How mythical is the academic superhero?

AYA Magazine #2

One of the beautiful aspects of academia is that it is a place where we can strive for the impossible. One generation ago, we had no idea that we would become able to look inside the functioning human brain or that we could manipulate a genetic code to create a vaccine. In a sense, academics have to believe they have mythical abilities to uncover novel truths. This is empowering and provides an escape from reality. During the pandemic, several members of the Amsterdam Young Academy referred to our meetings as an escape from the mundane reality of lockdowns. Yet, we also experience that our ambitions can be a vulnerability when we take them too far. In the #mythicalsuperhero campaign, we visualised the academic superhero to ask ourselves: are they a healthy incentive or not?

Wanting more than one can achieve is natural. Humans are driven to engage in behaviours for which there is no evidence that they will result in success. For instance, a child attempts to climb a tree without ever having done so and Columbus sailed the oceans uncertain of what he would encounter on his journey. Psychology has explained such behaviour as stemming from an intrinsic drive to learn, in which any information is better than no information. Moreover, we act based on what we might achieve in the future rather than based on what we are able to do in the moment. While being slightly overconfident is a healthy incentive, too much of it is the root of psychiatric disorders such as narcissism. So how mythical is the academic superhero?

The academic superhero is versatile. Our academic positions are defined in terms of research and education, but everyone knows reality includes many additional tasks, as Shari Boodt and Fleur Jongepier note in the Times Higher Education1. Besides the official categories, academic work contains an equally large category of academic service: organising conferences, writing opinion pieces and leadership, to name but a few. It comes as no surprise to learn that on average academics work 150% of their appointed hours. The academic superhero has outgrown the regular working week.

Research being financed by competitive grants with success rates of 5-15% is a driving force behind doing more and more. There simply isn’t enough money for all good proposals but rather than admitting that we are subject to a game of chance, a fetishization of hard work makes us believe that we would be successful if we worked even harder. Competing on the number of publications is difficult because the winning numbers require a productive lab and little teaching obligations. Therefore, many of us try to stay in the game by excelling in as many aspects of academia as possible. The grant system is the potion that enables the academic hero to grow a mythical number of arms.

Eventually, academia becomes a place that is welcoming only to the mythical all-rounder. Yet, core aspects of science such as advanced statistical techniques, lab work, and scientific rigour in general, are only mastered when many dedicated hours are invested. The all-rounder needs to collaborate with colleagues with a greater drive to work endlessly on a single topic even if it harms their career. Research integrity might also be under pressure. I am regularly faced with the dilemma of either producing the highest quality work or publishing enough papers to stay in the game. Publish or perish. The mythical superhero might be slowly pushing academia into an abyss where we no longer collaborate but produce piles of sloppy science. So how can we put the genie back in the bottle? Academia needs role models who dare to focus on a single aspect of academia, who admit their mistakes, and don’t work overtime, as Joeri Tijdink and Christiaan Vinkers argued in the Dutch daily newspaper Trouw2. These role models can only be found when hiring policy is changed and a belief in the merits of competition is nuanced. For the common good, the highest achiever should sometimes lose out to someone who lets others flourish.

  1. Shari Boodt & Fleur Jongepier, Recognition of academia’s invisible labour is long overdue, Times Higher Education, June 6, 2021.
  2. Joeri Tijdink & Christiaan Vinkers, Terwijl de wetenschap hard bezig is de pandemie te bezweren, is het de vraag hoe lang de wetenschapper het nog volhoudt, Trouw, September 4, 2020


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