‘Fenced in’/Photo by Sarah Boon


Sarah Boon
Aug 23, 2013 · 7 min read

(note: includes humanities references )

Science Is Great!

Science is often touted as a grand boundary-pushing, innovative venture that generates reams of great ideas, opening new and previously unexplored areas of inquiry. While this may be true at the theoretical, century-long scale, the day to day reality of academic science is far less dramatic. In the real world, innovation and creativity are constrained by bureaucracy, timidity and good old inertia.

If you’ve watched any of the first three seasons of Weeds – or if you’re a fan of 60s folk music – you’ve likely heard the Malvina Reynolds song Little Boxes.

“And the people in the houses
All went to the university,
Where they were put in boxes
And they came out all the same”

The boundaries of the academic science ‘box’ are defined by a socially accepted set of hierarchies structured around academic rank, discipline, and institution, along with unspoken rules that make a new academic’s head spin. A few of the rules I’ve encountered:

  1. Thou shalt devote thy life (weekends, vacations, etc.) to the ‘calling’ of science.
  2. Time spent speaking with the media or engaging with the public is time wasted.
  3. Thou shalt not question the opinions and ideas of colleagues at higher rank.
  4. Thou shalt be judged by thy number of publications in high impact journals.

However much university administrators love using innovation as a buzzword, in practice they’re not overly keen on it. MOOCs (massive open online courses), for example, aren’t exactly innovative so much as budget-friendly. Admin doesn’t consider the big picture of the role of universities in society, or the value of an undergraduate education to everyday life. Instead they meet budget lines and keep donors happy, while making decisions every day that undermine the university in general — and, by extension, academic science in particular.

At the research level, the increasing shortage of government funding has biased granting agencies toward supporting more established scientists with a track record of solid research. Newcomers and their out-of-left-field ideas are considered too financially risky.

Terran Lane, who wrote about leaving a tenured position in computer science at the University of New Mexico to become a software engineer at Google, got it right when he talked about the narrowing and hyperspecialization of academic science. These days we spend more time tailoring our research to fit specific funding criteria – and completing the required paperwork – than actually doing meaningful work. As a colleague at the University of Montana said: “I got into this research area because I didn’t like people or paperwork, and preferred to spend my time outside doing fieldwork. Now all I do is manage people and do paperwork, and hardly have time to do any fieldwork”.

What Are Our Options?

Discussions and debates across the blogosphere, Twitterverse, oh – and everyday life! – seem to coalesce around three main options for those of us who aim to be science scholars:

  1. Mold ourselves to fit the box
  2. Renovate the box to suit us better.
  3. Burn the box down and move to a shoe.


This approach is epitomized by Lisa McElroy, who achieved a law degree and tenure while also struggling with an anxiety disorder. McElroy’s story is tough to read, as she perseveres despite the debilitating nature of her illness to gain tenure – and from there work to make the system more accommodating to people with mental health issues. What’s telling is that she makes up excuses to cover for her illness, fitting herself into a pre-defined box at great cost to herself in order to achieve success based on external constraints.

To figure out how to better fit yourself into the box, see Karen Kelsky’s The Professor Is In (@ProfessorIsIn). A former academic, Kelsky covers everything you wanted to know – and more – about successful job applications, networking, publishing, what tasks to say no to and what to take on. She’s helped people with everything from securing postdoctoral positions to getting tenure – and people are happy with the results.


One of the more unconventional approaches I’ve seen came up in a recent guest post on the Scientific American blog network. Radhika Nagpal, a professor of Computer Science at Harvard, outlines how she contextualized the tenure track as a seven-year postdoc to suit her better. Different, but it may be what works for you.

Another box renovator is Kate Clancy (@KateClancy), a professor of Anthropology at the University of Illinois. Instead of bowing to the status quo, she’s actively questioning it by designing a research project examining sexual harassment at field research sites, and publicly criticizing the funding situation at the US National Institutes of Health. Clancy also communicates her science prolifically despite the lack of tenure ‘points’ from blogging (Context and Variation, also on the SciAm blog network).

