Academic Brain Drain

Academic brain drain is here. You may not realize it, but academics are leaving academia in droves. If you ask most PhD students today what they plan on doing after their PhD, they will most likely say they are going into industry. This is antithetical to what you may expect the career trajectory of PhD students are. Most people think it is a track to send students to professorships. This used to be true, however, the limited and very competitive job market for professorships have forced students to consider alternative routes, namely industry.

During their PhD, students are overworked, underpaid, have higher rates of mental health issues, and can face unsafe working environments. So much so, the largest academic strike is taking place right now on all of the UC campuses. Forty eight thousand (48,000) grad students, post-doc, and academic workers have walked out and put these universities at a stand still. The average UC PhD student earns $23,000, below the extreme poverty wage line. How can you expect someone to do their best work while they are in poverty? Personally, I am in a fortunate position where I do not have children, I am healthy, and I like living with roommates. If all of these things were not true for me, it would be a financial stretch to make it through the rest of my program. And these things are not true for many students. That is why we are fighting for higher pay, greater workplace protections, equality for international scholars, and greater child support.

Paying academic workers a living wage is not only a personal matter, but one that is very important for the broader economy. Currently, we are in the beginning of a great academic brain drain. One that will have large implications for society, and in my view, quite negative ones. Graduate students do the overwhelming majority of the labor of our nation’s research, a bedrock for driving our nation’s economy forward. Novel ideas, like MIDIScale, life saving medical devices, new drugs, AI ethics, and many more, would not be possible without the brightest minds in the world working tireless hours to advance human understanding of the natural world. A second net negative would be that corporations could become the main drivers of research. This is dangerous because these ideas would then not automatically be open to the public and free to use by anyone. This will ultimately slow economic progress because less competition will be created. Corporations could become major gatekeepers of knowledge creation. A third net negative is the greater embedding of corporate interests in academia. This makes academic research less trustworthy. If there are special interests fueling research, this will dictate which questions are asked, how they are asked, and can confuse the public on what the actual scientific consensus is. Simply look at the tobacco and oil industries and their efforts to obfuscate what the consensus among scientists have been for the negative health effects of cigarettes and the seriousness of climate change. Academia then would be another tool for corporate profits rather than a tool for public good.

All academic workers deserve a livable wage. We deserve to be able to focus on our research without having to worry about whether we will be able to make rent this month. Hopefully, academic institutions will reckon with the fact that we will not be returning to institutions that do not value us.

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