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The ecological pyramid of Academia

What does a PhD student have in common with a rabbit? And a university professor with a bear?

 

Two thousand five hundred years ago, a Greek man called Plato started teaching philosophy in a grove of trees called Akadémeia. This small wood in Athens, named after the mythical Greek hero Akademos, was the origin of the word Academia. However, 25 centuries later, this word has acquired many more connotations than just a group of wise bearded men talking about metaphysics. “Academia” has evolved into a hypercomplex ecosystem of professors, undergraduates, PhD candidates, principal investigators (PIs), research institutes and universities. They all, supposedly, dedicate their careers to research and the expansion of human knowledge. But what do we mean by academia? And more importantly, how does it work?


Understanding how academia has become what it is today requires a very brief historical outline. After Plato’s teachings, one of the most significant advancements in the history of academia is the foundation of the five oldest universities in the world, located in Bologna (Italy), Oxford (United Kingdom), Salamanca (Spain), Paris (France), and Cambridge (United Kingdom). These five, and many others founded after them, established the basics of how knowledge was acquired, maintained, and transmitted to date. Since then, academia has worked based on a hierarchy defined mainly around three factors: how old was your academic resumé, your level of experience in your field of study, and the contributions you have made to your field. The hierarchy therefore defined (and still defines) whether you were important enough to assume responsibilities in the process of acquiring, maintaining, and transmitting knowledge in your field.


Even though this is a simplification on how the complex world of academia functions, this hierarchy nowadays can be summarized in the following six positions: (i) undergraduate and master students ineligible for a PhD but who may take part in closely supervised research, (ii) PhD candidates that perform supervised research while still receiving formation, (iii) technicians who carry out research tasks under the scientific direction of a third researcher, (iv) post-docs that conduct research leading their projects more independently, (v) permanent researchers with full-time and stable positions on a research team, but are not the head of the research unit, and (vi) PIs or professors who lead and manage research teams in research institutes or universities respectively.


While this organization is slightly different from country to country, the evolution of a research career through these hierarchical positions follows the same basic structure: undergraduate students enrol in a master program to specialize in a particular topic and, once they have completed their training, they can apply for a PhD candidature. After completing a PhD, those who want to continue in academia will apply for a post-doctoral position (post-docs) where they are tasked with autonomously developing a project. After one or more post-docs, during which they acquire the publications and knowledge in the field necessary to lead their independent research, they apply for group leader (PI or professor) or permanent researcher positions. While there are intermediate levels in the hierarchy where you can stabilize your career, such as the role of technician, a “classical” entire academic path ends with a permanent role as a PI or professor until retirement. Importantly, academia also contributes to feeding other fields with highly-trained professionals that leave academia on any of the steps of their research career.


Similar to any hierarchical ecosystem in nature, academia can be represented as an ecological pyramid (Figure 1) where you can find those producing research (mainly undergraduates, technicians, PhDs, permanent researchers and post-docs) and those “consuming” research (mainly PIs, Professors, Research Institutes and Universities). This creates very interesting fluxes of knowledge (the “biomass”) within academia that help (i) maintain the ecological niches and (ii) perpetuate the ecosystem through time. This concept can be illustrated by the following example: the work of an undergraduate/master student might produce preliminary data that becomes the basis of a PhD thesis. Some research from the PhD thesis will, eventually, be published and help the PI to acquire funding through grants. These grants will both support the PI’s position and increase the budget of the hosting institution (university or research institute). Furthermore, that money will allow the PI to hire a subsequent PhD student or post-doc to continue the cycle by directly furthering research or supervising more students.


Figure 1: Metaphoric representation of the ecological pyramid applied to the academic world



However, this academic ecological pyramid does not have a continuous slope as shown in the representation. Instead, there are two big bottlenecks: the undergraduate-master to PhD transition, with only around 5% of undergraduates being awarded a PhD in France 1; and the transition to PI-professor, with only 12.8% of awarded PhDs getting a faculty position 2. This is also common among natural ecosystems, that is, the upper levels of the trophic chain are frequently much smaller than the lower ones. An obvious difference between our metaphor and the classical ecological pyramid is that, of course, PIs and professors do not generally eat their students, rather they train them to learn new skills which may be useful in their future academic positions. The duration of the different positions is also quite variable; a faculty position might last an average of 20 years 2, which is 4 times the average time to get a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree (approx. 5-6 years), a PhD (approx. 3-5 years), or a post-doc (approx. 3-6 years).


