26 May, 2015


I have long searched for an accurate analogy for the life of an "early career academic" (for which one should of course read: "someone too ignorant to get a real job").  The nature of this life is well-documented - articles on the difficulties faces by the new generation attempting to secure a permanent academic position crop up quite frequently in the media.  It's a tough prospect, and one that a number of we tea-drinkers share.

I used to think that the situation for new academics was like unto a Ponzi scheme.  There are a very (very) large number of undergraduate students; our lives do not really touch theirs very much, except for whichever quantity of teaching one has to undertake (and which we are actively encouraged to minimise in favour of research) and for the occasional "final-year research project".

There is a smaller, but still quite large, number of graduate students.  These are those brave souls who have not quite had enough of university life, and think that they can tolerate a bit more edumacation.  These days, many grad students have a career outside university in mind - perhaps the majority, given the state of the media.

Next up the pyramid of what I once considered to be the Ponzi scheme, we have the post-doc.  This is a much smaller population than that of graduate students, and comprises people who are usually fairly serious about staying in their discipline (either in academia or industry).  The post-doc lives a vicarious, often nomadic, lifestyle, moving between fixed-term research contracts.  In the sciences, this usually means working in someone's lab.  It is a stage that I know well!

Next up the pyramid is the permanent academic staff, or what seem to be called "PIs" (principal investigators) by recent standards.  In the UK, this is more-or-less the top of the pyramid, with some internal gradation concerning shades of seniority.  Once you make it into this group, you generally stay there until retirement (financial temptations of the private sector notwithstanding).

(In the US, I understand that there is something analogous, but which involves the tenure process - there might be a substantial split between the number of assistant professors gaming for a smaller number of permanent spots, which would put the "safety" point even further up the pyramid.)

This is the 2002 Smoky LEE from Pu-erh.sk.  I love the capitalisation on LEE, which causes me to bellow the final word to myself, in my mind.

The Ponzi scheme is often used to describe this situation: there is no real value in the system, and it is propped up by one person making good on the situation of a larger number of other people.  Those people, in turn, can make good by having their own number of dupes.  And so it continues.

I bought this for some time, until I concluded that a Ponzi scheme only works if everyone has the opportunity to obtain a set of duped inferiors.  In a real Ponzi scheme, you are selling a nonexistent commodity to a set of people, which they in turn are each selling to others.  However, in the academic pyramid, this latter effect is not possible.  It cannot be considered a Ponzi scheme, because of this lack of flexibility to spread the risk ever wider.

For some time, then, I considered early-career academia to be like unto indentured servitude.

At 53 Eurobucks, this is a decent-value cake.  It has been stored in Guangzhou, and has maocha from Jiangcheng in Simao.  The rustic stems and (of course) bits of Chinese hair really emphasise the lo-fi nature of the cake.

It felt as if one would strive (and strive and strive) and, eventually, one might work up sufficient good karma to be made a freeman, which is to say be promoted to the top of the pyramid.  Put in sufficient effort, and freedom was attainable.

However, this analogy is equally as ill-fitting as that of the Ponzi scheme.  I have seen in those who have gone before me, many times, that there is striving aplenty only never to result in attainment of the ultimate reward.  There is no guarantee that hard work (and perhaps even genius, in some of their cases) would translate into being granted their (academic) freedom as their own independent, permanent researcher.

So, the indentured servitude doesn't cut it, either.

What, then, is the life of the early-career academic like?

It most obvious first impression is (quelle surprise) sweet smoke.  Its purity is remarkable, in that it has no cloudiness at all.  Thick and satisfying, the smokiness diminishes with each infusion, as does the memory of all of that Chinese hair in the maocha.  Perhaps the smokiness is an acquired taste but, as a lover of lapsang souchong, it is a taste that I have acquired.

The title of this article gives you my conclusion: it is none other than the Game of Thrones.

When you play the Game of Thrones, you win, or you die.

