Friday, October 23, 2015

Is academia really just a huge competition?

Another question that really made me think was posed last night on the Academia site of StackExchange, and once again I'd like to share my answer with you, my dear readers.

The question was simple in its essense, yet deep and rather challenging:
Is academia really just a huge competition?
I started writing an answer several times before I finally ended up with a direction that I could really believe in what I was saying.  The result was this statement, that I think reflects some difficult passages of my own over the years, back and forth along the tension between cooperation and competition:
You've asked a question that is both very important and very difficult, as well as one that is likely to draw different answers from different people depending on their own experiences in academia. 
This is because there are both competitive and cooperative aspects to academia. Different people take different strategies with respect to the balance between these two, and that affects their communities as well, so that the mixture of competition and cooperation that you encounter will also radically differ between different academic communities. 
Some of the key factors for inducing cooperation are: 
  • Science is hard.
  • Working together, people can accomplish things that they cannot possibly accomplish alone.
  • Cooperation in a team gives you an advantage when competing with other teams.
  • Many people enjoy working together in teams, and this is just as true for science as it is for any other human endeavor.
  • Scientific discovery feels awesome and it can be really fun to share that feeling with other people.
Some of the key factors for inducing competition are: 
  • Inherent conflict of ideas: when theories compete, people often become polarized and begin competing based on the "team" they support intellectually.
  • Limited resources: you've got a good idea, but a lot of other people have good ideas too, and there is not enough funding to support all of them fully: some people will not get what they want. Likewise, the Hubble space telescope can only point at one thing at a time, and there are a lot more things people want to point at than time to point at them.
  • Explicit competition set up by external agencies. For example, DARPA will sometimes make scientists in the same program compete with one another, and the loser gets their funding cut off.
  • Many people are just plain competitive, and want to "win" over other people in various different ways, and this is just as true for science as it is for any other human endeavor.
Bottom line: just like everything else, academia can be a competition, and everyone faces some aspects of a competition. But it's not just a competition, and I feel sad for anyone who experiences it in that manner. 
Post a Comment