I think it really hit me at the chicken shit meeting. There we were, in a meeting room, some lecturer colleagues and I, discussing chicken shit. Literally shit-loads of it. Some company, obviously in the chicken business, wanted us to help out with some of their chicken-shit problems.
Now, some aspect of chicken-shit processing might be mildly interesting, but was the science of chicken-shit processing the sort of stuff that would justify hiring two PhD students and a postdoc? I could see it: academics’ eyes would light up at the possibilities!
Getting funding and hiring postgraduate students and postdocs is the bread and butter of academic life; it’s the currency of the promotion game. So it doesn’t matter if the project doesn’t really demand deep study, critical thinking and even a smidgen of originality; the important thing is that the students becomes enrolled on a PhD programme while the academic gets to tick an important box on the way to promotion. The university is happy because, well, income is income and no institution turns down income these days. The company is happy because outsourcing research to universities is a cost-effective way of solving in-house problems. Everyone wins, even the badly paid PhD student who will have to put in a lot of long hours of mundane experimental work, because their goal is to get those letters after their name in the hope that it will accelerate their career advancement.
Anyway, it was at the chicken-shit meeting, that I had an out-of-body experience, and the voices of my colleagues faded out as it struck me that I didn’t want to be involved in this sort of, well, shit.
When, as a young engineering student in UCD back in the early eighties, I used to stop at posters advertising postgraduate study in the US: MIT, Cornell, Carnegie-Mellon, University of Pennsylvania and others. I wanted to do research that was at the cutting edge. I wanted to make discoveries in one of the core subjects of chemical engineering: reactor design, unit operations, transport phenomena, even thermodynamics. I didn’t want to study chicken shit.
Thirty years later I was like the footballer who dreams of playing football for Liverpool, who actually plays for Wimbledon, and who is chewing over an offer to go on loan to Carlisle.
I had the luxury, of course, that I was in a privileged position: I was a senior lecturer (re-branded as an associate professor – a sort of fake professor, outranked by “professors” and “full professors”) and I was self-aware enough to realise that I was going no further in the promotion race.
In contrast, younger colleagues were embarking on what is an increasingly competitive career, one that demands so many boxes be ticked that promotion can only achieved by sacrificing many aspects of your personal life. It is physically impossible to teach (well), manage a research group of PhD students and maybe some postdocs, acquire funding for research by writing grant proposals to funding agencies, play your part in general administration, develop new courses, engage with society and business, and perhaps take on a leadership position, without working evenings and weekends.
Having worked in academia for thirty years of more, I was tired of work dominating my life and something had to give; and getting involved in chicken-shit projects in which I had absolutely no interest was one of those aspects of the job that I was willing to ditch.
I suppose that’s one of the good aspects of academia; you can ditch things, not all of them, but some of them.