My n-of-one observation of academia
Due to university teach-from-home mandates, I’ve been privy to observe my roommate, who is an engineering professor at a top ranking university.
Since labs are more or less closed, my roommate, who I’ll call Rick, has had negligible need to operate his main laboratory which traditionally took a decent amount of his time to oversee.
Zoom zoom zoom
Daily, from 8am–8pm, including some weekends, Rick is on Zoom with his colleagues and supervisors. These days, Rick is leading the charge in shaping up their department to extinguish racism felt by the college’s under-represented/minority groups, in addition to going through the typical departmental weekly meetings that range on issues from budgets, to faculty hiring.
Rick typically has lost his voice (not metaphorically) by day’s end from all the meetings.
Pen to paper
When Rick isn’t on calls, he’s putting together grants or scientific papers. The process is pretty writing-intensive, and a good amount of editing for clarity is part of this. When grants go out, few come back with a nod, but it seems like it’s a numbers game, where the more fishing poles you have parked over the shore line, the better the chances of catching something.
Collaboration is key to these grants, and this means more Zoom calls to get everyone on the same page.
Rick spends the rest of the day, not doing basic science, but managing email. I think his undergrads are the only ones actually doing science, even though this is the reason Rick went into academia in the first place. Managing email doesn’t have to be explained, but it’s interesting to note that email is the source of a good deal of stress.
(Perhaps it’s the Sisyphean nature of the ‘infinity inbox,’ perhaps it’s the content within the mails themselves, but a typical ‘good’ day for Rick is when he got his ‘inbox under thirty.’)
Sometimes, I’ll pass Rick and he’s just waiting for fresh mail to come in, just to swat it like a fly, like an Air Traffic Controller expertly managing the skies.
Pushing the world forward
Rick has an enormous ambition to make a difference in the world, which is interesting, as I don’t know where he would etch out time to sprinkle in innovating, deep thinking, or discovery with all the busy-ness he has currently. And the red tape just increases the more senior and decorated he gets. (Currently, he’s a vice chair, and has many titles in addition to being associate professor within a wing of a STEM college.)
I’m bearish on academia from my ‘n-of-one’ observation deck. Rick and I have had candid talks about ‘how on earth is progress being made in such settings,’ and we both agree academia is certainly not in a golden age for innovation. This may not be news for some, but for me, it certainly solidified my general sentiment on the potency of how little academia moves our modern world forward.