How I fell out of love with academia

Sabine Hossenfelder today posted a new video on youtube which everyone in theoretical physics should watch and think seriously about. She tells honestly in detail the story of her career and experiences in academia, explaining very clearly exactly what the problems are with the conventional system for funding research and for training postdocs.

After a string of postdocs requiring moving and living far from her husband, she decided she needed to move back to Germany and applied for a grant to fund her research (I believe for this project). This is how she describes the situation:

At this point I’d figured out what you need to put into a grant proposal to get the money. And that’s what I did. I applied for grants on research projects because it was a way to make money, not because I thought it would leave an impact in the history of science. It’s not that what I did was somehow wrong. It was, and still is, totally state of the art. I did what I said I’d do in the proposal, I did the calculation, I wrote the paper, I wrote my reports, and the reports were approved. Normal academic procedure.

But I knew it was bullshit just as most of the work in that area is currently bullshit and just as most of academic research that your taxes pay for is almost certainly bullshit. The real problem I had, I think, is that I was bad at lying to myself. Of course, I’d try to tell myself and anyone who was willing to listen that at least unofficially on the side I would do the research that I thought was worth my time but that I couldn’t get money for because it was too far off the mainstream. But that research never got done because I had to do the other stuff that I actually got paid for.

As that grant ended, she decided to try instead applying for grants to work on research that she found to be more promising and not bullshit, but those grant proposals were not successful. Since then, she has left the academic research system and concentrated on trying to make a career oriented around high-quality Youtube videos about scientific research.

It seems to me that Hossenfelder correctly analyzes the source of her difficulties: “The real problem I had, I think, is that I was bad at lying to myself.” Those more successful in the academic system sometimes criticize her as someone just not as talented as themselves at recognizing and doing good research work. But I see quite the opposite in her story. Many of those successfully pursuing a research career in this area differ from her in either not being smart enough to recognize bullshit, or not being honest enough to do anything about it when they do recognize bullshit.

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35 Responses to How I fell out of love with academia

  1. Branislav Raskovic says:

    Re: “most of academic research that your taxes pay for is almost certainly bullshit. ”

    Although some research may be BS, “most” is a gross exaggeration. The pursuit of most forms of intellectual investigation needs to be fostered and encouraged …. Even if no proximate utility. Her personal issues with her career should not taint the environment others are working in by making such gross exaggerations.

    I enjoy reading all your posts, and in general agree with most of your commentary, but this post of yours does much dis-service to many.

  2. Peter Woit says:

    Branislav Raskovic,
    I personally wouldn’t make global statements about all academic research. But, in the field of fundamental theoretical physics, she is quite right that most academic research is now bullshit. This is not about “Her personal issues”, or about intellectual investigation being attacked, or about criticism of research as lacking proximate utility. It’s about the continuing disaster of overwhelming bullshit that has afflicted a field, for reasons that she explains.

  3. Garald says:

    Oh come on. You can write a grant proposal that you know will likely be accepted (all the while believing, rightly or wrongly, that it’s interesting and perhaps doable) and then you can start working on things that are related, more interesting and more doable (by you). Then you just need to convince the grant committee that they are closely related, and that’s subjective enough that you don’t have to lie.

  4. Peter Woit says:


    I’m now deleting most of the comments that are coming in. Everyone wants to argue about how science/academia/etc works in general, but I don’t think that kind of very general discussion is worthwhile (and I don’t want to moderate it).

    Hossenfelder had some very important specific things to say, based on her specific experiences, which she has described with a very rare openness and honesty. This is an important challenge to others in the field, and I’d like to hear from those who have a serious response to that.

  5. David Brown says:

    I think it is worth emphasizing Hossenfelder’s remarks about her exposure to the writing of textbooks. “The next problem was: the head of the institute made a lot of money selling textbooks. He wrote very little of these textbooks himself. Rather, he gave assignments for parts of the books to students and postdocs — which is why, in case you’ve ever wondered, these textbooks are so discontinuous and partly repetitive.”

  6. Peter Woit says:

    David Brown,

    Besides what she had to say about postdocs and grants, the stories about the textbooks (Greiner-Reinhardt) and funding for women were interesting, but perhaps specifically problems of that particular institution and that particular time.

