How to Navigate Academia
Three prospective PhD students of the Harvard Astronomy department came together to my office yesterday and asked for career advice.
First and foremost, they wished to know how best to navigate through the turbulent waters of an academic career. My advice was simple. The painter Pablo Picasso mastered realism early on, and only later ventured into abstract paintings as he innovated the disruptive style of Cubism. Similarly, a scientist should master the fundamental principles of physics first and only later venture to disruptive innovation.
Knowing basic physics allows a scientist to explore new territories and adapt to changing frontiers of research during a lifelong career. Many scientists, however, prefer to specialize prematurely in a niche and dig deeper into it throughout their career as an expert. This narrow drilling style brings the risk of hitting bedrock. Once innovation is futile, narrow-field specialists turn into academic deadwood, bored at their unpopular expertise.
My answer inspired a follow-up question from the fledgling scientists, regarding the optimal strategy for securing the euphoria of tenure. Academic tenure was introduced to promote free thought and alleviate concerns for job security because of temporary unpopularity. But ironically, the realistic path to job security is paved with conformism because tenure committees are filled with senior scholars who resist change and build echo chambers that make their voice louder. To avoid being overshadowed, the insecurities of senior professors often lead them to favor candidates who do not pose a threat to their status in the field.
Given that background, my practical advice is to dance to the tunes of senior professors during the PhD, post-doctorate and junior-faculty phases, and demonstrate excellence in an established field of research, just as Picasso’s early realism reflected the popular style of the past. Once tenured, the opportunity arises for you to venture into risky intellectual territories of disruptive innovation.
As reasonable as this advice sounds, one may wonder whether it is actually practiced?! Unfortunately, very rarely. Most scholars subscribe for life to a dogmatic style dictated by past practices within the beaten path, even after they secure tenure. With this mindset, their entire career is shaped by the desire to impress colleagues for the sake of getting honors and awards. They view any disruptive style with hostility because it raises the possibility that they missed important insights by never taking exits from the popular highways. Some make it their life mission to step on any flower that rises above the grass level, partly out of jealousy.
One of the students asked what is the one innovative study that I was most excited about throughout my career. I confessed that it is what I am doing right now, in particular the forthcoming Galileo Project expedition to retrieve the fragments of the first interstellar meteor from the Pacific Ocean floor. I started my career from basic physics education and I am now promoting the disruptive frontier of the search for interstellar objects sent to our doorstep by extraterrestrial technological civilizations. There is no greater academic reward than maintaining a sincere sense of childhood curiosity, uncontaminated by “likes” from “the adults in the room”.
Finally, the prospective students asked about the benefits of groupthink in academia. I told them that the word “benefit” is an oxymoron in this context. Anyone interested in groupthink should favor the commercial sector because the salaries for that mindset are much higher over there.
Ironically, on some research topics the commercial sector offers even more opportunities for innovation than academia. Consider the emerging need to study the ethical implications of artificial intelligence (AI), which will likely shape society and politics in the near future. Philosophy departments teach what philosophers — who were unaware of AI — said about ethics. Instead, universities must be quick to address the risk of governments using AI to manipulate their citizens or the risk of companies using AI to manipulate the minds of teenagers with algorithms that damage their mental health.
It would be unfortunate if at the same time that disruptive technologies change society, academic scholars focus on impressing each other with variations on past knowledge. The utilities of academia must be agile and serve society by developing humanities of the future rather than humanities of the past. Resistance to change stems from teachers who insist on knowledge that glorifies past practitioners and discourses. Shouldn’t universities create a mandatory course on the ethical risks of ChatGPT in addition to teaching Aristotle?
The primary benefit of academic tenure is the opportunity to innovate and conduct blue sky research. Professors must regain the societal compass by engaging with scientific and technological disruption rather than dismissing it.
The risk is acute. A new Nature paper discovered a steady drop from 1945 through 2010 in the fraction of disruptive advances within science and technology. The study examined 45 million scientific papers and 3.9 million patents and found that investigators and inventors have recently made fewer breakthroughs and innovations relative to the growing volume of science and technology research. The authors found a steady drop in the fraction of disruptive discoveries, suggesting that scientists today are more likely to make incremental progress than advance in quantum leaps. “Eureka!” moments that change everything known within a field, are getting rarer relative to those associated with incremental progress.
Here’s hoping that the three students who visited my office will carry the torch of academic innovation forward.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Avi Loeb is the head of the Galileo Project, founding director of Harvard University’s — Black Hole Initiative, director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and the former chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University (2011–2020). He chairs the advisory board for the Breakthrough Starshot project, and is a former member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and a former chair of the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies. He is the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth” and a co-author of the textbook “Life in the Cosmos”, both published in 2021. His new book, titled “Interstellar”, is scheduled for publication in August 2023.