Thursday, December 3, 2015

PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: 10 Reasons why I love Academia

This post is part of the series PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: posts written for the Dutch academic career network AcademicTransfer, your go-to resource for all research positions in the Netherlands.

These posts are sponsored by AcademicTransfer, and tailored to those of you interested in pursuing a research position in the Netherlands.

If these posts raise your interest in working as a researcher in the Netherlands, even better - and feel free to fire away any questions you might have on this topic!


If you read some academic blogs and Twitter, you might think that the life of an academic is miserable. Tons of stress, tight competition, never-ending funding cuts - we all know the drill.

But in spite of the difficult moments, I think academics should sometimes complain a little less, and be more aware of their privileged position. Because, at the end of the day, a career in academia is different from a career in the industry. And the advantages of academia are important to recognize as well.

To celebrate the special position academics have in this world, and the benefits this brings to ourselves and our lives, I have compiled a list of ten reasons why I love academia:

1. You work on things you deeply care about

Unless somebody or some strange force pushed you through your PhD, you probably care deeply about your research and your field. While in most other places you might be working on your topic of interest for only a limited amount of time, in academia, you can devote all your research time to fleshing out problems related to your interest.

2. Freedom to set your own schedule
In companies with strict working hours, you need to ask permission to leave and take your cat or child or yourself to the doctor. If you are an academic, you can simply go and do what you need to take care of, and catch up with work on a later moment. If you are lucky, you can also indicate which hours you prefer for teaching. I, for example, prefer to teach in the afternoon, and reserve my mornings for research and writing. At times, I work from home, from my university office or from a café - I don't owe anyone an explanation about where I am and what I am doing, as long as my output remains high.

3. Freedom to determine your own research lines
Only in administrative terms you have a boss to listen to. When it comes to decide how you fill in your time and what you focus on, you are completely to yourself. While that might sounds a bit scary, especially for PhD students transitioning to independent scholars, it is both a blessing and a large responsibility. What I dreaded most about working odd jobs as a student, was having to follow orders of a Boss, and always having to go and ask a superior "what do I need to do now?". Think of the luxury you have in academia where you can set your own lines of research.

4. Summer holidays
Unless you teach over the summer, the summer semester is all up to yourself to fill it in as you please. In most cases, that does not mean that you are lying by the pool and getting a tan, but you have the possibility to spend time at another lab, to write a book chapter or work on another major project. And since major projects come with major results, you typically will feel major satisfaction as well. Even though I fly out to The Netherlands right after taking final exams to dive into research there, which is rather tiring, I am glad I have this arrangement and can spend my entire summer on research.

5. Conference travel
While most conferences mean you are in a hotel somewhere from 8am in the morning until 10pm at night, you often are able to find a few hours to leave the conference and learn something about the city where your conference is held. And even if your schedule is so packed that you can't see anything of the city (happens to me more and more), you still will enjoy the fact that you are out of your regular environment for a moment and get to talk to people in your field, and listen to their presentations.

6. Mentor your students
Another source of satisfaction in academia, not from research, comes from identifying exceptional students and mentoring them. You can help them in their orientation for graduate school, help them find financial support for their future studies and write their letters of recommendation. If their work is good enough, you can also encourage them to submit and abstract and then write a paper together for a conference. Instigating a bit of the joy and pleasures of academia into my students, and seeing them take off into the world, is something I take deep pride in.

7. Change the world for the better

Unless you are involved with some evil research scheme to destroy the world, we can safely say that your research is likely to change to world for the better - even though the change might be very small. If you see the broader scope of things, the change might be small, but in your field, the change might be significant. And overall, each little push to make this world a better place is worth the effort.

8. You work with special people
Academia brings special people together - and I've often felt very privileged to work under the guidance and supervision of famous professors. Not their fame itself is so special - but usually spending 20 minutes talking with them, will fill your brain with fresh ideas and enthuse you to tackle your research problems with new energy. But not only the senior professors count as the "special people" - some devoted students will pour a lot of their heart and soul into their work, and will make you see certain topics in a new light.

9. Most campuses are pleasant work environments

Labs, restaurants, parks, bars, small shops - most campuses nowadays are self-contained little towns. Working there, and being able to come out during lunchtime and grab some food or sit in the park, is often quite pleasant. Moreover, the energy and vibe of students is mostly positive (only during exams, sometimes you can feel a wave of tension ripple through campus). Often, university campuses are also a center of social movements and action, and a genuinely inspiring environment.

10. You can develop yourself and your interests
A life in academia is the very opposite of a mind-numbing conveyor-belt type of job. You can learn new things whenever you feel like. Sometimes you have to learn something new when you have to teach a course that you took yourself too long ago (or maybe even never). Sometimes you will feel the need to learn a new skill, such as a new programming language. You will also keep learning about your field as you read the recent publications. All in all, you are in for a life of study and enrichment.

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