Nikolai Slavov

Idealism and realism in academia

August 03, 2022 | 3 Minute Read

Academia is a meeting place of lofty ideas and prosaic reality. Naturally, this meeting creates tension. The lofty ideas create the expectation that academia should do much better. Better than the grabby reality of pursuing profits, better than the mercenary world of business. These high expectations can set us up for disappointment and sometimes even cynicism. Yet, I think we can choose a better response.

I grew up idealistic. It was more than youthful idealism: Two formative experiences from my early life provided empirical evidence for my idealism.

The first experience was my participation in scientific Olympiads, physics, biology and chemistry. These competitions seemed perfectly fair. At least, I never had a reason to suspect otherwise. As a student from a remote province of a scientifically remote country, I was allowed to win while competing with students from top schools, some of whom taking lessons from the professors organizing the national and international Olympiads. My success in these Olympiads led to my second formative experience providing evidence for my idealism: MIT paid my undergraduate tuition and fellowship. The fellowship seemed exceedingly generous to me at the time since my expenses were minimal, mostly plain oatmeal, beans, and veggies bought in bulk from Hey Market. This gift from MIT solidified my perception of a meritocratic system. It provided compelling empirical evidence for the possibility to pursue education and research without growing up in a wealthy environment.

Given these experiences, my idealism was sky high when I started my PhD research at Princeton University. However, I also started encountering examples that were incongruous with my ideals of a fair and meritocratic world. Reconciling my perceptions and experiences with my idealistic views was challenging. Sometimes I misunderstood how the system works, and sometimes I publicly shared my evolving views and thoughts. This journey led me to a framework that reconciled the tension – at least for me – and shaped an actionable attitude.

A key to this reconciliation is defining optimal outcomes within realistic constraints. For example, evaluating original cutting-edge research is fundamentally different from grading a few hundred solutions to the same well understood scientific problems. This means that the level of meritocracy achievable at the International Scientific Olympiads (my formative youthful experience) is fundamentally higher than the level of meritocracy achievable in cutting-edge research environments. Strong papers will be rejected even by well-intentioned and competent editors and reviewers. It is an intrinsic aspect of exploring the frontiers of human knowledge. As another example of practical constraints, leading an independent research group requires being able to make final decisions on resource allocation, which in turn requires dealing with budgets and managing resources, activities that many academics dislike.

Of course the reality falls far short of the optimal outcomes within realistic constraints. Sometimes, people evaluating research are not competent or well intentioned. Similarly, administrative and managerial work can significantly exceed the minimum that is required for leading an independent research group. These deviations from optimality are counterproductive, and we should seek to minimize their impact. For me, that means avoiding overgeneralizing and overreacting and focusing on what I can improve. When the project that has consumed most of your waking hours for the last few years is unfairly evaluated, the world might seem like a terrible place, falling apart. Yet, it’s not that simple: The world is a very complex place with many facets. It is a highly imperfect place that you can make better. Yes, the best response for me is to realize what lies within my control and to focus on it, to act upon it aiming to bring the world a bit closer to the limits set by realistic constraints.

Academia is not an ideal place, but we should seize its lofty ideals and move it closer to their realistic projections!


Please leave comments as responses to the tweet below: