17 Little Known Secrets About Academia (From Academics)
7 min read

17 Little Known Secrets About Academia (From Academics)

Academic insiders reveal all the secrets of how academia really works so you can understand the field and navigate your academic career.
17 Little Known Secrets About Academia (From Academics)

For this post, I interviewed dozens of academics and surveyed hundreds more to collect their views on academia. The result is a collection of thoughtful and intelligent takes on the world of teaching and research at universities and colleges. Because my research was anonymous, many of the takes are funny and witty, and they are definitely brutally honest.

It's like having a connected friend in academia telling you all the secrets of how the academic world really works. I hope you find this post illuminating and useful for navigating the academic path and please feel free to contribute if you have anything to add to the discussion.

Top 5 Takeaways

If you only have a few minutes to spare, here are the top 5 takeaways:

  • In my mind, academics are meant to research and teach. To push the boundaries of research and human knowledge. This is not what 99% of academics actually do. Far from it. They participate in politics to get ahead in their department, do minimal research and phone it in when teaching, which is seen as an annoyance and not taken seriously.
  • For the resources that go into academic institutions and academic research all around the world, we produce shockingly little work that matters. Billions of dollars are wasted on frivolous studies that are unambitious from the outset and have little impact.
  • Loadings are a joke. They are a top up on academic salaries to compensate for lost earnings academics forgo from higher paying jobs in industry. There is no way I’d earn what I do in industry. I would be utterly hopeless to any corporation or financial institution. I challenge you to name one CEO of a Fortune 500 who was an academic.
  • People are doing research at infinitely small margins. It really boggles my mind when I multiply the 0.0001% impact by the market size and end up at a $10 outcome. We should never forget the “Who cares?” question that all research should start with, and maybe add “Does it matter at all?”.
  • It feels like there is a proliferation of sponsored research. Academics sell results to corporations and other organizations, meaning that they have been told the finding they are looking for and they just so happen to “find it”. It’s becoming so engrained and the public really don’t know how to parse academic studies to sort the wheat from the chaff. The reliable and honest results from the tainted ones. It hurts the entire field.

These are just 5 interesting snippets from the interviews and surveys, and the full responses are below. Please read on for more insights on academia. If you’re leaving now, do you want to know how to 10x your impact in your chosen field? You should sign up for free and I’ll show you how.

17 Insights on How Academia Really Works

1. In my mind, academics are meant to research and teach. To educate the next generation by teaching existing courses really well and develop new courses that cover new and exciting subject matters. Then to push the boundaries of research and human knowledge. This is not what 99% of academics actually do. Far from it. They participate in politics to get ahead in their department, do minimal research and phone it in when teaching, which is seen as an annoyance and not taken seriously. I hold out hope that future generations will bring academia back to what it’s meant to be, that pure expression of caring teaching and meaningful research.

2. For the resources that go into academic institutions and academic research all around the world, we produce shockingly little work that matters. Billions of dollars are wasted on frivolous studies that are unambitious from the outset and have little impact.

3. Most academics I know set out to just clear the bar on their teaching responsibilities. This is totally logical in a sense because the incentives are set up this way. There is no reward for providing a really good student experience. Others only want to focus on research, then others are just gaming the system. It’s a shame because students miss out on what these incredibly talented people could offer to them if only they were properly motivated.

4. I know an academic who only does one research paper per year, with the express purpose of submitting it to an international conference. He sits down and selects the conference based on the best and most exciting city to visit. That’s his all-expenses-paid holiday for the year. The paper really phones it in too. So yes, academics often submit papers to conferences just to get free travel. Not to push the limits of their field.

5. The best academic productivity hack, outsource your research to research assistants and postgraduate students. This is a well known trick, but it’s shocking when you see academics producing 100% of their work through others and not chipping in themselves.

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6. Still on the best hacks, why think of your own original ideas when you can just steal research ideas or replicate studies? This is rife in the industry. There needs to be an index that tracks the amount of derivative ideas versus truly new research so we can measure our progress, make plans to improve the outcome and motivate researchers to push their fields forward.

