Universities: Expectation versus Reality

A recent Ph.D. from Berkeley named Dragan commented here:

Probably the biggest disappointment of my professional life was realizing that Universities are not very much like what I imagined them to be.

I asked him to elaborate. He replied:

My peers dreamed of being in the sports or movies, of being lawyers, of being rich. Those dreams didn’t seem so great to me. Instead I fantasized about being a scholar and later in life climbed up the educational ladder towards a PhD at a leading research university. The closer I came to becoming a professor — my professional goal in life — the more disappointed I became.

I am somewhat embarrassed to remember this, but I used to say things like: “Universities are places where people can devote themselves to a life of study, investigation, and imagination. In exchange for a home like this, we provide society with ideas. And, of course, we teach.” I guess I thought that there should be a home for people who are capable and devoted to intellectual pursuits, a rather naive notion it seems.

I wanted a place where I would be judged primarily by my intellectual and creative ability. Instead I have been made keenly aware of the importance of networking, of doing favors for the right people, of who to cite, whose criticism to acknowledge and whose to ignore. I used to despise such things, now they’re second nature. The irony, that I now know far more about popularity than I did back in high school. One of the first things I learned is that it is imperative to do research that brings money and/or prestige. In other words: popular research. I didn’t know such a thing existed.

What if I don’t want to do popular research? The most common advice I received during my graduate studies: “Wait till you’re tenured to do that,” always said with good intentions.

Only one person told me: “Do what you believe in. Tenure and accolades will come in time.” I liked this advice more. But the professor who gave it was fully tenured before I was born. Perhaps things were different in his time? I suspect they were. Last year, two retired professors, each from a major research university, assured me that they would never get tenure in this day and age. They took years with their research and published few yet original papers. “You have to wait until tenure nowadays,” they said.

This is not what I thought I’d find. Nor did I expect to find that efficiency and money-making are priorities here. I love what I do, or at least what I want to do. If I could afford to, I’d do it for free. I mean that as an academic, money seems relatively unimportant. Yet universities seem to be run by people who aren’t academics and whose primary interest is making money, rather than fostering research. It occurs to me that these two aims may be in conflict.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that academia is altogether bad. I can honestly say it beats unemployment and the handful of low-wage jobs I had as a teenager. And there are days when all the things I just wrote about seem less important and I focus on my research or my teaching. But other times I think, silly me. If only I was smart enough to get rich in the first place, I could have done anything I wanted to — like pursue research that actually interests me.

As a professor (with tenure) at Berkeley, I was fascinated by how mediocre I was. By the usual metrics, I was in the bottom quarter of the distribution. Yet I had made discoveries that I knew were important — for example, a surprising way to lose weight, a really surprising way to improve mood. Although these discoveries impressed me, they did not impress my colleagues.

22 Replies to “Universities: Expectation versus Reality”

  1. Allow a nit-pick; if you were bottom quartile then by definition you were not mediocre. Unless you were being described by a sports commentator, for whom “mediocre” = “average” = “ordinary” = pretty poor.

  2. Glenn Reynolds, a law professor, has written a good book about the coming “purge” in academia. Up to 50% of our universities will not survive it. Since most people do not belong in college (my opinion), and moreover, can’t afford it these days (also my opinion), other ways to “get educated” and/or develop meaningful skills will be found. Yes, “creative destruction” is coming to academia, and soon.

    The Higher Education Bubble

    I also think tenure is part of the problem, not the solution. It basically protects bad teachers (and some really bad teachers) and gives them a place to hide.

    And, as usual, government involvement has only made the situation worse.

    Yep, that’s my opinion, and I’m sticking to it.

  3. “Glenn Reynolds … has written a good book about the coming “purge” in academia”: a book? It doesn’t need a book. For years I’ve just said “Dissolution of the Monasteries”, which seems to me to sum up the position reasonably well.

  4. P.S. I’m hoping my pension will survive: even the monster Henry VIII pensioned off nearly all the monks, rather than leaving them to starve.

  5. “For years I’ve just said ‘Dissolution of the Monasteries,’ which seems to me to sum up the position reasonably well.”

    Maybe you should have written a book?

  6. What are the usual metrics for a professor? Do they emphasize teaching or research?

    Seth: At Berkeley, research. Number of papers in good journals and top journals, such as Science and Nature, is very important.

  7. Has anyone ever applied “moneyball”-type statistical analysis to tenure-likelihood and grant-getting success? Ie, what are the “sleeper” journals, buzzwords, co-authors, etc.? It seems like much of the data that would be needed is publicly available.

