I recently wrote an article on the kind of supervisors students may encounter in their undergraduate, and graduate studies. In that article, I discussed how sometimes students may be lucky enough to find a supervisor that cares about them. However, other times students have to deal with supervisors who are absent and inconsistent with their feedback. As in that article I didn’t provide any explanation of why supervisors may not answer their students’ emails, I will do it now.
Publish or perish
One of the first courses I had to take when I began my undergraduate studies at Amsterdam University College was called “Academic English”. This course aimed to introduce students to academic writing and more broadly to the sector of academia. In one of the very first classes, our lecturer introduced us to the expression “publish or perish“. Coined in 1942 by sociologist Logan Wilson, this expression is commonly used to refer to the fact that if scholars want to survive in the academic environment, they need to constantly publish new, innovative, cutting edge research.
In many universities, publishing research is a requirement and a key indicator of the performance of university. Similarly, scholars’ academic value is often determined by the number of publications they have. However, it is not just a matter of quantity, as not every publication weights the same. The more prestigious the journal where academics publish their research is, the higher the value of the publication and, therefore, the higher the value of the scholar.
The number of publications and the journals where one publishes have important consequences for scholars as these are important indicators that universities take in to account when appointing tenure or offering post-doctoral positions. The importance of publications in the life of a scholar can be best appreciated when we understand the hierarchical structure of academia and the scarcity of jobs at the top of the hierarchy.
The employment structure of academia is distinctly pyramid shaped […] there are vastly more graduate students working on their Masters and PhDs than there are post-doctoral positions and, similarly, vastly more ‘postdocs’ than full-or even part-time academic positions.Gareth Dyke, 2018
The survival of the… excellent workaholic
A year ago, the Guardian published an article titled “It’s cut-throat’: half of UK academics stressed and 40% thinking of leaving“. In this article, Anna Fazackerley discusses how scholars not only are expected to deal with a culture of “public and perish”, but also a culture of excellence. That article reported statements from Matthew Flinders, professor of politics at Sheffield University, who explained that “academics are working longer and longer, and harder and harder, and they can’t reach that top bar because it keeps moving.”
The life of a scholar is indeed not made just of publications and research. Scholars have to teach, are expected to be in editorial boards of academic journals, present at conferences, organise conferences, participate in panels, and write key note speeches. In the Guardian article cited above, Flinders explained the pressure on scholars not only to be involved in all these initiatives but to perform excellently: “You must show excellence in teaching, in research, in research impact”. Even when, as Fliders emphasizes, “we can’t all be excellent all the time”.
One of the reasons for the pressure to performing excellently lies in the very structure of the academic sector explained above. Many positions at the bottom, very few at the top. It is no surprise than that in a survey conducted in 2020, the Wellcome Trust found that 78% of researchers think that high levels of competition are creating unkind working conditions.
Get visible or vanish
Barton and Merolli (2019) have recently identified a new challenge scholars need to confront in the academia of the 21st century – that of “get visible or vanish“. Barton and Merolli explain that in the past years academics are being increasingly expected to engage with knowledge translation. The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines knowledge translation as
the synthesis, exchange and application of knowledge by relevant stakeholders to accelerate the benefits of global and local innovation in strengthening health systems and improving people’s health
In other words, society expects academics to communicate knowledge to the broader public, instead of talking only among themselves. Barton and Merolli explain that while this expectation has always been present, the advent and the growth of Information, Communication Technologies (ICT) and social media have created the conditions to further push academics to communicate their research findings to the world.
For individual researchers and their associated institutions, we believe a transition from ‘publish or perish’ to ‘get visible or vanish’ is inevitable.Barton & Merolli, 2019
While I am a strong supporter of the view that academia should do more to communicate their research findings to the larger public, as I have discussed here, the pressure to communicate research constitutes an additional burden for scholars. Either scholars get visible on social media platforms, on newspapers, on TV or they might “vanish”. But vanishing may mean failing to secure academic positions, hence, losing jobs.
No surprise your supervisor might not answer emails
Now you might have a better idea of why your supervisor might not be answering emails promptly. He/she might be juggling with many things at the same time, including their mental health and stress. The report published by the Wellcome Trust in 2020 reports that just over half of researchers (53%) have sought, or have wanted to seek, professional help for depression or anxiety.
While I painted a rather negative picture of academia, research is a beautiful, creative and very much needed enterprise. However, it is clear that there is a need to rethink how academia operates and the indicators that are taken to measures scholars’ value if we want to preserve the creativity, credibility and beauty of the academic profession.
Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose. It is a seeking that he who wishes may know the cosmic secrets of the world and they that dwell therein.Zora Neale Hurston