  7. Eric Weinstein says:

    As we all know exactly what she is talking about, it will be curious to see who pretends otherwise this time.

  8. The Cohomologist says:

    I believe you’ve discussed this on your blog before, but perhaps it bears repeating—how much of the experience Sabine describes carries over to academic mathematics? Treatment of postdocs and grad students, etc.?

  9. Alessandro Strumia says:

    Theorists disappear because of two main problems: a) not being hired; b) being hired. In some countries some theorists get hired permanently (often after over-working on mainstream arguments for a few year), next they can do whatever they want. And many stop doing research. Sabine got problem a) probably because she openly criticised the field. Professional theorists always pretend being excited and never criticise colleagues, fearing getting them as referees. Then boring wrong stuff spreads. A possible fix would be allowing anonymous comments below each arXiv paper.

  10. martibal says:

    What Peter think about anonymous comments ? Who would moderate this (it is not difficult to imagine many situations of conflict of interest, personal revenge etc).

  11. Peter Woit says:

    Eric Weinstein,
    Though a theorist, here Hossenfelder carried out an important experiment, showing the same person can get a grant to write the 25,000th paper about ads/cft, but not be able to get a grant to write papers about other less popular topics.

    The Cohomologist,

    The situation in math is different and significantly better. For one thing, at least in the US, math “postdocs” are funded mostly not by grant money but by teaching and in general grants are smaller and much less significant.

    There would be problems with anonymous comments. In any case, the problem she is discussing is really the job situation, not the literature, which is a different issue. Also, given that the arXiv censors (see the trackback saga) people for posting non-anonymous critical comments on papers by influential theorists, they’re unlikely to start allowing anonymous critical comments.

  12. Max Lein says:

    @Peter Woit
    I think you are painting with a broad brush here, particle physics and the theory of gravity (as in alternatives to/extensions of/modifications of GR) are not representative of theoretical physics at large. The theory of topological insulators was an important development in condensed matter physics and the theory of classical waves. Some of the techniques that were used in the systematic classification of hermitian/selfadjoint and especially non-hermitian systems came from particle physics. Improvements in manufacture (e. g. 3d printing) made many of these claims accessible to experimental verification.

    @The Cohomologist
    I’m a mathematical physicist by trade who works with both sides of the aisle, although in most jobs I was considered a mathematician. In my experience (which covers Canada, Japan and Europe), some of the pressures and problems are quite similar. Some obscure (and I mean this with love) fields only have a handful of people in it, and personal tiffs or perceived slights can certainly impact one’s academic career.

  13. an old guy says:

    In 1990 I made the most difficult decision in my life to that point – exiting my graduate physics program @ a top-3 school (whatever top 3 means). It was to be the last time in my life that I felt like an utter failure. There were two years where the idealistic future I had envisioned had no ready replacement; everything felt like a submission to the hedonistic treadmill, the polar opposite of what motivated me to physics.

    What was Physics’ offense?

    It was a factory of marginal thought, a vortex of group-think, and a bizarre form of Ponzi-scheme that felt sure to crash. I couldn’t look away from this impression. I tried. I passed my qual, convincing myself that I just had to find the right group. I networked and probed. I volunteered my time. And nothing resonated, or when a group working a semi interesting topic would be critically probed, the reflexive defensiveness was palpable and void of humility. Eventually, the behavior and group-think took on an ugliness I could not ignore.

    I had to jump.

    I didn’t have anywhere to land.

    As I’ve watched Dr. Hossenfelder over the years, in addition to feeling a sense of admiration and respect, a lighthearted reprieve due to her humor, a familiar sense of simpatico in probing the world and what structures lay beneath… I also see a haunting specter of what I could have become. It’s chilling. I would have struggled to fight a hollowing bitterness that accompanies compromise.

    And it’s not just Dr. H.

