly internal pressures, e.g. I want to get this paper finished by this time for some arbitrary self-imposed reason, but I don't feel like there's some result I have to get. My attitude now is I just think about certain things and try to understand them. Maybe a paper comes out of this, and it may or may not be what I was hoping to do.

When I was a grad student, and a postdoc, I noticed some people were more harder working than me, and would get better results, but I didn't want to work 14 hour days every day. And I figure I'd just work how I want to, and then the type of school that's willing to hire me given my output at the time will be happy with me working how much I want. Indeed, I did not feel any pressure before getting tenure or afterwards. While during some periods I do work long hours, typically I work 40-50 hours/week, am not too stressed, and have the freedom to work on what I want to.

Generally, people stay in academia because they like what they do, though there are unpleasant parts of the job (refereeing, grading, certain committee work, etc), and certain times of the year are more hectic than others. Typically as you get more senior, more gets asked of you (though you don't need to always say yes), but this is probably true for most industry jobs as well. In industry, a lot of deadlines are harder than in academia, and a lot of people get stressed out and overworked in those jobs too.

14

There is always pressure to succeed in life, and further, people who get prestigious jobs are often those who are self-motivated to do exceedingly well. I've also noticed athletes who cannot have "fun" playing softball or whatnot because they are so upset when they or their teammates play badly. Unfortunately, these are the types of people who often win in competitive situations.

There are enormous differences between departments both within and across institutions. Believe me, even one crop of PhD students or a year of undergraduates can make things more or less pressured, let alone university or department executives.

Why do people become academics? Two reasons: because they love what they do, or because they feel like they can't do anything else. The latter is nuts. If you do not love what you are doing, get out now. Anyone who can make it to a PhD let alone to faculty can get a good job in industry. But academia really is about getting to spend at least some of your time pursuing and talking about things that really truly interest you, and might change the world.

  • 4
    I doubt this is true "... can get a good job in industry'. I am only good for generating papers, and not the $ kind. – Prof. Santa Claus Mar 20 '17 at 19:53
  • 1
    As a postdoc that has been actively searching jobs pretty much everywhere I could reasonably apply, I can confirm that things are not easy at the moment! (Computer/Data sciences, fyi). But then again, apparently I'm nowhere near tenure, so maybe flipping burgers will be my future :) – Fábio Dias Mar 21 '17 at 0:33
  • 1
    I'm serious, any academic has decent analytic, writing, and people skills; you can do better than flip burgers even if you never get grants. – Joanna Bryson Mar 21 '17 at 21:34
  • 1
    While I like your answer and voted on it, I felt that Kimball's answer was closer to what I've wanted. Thank you for your insight! – Hosea Mar 22 '17 at 13:17

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.