Academia as a cookie monster

Academia as a cookie monster

Today’s academia is more competitive than ever before, especially for early career researchers (ECRs) who want to secure the current or next stage of their careers. This rivalry is understood before starting graduate school by many young researchers due to the supply and demand balance for the academic positions. However, there are also some concerns over the well-beings of ECRs. I think we need to talk more about the reasons why this happens and how to build the most effective system to overcome the problem.

Many ECRs are negatively influenced by the competitive environment because there is a culture built on the high standards to be a “good scientist”. I think the “publish or perish” paradigm is one of these crucial norms which could transform these high standards into unrealistic and perfectionist goals for ECRs in time. For this reason, young minds become stressed. For instance, many of my peers and I find ourselves talking to each other on how we unknowingly become depressed or anxious to meet the quantitative standards of academia. In fact, the results of a study by Evans et. al (2018) confirms these subjective experiences. A great number of graduate students in academia show the symptoms of some serious mental illnesses. So, frankly, I can easily say that it is much more difficult for me to pursue an academic career than it was to start it. I often fall into ruminative thoughts and criticize myself.

To see more clearly the results of the "publish or perish" culture in academia, let's give an example: If you want to be a strong candidate, who recently finished his/her Ph.D., for an academic position in an average university in Turkey, it is expected from you to have at least ten articles published. Having such a publication record may be easy if one gets their hands dirty in a garden of forking paths where one can get lost in the pursuit of significance. In fact, even then is it tough to get such a score for an ECR in relatively such a short period of time. 

Another negative aspect of “publish or perish” for ECRs is the implicit pressure coming from the advisors or affiliated institutions. Many university administrations solely count your publication record for recruitment or promotion. Besides, many advisors also encourage grad students to produce more papers by ignoring the quality of the papers. Because the more paper they publish, the more support they get from the institution or the funders.

Philosopher Plato

In sum, I think the academia driven by “the publish or perish” mindset is in a vicious circle and its consequences will harm young researchers in the long-term. In this regard, the academy metaphorically seems to me as the Cookie Monster in the famous TV show Sesame Street. In the show, the monster was loved by the society but it had some problems like eating so many little cookies as well. I do admire the Cookie Monster. However, I personally do not want to be crushed as a cookie in the mouth of the Cookie Monster - the academia. So, I would like to remind myself about the origin of the term “Academe”. The antic roots of the “Academy” stem from the olive groves of Academe, one of the first schools in the ancient history, where young people freely express their ideas and engage in dialogue with their master, Plato, and produce intellectual knowledge on the subjects like geometry, math or politics, etc. Inspiring again from the Plato’s school, in an ideal system, I think it is necessary to create an academic culture in which both qualitative and quantitative outputs are regarded alike; in which the framework and the limits of the relationship between student-advisor are more clearly defined; and in which the hardship we encounter in the process can be shared openly with peers and seniors.