A couple of recent conversations have got me thinking about the culture of academia and grad school training.
The first conversation relates more to the general culture of academia. The complaint was that these days people are very selfish; they don’t want to participate in departmental events or even come into their office unless there is a very personal benefit they can see. The research groups are little islands and everything is about me, me, me. Young professors and graduate students aren’t thinking about how that can and should contribute to the academic community but rather always focused on what they need to do for themselves and/or their group. Now we can debate about whether or not this is really the state of academia or even if it is true for the particular department that was being complained about but it is an interesting thing to think about. In these days of extreme competition, for grants, positions, paper publications, and on and on, are we becoming too focused on ourselves? Is it really all about me?
This leads me to the second conversation, this time with a graduate student about attending an upcoming conference. I thought it would be a really good venue for the student to get feedback on one aspect of their project and expose them to that sort of research. The conference is local, cheap and even subsidized for students. I was completely surprised when the student said that they had considered it but decided not to go. The reason being that they needed to focus on writing and analyses and the things they were already doing. Now I don’t want to point fingers at this particular student because there might have been other reasons than those told to me. Because I’m not their main advisor I didn’t feel it was my place to force the issue. But I thought it was a poor decision. From what I was hearing the decision seemed to be between focusing on others and learning from them (although there would have been an opportunity to present as well) vs. focusing on your own things. And in the moment I was reminded of the conversation talking about the good ol’ days when people showed up to the department, came to events, etc. So maybe they weren’t so wrong about the current culture after all…
These days I need to say no to some opportunities and can’t go to all the conferences I would like to (I am missing a few great ones this year). My family means that I can’t just think about myself when considering travel and I have a lot more to juggle with work than when I was in grad school as well. But I feel a little sad for this grad student without family obligations that they felt they had to focus so much on their work that sparing a few days to learn was too much. If not now, then when? Time is only going to get more precious.
Are we stressing graduate students so much to focus on their research and publish at the expense of a broader education? I’ve noticed a general unwillingness to be too involved in my own department for certain things, although not all. I might be noticing a difference in grad culture between Sweden and North America, especially where grad school funding is often limited to 4 yrs. When compared to the looser pace of many US schools maybe grad students feel the pressure to focus more here. I’m not sure.
The fact is none of us would get that much writing/analyzing done in the three days of this conference. But by going we’ll broaden our perspective and learn some new things. The connections made at conferences can be invaluable and unexpected. My new collaborations outside of my department are all born of talking to people at meetings/conferences. And even if there are no tangibles like a new collaboration, as a scientist it is never a bad thing to learn something new. I have considered meetings from a selfish point of view: its good to network, promote your work, etc but something about these conversations coming so close together made me also think of the less selfish aspects of doing these things. By going to a conference you are giving a lot of people your time and your attention. Your participation is part of what makes the meeting tick and it also be seen as a gift to others, even though we all get a lot in return as well. And given the willingness of the communities I’m involved in to donate their time to their colleagues, I have some hope that academia isn’t all about me, me, me.
In the course of graduate training, perhaps we need to teach our grad students to say yes as well as no.