Life in research, or: Why I’m probably going to quit it and so should everybody else

In two weeks, my penultimate stay in Québec will end. I’m happy I’m going back home, although there are plenty of things I’m going to miss: my friends here, first; my housemates’ surviving cat; the cheerfulness of the city centre; that sort of things. I have no idea when I’ll come back, or if I ever will. I hope I will.

I’m also seriously considering giving up research at the moment. It’s been a long, arduous process, first accepting that I might well never make it, and then, little by little, realising it might actually be a good thing. Besides, I’ve been a researcher for the past six years. That doesn’t exactly count as an unfulfilled wish.

There are many reasons why I’ve come to this acceptance, and even more reasons why I’ve long resisted it. I think the first reason part of me just wants to give up is: it can be a frightful amount of work, and let’s face it, it’s not actually useful to anyone but myself. Everybody knows that politics plays a huge part in research life, right? Okay, now square that. And square it again. Now you’re getting a better idea of the order of magnitude we’re talking about here. It’s not just about being friends with the right people. It’s about your work itself: calculating what’s going be successful and when, realising that your research has to be sexy before it is useful (that’s why people have such trouble publishing replications of previous experiments, or experiments that yielded no results: tremendously useful as they are, they just don’t sound as good as nice, new significant results). It’s also a matter of calibrating the minimal amount of effort that can go into making a publishable project, meaning that most published results have very little actual usefulness, and nearly all articles end with suggestions for further research: what matters is not to get usable results out there, but to get results published so it looks good on your CV, period. In the end, twice as much effort goes into calculating what’s going to be profitable for your career as goes into furthering your work. You don’t have a choice. That’s how you get people to fund you. By necessity, it’s an awfully self-centred occupation. And I’ve had it with self-centred.

The second reason is that research is an incredibly unethical system. When I came to Canada, I knew that things worked quite differently from France, and I expected them to suck less. I was wrong. Here’s the thing: research in France sucks because there’s no funding, graduate students are unpaid and university professors generally don’t give a shit about them, tenure is automatic, meaning that once you get a job, you can’t be fired unless you rape a student in public while screaming ‘Heil Hitler!’, meaning that many people soon just realise that they can easily get away with not doing research at all and getting paid all the same. I’m not kidding. It’s that bad. But in Canada, I discovered the one thing I didn’t expect to learn: the North American system sucks even worth. Students are paid all right; but they are basically hired as cheap labour. Professors who hire students to work in their lab know fully well that their students don’t stand a chance when it comes to applying for positions later on. They hire them all the same, not to give them a chance to get a career, but because it’s cheaper than hiring research assistants, and you can pressure them to work 60 hours a week for the same salary. I’m not in that situation, luckily: my own boss hires very few students, and our career is one of his priorities. I’m eternally thankful for that. I’m also aware that this is overwhelmingly not how the system works.

So, using students as cheap labour and then discarding them is bad enough. The system is also woefully inefficient. Students come and go, meaning that on occasion, whole sets of results end up lost somewhere in a computer, after the student who gathered the data left and nobody cared to pick up the study after them. People constantly have to be taught how to do basic things, often with poor results. Once postdocs manage to get a position as professors, they don’t actually do much research anymore. They supervise research from their students, but more than anything, they’re busy asking for funding and calibrating their entire publication strategy around it, a fact that has often been decried as slowly killing research. I can only agree. What I said earlier, that publishing research was more about looking good than about furthering knowledge? That’s because if you don’t look good, you don’t get funds. Which basically means that in the end, the people who actually know how to do research because they spent years as students and postdocs don’t actually do research so much as grant writing; the real research is done by students who often don’t know how to do it; and a professor’s real job is managing his lab’s funds and hiring people, in short, it’s a managerial job for which they haven’t been trained. It’s utterly absurd, a huge waste of money, of people’s time and lives (we’re counting years here, not months), and a monstrously exploitative system. Even shorter, it sucks all sorts of unsavoury genitals.

Which is why I’m seriously questioning if I still want to be a part of it. If it’s a choice between embracing the French system, with its utter cynicism and rewarded laziness, or trying to steer things towards the North American system which goes wrong in approximately all the places it can go wrong, maybe I’ll be better off teaching children how to spell their names in English.

At least I’ll get to publish a book on zombies. And I’ve survived two Canadian winters and met some truly great people here. In the end, maybe I should take this, thank life and go on my way.

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