These are just two examples of many. Others that I follow include Terry McGlynn (@hormiga) at California State University Dominguez Hills, an active researcher at what the academic hierarchy considers a ‘teaching’ university, and Raul Pacheco-Vega (@raulpacheco) at the Centre for Economic Research and Teaching (CIDE) in Mexico.

As the number of people in this category grows, I’m hopeful that they may succeed in changing the underlying box structure into something less rigid and more suitable for a range of scholars right off the bat. As Andrea Smith wrote in her essay ‘Life After Tenure Denial’: “It is not enough to survive the oppressive mechanisms of the academic industrial complex, it is important to develop collective strategies to dismantle these devices”.

Burning the Damn Thing Down

This group is gaining more and more converts – many from the generation of PhD scientists who graduated within the last decade. As academic jobs become harder to find, and the academic job experience becomes less what people want in a career, many are burning that box down and striking out on their own.

The most famous example of this movement is Ethan Perlstein (@eperlste), the current media darling for independent science. In one of his recent blog posts, Perlstein suggests that people inside the academy see him as an outlier: an n = 1 situation. But when you look around, there’s no shortage of post-PhD alt-ac scholars.

My favourite Canadian science example is Carla Davidson (@mommiologist), who explained in a guest post on Dynamic Ecology how she went from MSc to PhD to postdoc – and then to reality TV! There’s also the indomitable Miriam Goldstein (@MiriamGoldste), a marine biologist who does a combination of science, outreach and political work, and is currently a Knauss Sea Grant Fellow in the US House of Representatives. Bill Donahue, with a PhD in Environmental Science, followed up his postdoc with a law degree (overachiever, I know…) and is now a consultant and Director of Science and Policy at Alberta’s Water Matters.

For humanities and social science examples, cruise on over to Jennifer Polk’s blog From PhD to Life (@FromPhDtoLife). Check out not only her own profile, but the Q&A’s she features with PhDs outside the academy. Another great example in the humanities is Rebecca Schuman (@pankisseskafka), who’s been stirring up the internet with her irreverent and witty criticisms of the academic status quo.

But Where Does That Leave You?

You just got your PhD — or have had it for a few years now. You’re looking for a postdoc — or have been bouncing between postdocs for the past five years or so. You’ve applied to tenure track positions but never get shortlisted because there are at least 199 other applicants who are just as — or more — qualified than you are. So you’re thinking great, science scholars can be categorized, but how does that help me?

The biggest thing to remember is that only you know which approach works best for you. No one can tell you that one category is better than the others, because that judgement is entirely a function of background, training, personality, and choices. Are you happy conforming to the existing box? Do you have the energy and enthusiasm to renovate the box while also moving your career forward? Or are you most comfortable doing your own thing, outside of these structures?

Schuman hit the nail on the head when she wrote about people being ‘suited’ for academia. No one can tell you whether or not you’re suited for it – only you can decide. And not being suited for it doesn’t mean you’re ‘less than’ or ‘not good enough’, it just means you want to take a different approach.

My sister recently shared an article about Shawn Renee Lent, a dancer who brings her art to community programs and public schools. After she gave a public presentation about her life and work, a dance student asked her: “Did you have any sort of breakdown when you gave up on your dreams?”

This is a classic case of the box defining how people see – and ultimately judge – others. Through the dance program, students were socialized to equate success with a position at a major dance company. In their eyes, Lent’s career trajectory was a failure, or at the very least a major detour. Her response? “I had not given up on my dream; my dream had gotten bigger”. She explains that she brings her training and background as a dancer to everything she does – whether that’s sitting on a Board of Directors or dealing with sick kids.

Lent’s story shows that our situation as academic scientists isn’t unique. As you went through grad school, was the cheese at the end of the maze an academic position? When you couldn’t get one – or decided maybe it wasn’t for you – did those ensconced in the academic box see you as a failure, or think perhaps you were just on the wrong track? Lent’s approach is true for you, too. You’re a scientist by training and background, and you can bring that to whatever you choose to do.

Up next — Part 2: The Winding Path to Door Number Three.

    Sarah Boon

    Written by

    Writer, editor, photographer, scientist. Inhabiting the space between science and story. http://snowhydro1.wordpress.com

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