Conditions in traditional academic roles drive researchers to seek alternative ways to conduct research.
Academics, dissatisfied with the prospects available in academia, move onto industry. This has been the case for some time—just over two years ago (forever, in pandemic years), we posted about the correlation between greater higher degree attainment in Australia and globally and greater numbers of higher degree graduates working outside of academia.
That trend hasn’t changed, except to grow stronger in the wake of large-scale cuts to academic positions during the pandemic, with an estimated one in five jobs lost.
But now there’s also the growing perception that traditional academic is not always the environment most conducive to research. Administration-heavy exercises like the ERA with its ever-changing requirements impose an often outwardly-invisible burden upon university, and efforts to streamline administration can result in prioritising administrative convenience over research quality.
This cynical view of traditional academic roles is not limited to Australia. In the USA, more PhDs work in industry than do in higher education in any capacity, and a recent tweet from a Canadian academic resonated with Anglophone researchers across the world.
Unsurprisingly, more serious replies cited research roles outside of traditional academia—research hospitals, industry roles or think tanks—as the most effectual roles for academics who want to do research.
And then there are the researchers who, unable to find or continue in industry roles, choose the precarious life of independent researchers rather than returning to a university environment.
The issue is of course not that highly trained academics deride their research backgrounds or ‘sell out’ to industry for a better paycheque. Despite the byzantine convolutions of the competitive grants landscape, the presence of independent researchers suggests the endless grind of grants applications is not responsible either.
Rather, the answer is this: Too many meetings. Too many emails. Too much administration.
Indeed, administration continues to occupy a disproportionate amount of academics’ time—especially over the past two years of intermittent lockdowns, during which the sudden switch to remote work necessitated increased administrative hours, and the loss of staff meant fewer faculty for the same administrative load.
As academia is perceived more and more to prioritise laborious administrative exercises over research, while the pressure on research outputs at best remains constant, more of our academics are choosing alternatives to traditional academic employment in the pursuit of freedom to research.
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