    Whatever the results, the ensuing publicity from publishing that research would itself make someone’s career. 🙂

  8. Joe, you illustrate the problem. If someone writes a book he’s an authority. If someone condenses the essence of a book’s argument into a couple sentences he’s just another guy with an opinion. The demand for impressive windiness is one of the reasons academics remain powerful.

    I keep reading that college is a becoming a bad investment for the bottom x percent, but the culture is such that I think many people would take a long-term income penalty in order to prove they aren’t uneducated. We have a long way to go before this “bubble” pops, or before this system fundamentally changes, esp. with the coming increase in ZMP workers.

  9. It’s not that college is becoming a bad investment for the bottom x percent; it’s that some majors are not good investments, and are becoming financially suicidal as the price tag rises. A degree in engineering or computer science is an excellent investment. But a degree in English, history or anthropology? Fine if you have a trust fund, but if you’re going to college and expecting to support yourself after, you’d be better off using that time and money to start a business. At least that debt can be discharged through bankruptcy.

  10. Jason, college is becoming a bad investment for much of the top x percent, too. The quarter of a million dollars (and up) it takes to get a decent degree (at a decent school) these days could be invested (say, by someone’s parents), and over time that should more than offset any “long-term income penalty.” [The “investor” should have somewhere between 2.5 and 3.0 million dollars after, say, 35 years, with even a modest rate of return.] And possibly even allow the “student” to do something he or she actually wants to do, like create a business, write a killer program, learn a rare skill, invent something, etc. And the culture will change once parents and students realize that, for the vast majority, paying $250,000+ for an education is a bad investment. And the coming increase in ZMP workers only makes the need for change more urgent.

    Academia got greedy. And in the immortal words of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, “the chickens are coming home to roost.” Maybe not this year, or next, but soon…says just another guy with an opinion.

  11. Pardon me, I was thinking in terms of the distribution of IQ, or something very much like IQ. Your distinction is the right one. That said, baristas would rather live a life of debt peonage than admit they can’t hack it in university. Like I said, there’s nothing worse these days than being anything less than smart, and as long as you need a college diploma to be above suspicion young people will remain only too willing to commit financial suicide.

  12. Joe, I don’t disagree with you. We only disagree on how much I think people are willing to spend or give up to have a piece of paper that proves they aren’t ignorant. Intellectual insecurity is rampant. I am utterly bemused by its ubiquity. Until everyone stops worrying how smart other people think they are, especially members of the credentialed class, universities will continue to jack up the price of token diplomas and kids will continue consigning themselves to the poorhouse to protect their egos.

  13. The cheap answer would be to run standard IQ tests for all eighteen year-olds and give them a lapel badge to wear with their score on it. Bingo: no need for silly credentials.

  14. Seth, that last link was interesting to me. I liked this:

    You point out that you never advocated eating bad-tasting food. But even if you had, is expecting people to stick to this any crazier than expecting people to permanently cut calories every day for the rest of their lives?? The normal diet advice figuratively pits people against their own brains and tells them to keep up the fight for (say) 60 years. Oh yeah, and the success rate is near 0%.

    I often tell people who think that we’ve already “cured” obesity (just have a little self-discipline, stop shoveling food down your throat) that I’ve invented a cure for heroin addiction: Stop using heroin! Yet any doctor who proposed this would (correctly) be laughed at.

  15. Sorry, that last comment was supposed to have this excerpt inside the angle bracket:

    The committee went on to criticize my weight-control ideas: “Eating bad-tasting food may lead to sustained weight loss, but only in those
    who have the self-discipline to adhere to such a regimen.” My conclusions were not likely to generalize, in other words, because hardly anyone will have enough self-discipline.

    1. Drinking sugar water was not “eating bad tasting food”. To claim I discovered that “eating bad tasting food” causes weight loss was highly inaccurate.

  16. “Drinking sugar water was not “eating bad tasting food”. To claim I discovered that “eating bad tasting food” causes weight loss was highly inaccurate.”

    Right, I was agreeing with you.

  17. Seth,

    Dr. Seth Roberts, you are a Genius, an individual, an adventurer and a trailblazer. Your unique insights and personal investigations have helped so many people, most of them who are not even known to you. Please continue to be YOU!
    And “don’t let the turkeys bring you down”! Thanks for sharing your great work and personality with us all.

  18. A bit overwrought, but complaining feels good sometimes.

    Coincidentally, the 2012 article Seth linked in his commentary (“did not impress my colleagues”) is very useful in defending oneself from accusations of “introspection.” Can’t praise it enough for that.

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