uch of our daily lives as students are spent attending classes or getting lost inside textbooks in overcrowded libraries. Yet, there is a whole other world, hidden from the public eye, inside those tall campus buildings. It is a world of curious, intelligent people spending their days asking questions, constantly challenging themselves and trying to expand the borders of human knowledge. It is a world of science — what we call, in all of its glory, “academia.”
As a molecular and cell biology student, I am a part of this world: doing research in a laboratory, shadowing graduate and postdoctoral students, finding hope and inspiration in the rich world of science here on campus. My experience as an undergraduate researcher has been incredibly rewarding, yet often equally confusing.
As I enter the final year of my undergraduate studies, my mind is swamped with questions about my future career as a biologist.
I am not alone.
As I enter the final year of my undergraduate studies, my mind is swamped with questions about my future career as a biologist. I am not alone.
For graduating students who aspire to become researchers, a choice awaits: where to do research. With countless biotechnology companies and startups all around the country, many people may choose to get an industry job and start working right away. Others, however, consider staying in academia — for that, graduate school is a must.
Earning a Ph.D is a long and challenging process, so deciding to pursue it feels like a huge step — one that is quite scary for someone who, like me, is not entirely sure what they want to do. Making an educated decision is difficult. How does one know if academia is the right fit for them, considering most undergraduates have limited exposure to full-time lab work?
Trying to navigate these questions, I talked to some people who were each at different stages in their academic careers and asked them what they felt was often left unsaid about academia. Though each had a unique experience to share, some common themes emerged, revealing to me the world of academia in a brand new light.
In an academic lab, which is often affiliated with a university, there is a diverse range of researchers — graduate and undergraduate students, postdoctoral fellows, research assistants — working on their individual projects, all related to the main research focus of the lab. Leading and advising them is a faculty member, called the principal investigator, who is responsible for running the lab and often holds other responsibilities such as teaching classes at the university.
For every stage of academia, whether it is graduate school, postdoctoral study or running your own lab, one of the biggest goals is the same: publishing papers. Publication is essential to the progression of science, since it serves as a means of discourse between scientists working on similar topics. A large part of a researcher’s job is to read published papers related to their research, staying up to date with the most recent findings in the field and trying to find ways to incorporate those results into their work.
As a scientist, publishing papers in high-impact journals such as Nature, Science or Cell improves both your personal reputation and your lab’s reputation in the scientific community. Perhaps more importantly, it helps you get more grants. The more you publish, the more you prove yourself as a scientist, and the more support and funding your lab is likely to get.
Grants, in academia, are everything. Without an adequate number of grants coming in, principal investigators don’t have enough money to buy the lab supplies they need, to pay the salaries of the researchers in their lab and, essentially, to keep doing research.
Abby Dernburg, a campus cell biology professor who has been teaching for 21 years, talked to me about the importance of grants. “Funding is painful,” she explained. “You’re always wondering how the next grant is going to come in, how you’re going to cover the cost of paying the people in your lab. That’s a burden that you don’t have to think about before you become a faculty member.”
Getting grants is especially difficult for younger or newer faculty who don’t have many publications yet. Funding requires good research, and good research requires funding; it’s a cycle that seems impossible to break.
Funding requires good research, and good research requires funding; it’s a cycle that seems impossible to break.
With the addition of other responsibilities such as teaching and mentoring, professors juggle several roles at once, while constantly facing the fear of not being able to financially support their laboratories. Dernburg summarized this perfectly: “You’re a research mentor, you are a fundraiser, you are a publicist, you are a manager, you are all these things at the same time. It’s a lot.”
It’s not only professors who have to work under great pressure. When publication is an essential step to getting adequate funding and making a name for yourself in the scientific community, researchers at all levels may feel a certain pressure to publish. Academics often refer to this phenomenon as the “publish or perish mentality.”
I talked to a third-year campus graduate student, Francis Ledesma, about this “publish or perish mentality.” He explained that he has felt the pressure to publish throughout graduate school, even though it was never explicitly discussed. “It puts a lot of pressure on both the graduate students that actually complete the work, and the advisors that are trying to guide this,” Ledesma explained. “I think that has led to a lot of people feeling crushed under the pressure and feeling unable to overcome that, and just giving up altogether.”
He clarified that although he used the phrase “give up,” he believed quitting was not a failure, but rather, a realization. Understanding this distinction is difficult but essential. In an academic bubble, one may not realize that for some people, the pressure is simply not worth it — and that’s OK.