    As I’ve followed Dr. Weinstein, I’ve periodically attempted to square his career path with my brother-in-law’s who did their graduate work at Harvard at the same time (some 30+ years ago). To be blunt: the exercise saddens me. I don’t mean this glibly or arrogantly (though, that is likely how it will come across), but mine is the sadness of being right. Of forecasting correctly. Put another way, had I “stuck it out” within academia, the probability of residing within Thoreau’s disquieting aphorism–The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation–was terrifying likely.

    In short (apologies for the sililoquy), the dynamic Peter calls out, as do Dr. H & W, had a genesis decades ago. Decades ago! That little to nothing has changed is unconscionable; a poster-child of institutional rot. It is shameful condition for a profession so grand.

    Then again, fast forward to now, there are those I admire that remain engaged or adjacent to the academic realm. I view them as representing the best of what I could have become, had I decided differently three+ decades ago.

    Someone like Peter, who courageously and continuously calls out the perils of HEP group-think, while contributing to his field.

    Or, someone like Dr. W who stubbornly develops his views outside of the sanctified realm, while living life rather well.

    Or, most compellingly, someone like the indomitable soul of Dr. H. Bless her.

    Adieu –

  14. Sabine says:

    Hi Peter, thanks for the link. Yes, that was the first of those projects, lots of buzzwords about AdS/CFT and quantum simulations and strange metals and so on. Worked like a charm!

    Just one correction. I haven’t left academia, I am affiliated with the University of Munich (the Center for Mathematical Philosophy), it’s just that I’m not employed by them (partly because I don’t live in Munich and have no intention of moving there). I haven’t entirely abandoned the idea to apply for another grant again in the future — mostly because I’d like to have a team to work with — but at the moment I’m rather sick of it.

  15. gentzen says:

    There would be problems with anonymous comments. In any case, the problem she is discussing is really the job situation, not the literature, which is a different issue. Also, given that the arXiv censors (see the trackback saga) people for posting non-anonymous critical comments on papers by influential theorists, they’re unlikely to start allowing anonymous critical comments.

    Your best chance to comment on arXiv papers and get actual feedback is probably
    There are more platforms (i.e. I wrote in December 2017: “In addition to SciRate, also other options came up. The two most recent were and”), but I doubt that any of those alternatives is as “open to everyone”, accepted by scientific communities, and simple to use as SciRate. However, SciRate is non-anonymous, plain real world name. No idea whether or how that is enforced.

    That Peter Woit is denied arXiv trackbacks is simply ridiculous. But those trackbacks failed to achieve their purpose anyway. And that me or you won’t get trackbacks makes perfect sense to me, because otherwise arXiv would risk spam attacks. Platforms like SciRate can handle spam, because they are less anonymous.

  16. In addition to all the valid scientific issues mentioned above, it seems worth also considering the enormous constraints imposed on academic careers by personal constraints – the two body problem, wishing to have but not frequently uproot children, and even just having a geographic preference to live in a particular region (like where you’re from). The demands of an ambitious career path rather aggressively select against these normal human desires, skewing the ranks of the academy.

  17. BM says:

    Earlier this evening I decided to re-read an article in Inference Review by Emanuel Derman about option-pricing theory that I had stored in my bookmarks. Unfortunately it appears that the entire website has been taken offline; I thought you might like to know given your previous posts about this quite peculiar online journal.

    This is obviously off topic but I’m afraid that comments on the older, related posts have been disabled; please feel free to delete as you see fit, Peter.

  18. Max Lein says:

    Munich is a great place for people working at the intersection of physics and philosophy. Apart from Harald Lesch, Detlef Dürr used to be very active.

    @Stacy McGaugh
    Yes, the lack of permanent positions is a huge problem, and scientists getting tenure later and later in their career (if at all). I got a tenured position at the tender age of 43. My lack of stability really had an impact on my personal life, e. g. we had children much later than we hoped for.

  19. martin says:

    I don’t understand why she couldn’t get a job at an university, where one can teach and do research. Having a salary makes you independent of grants, and for theoretical physics you can still do research even if you don’t always get a grant.

  20. ateixeira says:

    So the coments about the book writting are on Greiner’s books? That’s a pitty because I really liked all of his (actually not his books)…

  21. Peter Woit says:

    Inference lost its funding a while back, stopped commissioning articles. I hope the problem with the website is only temporary.

