Undergraduate Research and the Commodification of the Academy

The overproduction of academics, coupled with the problem of an ever-shrinking academy, has been documented in innumerable columns, essays, and blog posts This may seem daunting to some, but a sense of optimism in academia is pervasive. Like many other major research institutions, the University of Virginia offers a plethora of undergraduate research opportunities— environmental science, psychology, biology, history, chemistry, and physics are just some of the opportunities afforded to students. This is mutually beneficial, as researchers often hand off banal and repetitive tasks to students, who gain valuable benchwork and analytical skills. UVa has the privilege of being classified as an “R1” institution by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, indicating strong research activity alongside schools like Clemson, Oklahoma, and Rice, and undergraduate involvement in research. Organizations like the Undergraduate Research Network and individual undergraduate departments furnish support for research. This ideal of a symbiotic relationship between undergraduates and researchers, however, is far from reality — and emblematic of larger problems in academia.

In the hard sciences, work generally flows from the primary researcher, otherwise known as a principal investigator, to postdoctoral researchers, graduate students, and undergraduates. This structure leads to a fairly evident problem: There are a lot more students than there are PIs. The graduate students, once they graduate, will be among a pool of aspiring academics that far outnumber available positions for research scientists and professors, an imbalance that expands to the private sector.

Undergraduates, meanwhile, are competing fiercely for those graduate positions, with thousands of would-be researchers dropping out of academia at every stage. Though, not all undergraduates are vying for top-tier graduate schools; plenty seek professional schools, laboratory technician positions, or non-academic employment, but the ideal of a traditional professorship is far less likely than imagined.

The research environment does not instill adequate concern about the realities faced by undergraduate researchers, though, as everyone undergrads interact with has essentially won the lottery: They were accepted into graduate school, received a postdoctoral position, and are now employed at an R1 university. Although small liberal arts colleges may be less prestigious than an R1 for research, their professors have beaten extreme odds and the mentoring relationship they provide may inspire unwarranted confidence about academic job prospects for their bright undergraduates. The survivorship bias, overestimating academic employment opportunities through interacting with the lucky academics, is prevalent in the hypercompetitive academy.

The popular perception of science obscures its iterative nature —  scientific papers rarely present a breakthrough. Media stories often exaggerate scientific progress, while emphasis on ‘outsider’ research that is blown out of proportion similarly guides the perception of science far adrift from the process. Such promotion is seemingly beneficial to academia, deferring to the aphorism “all publicity is good publicity,” but the incorrect perception of science and the problem of scientific literacy notwithstanding, this fuels a superficial interest in academia.

An editorial by now-Emeritus Professor Jere Lipps, at UC-Berkeley, “The Media, Trash Science, and Paleontology,” highlights the problems of public misperception, while the problems of media representation drawing aspiring scientists to academia becomes more apparent at the doctoral level. The media latches on to ‘trash science’ because of the public’s fascination with “mystery, conspiracy, and lazy thinking”, but Lipps follows this up with a concerning claim: “[o]ur science is…just as intriguing and appealing without the sensationalistic or erroneous content”. Undergraduate lab workers evince the true process of science—thousands of samples, late nights, number-crunching—but perpetuate the overproduction of academics due to the structure of academia.

The counterargument, of course, is: Great! Learning how to perform research is extremely transferable and in-demand, so these would-be professors can pursue other opportunities. Almost all academic graduate programs are funded, so the question is really one of opportunity cost. But this presupposes just how translational research is at the PhD level, as well how forward academics are about job opportunities in their field. It’s plausible that graduate schools can reexamine their training and preparation for life after graduation, but, generally, that is far from the case at the moment. A more callous claim might suggest that this allows the best researchers to rise from the pool, but at almost unimaginable individual efforts being thrown away. That may be closer to the current case, however, looking at hiring rates: The top ten universities produce threefold the professors of the next ten, and success only drops off from there.

It may be too late for the thousands of unemployed and overeducated graduates, but the academy needs to confront the issue soon before it reaches the breaking point.