(Persevering with the Led Zeppelin theme)
Can you succeed in academia only if you are a shark?
This is something I started to think about when I came to the USA. In India, in my experience, academic scientists are idealistic, workaholic, fatalistic and gossipy. Money is always tight and you rarely get to publish in the good journals (and I'm not talking only about the big three or five) because of where you're from. The salaries for PI-level scientists are nowhere as high as they are here, and respect from the public and one's peers in other countries can be in short supply. The keen-edged aggression that one sees among scientists (specifically, biologists) here is not at all common. But, and this is crucial, once you enter the system of government science labs, you will have a career. Every X years you will be promoted, every Y years you will get a salary. You have tons of holidays, your kids have opportunities. Many post-postdoctoral scientists I know in India have jobs and some measure of security.
Many things are common between the scientific world in India and the United States, the most glaring absence in the latter is the absence of any prospects of security in academia until you have tenure. So the situation is then that you have really bright people who work and work and work, with limited pay and even more limited prospects. To make things more interesting, these people are often enormously motivated and justly ambitious: So where does all the energy go?
We all know there aren't enough PI positions. There aren't very many non-PI permanent researcher positions either. So the only thing to do then is to fight for the positions there are, right? To give no quarter, to your peers, to the possibility of failure, to your life, or to yourself. To be aggressive and up-to-date, to work harder, better and more successfully than everyone else. To know things and have connections that others don't have. Not that there is anything wrong with any of these things, I get a buzz out of the hunt just as much as anyone. My point is that it is not really sustainable.
Or not sustainable for the majority anyway. what happens to the people who cannot, do not want to or will not be sharks? The laws of luck and averages dictate that some such will succeed in academia, but in the balance I think the sharks don't succeed. Then you have a situation in which the system "selects" for the most aggressive people, and often does not encourage other more nurturing or considerate professional behaviour. The lack of consideration and sensitivity, coupled with a reluctance to show "mommy qualities" because that would invite professional ridicule, leads to bosses who demand and do not teach, who hector not mentor, and whose personal advancement is their primary goal.
Shark eat shark then. Which doesn't seem like much fun to me, and maybe to more people. Why is it that the system is ok with people who are excellent scientists but dreadful people? Why is that acceptable? I don't know. However I do see some incremental changes (not where I work at, but), and I think the key to any improvements in the system can only occur with recognition of these issues. I hope so, because the joy of research is being subsumed by the nastiness of its execution.