28

Introduction

One of the actualities of academia that is important to be aware of when using this site is: Academia varies more than you think it does. More explicitly: Academic practices strongly vary between countries, fields, journals, universities, departments, and even groups. It is easy to arrive at the false conclusion that some aspect of academia is the same everywhere.

This is a problem that pertains to all levels of users on this site:

  • Questions whose answers depends on the culture and regulations of individual institutions (that operate below the national level) cannot reasonably be answered by us (or any other similar Internet site). We close such questions since we have become tired of having a bazillion answers whose only substance is: “it depends”.

  • Answers that assume that academia is homogeneous in some respect when it is not are at best confusing to some readers and wrong and misleading at worst.

I already noted this in my answer to Welcome to Academia SE, which got insanely popular. However, given the restrictions and purposes of that question, it contains only a list of the most important examples – which is already quite long for something that is supposed to be a short introduction. Yet, due to the above problems, an extensive list of inhomogeneities in academia would be a valuable resource for the users of this site. Hence I am asking:

This Question

In which respects does academia vary more than many people expect?

  • Variations can be along different axes, e.g., between fields, countries, journals, universities, departments, or groups.

  • Answers shouldn’t be an obvious consequence of the differences of subjects, countries etc., e.g., it is little surprising that work groups in theoretical physics don’t refer to themselves as labs, or that research in poorer countries focuses on less expensive subjects.

  • Group answers into reasonable categories, roughly per tag on the main site. If you have something to add that does not fit into the existing categories, add a new answer (and link it in the table of contents below).

  • When possible, link to relevant posts on the main site.

  • This is a community wiki. Please feel free to contribute.

Table of Contents

  • Great to have this list. Is there any point in making an extended list in some way, where we can add which countries/regions/subjects/blah fit into which of the mentioned categories? – Tobias Kildetoft Apr 2 at 12:37
  • @TobiasKildetoft: I don’t think that this would be feasible, given that there are so many of them. Also, you may always find a subfield, university, etc. that is different, so it’s easy to provide false information. – Wrzlprmft Apr 2 at 12:55
  • Why isn't it surprising theoretical physics work groups don't call themselves "labs"? I've heard theoretical syntacticians call themselves "labs." – Azor Ahai Apr 2 at 19:15
  • 2
    @AzorAhai: Because a lab is a place where experiments are performed, and theorists usually do not do this (more or less by definition). Sure, you will always find some exceptions, where a group which does not have a literal lab calls itself lab, but if anything, that’s the surprise. – Wrzlprmft Apr 3 at 5:33
  • 7
    Where can I watch the movie? – Bergi Apr 3 at 20:58
  • 1
    Why is this Q on meta and not on the main site? – Federico Poloni Apr 5 at 17:56
  • 1
    @FedericoPoloni Uh, I'd say because it's more of a guidance to things you should be aware of before answering a question. – Massimo Ortolano Apr 5 at 18:01
  • 1
    This will quickly get too long to be useful. – Anonymous Physicist Apr 7 at 3:37
  • @AnonymousPhysicist If someone on the main site gives a sweeping generalized answer on a certain topic, we can refer to specific sections of this Q&A to point out how certain things vary across the academic world for that topic. The same if someone who asks a question fails to enough details about the localization. – Massimo Ortolano Apr 7 at 9:18
  • The most important thing (maybe I will later write an answer on this): Don't assume academia does only consist of Mathematics, Physics and Computer Science!!!! Many people here make this severe mistake which turns a lot of people off from the site. – Holla Apr 8 at 13:06
  • @Holla: That’s a different problem though (which was also already discussed on this meta). – Wrzlprmft Apr 8 at 13:13
  • I do think it belongs here, no? People think all academia is Mathematics, Physics and CS, but it varies more. – Holla Apr 8 at 13:16
  • 3
    @Holla: I don’t think any user believes that academia only is math, physics, and CS. Some users may think that all of academia is like those fields in some respects, in which case the details of which are what this question is about (and in fact some points are already mentioned in the answers). However, if you think there are other problems from users being overly focused on those fields, this belongs elsewhere. (Complete sidenote: As a physicist having glanced into many other fields, it seems to me that physics has more in common with most other fields than with math and CS.) – Wrzlprmft Apr 8 at 14:11
9

Publications

  • In some fields like computer science, conferences act as publication venues: you submit papers, they get peer-reviewed and disseminated. In most fields this is not the case and publishing your work in written form and presenting it at a conference are two different things.