In fact, for many graduate students, getting to know their needs, interests and priorities is a significant part of the experience. Success should not simply be defined by one’s ability to finish a degree; it should also consider their ability to identify what they think is best for them as an individual and act on it.
“I think it’s a battle that not everyone would choose to fight,” Ledesma explained. “Maybe a lot of people come to graduate school not really realizing that if you want to stay in academia for a while, you’re going to have to fight that uphill battle.”
“Maybe a lot of people come to graduate school not really realizing that if you want to stay in academia for a while, you’re going to have to fight that uphill battle.” – Francis Ledesma
Unfortunately, publishing isn’t easy. For a paper to get published, it needs to be peer-reviewed. This review process, which can take years, can be brutal.
“When I was in grad school, in the mid ’90s, you would submit a paper, you would get it reviewed within a month (and) reviewers would ask for very minor things,” Dernburg explained. “Now, when you submit a paper, there is often a year or even two years of going back and forth with the reviewer asking for many things. It just snowballed to the point where the effort that it takes to get a paper published is now insane.”
Many scientists are concerned about the effectiveness of this process, considering the amount of time it takes to release their data. Many do not always agree with reviewers’ comments or feel that some are unnecessary. After all, reviewers are human; a certain degree of subjectivity is difficult to avoid.
This subjectivity is also present in grant reviews. I asked Gözde Demirer, a former campus graduate student at the Landry Lab, what she thought about the review process for grants. Demirer, a postdoctoral researcher at the time I interviewed her, has since started her role as an assistant professor at CalTech this fall. As a young female scientist in academia, she expressed her frustration with the flaws in the grant review system.
“There is so much prejudice and subjectivity in how these grants are reviewed,” she said. “Some reviews I got back weren’t really professional — they were mostly commenting on how young I am. And sometimes you see that they refer to someone else as ‘Dr.’ but then for me, they use my first name. These things show me their mentality and how they are reading these proposals.”
Considering the amount of power these reviewers hold, it is extremely concerning that there is so much room for prejudice and discrimination against younger faculty, women and people of color. My hope is that perhaps in the not-so-distant future, the scientific community will develop a blind review process which is more objective in nature. Until then, women like Demirer who hold faculty positions and make valuable contributions to science despite all obstacles and biases will hopefully continue to inspire the younger generations.
Until then, women like Demirer who hold faculty positions and make valuable contributions to science despite all obstacles and biases will hopefully continue to inspire the younger generations.
Sadly, Demirer isn’t alone. Despite recent efforts to diversify the scientific community and increase opportunities for underrepresented groups, academia remains a heavily white- and male-dominated field, especially as you go up the academic hierarchy. For example, women account for approximately 35% of UC Berkeley’s faculty, while underrepresented groups make up 12% and LGBTQ+ individuals make up only 6%.
The lack of diversity and representation within academia is detrimental to the experiences of younger scientists, women, LGBTQ+ individuals and people of color who are trying to make it in academia, but also to the undergraduate students looking up to faculty as role models.
In a field that relies so strongly on creativity, open-mindedness and problem solving, diversity of experiences and perspectives is essential. After centuries of science being at the hands of a select group of intellectuals, it is time to spread out. It is essential that academia becomes more diverse and accessible.
In a field that relies so strongly on creativity, open-mindedness and problem solving, diversity of experiences and perspectives is essential.
According to Ledesma, this is already happening. “The younger generation of faculty has been much more cognizant of the problems that academia has,” he explained to me. “Grad students are really pushing faculty to make diverse hires. But I don’t know if they can actually do anything to change it, because of the departmental politics; academia has a lot of bureaucracy and a lot of hierarchy embedded in it. I definitely think it’s changing, but it’s not fully there yet.”
Whether it is a lack of diversity, a pressure to publish, or simply personal preference, a lot of people are quitting their jobs in academia. Some make the switch to industry, doing research in biotechnology companies or startups. There are many differences between the industry and academia, and the question of “academia vs. industry” is a very challenging one for many undergraduate students indecisive about pursuing a Ph.D program.
I talked to Emily Martinez, a former campus undergraduate student who left her Ph.D program with a master’s degree and has been doing research outside of academia ever since. “The hardest thing I ever did was quit grad school,” she told me. After making the decision to leave, she has had a unique and rewarding journey — even taking an experiment to the International Space Station — that she could have never envisioned for herself.
