My Goals for Independent Scholarship

This was posted at Lost in Transcription originally on August 22, 2011.

So, I’ve already received a number of very thoughtful responses to my previous post, in which I asked for people’s thoughts about the needs of an independent scholar — particularly those needs that could potentially be filled by an outfit like the Ronin Institute. I’ll start sharing those ideas (along with my own thoughts about what is doable) in a couple of days.

In the meantime, I thought that I would share my own goals in starting my own institute. Basically, it is about escaping the constraints of the (university) academic system. Now, that sounds a bit odd when you say it. After all, as far as jobs-with-a-paycheck go, academia provides you with more freedom than most things, in that you have control over both what you do and when you do it.

At least that’s what we all tell each other in grad school.

This recent entry from PhD Comics better sums up the reality on the ground:

The fact is, what you work on as an academic is highly constrained by a number of factors, like what is publishable or fundable. To a certain extent, that is as it should be. You need incentives that encourage people to do high-quality, relevant work. After all, at the end of the day, through whatever mechanism, it is the rest of society that is paying for us to live and eat while we are doing our research.

You may be absolutely fascinated by Heidegger’s early correspondence, and it may well be a worthy subject of the book you’re writing, but it is not unreasonable for society to devote more of its resources to, say, HIV.

The real problem, as I see it, is not the existence of market-style incentives, nor the overall distribution of those incentives, but the way that those incentives are implemented through the bureaucracies of funding agencies and universities.

One key issue is the way that the incentives are channeled through the departmental structure. I think of this in terms of a story that a colleague of mine tells about giving a seminar in a physics department. At the end of the talk, the first comment from the audience was, “That’s really interesting, but it’s not physics.”

(Note that the only appropriate response to such a comment is, “Thank you, and, who the fuck cares?”)

Of course, this problem is not at all limited to physics. Most researchers have, at one time or another, stumbled across an interesting question or collaboration, but have not pursued it the way they might have out of a concern that the work would not be recognized by their department. In many cases, they fear that having an outside interest will actually count against them. This is a widely-acknowledged problem in academia, and is often the motivation for establishing interdisciplinary centers and trans-departmental programs. However, these centers and programs tend to have specific missions, which come with their own constraints and dogmas. And anyway, any academic structure will only be as openminded as the people running it.

The other constraint relates to publication, which is the currency of cultural capital within almost all academic fields. Again, nothing wrong, in principle with requiring people to publish their work, and to have that work scrutinized by their peers. But what about those insights and ideas that don’t lend themselves to whatever the standard publication format is in a particular field? I think that most researchers have also, at one time or another, done an interesting little piece of work that they would like to share, but which is, say, too small to justify a full research paper, or, in some fields, a book. Projects like these may lie dormant on your hard drive for years before finding an outlet, if ever.

My personal situation is exacerbated by the fact that my interests are abnormally diverse. I remember in graduate school, when a lot of people seemed to think that I was some sort of crazy rebel for doing work on two different kinds of theoretical evolutionary biology.

Yes, two different kinds of theoretical evolutionary biology.

In fact, I have interests in neuroscience and behavioral economics, population genetics, game theory, systems biology, philosophy, and linguistics. Beyond that, I write poetry, and this spring I started a webcomic. Finally, I am a husband and a father, both of which I view as deeply more important than any of my academic interests.

There are people who can pull off being a successful university professor while not ignoring their families. There are also professors who manage to pursue some sort of extracurricular interest.

But unless you’re one of those people who only has to sleep like four hours a day, it is nearly impossible to satisfy your department while working across multiple fields, actively pursuing multiple outside interests, and going home at a reasonable hour

I finally figured out that I was not willing to walk away from any of my other interests, and that I would have to walk away from at least some of them in order to fulfill my obligations to even the most forgiving and open-minded department.

Basically, what I want to do is live a normal, balanced life, and to spend something like 50 or 60 percent of my work time doing things that would be generally recognized as scientific research. Of that “research” bit, only a fraction would fit comfortably within any given department.

The problem is that what I want does not really mesh with the expectations that are placed on you (both institutionally and culturally) within academia.

I am reminded of something that happened way back when I was a biochemistry grad student at the University of Wisconsin. The department organized a sort of career day, where they had people come and talk to us about different career paths. Among others, there were people who were PIs at the university, people working for biotech companies, someone working in forensics, and one guy who was teaching at a small undergraduate college.

The undergraduate teacher explained that the era of the nine-month-a-year academic was over, even at small colleges, as even the smallest colleges now expect you to develop research programs that can involve undergrads and actively pursue grants. However, he said that it did lend itself to living a more balanced life compared with being a PI with a big lab at a major research university.

Then he said this:

“You know, I don’t think anyone has ever been lying on their deathbed and said, ‘Boy, I wish I had published just one more paper.'”

The room suddenly filled with tension, and the organizers quickly hustled him off and introduced the next speaker.

Grad school is about a lot of things: learning a body of knowledge, learning how to perform independent research, etc. But more than all of that, grad school is about being imbued with a set of academic values. This guy, by saying something that is, with just the tiniest bit of perspective, undeniably true, had violated the code. He had undermined the part of our training that was about internalizing the notion that finishing the next experiment / writing the next paper / getting the next grant was more important than anything else going on in our lives.

I suspect that he was not invited back the next year, but his comment has stuck with me. (I’m sorry I can’t recall either his name or school.) I think most of us start of in grad school because we love whatever it is that we’re studying, but then we tend to get caught up in chasing all of the proximate goals (publication, tenure, society membership) that define the academic incentive structure, and many academics lose sight of the fact that there was ever something that excited them so much that they wanted to spend their life studying.

So, that’s my goal. I want to keep my eye on the thing that drew me to academia in the first place. I want to spend my time trying to say things that I believe to be true, recognizing that some truths lend themselves to being expressed as mathematical equations, some as poems, some as comics, and some as rambling blog posts about founding an institute devoted to supporting independent scholarship.

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