Over the past few years, I’ve had a couple of conversations with friends that left me wondering exactly what universities have become.
These friends are either in the middle of a PhD or contemplating doing one, and inevitably we turned to discuss whether a career in academia would be worthwhile. They wanted, simply put, a life that gave them time to think deeply about their chosen subject.
This is still, on the whole, what we think should be the essence of academia. Universities are supposed to provide space for serious thought. But I came away from our chats wondering whether my friends might have better luck pursing this goal outside the academy (more on this later).
These conversations came to mind last week when I discovered a rare treasure trove of data about how researchers in the Netherlands spend their time.
What emerges is a disheartening picture of professors who have little time for research (despite promises to the contrary from management) and work scarily long hours.
Those lucky enough to have become full professors – supposedly the light at the end of the tunnel for struggling junior scholars – spend just 17 per cent of their time on their own research. Teaching, research supervision and “management and organisational tasks” were all bigger commitments. Associate and assistant professors fare little better carving out research time for themselves.