Currently, I’m out of town attending a workshop with some very specialized people in an area in which I’m trying to make inroads. And while I won’t bore you with the details (I knew people could have such levels of nuance), I will share with you a comment that I heard over drinks.
Let me paint the picture for you a little bit first. I was having a discussion with someone very high up in the food chain about current/potential/future projects. This person asked a very specific technical question related to the problem, something that would mean significant money for the company that person represents if possible. I, wanting to hold on to my ideas, remained steadfast with a response like “Talk to me in 18 months when we have it working in the lab.” This is basically a nice way of saying like hell I’m going to let you steal my idea.
In previous situations with this type of discussion, the response is usually “well, I look forward to seeing it in person when it’s running.” Some people actually mean that while others are saying fat chance that will ever work. I expected either of those responses but got neither in this case. Rather, the response was a tirade about how academia is too slow, this technology isn’t what academia should do [and should give it to that company], and academia is too expensive to get things done. (For those of you only barely following along, that translates to we want it sooner, this technology could be a competitor if successful, and no, I won’t fund your research in this area).
I’m only going to tackle the first of those comments/tirades but I think it’s a very important discussing question. Is academia too slow and if so, what are the reasons and how can the pace be increased?
In general, I would say that academia is slow but I would not call it too slow. For instance, funding turnaround (if successful) for hearing feedback on proposals is in the 6-9 month range and then another 3 months before the money is available. Then, if you already do not have a student, you have to find a student which is time consuming. Plus, that student may be in the process of taking classes and their qualifier, all which delay the process. Thus, the time difference from when a prof is writing the proposal to when a student is working full time in the lab could be 2-3 years. That is slow. Obviously, if you already have a student on a similar project or they are done with classes, that timeline is shorter.
But is that really too slow? In engineering, especially from a corporate perspective, that is too slow. If the prototype is not 3-6 months away, then it is not something on their radar. But because companies are often shortsighted, they lack the ability to recognize quality technology in its infancy where they could offer a partnership or buy the technology outright, instead of scrambling to compete with a new spinoff/start-up. They are then reduced to paying over the top for the technology if they choose to go that route.
With that said, the pace of funding proposals could be increased (ideally) but this is not likely to happen. Also, I do think some classes are a waste for student. Often, because graduate course offerings are limited, students have no choice but to take certain courses which have no bearing on any topic related to their research or a topic of interest. When that is the case, research (and learning through research) is clearly a better option. Reducing the number of classes also means students will be able to get in to research sooner or do research concurrently with classes. (FYI, most European PhD programs have no mandatory classes. It seems to work fine for them.)
What about you? If you’re a grad student, do you feel the pace is too slow/fast? For those of you with both corporate and grad school experience, is that a fair assessment?