In addition, there are two other players with essential roles in shaping academia nowadays: funding agencies and scientific publishing groups. On the one hand, funding bodies (both public agencies and private institutions) provide the academic ecosystem with the necessary economical support for their activities. On the other hand, scientific publishing groups contribute to the peer-reviewing system, profit from the research articles produced by academics, and publish them in their journals so that knowledge can be distributed.


Nowadays the role of public funds to maintain academic research is generally accepted as necessary. However, there is a growing debate on whether for profit companies should be relied upon to transmit knowledge in the Internet era. This debate is mainly fuelled by the following facts 3:

  1. academics need to pay for having their own work published,

  2. academics (or their hosting institutions) need to pay to access their own articles after publication,

  3. academics take the responsibility of organizing the peer-review system for free,

  4. and academics review each other’s articles for free as well.

Following the ecological pyramid metaphor, one could ask whether scientific publishing groups are carrier pigeons that transmit messages in academia or birds of prey that simply benefit from their position.


Lastly, we need to consider whether academia should remain a hierarchical pyramid, and the advantages and disadvantages of this system for both the expansion of knowledge and efficient use of the public funds. A hierarchical system like this one effectively favours academic merit in the acquisition of high level positions in order to promote high quality research. But it can also effectively prevent new ideas from penetrating the academic sphere. As the ecosystem is self perpetuating and the upper positions are responsible for the evaluation of the lower ones, breakthrough ideas that revolutionize the existing knowledge may not be selected. One could say, and there is evidence supporting it 4, that ideas that do not match the current scientific models have lower “fitness”, or are less likely to survive, in academia than ideas that simply follow established scientific theories. As breakthrough ideas are more likely to come from creative young minds with less established patterns of thinking, supporting and empowering young researchers will improve the quality of academic thinking 5.


It is important to note that this ecological pyramid metaphor has not been created to exhaustively describe the complex world of research today, but instead to bring awareness and improve our knowledge on how this system functions. For academics, understanding how this system works is important so that we might ask ourselves whether this hierarchy is a positive way of working, and consider improvements. For funding bodies, awareness of how academia functions may enable them to better acknowledge and support breakthrough ideas which could help us tackle 21st-century challenges. And to society, so that we all can understand what academia really means and how it operates. By reflecting together on how academia functions, we can all contribute to shaping a more critical and wiser society.



References


1. Sous-direction des systèmes d’information et des études statistiques (SIES) - ministère de l’Éducation nationale, de l’Enseignement supérieur et de la Recherche (Paris). (2017) PhDs and PhD graduates. Higher Education & Research in France, Facts and Figures 10th Edition. https://publication.enseignementsup-recherche.gouv.fr/eesr/10EN/EESR10EN_R_38-phds_and_phd_graduates.php#ILL_EESR10EN_R_38_03


2. Larson, R.C. et al. (2014) Too Many PhD Graduates or Too Few Academic Job Openings: The Basic Reproductive Number R0 in Academia. Syst. Res. Behav. Sci. https://doi.org/10.1002/sres.2210


3. Aczel, B., et al. (2021) A billion-dollar donation: estimating the cost of researchers’ time spent on peer review. Res. Integr. Peer. Rev. https://doi.org/10.1186/s41073-021-00118-2


4. Chu, J.S. et al. (2021) Slowed canonical progress in large fields of science Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2021636118


5. Vale, R.D. (2015) Accelerating scientific publication in biology. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci USA . https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1511912112




This article was specialist edited by Nathalie Court-Lecuyer & Dr Mariana Mesel-Lemoine and copy edited by Carys Croft.


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