And there we have it.  After a certain point, everyone in the game is at least competent.  Incompetence tends to get weeded out earlier on in the process.  By the time you hit the main action of the pre-tenure game, everyone has proven themselves in battle.  Everyone is pretty good at what they do.  Everyone has a campaign or two under their belts.  Everyone has their own code by which they live, their own manner of operation, their own networks of informants and bannermen.

So what is it that makes the difference?  It's a good question.  There is no winning formula, and every early-career path is different.  Some mixture of ability, ruthlessness, patronage, knowing the rules of the game, and sheer willpower is often present.  However, Game of Thrones also teaches us that:

Gold wins wars, not soldiers.

It is a truism that cashmoney really makes the difference in the early stages (and perhaps all stages) of academia.  By this, I mean the sheer quantity of hardcore currency that one's research activity has attracted to date.

This is "Like 7542", and has just been released for 44 Merkeldollars at the Pu-erh.sk web-site.  It has a similar recipe to Menghai's mighty classic, and was stored in Yixing town.

This is not quite so bizarre as it sounds, as depressing at it might be.  Academic work is notoriously hard to "grade" outside one's own narrow field.  What is good research?  It is very difficult even for one's own university to answer that question, let alone ask people from outside.  In the absence of a set of realistic answers to that question, there are a number of proxy quantities: impact factors for journals, the number of citations one's work has attracted, etc.  However, even these vary tremendously from subsubdiscipline to subsubdiscipline.  It really is extremely difficult.  If everyone is at least good, how do you tell who is worth tenure, given that notorious variability in metrics between the tiniest differences in research fields?

Hence, shades of green is one means of determining some sort of proxy.  If a researcher is good, they have probably done good work, and that has probably been recognised by that researcher's peers, and they will have returned good reviews of, for example, academic grant proposals.  I note with some amusement / dissatisfaction that success with big grants tends to be followed by recognition.

Whether or not this is healthy is a different question; whether or not it promotes low-risk research that plays well to reviewers' expectations likewise.  It's not right, but is it OK?

The comic irony of this situation is that in many academic institutions, my own being one of them, one cannot write grant applications until one has achieved a permanent position - and attaining a permanent position is very difficult (arguably impossible) unless one has achieved success in research, by which accumulation of successful research grants is the oft-used proxy.

It is the perfect catch-22.

There is a (very) faint scent of sweetness about the small, dark leaves which certainly look the part of 7542.

Just like the real Game of Thrones, the truth of the situation is that it isn't all this bad.  After all, "if golds wins wars, not soldiers" then how come Robert Baratheon (a soldier) is king, whereas one of the Lannisters (a wealthy noble house) is not?

There are other ways to play the Game, and these vary so substantially that they provide the lack of certainty that exists in early academia.  Some of these actually include excellence in research, which is heartening.

Interestingly, the thick Chinese hair in this tea (there is always thick Chinese hair) is not black - rather, it is entirely white.  I imagine an ancient sage processing this cake, between cigarette breaks.  The flavour (of the tea, not the hair) is warm, and perhaps a touch malted.  It has welcome strength at the back of the throat, and I am pleased to feel that it stimulates the tongue.  This cake feels quite lively, and is noticeably mouth-watering.  Its body is reasonably solid; it tastes like a decent little-factory cake made from quite strong leaves.  There are no points of immensely substantive interest, but the whole is pleasant.

Now I'm not saying that university turns everyone into Machiavelli, but (!) it is instructive to observe the changes that take place between your average human on entering the Game (let's say at graduate student level, to read for a doctoral degree) and leaving.

New grad students are awesome, typically.  When they arrive, they can be rough in manners and tread on everyone's toes with big voices and clumsy natures.  Usually within one or two years, this has changed dramatically.  I see it every year: they become finessed, and it is a change that you can almost see occurring before your very eyes.

The game is playing them.

NOT FOR SALE JUST FOR FUN.  I knew a girl like that once.  This is a 2010 7542, and it came to get down.

