How Academia is REALLY like the hunger games; a PhD perspective from someone who has read the books far too many times

Disclaimer: the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author’s supervisor, employer, organisation, committee or any other group or individual.

By Isabelle Capell-Hattam

The first time I met Merlin Crossley, me a 1st year science student and he the UNSW Dean of Science, we talked about the Hunger Games.  I find it very apt now that as a 1st year PhD Candidate, with Merlin currently being the DVC(Academic) the Hunger Games remains at the forefront of our minds.

Recently in his Lab’s blog Merlin mentioned the Hunger Games. He did raise a very good point about how difficult funding is to receive in science these days, but he had a somewhat superficial view of the complexities of the franchise and how it accurately reflects the state of Australian Science. Maybe he wasn’t as much of an avid Hunger Games Fan as I initially thought, or maybe he has better things to do with his time than read Wiki pages on The Hunger Games for the sake of a blog, but I am here to set the record straight.

How Academia is really like The Hunger Games

Warning-spoilers ahead (both for academia and the Hunger games)

Wealthier districts have more success

In Panem, the Capitol controls the majority of the wealth. After this, districts located closer to the Capitol (1-3) are much more prosperous than those located further away, like the coal mining District 12 where Katniss and Peta originate from. This wealth often translates into success at the games. Before the 74th games there had only been a SINGLE victor from District 12, whereas the chance of success for a tribute in Districts 1-2 is high enough that “career tributes” train in anticipation of the games and volunteer as tributes for their chance at fame and fortune.

Do you belong to a Group of 8 university? Or how about a well renown research institute? Well chances are you have access to more “core facilities” and “Australian Centres for Research Excellence” that make you look more competitive in terms of grant funding.

On top of this you have wealthier alumni and benefactors who may make very generous donations into your university/institutions research funds (akin to tributes such as Glimmer getting lots of “sponsorship” for the games based on their appeal to the general public).

Fake relationships help you win

There is something about young love that gets the general public to swoon, and that is exactly what Katniss and Peta exploited in their 1st game (and their subsequent victory tour) to secure their safety. A suicide pact and then a post-games *pregnancy* kept the love of Katniss and Peta in the eye of the public in the lead up to the quarter quell and this attention made it harder for the Capitol to dispose of them without public scrutiny. While they eventually end up together (bound through their mutual trauma), the early stages of their relationship were 110% FAKE (from Katniss at least).

Science can be like this; grant writing season coming up? Quickly, let’s call up all our mates in related fields and ask them if they will contribute to our grant proposal.

By nature, science is very collaborative.  If we refused to work together, very little research would actually be done. Many researchers year after year propose projects with other teams that may look very good on paper but chances are they don’t always come to fruition (despite the best intentions). Academics are encouraged to have multiple investigators on their grants who can all supply small areas of expertise that in reality the lab will not draw on. These “relationships” give the grant review committees confidence that they are not wasting money on your science, as you have a quality team behind you, and that your research is part of the 10% worth funding.

Hopefully you never have to fake a pregnancy with your co-investigators on national TV, but if the funding pool keeps on drying up who knows what the next generation of researchers will be forced to do.

Lots of People Die very early on (and most people die)

In the 74th Hunger Games 11 out of 24 (12/24 in the movie version) die within the first day (slayed at the Cornucopia). This rapid and quick death and reduction of numbers helps thin out the playing field plus gets the public interested from the get-go (I imagine this is the same logic why we eliminate so many contestants from the Bachelor in the first week). It is a shame though for the large number of “career” tributes who have prepared for years for their reaping’s to be killed before they have the chance to kill everyone else who went in to save their families from starvation.

Current NHMRC funding models culls 50% of the grants submitted (classed as “non-competitive”) in the first round of grant submission. This leads to lots of potentially high-quality science getting stopped before it even leaves the front gate.  If the odds of your proposal being rejected that early on is a high as that of dying in your first day in the arena, it is no wonder why a lot of academics get very disheartened by the annual funding gauntlet.

Even if you survive the first round, as Merlin pointed out, the odds of receiving grant funding are shrinking every year. In recent years only ~10% of NMHRC grants were funded, reminiscent of the 1 in 24 tributes who make it out of the arena alive. Obviously, this can be biased (r/e wealthier districts having more success) but at the end of the day 90% of researchers go home empty handed and 96% of tributes die in the games.

THERE IS ONLY ONE (or a 10% CHANCE of being the) WINNER.

Skills that you think are useless may lead to your success

Peta, in the hunger games, went into the arena feeling nervous as all he could do was bake. Little did he know his “cake decorating skills” (look I didn’t write the book okay) would save his life.

I ended up in a science undergraduate as I didn’t have a single creative bone in my body and I was good at maths, but it is attributes like art, creativity and design (for posters and presentations) plus pure mechanical knowledge (how can I fix this very expensive piece of equipment ASAP so that my science isn’t stalled for 3 months) that can make or break you. Additionally (and sadly for all future scientists like me who slacked off in English class) your ability to write scientific literature well will be a major determinant of the success of your career, with a publish or perish mentality currently ruling the field. Beyond this, soft skills like sweet talking and networking are how you get jobs, meet your collaborators (so you can fake relationships with them) and make a name for yourself in the field.

Merely being *good* at science is not a recipe for success in the lab, just like only being good at clubbing people to death will not ensure your survival in the arena.

Ways that science is not entirely like The Hunger Games

In The Hunger Games book 3, “Mockingjay” it is revealed that the leader of District 13 (home of the rebel forces) was just as corrupt and power hungry as President Snow. It was only when President Alma Coin was brutally slayed at her coronation a true and impartial leader could take over.

Does this imply that Randy Schekman at the helm of eLIFE was just as corrupt as those behind Elsevier, and the fact that they are now looking for a new eLIFE Editor-in-chief is the next evolution in scientific publishing? I’m going to err on the side of no (not just because he is a very influential Nobel Laurate and I am very scared of him ruining my career).

Also, the outfits in The Hunger Games are much cooler than anything I’ve been allowed to wear in the lab.

If you have made it this far I applaud you (though it also implies you have read all the books or are my mum *hi mum*). Merlin didn’t miss the biggest takeaway from the series, a career in academia can often seem like an uphill battle. Many people leave academia due to stress, overwork, lack of job security (such as 2-year contracts) and lack of flexibility. For those who make it to the top, often you must remove yourself from the lab and find yourself drowning in hours of paperwork, health and safety legislation and increased teaching workload, all while squabbling for the tiny bits of funding that keep your lab alive.

When it comes to a career in science there is only one thing that we at the Brown Lab can wish you; May the odds be ever in your favour.

___________________________

Isabelle is the Brown lab’s resident Artist, Poet and Fashionista.

With a background of post modern dance and post midnight mishaps her transition into biochemistry surprised no one.

She is mysterious as the night and as whimsical as a wave freshly crashed upon the shore.
Isabelle

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