  • The duration of the peer-review process varies greatly across fields, ranging from a few weeks to more than a year (further reading). Other stages in the peer-review process such as editorial assessment scale accordingly.

  • The prevalence of publishing preprints (on the ArXiv or similar) strongly varies across fields and even subfields and so does the acceptance of this practice by publishers.

  • Mentioning somebody in the acknowledgements requires their consent in some fields or for some journals (further reading).

  • Some fields have a tendency towards many small publications (with the extreme being salami publishing), while in other fields, authors try to accumulate as much content into one paper as possible. In yet other fields, much or most new work is published as complete books. Relatedly, the average publication frequency of researchers differs strongly across fields.

  • The average numbers of citations made and received by papers vary strongly across fields and even subfields. Relatedly, what is a high impact factor varies strongly across fields: Some mega journals that are regarded as a junk pile by some disciplines (due to their low impact factor) are sometimes erroneously held in a high regard by others (due to their high impact factor). Note that this is also affected by the impact factor only considering citations within the first two years, thus disadvantaging fields with long “response” times.

7

Authorship

  • In many fields, the order of authors in a paper indicates how much or how they contributed: The first author usually did most of the work, while the last one is sometimes the supervisor. Other fields order authors alphabetically.

  • Depending on the field and even the journal, corresponding author can refer to the author who communicated the paper to the journal or the author to whom post-publication communication about the paper by third parties should be addressed (further reading). Amongst others this results in corresponding authorship being valued in evaluation or for funding (further reading) in some contexts, while this seems bizarre to those used to the other meaning of corresponding author.

  • In some fields, the authors’ affiliations on a paper indicate where the work was done; in others, affiliations indicate where the authors can be currently found.

7

Studying and PhD Programmes

  • In some countries, you have to decide on a discipline when you start studying, in others you start broadly and decide for a major (or similar) later.

  • In some countries, there are no extensive university- or department-wide policies (on behaviour, cheating, writing reports, etc.).

  • In some countries, there is a big difference between undergraduate and graduate studies. In others, this distinction does not exist or is merely marked by bachelor’s degree. For example, it isn’t even possible to accurately translate the words undergraduate and graduate student into the German language.

  • In some countries, PhD programmes are purely research-based but require a master’s degree (which usually takes two years) for admission; in some they are purely research-based and require only a bachelor’s; and in some they require only a bachelor’s degree for admission but require coursework to be completed as part of the PhD. In the third case, the concept of “mastering out” exists. In the first (and second?) case, graduate schools do not exist or are mostly virtual structures (the author of these lines was a member of a graduate school that did not even inform its own students of its existence). Of course, there are variations of both schemes.

  • In some countries, prospective PhD students apply directly to potential supervisors; in others, they apply to a department.

  • In some countries, the PhD student chooses, or is assigned to, a supervisor only after some time (e.g. two years), while in some countries the student is to find a potential supervisor, willing to supervise him from the very beginning, before the actual application.

5

Writing and Writing Style

  • In pure math, a paper’s introduction may just be “We consider the problem of X.” and not have a conclusion or summary. In other fields, you are expected to argue why a problem is relevant, summarise previous research, and place your own research in that context.

  • The question whether single-author papers should be written using “I” or “we” depends on the field (further reading).

  • "I", or "we", or if you get certain reviewers, "the authors of the present work" ;-) – Flyto Jun 21 at 16:57
5

Employment and Funding

  • In some countries, faculty contracts include twelve or more months of salary; in others only nine months.

  • In some countries, PhD students are typically university employees; in others they are not and live on a stipend, or have to apply for funding and need not get it.

  • In some countries, the funding is based on impact-factor publications; in others, they do not care about this sort of thing.

  • In some countries, prospective PhD students apply directly to potential supervisors; in others, they apply to a department.

All these may also vary between fields or institutions within a given country.

5

Academic Life

  • In some countries, universities don’t arrange academic or mental-health counselling services for students.