    Permanent faculty positions in this kind of theory are very hard to get (likely impossible if you’re someone not getting grants). And it you were lucky enough to get one, almost surely you would have to move to somewhere far from where your spouse, family, etc. are.

  22. Peter Woit says:

    By the way, skies very clear here in Maine. Later today will be in Jackman to see the eclipse.

  23. Amateur Physicist says:

    I had pretty similar experiences in my academic career. My solution was simply to leave academia and take up a teaching job, where I teach maths and physics for engineers. My salary is about twice I got in the University, the work is nice, and I have lots of time for my own research. I can study whatever I want, and so I am truly independent. Actually, most of my papers have been published since I left academia. So, leaving the academia does not necessarily mean an end of a research career.

  24. Andrew says:

    The evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne has some thoughts on this here:

  25. Z Y says:


    After the sad state of affairs that this comments thread reflects upon, it brings a smile to my face that an eclipse still excites physicists, enough to travel to a spot within the totality path.

  26. DrDave says:

    We should all support Sabine for telling her story. Also, not all of us can live on our YouTube earnings. She has put a ton of quality work into her channel.

  27. JE says:


    Re: “You can write a grant proposal that you know will likely be accepted (all the while believing, rightly or wrongly, that it’s interesting and perhaps doable) and then you can start working on things that are related, more interesting and more doable (by you). Then you just need to convince the grant committee that they are closely related, and that’s subjective enough that you don’t have to lie.”

    Well, convincing some grant committee that your groundbreaking research project on e.g. new compactification methods for Calabi-Yau manifolds deserves a grant (based on academic achievements, published research, and so on) is very likely much easier than getting a grant for some ‘promising’ non-mainstream project of yours still these days. Convincing the committee that the former has anything to do with your more interesting and doable non-superstringy project may be tougher.

    Several generations of theoretical physicists, like S.H., have suffered this ‘bias’ for the last 40-50-60 years. The problem does not seem to lie in that they have not been –or are not– creative enough to cheat a little bit on grant committees. The problem seems more related to the question of why string theory has (for so long) been and (still) is considered a mainstream research subject in HEP by grant committees, mass media, journals/referees and leading figures in the field.

  28. Daniel Shawcross Wilkerson says:

    Frankly, Sabine is exactly correct. I am a computer engineer and computer scientist and the situation in computing is the same. *Many* computing people leave academia for exactly this reason. I have heard a friend say something like all people are doing in computing is taking an idea from 20 years ago and publishing it again under a different name. That might not be 100% true, but it is certainly much of what gets funded.

    Another way to put what Sabine is saying is that research funding is limited at the imagination of the people in the funding agencies. And that’s being nice about it and not considering the possibility of a lot of cliquishness where people just fund their friends.

    Further, Sabine is omitting the fact that people get funding based on publications and the “high status” people in academia sometimes use outright plagiarism to get said publications. Even when proved, the “high status” are above the law and therefore allowed to do so by the committees that are supposed to punish it. This is not a theoretical assertion: I and others have witnessed this first-hand at the highest levels (most famous people and universities).

    For those who are not experienced with academia, if you listen, you can hear the ring of truth in Sabine’s whole story, whether you want to admit it or not. We need people who are not researchers (that is, most people) to recognize that the funding system set up by the legislatures creates corruption. Only then can the situation be fixed. I have seen people instead reflexively take emotional umbrage at criticisms of the system, clinging to a notion of the purity of the ivory tower. Please stop: your willful blindness is just making the situation worse. For those of us who are researchers, you are making our lives intolerable. We are the ones discovering and inventing things for you and we could really use your help. Please listen.

  29. Jason Tyler says:

    Was just able to watch Sabine’s video. Not too surprised about her revelations. Thank you for sharing and it is nice to see the fantastic support she is receiving here and on her channel. Academia needs someone like her desperately, to clear the fog and smooth things out. Follow your dreams and blow us all away.

