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Why academia drives out young, chronically ill students

Updated: Jun 29, 2023

Today’s academic research environment, characterised by grant-seeking, competition, and self-promotion, drives away young, emerging scientists. Navigating academia as a chronically ill student pushed Kathryn away from a career in academic research. If the trend of losing young people continues, academia will struggle from a lack of new ideas.

Organic Chemistry Laboratory Class, Winston-salem, NC

A Career in Research

At age eighteen, an excitable college student, I wanted to make sense of it all. Recognising that was ambitious—I settled with first making sense of people, of human behavior. I would devote my time, I decided, to uncovering a great mystery of our generation: the dysfunction of the brain. How do brain chemicals firing in synapses produce abnormal behaviors, like substance addiction and bipolar disorder? A life focused on research, surrounded by scientists, felt like home.

Inside research institutions, I felt alien. In early research roles, I witnessed the fast-pace, the faculty competition, and, most upsettingly, the focus on science for science’s sake, removed from its subjects and beneficiaries. I assumed I could handle the intensity and the mild cognitive dissonance; it’s noble work after all, right? When my health declined, however, my distance from academia grew.

Academia Offers No Room for Disabled Students

At a prestigious research institution, when I disclosed my physical health struggles, my supervisor, a respected MD/PhD, scoffed and suggested mental therapy. At school, seeking accommodations for a chemistry laboratory class was a nightmare. Four hours around chemicals left me dizzy and fatigued for days. The head of disability services suggested I switch majors (I was a senior) and consider a new career. The biology department boasted that all students, even those with mobility aids, must take courses as-is. The chemistry department declared it a liability to have me in the lab, and offered no alternative ways to participate. Accommodations, not exclusion, are desired for chronically ill students. These experiences led me to question my future in academia.

Young People are Fleeing Academia

Young people are leaving academia at record rates. While the prevalence of physical disability is low among college-aged students, mental health problems are abundant and rising. PhD programs are often high-stress, low-autonomy environments, with nearly 40% of graduate students reporting moderate-to-severe depression. Increasingly, students are exiting academia and prioritising a stable income and work-life balance.

Biology Building, Wake Forest University

Academia was Not Always this Way

Charles Darwin, the naturalist and explorer, shifted how we understand evolution. He observed patterns in biological life forms from a radical, rare point of view. Darwin wrote much of his work while suffering from a multi-system illness. Darwin is suspected to have a mitochondrial disease. One should be able to publish while perishing. I have done some of my best thinking, while my body wasted away and fatigue anchored me to my bed. Author Kurt Vonnegut says, “​​out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can't see from the center.”

Disabled people, forced to get to the edge, have ideas that are costly to ignore.

A 14-year old living with a rare disease, who has confronted death on several occasions, knows something about the nature and structure of life that my 50 year old tenured biology professor, despite studying life for decades, cannot grasp.

Operating Under Finite Resources In the 1950s, an ecologist, Carl B. Huffaker placed two species of termites, one dominant and one weak, in a cage to see if they could coexist with finite resources. In a sterile environment, the weak species was eaten, and the dominant (lacking food) was driven to extinction. The ecologist added more stuff too. the ecologist added orange peels with vaseline barriers, which function as shelter for the weaker termites. Still, the weak species was driven to extinction. This process was repeated. Finally, after building a 252-orange universe, the two termite populations coexisted, even under limited resource conditions. Spatial variability (niches) were protective against species becoming self-annihilating.

Academia, plagued by finite resources, does not offer niches for scientists who are physically limited, who need a greater work-life balance (like young parents), or who are lousy at obtaining funding. Rates of self reported disability are incredibly low among university faculty compared to national rates. Academia selects for people who can handle 80 hour work weeks, financial stress, and necessary self-promotion. Research programs risk driving out students and becoming self-annihilating. Already, research labs are stagnating as they struggle to recruit post-doctoral students.

We need Weirdos in Academia

Only the fittest survive in a sterile, resource-limited environment. We need niches, spaces to be occupied by disabled folks, eccentric folks, people who lack the desire to focus on obtaining funding.

Anthropologist David Graeber laments:

“Almost any functional society, almost any society which has ever existed, has something which they do with brilliant, imaginative, but extremely impractical people. We don’t know what to do with them anymore. They’re all living in their mothers’ basements saying weird things on the internet, and you can’t tell which are crazy and which actually have something to contribute. You used to put them in academia, but now academia is all about self-marketing.”

“If you want to minimize the possibility of unexpected breakthroughs, take those same people, and then tell them they’re not going to get any resources at all unless they spend the majority of their time competing with one another to prove to you they already know what they’re going to create. Well, that’s the system we have. And it’s incredibly effective in stifling any possibility of innovation.”

Academia needs brilliant, imaginative, but extremely impractical people. Disabled and chronically ill people, who have managed to thrive in spite of surroundings built against them, fit the bill.

Campus building, Wake Forest University

Academia is Losing Gifted Minds Academia, despite its emphasis on inclusion, by design excludes students who value their work physical health and emotional wellbeing before their work. It bars students with disabilities, who cannot afford to neglect health or live off a PhD income. Many individual professors are kind and accommodating, but their voices in institutions are checked, and they must bend to the demands of academia.

The decline of young people dedicated to a career of research, ideas, and teaching is a tragedy. The decline of young people entrapped in a career of exploitation, publications, and funding competition is a necessity.

For academic institutions to enjoy the fruits of innovation, to keep bright minds from flocking to industry, build a 252-orange universe. In the current publishing and funding environment, space for scientists lacking perfect physical health is unlikely to emerge. Institutions, funding agencies, and journals can transform academia to retain diverse, early-career scientists. Steps include increasing compensation and benefits for PhD and postdoctoral students, shifting towards open science, and abandoning scholarly ranking systems. Institutions can support disabled students by offering virtual lab and lecture courses, conducting accessibility audits, and collecting demographic data on disability. Until great changes take place, young people, especially disabled people, will take their imaginative, impractical insights elsewhere. Your loss, academia.



Instagram: kaate98

LinkedIn: Kathryn Cowie


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