7. One prominent academic I know specializes in “with a twist” studies. The same methodology as another paper in a top tier journal, just “with a twist” by adding an additional variable to the study. They then submit it to a different journal. This person is prolific, definitely hits their targets and has charged through the ranks. But I question their impact.

8. Unfortunately in one department I previously worked in, a disease had creeped in where all the staff in the department did everything to free up time to do “consulting” and work as paid “expert witnesses”. I thought this was meant to be a fair way to supplement your income as an academic, perhaps with a mix of 40% teaching, 40% research and 20% consulting. I feel like some people were doing 90%+ consulting.

9. Loadings are a joke. Basically, a loading is additional pay an academic gets to compensate for the lost earnings they forgo for working in academia instead of a higher paying job in industry. For example, if your base salary is $100,000 and you get a 50% loading then your salary will be $150,000. I work as an academic and get a 100% loading. There is no way I would earn that in industry. I would be utterly hopeless to any corporation or financial institution. I challenge you to name one CEO of a Fortune 500 who was an academic.

10. Universities and colleges in a lot of countries have quotas and bonuses for the number of PhDs they take into their programs and graduate. So there is an incentive to put people through by convincing them that a PhD is the right thing for them. Beware this incentive and only do a PhD for the right reasons, get external advice from a third party and weigh up your options.

11. Have you ever seen a published academic paper with five authors? That’s a joke, if you read a lot of academic research, of course you have. This is just a way from academics to pad their numbers and something that is definitely gamed. Depending on which side you’re on it’s important to know about this trick to use it to your advantage, or make sure that you weigh the importance and contributions of any one individual to a publication correctly.

12. My university has always been well funded by student fees, international students and the government in my country. We have definitely become accustomed to this funding and I worry that it might not come as easy in the future. Myself and a lot of my colleagues might be in for a rude shock when we have to live in a world after the riches we’ve always enjoyed. Things will become a lot more competitive and hopefully it means standards will rise too.

13. We are not tooled to move teaching and research online. The digital transformation that industry and government has been undertaking for 10+ years now will reach academia eventually and we are not ready for it.

14. People are doing research at infinitely small margins. It really boggles my mind when I sit in a presentation and the research has a 0.0001% yet statistically significant impact. I multiply the impact by the market size and end up at a $10 outcome. We should never forget the “Who cares?” question that all research should start with, and maybe add “Does it matter at all?”.

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15. I wish more people would realize that “no result” is a result. As in, the matter was looked at and in the end either the methodology or the findings resulted in no measurable outcome. This is interesting as it adds to the body of work and steers future generations away from that study with that specific methodology, so maybe they’ll try something else.

16. It feels like there is a proliferation of sponsored research. Academics sell results to corporations and other organizations, meaning that they have been told the finding they are looking for and they just so happen to “find it”. It’s becoming so engrained and the public really don’t know how to parse academic studies to sort the wheat from the chaff. The reliable and honest results from the tainted ones. It hurts the entire field.

17. Because of the way that colleges are structured, departments are organized and academics are incentivized, we don’t work across departments. Sure there are stories of Michael Porter wandering around Harvard solving the world’s problems and I really hope they are true. But this would be uncommon. This is a huge missed opportunity and one of the biggest unlocks in academic research would be the ubiquity of cross-departmental collaboration. I hold out lots of hope for the future that our children can succeed where we failed.

Final Thoughts

I hope these insights from current and former academics informed you about the true nature of academia and inspired you to make a difference to the field. There is a lot that the academic fields, colleges and universities bring to the world and by the sounds of it with a few tweaks, that impact will only increase. We’ll all be better off for it.

Before you go: I have interviewed 500+ professionals, surveyed thousands more, and I am always probing for their best tips, tricks and hacks to get ahead. There are five that stand out above the rest and you can get them right now by joining my free email list. You won’t find these ideas anywhere else.