Blogging has taught me many interesting things about academic ecosystems other than my own. I have been particularly fascinated to learn about the inner workings of various disciplines, departments, universities, countries, genders..
Every year, I attend quite a few conferences, visit other universities, advise a lot of students, review and edit 57 million manuscripts and proposals, and collaborate with quite a few other scientists on several other continents, but my view of the academic world would nonetheless be quite limited without blog-input and e-mail from readers.
However, much of what I have learned, although fascinating, has been second-order compared to this:
People in the biomedical sciences seem to suffer a lot more than those of us in just about every other STEM field.
My data: 87% of my blog-related e-mail is from unhappy, bitter, troubled, distraught biomed grad students, postdocs, technicians, and early-career faculty. Others write to me with problems, but these tend to be of the "I'm frustrated with my advisor" sort rather than the "I'm being tortured, abused, deported, sued, and I fear my academic career is over" sort that I routinely get from biomed people.
I specify biomedical rather than the life science in general because, as far as I can tell, the ecologists and botanists and ornithologists and whatnot seem to be reasonably content, or, at least, not more stressed out or bitter than your average chemist, physicist, or engineer. No, it's you people doing the important disease-curing research etc. who really seem to have the most difficult academic lives of all.
Of course there are happy biomed people. I can think of at least 2, maybe 3. And I hasten to admit that I don't really understand much of what I read in some of the biomed blogs, especially all the posts focusing on NIH R2D2 grants or whatever. So maybe I don't know what I'm talking about, but the e-mail data nevertheless indicate that something is going on over there in the biomedical departments.
What could explain this phenomenon? Possibilities include:
- My database is flawed, my assumptions are baseless, my conclusions are wrong. Perhaps there are lots of happy biomed people, including biomed bloggers and blog-readers, but the bitter ones make the biggest impression (and write to me more often than the others). The happy ones have no reason to write, and have other hobbies.
- There are more biomed bloggers and blog-readers and this gives the artificial impression that there are more unhappy biomed people.
- Biomed is a total rat race. Postdocs in my field are respected, paid well (+ benefits), and get good jobs, whereas most biomed postdocs seem to be serfs with bleak futures. Biomed people work in large, fractious groups involving people with huge egos stomping on the peons who do the real work. NIH grants are large, but are not large enough, and are difficult to get. And so on.
Of course, those of us who are not curing cancer are glad that others are working on this, but, if biomed is a difficult and unrewarding career path for many who try to pursue it, can anything be done to fix this? Or is it actually a more exhilarating and rewarding career path than one might think from my e-mail inbox and from semi-casual grazing of the biomed blogs?
Obviously, I have no answer to this question, but perhaps some readers would care to comment?