Despite the stigma surrounding quitting graduate school, with many people viewing it as a “failure,” Martinez was brave enough to listen to herself and make the switch, eventually finding the right fit for herself as a researcher. Many people aren’t as lucky, and have completely different reasons for quitting academia and going into the industry.
Mainly, it’s a question of finances. The salary difference between academic and industry jobs is hard to ignore. With industry jobs paying much larger salaries, to stay in academia requires a lot of devotion and passion towards your research. But as the number of Ph.D degrees awarded increases and the number of positions within academia stay the same, students face great job uncertainty and competition. Coupled with high living costs, these stresses lead to many people choosing industry over academia.
“I have heard so many graduate students say that they want to do this, but they don’t know how to live with the student stipend, especially nowadays with everything becoming more expensive in certain areas,” Demirer explained. “When they get a job offer from a company that also does research, looks very exciting, and also pays four times more, it’s just really hard to compete with that.”
Devoting oneself to academia instead of becoming an industry researcher also requires an immense amount of curiosity. Unlike industry jobs where the goal is to create a product of some sort, academic researchers try to answer questions and reveal the way things work. Since they are more question-driven, it can take years to start getting results. Industry researchers, on the other hand, get to switch more easily if something is not working.
“In the industry, you’re not going to necessarily be doing something as boundary-pushing as you could in academia,” Martinez told me. “But for me, that’s okay. I’m really interested in working on something that is still innovative but not necessarily at the very cutting edge of the field. Being able to prioritize, to see the big picture, to know when to grind and when to sit back, those things are important.”
Martinez believes that this is part of the reason industry was a better fit for her. She also talked about how she liked the more collaborative atmosphere in the industry, and how, in comparison, her experience at graduate school was “very isolating.” She explained that having your individual project as a graduate student put a lot of pressure on her, and this pressure made it more difficult to connect with her coworkers.
Ledesma, too, used the same expression to describe his experience as a graduate student. “Ph.D is a very isolating process,” he told me. “The more isolated you feel, the less confident you feel. The impostor syndrome that is inherent in academia gets very strong when you feel like you’re not able to accomplish what you think you should.”
Since I, too, am strongly considering attending graduate school, these comments made me skeptical about the life that awaits me. However, I reminded myself, despite a lot of people agreeing with the difficulties of academia, many choose to stay.
I asked Ledesma why he never left and what made it worth it to stay. His answer was simple: “The relationships I built here, the whole experience.”
For a curious scientist hoping to spend their life asking questions and searching for answers, there seems to be no better place than academia. But every researcher has their own motivating factors, different reasons for staying in the field despite all their criticisms.
For Dernburg, who works on chromosome organization and dynamics, it is the research itself that makes all difficulties worth enduring. She explained to me what went through her mind the first time she saw a chromosome in a microscopy lab as a graduate student. “I instantly fell in love with chromosomes,” she said. “To me, they are the center of the universe and I can’t imagine studying anything else.”
Dernburg’s undying passion for her research after more than 20 years of work and teaching was incredibly inspiring for me. Though I haven’t found my specific passion yet, listening to all of these scientists’ stories gave me great comfort; I am only at the beginning of a very exciting journey, and I have so much to learn, both about science and about myself.
I asked Demirer what she was looking forward to the most in her new role as a professor. She told me that for her, what makes it worth it is the science, the people and the mentoring process.
She explained, “Sometimes, when I’m having a bad day, I like to imagine that I have back to back meetings with my students, they all bring their research in, we’re looking at it, troubleshooting, trying to come up with ideas on what to do next or how to understand the data. I don’t dream of vacations or anything, I dream of this fully science-focused day where I’m not writing any grants or doing other paperwork. I’m just really looking forward to having students and doing science.”
I found that beautiful.
When I told people I was writing a piece about academic research and interviewing scientists about it, almost everyone asked me if these conversations had made me decide not to pursue a graduate degree. Among the undergraduate population, academia seems to be notorious for its flaws, and people are scared to enter this unknown world. Interestingly, I was unable to answer this question.
Despite learning about so many challenges and problems present in academia, I did not find myself panicking over my future as a potential graduate student. I went into the process of writing this article as a nervous undergrad scared to make a choice about her career, and I now feel much more relaxed and confident. I saw that while everyone has a unique and completely different experience in academia — such as Demirer, who always knew she wanted to stay in academia, or like Martinez, who realized she was unhappy and made the brave decision to listen to her needs — the world of research is vast, and I will eventually find the right place for myself.