How does it end?  It ends the same way it always ends...

The little leaves are surprisingly dark, but then I realise that this 2010 cake was made half a decade ago.  There is the reassuringly fishy scent of bone fide Dayi.  It takes a few infusions to open, but the result is sweet density on top of all that opening fishiness.  The character in the mouth is strong, and it endures particularly well in the throat.  I am as impressed as I am captivated.  It has a sharp, rosewood edge.  It wakes me up, and comforts me.

You win, or you die.

is that pink paint
dripping from the parked car
old cherry blossoms


NorberT said...

as a postdoc, a fan of game of thrones and lover of cheap but proper plantation shengpu, I thoroughly enjoyed this post.
Thanks ;)

hster said...

Dear Hobbes,

I wasn't sure if I should congratulate you or provide words of consolation but in the true spirit of GoT you left us hanging yet again. There are many shades of living- at least you work in a field where grants are available.

Academia in the U.S. sadly is one of the most exploited of professions. To add insult to injury, a family member's college disposed of the tenured track altogether- this after slaving away for more than a decade to climb that pyramid. But to die is not so bad as she quit and moved to Italy.


Hobbes said...

Many thanks, Norbert - a postdoc with a love of Game-of-Thrones and good taidicha is surely the Holy Trinity. :)

Twodog said...

I'm not sure what it says about me that I liked this tea review more than most that i read.

Hobbes said...

Dear Ms. Ster,

I have no particular beef against the US system, but the notion of large classes being taught by post-docs / TAs would definitely not catch on here. :)

As for myself, I deliberately avoid clouding the discussion with my own particulars, which are unhelpfully specific and not readily amenable to generalisation. I guess I am the ultimate insider. I am Lord Varys, with testicles.

I kid you not, I can tell if someone has taken a degree from my university from listening to their accent over the telephone. Sad, but true.



Hobbes said...

The haiku: this was a pretty scene. Masses of pinkness were dripping from a parked car during one springtime. I did a "double take", almost unable to believe my eyes - had someone thrown bright pink paint all over that car?

I rather like the ungrammaticalness [sic] of the haiku in this instance, exploiting the fantastic ambiguity that haiku permit: there could be a question mark at the end of any one of the three lines, and the meaning would change with each. I originally moved the question mark around between lines, mulling which meaning I preferred, but then opted to omit it entirely - and therefore leave open the possibility of all three readings. This ambiguity would ABSOLUTELY INFURIATE me under any other circumstances, but all is fair in love and haiku.

The image that makes the haiga is more of the same blossoms, taken from a season in a past year, in a setting more suited to the peculiarities of this web-site. They are not dripping - but might they...?



Hobbes said...

Mr. The Dog,

I'm not sure which character from Game of Thrones I have you down as. Help me out. :)



Squirrel said...

Dear Hobbes,

Wonderful post. But have you made any prospective randomized double blind studies to prove your point of view? :)

The situation you describe is similar in most academic circles, regardless of specialty, the only difference is the level at which the Game is being played.

Hobbes said...

Dear Squirrel,

How do we configure a randomised controlled trial with no hypothesis? :)

Best wishes,


Squirrel said...

Dear Hobbes,

Easy: Use the conclusion as a hypothesis, wrap it up nicely so no one notices the tautology, get some unpayed overmotivated students to get the raw data, trim the statistics and put your name on it and an "et al." behind it. Present it before publication at *insert name of famous congress here*, get a standing ovation, and publish fast before they notice that there's something wrong.

Works fine in medical research...and makes one wonder how some people hop up the food chain over night.

Back on topic, thank you for the post, it reminded me of some of my not yet tasted samples from .sk

Hobbes said...

Academic cannibalism is a dish best served cold? :)

I heard one of my favourite quotes recently, in a meeting with some hydrogeologists with whom I have an unusual collaboration:

Our models are so much better before we have data.

This is something on which I think we can all agree...