Although I am no expert in livestock production and food chains, I do recall debates on making abattoirs more humane by ensuring that animals are not aware of their fate. In other words, the poor bovine should not see other fellow animals being slaughtered fearing for their lives in a long and slow-progressing queue towards death. Fair enough.
While travelling to London for a networking event, I was messaging over Slack with a friend, a former PhD student, and casually chatting about a number of things. At his question: ‘how things are going’, I instinctively responded along the line of ‘well, although growing tired of the slaughterhouse that is academia…’. Although I love Academia, I have been also openly critical about it over the years. However, I never defined certain processes of Academia as a ‘slaughterhouse’ before. At the same time, the definition fits so well.
When I was a PhD student, I thought that for those students like me, doing anything else than staying in Academia was a failure. Bovine-me was roaming the green fields of Germany and The Netherlands happily fattening (quite literally in my case). A constant flow of fellow students would join us in ever greener pastures, cohort after cohort, and many others leaving for higher hills never coming back, with a few – barely visible at a distance – growing older at one of the most remote fields. Bovine-friends say, fields where the grass is the sweetest.
When the time came, and the gates opened, we rushed to the next wonderful field. Who did not rush, was simply pushed by the flow of the pack. Despite the dynamic crowdedness of lower fields, bovine-us kept decreasing in number happily walking towards the gates opening towards those greener and sweeter pastures we always fantasized about.
Most of us, fat and strong, perfect bovines, queued for the next gate, happily walking to an even better field, one-by-one, blissfully unaware, a pop, the last memory. Others are still grazing.
Academia depends on the constant flow of students through their classes, and many Universities, no doubt about those I know, do a wonderful job in training them. So many committed people that are dedicated to passing and expanding knowledge down the generations. Academic research depends on a rather large cohort of PhD students and post-doctoral scientists working hard, often paid modestly considering the years of unpaid (or worst debt-causing) training lured into the next job by promises of stability but kept in an unforgiving precariat state. Short-term contracts after short-term contract in a job where long-term vision should be key, we are subject to a constant process of review that in the best case is rigorous and tough, but that can be often also quite random and biased.
This process is largely physiological as the academic system is very competitive. Many collogues also express no concerns about it on the basis that selection has to occur, in a way or another. However, the impact on the mental health of academic workers is now evident, and not just only on students. I believe that a more efficient and fair system would be one that promotes leaving academia early as an active choice, where different career options are promoted, where there is clarity about the likelihood of promotions, and where there is no choice to be made between having a family and having a job.
Just to clarify the last point, once I was in a leadership course. A colleague asked “My husband has a tenured position at Cambridge University and we have a child. I am offered a tenured position elsewhere and I see no opportunity at Cambridge, what should I do?” The reply was: “I guess you have to make a choice between family and career”. As horrible as an answer it was, I should also clarify for those that are not aware of it that for who works in Academia this is not a choice, as if you do not progress on the ladder of academic positions, it is likely one day the gate of Slaughterhouse.ac will open for you – pop.
I hope one day, would I survive or strive in the system, I will have the tools to influence it and change it for the better. For now, I can just write about it, hoping that younger scientists will make more informed decisions than me and most of my colleagues. ■