  30. jj says:

    I’m long-term faculty at a mid-tier US college. My students are mostly good, occasionally very good. I enjoy wide discretion in my choice of courses and research. I have great colleagues. I work hard. I’ve developed some ideas that I believe in and that I’m proud to publish. With luck, some will be real contributions. I’ve received a few grants and fellowships, although my winning percentage is modest. I’ve served on national peer review committees. I support innovative work as I’m able. There are many people like me in academia. Getting a job like mine requires not only hard work but luck. That said, in my experience, people with talent and training comparable to mine who don’t get a job like mine end up doing other things that they enjoy instead, often make more money than me, and mostly don’t express serious regrets. For this reason, some of the comments here surprise me. Broad charges of “corruption”, “outright plagiarism”, “above the law”, “willful blindness”, etc. are not borne out by my experience. “We all know exactly what she is talking about” (Eric Weinstein) strikes me as sophistical. What we know is what SH said. What she’s “talking about”, especially when held against some of EW’s more eye-raising public allegations, is another matter. What Stacy McGaugh observes — that the “demands of an ambitious career path rather aggressively select against these normal human desires” — could be said equally of the law, finance, entertainment, sport, or any other sector where conditions are right for the development of a “star system”. In short, I see the problems with HEP that PW has been shedding light on for decades, and I feel his pain, but I’m not sure I see good reason for wholesale deprecation of “the system”.

  31. RetiredGuy says:

    The situation with National Labs is not much prettier, although there is a much more job security than an untenured academic position, and much less than tenured one. But you still can only work on projects that can be “sold” to the sponsors even if it is “bullshit”; reasoning otherwise is severely discouraged.

  32. Peter Woit says:

    There have been large numbers of comments coming in about problems of the academic research system in general and in lots of different areas. I’ve deleted almost all of them because I don’t think this kind of general denunciation is helpful. I also though don’t think the “everything is fine for me” counter-position is helpful. People really should try to respond specifically to the facts that Hossenfelder was presenting in an unusually honest manner.

    About the “star system” thing. The problem is that academic research is not like “law, finance, entertainment, sport”, because in those fields people become stars by bringing in a lot of money, selling a lot of tickets, scoring a lot of goals, a very different situation. In particle theory in particular, for decades now people have been becoming “stars” and collecting \$3 million prizes on the basis of failed ideas.

    The remarkable thing in Hossenfelder’s story is her experience with grants, showing that the same person who can get a research grant by spouting the conventional hype about the same topic everyone else is working on cannot get funding to work on ideas they find much more promising. This situation has been going on for decades and is one of the main reasons why this particular field is a disaster area right now.

    I’ve been thinking about my own early career experiences, back when I was a postdoc at Stony Brook 1984-1988. During those years, string theory completely dominated the subject of trying to use more mathematics to make progress in fundamental physics. I guess I was aware that the correct career move for someone with my interests was to find a hot string theory topic using some of the mathematics I had been learning and start working on that. But I didn’t think string theory was at all promising as a fundamental theory, was arrogant enough to believe that my own ideas about what was promising (spinor geometry…) were better. I just couldn’t see myself heading down a road of competing for grants/jobs etc. by working on things I didn’t really believe in. Seemed a better idea to do what one thought best until the money ran out and you were forced to do something else. This ended up working out fine, although it involved a large amount of luck. I know lots and lots of good physicists of my generation who left the usual path for similar reasons, ended up but working not on different ideas about fundamental theory, but on completely different topics.

  33. jj says:

    Peter, things might be getting a little mixed up. My basic point isn’t that everything is fine for me, it’s that many people in academia, in my experience the vast majority, are neither crooks nor victims. One might get a different idea from some of the comments here. To be sure, writing successful grant applications isn’t the same thing as doing worthwhile work, and I’ve seen people get much better at the former than they are at the latter. But again the number of such people isn’t huge, and those who are uninterested in applying for grants (like me, usually) can often get by without them. Those who dislike the whole game for whatever reason or don’t land a TT job mostly still have decent alternatives, so we’re not talking about an all-or-nothing spin of the wheel. I’d be sad if your important complaints about HEP got mixed up with more questionable resentments. It’s reassuring to hear that you’re filtering the more egregious stuff.

  34. Inference is now back 0nline:

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