Academia is not the “real” world

This month’s guest editorial comes from Adam Butt, Senior Lecturer in Actuarial Studies and Statistics at ANU.

I’ve been in academia now for over 10 years. Before that I spent around seven years (some as an intern whilst I was studying at Macquarie University) at a pension/superannuation consulting firm. I was lucky enough in 2005 to score a lecturing job at Australian National University (ANU) without any research background whatsoever (I did my PhD part-time alongside my teaching commitments).

“The main reason academia is not the “real” world is the level of control I have over my work.”

Despite my relative lack of corporate experience, I know enough to know that academia is not the ‘real’ world. Although I can hear the howls of “traitor” from my academic brothers and sisters, I’m going to plough on and explain why.

The main reason academia is not the “real” world is the level of control I have over my work. Sure I get told what courses to teach (although the course I am teaching this semester is one I designed myself from scratch), and I have a “Performance and Development Review” once a year, but by and large I decide what I want to do in a typical day. If I want to make a minor adjustment to the course I teach – then I go ahead and do it. If I want to change the area in which I research, then I am free to do so. If I want to apply for funding to teach a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), then I am free to do so. For any of these things I am required to obtain no or minimal material from my Head of School.

This freedom creates some interesting dynamics. How busy I am is completely dependent on how often I say yes or no to the many opportunities that I come across. Many academics are incredibly busy people; they say yes to most or all of these opportunities and are rewarded with fast promotion (both in title and financially). I myself try to take a pragmatic view and am comfortable saying no when necessary. I have a young family and value that even more than my job at ANU. There are not many corporate jobs where you can regularly say no to your colleagues and superiors without negative consequences.

“innovation can be as much a danger as an opportunity in industry…”

Does this freedom come with risks attached? Sure, if I make poor decisions then I might not get promoted and there is even a small chance I might lose my job.

All of this sounds like it is too good to be true. And perhaps it is. But I would also argue that it is necessary to produce innovative and world-changing research. Innovative research can take years or even decades to bear fruit, and it is often uncertain at the start of a project if the research goal will even be possible. An environment of safety with regards to the implications of failed research is necessary for this innovation to be attempted. Otherwise we would all be simply making incremental and unnecessary adjustments to what has already been done.

I hear regularly about the “disconnect” between academia and research, and sure there is actuarial research out there that I think has no connection at all with industry. But even where connection is deliberately sought (for example through ARC Linkage Grants), there are often challenges in managing the short-term goals and timeframes that industry often focuses on. In addition, innovation can be as much a danger as an opportunity in industry, which I think is a factor that leads to the very slow introduction of, for example, dynamic investment products such as lifestyle strategies in pension/superannuation funds – in this area academia is miles ahead of industry, although still wrestling with implementable research.

Is there a moral to this story? I’m not sure. In any case I feel very blessed to be in a job that I love!

This is an edited version of a blog post from 8 July.

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