Research: when does it matter?

Does academic research matter?

I’m not a very good historian, but I seem to recall that rresearch as we know it arose out of the German model. It proved invaluable at least in the Second World War. Or did it?

Of course, Tim Berners-Lee owe to academic research some of the ideas that lead to the Web. Some. But not that much, really. Tim Bray is not exactly from academia, is he? Yet, XML changed the world in a deep way.

It seems like academic research is more and more irrelevant… or is it progressively more underfunded, or mismanaged… or just simply totally irrelevant?

Here’s a theory: we’ve come to define success by the number of publications… yet, amazing folks like Tim Bray don’t necessarily go out of their way to submit papers. They listen, they talk, they write within communities and then they publish proposals. They probably hack some software too. So, maybe academic research is becoming irrelevant because we have success wrongly?

Why would the public respect people whose main achievement is a (smallish) number of 10 pages documents they get in books hardly anyboyd ever read.

Overproduction of Ph.D. a myth?

According to Owen, or maybe, according to what I understand from his email, overproduction of Ph.D.s is a myth. Schools can’t get decent Ph.D. holders.

True. Maybe.

Owen has evidence: CRA Stats.

More precisely, according to this table, 60% of CS Ph.D. holders go to a Ph.D. granting university (on a tenure-track or not?), 4% to a non-Ph.D. granting school, and 29% go in industry. A meagre 2% join the government, and 1% and self-employed.

Death of the invisible adjunct

I stumbled on a channel setup by Seb called Topic Exchange: Channel ‘invisible_adjunct’. I was an avid reader of the invisible adjunct. For those that don’t know, the invisible adjunct was one of the many Ph.D. holders who have a decent publication record and are in every way competent scholars, but they still fall through the system and end up beggars at some university. For those of you not familiar with the context, let’s just say that there is tremendous pressure on professors (like myself) to train more and more and more Ph.D. students.

This comes in part from the government which likes to measure universities by numbers: how many Ph.D. does this university produce… and so on…

Now, of course, if all these graduates are unemployed… well who cares? And who’s going to believe you when you say that Ph.D. holders can’t find jobs? Who’s going to pity them? Surely, they can’t find a job because they want to earn $500k a year? Right.

No. Most Ph.D. graduates are lucky to find a post-doc. A post-doc, in Canada, pays around $30k. Sometimes more, sometimes (amazingly) less. I’m not saying that some of them don’t find great jobs. It happens. But it is statistically insignificant.

So, the invisible adjunct is someone who just gave up. She’s not alone.

Some people are smarter and they leave early, like wolfangel… but many don’t.

I particularly like a recent post by Erin.

Here’s a comment which rings very true:

My experience with a Ph.D program was that the myopic focus on only academic skills was very damaging to the students in my program. Academic who have devoted their whole life to study of a particular subject in an educational setting have little understanding of the learning that takes place on the job or as part of living life.

But here’s some advice from a couple of science Ph.D.s :

There is only one reason to get a Ph.D. — because the career path you want to pursue requires it. Do not do it because you think it will make you feel important, because it will do the opposite. Do not do it because “there are a lot of things you could do with it”, because there are plenty of things you can do without it. Do not do it because you think it will be an intellectual adventure, because you’d do much better with a library card.

I think that all students should read and seriously consider such statements before undertaking a Ph.D. I’m not saying a Ph.D. is a bad thing… but, well, read the quotes above!

There is more:

your odds of getting the PhD are smaller than you think, your odds of getting a job are slighter still, and your odds of getting tenure at a place yet smaller, and then all of this happening at a place you would otherwise choose to live? Infinitesimal.

Will there be universities in 20 years?

I have had many interesting debates lately, first with Seb, then with Yuhong Yan, about the future of universities. The debate is interesting to me because I’m back as a professor after spending two years in a government lab. Hence, I’m concerned about the future of universities…

What comes out of my recent discussions:

  • Universities, right now, still survive because they are political beasts. Most (canadian) universties would have to close down if the government killed its support.
  • (Canadian) governments have less, and less money to put in education. Thus, it is unrealistic to see more money going to universities.

Now, by itself, this only means that I expect universities not to gain any funding in the coming years… However, one can worry about a few things…

  • Progressively, the value of a degree has gone down. I think it has gone down in quality and also in value on the job market.
  • New graduates face a tougher and tougher job market.

What will happen next? Will universities thrive because students will need badly more and more degrees? Or will the race come to a stop… and new forms of training will arise?

Here’s a theory… universities did well before Gutenberg because books were so incredibly valuable and so, any community which had books was well off. Then Gutenberg came about. Well, books were still very expensive, so universities still did well because they allowed students to attend lectures and take notes.

Then, books became cheaper and cheaper. Knowledge became easier to get to without teachers. I’d say this happened some time ago. Maybe at the beginning of the century…

Why did universities survive past this point? I think because they offered communities. Young, smart people could come together and ideas would just be transmitted like diseases. It was far more efficient than, say, using mail. Universities provide the people and the proximity.

I’d say, most universities still provide this… and they suggest books…

However, to a large extend, so does the Internet. Well, not quite.. email, for example, is not as efficient as meeting face to face…

So, I think we need broadband. Real broadband, without technical glitches. Then, at this point, I predict that universities will be obselete.

When is that? 5 or 10 or 15 years.

What do you think? Will there be strong, thriving universities in 20 years?

Update: Critical Learning suggests that universities as gateway to knowledge can’t compete against the Internet, but the Internet doesn’t provide authentification for the knowledge we acquire. The Internet doesn’t, by itself, grant degrees. So, I ask, are universities the best form of institutions to authenticate knowledge? Is that what it comes down to?