  • In some countries or institutions, mass graduation ceremonies are a big thing. In others, most graduates just fetch their diploma from the respective office when they completed all the requirements (or receive it via mail), and mass graduation ceremonies are seen as something for people coming from the former countries and people who (or whose parents) like dressing up – if they happen at all.

  • In some countries or universities, it is common to strongly identify with and be loyal to one’s university or to an institution within the university; in others, this is regarded as outlandish.

  • In some countries, the academic year is interrupted by a large break during which campuses are mostly empty of students; in others, there are periods with classes that are interrupted by shorter breaks, while at least some students are almost always around for one university-related reason or another.

  • What kind of dress is the norm or appropriate strongly depends on field and to a lesser extent on country. The same attire can be overdressing for a formal occasion in one field and underdressing for everyday work in another.

  • I added a category about student bodies because that seemed sufficiently separate from the sorts of things in this category, which are more about process for students and not the attributes of students themselves; hope that's okay. – kcrisman Apr 7 at 2:34
  • What is meant by "counselling services" in this answer? Like, academic advising, or mental health resources? – Azor Ahai Apr 9 at 16:20
  • @AzorAhai: Both. (See my edit.) – Wrzlprmft Apr 10 at 7:49
4

Student Body Properties

  • Some academic contexts do not have students at all but still fit within academia (e.g. the Institute for Advanced Study).

  • Some have only what is usually called graduate students; others have only undergraduates.

  • In some countries, an institution of higher learning may not be called a university unless it has graduate programs, or is a certain type; in others naming conventions have little relation to this.

  • Some degree-granting institutions operate wholly within the online space, with nearly all part-time students; others only have full-time, on-site students. There are many, many ways to mix these nowadays.

  • Some physical universities have nearly all students living off - often very far from - campus, while others are nearly completely residential.

  • Which employee teaches what kind of student (or teaches at all, and how much) depends widely upon type of university, country, degree program(me), etc.

  • Some student bodies are highly culturally and racially diverse, others are quite homogeneous. Sometimes certain programs are homogeneous, but not of the dominant ethnic group of the community or country. Some programs in a given university may recruit widely from other countries, while others at the same one will have nearly all local students. And of course some student bodies are homogeneous and local, but do not fully reflect the community surrounding the university.

  • The same as the previous point, except regarding diversity of economic statuses. Naturally there are many times this point is strongly related to the previous point, but it is not always the case, particularly when students studying outside their country of origin is involved.

  • Certain universities have a common language of instruction which is not the local language, or even the first (or second or third ...) language of most students. Sometimes this is because there is no clear common language and a lingua franca is chosen. Some universities are bilingual or more.

4

Theses and Defences

  • In some countries and universities, you hand in your thesis to the examination office, which then distributes it to the examiners for grading. In others, you hand in your thesis to the examiners for grading directly. Yet another way is that you have to hand in a thesis that is already signed by your supervisor.

  • In some programmes, you must defend your thesis before submitting it; in others, you can only defend a fully examined thesis; in yet others, thesis submission and defence are mostly independent.

  • In some countries, bachelor’s degrees must be completed with a thesis; in others, this is optional or impossible.

  • Some programmes prescribe a fixed time that you shall spend on a thesis (which in turn can even vary between comparable programmes). Depending on the department’s and even group’s culture, this duration may be strictly adhered to, or it may be the norm that you only register a thesis once you are confident that you can finish it in time. In other programmes, you are completely free on when you hand in your thesis.

  • Some programmes have strict requirements on the length, layout, and structure of a thesis (which in turn strongly vary); other’s have no such restrictions at all.

  • The format of the “defence” — that is, the final thesis presentation/examination — varies very widely, from a public ceremony with multiple lectures (common in continental Europe) to a private oral exam (e.g. the viva voce of the traditional UK system). Usage of these terms also varies: often defence is used as an umbrella term covering all of these formats (as here); but often e.g. a viva may be considered as a different system entirely, not as a kind of defence.

  • A defence often consists only or primarily of a talk by the candidate, but in some systems (e.g. Dutch and Scandinavian) members of the thesis committee also (or even exclusively) give talks.

  • The length of a defence talk can vary considerably between programmes and even groups. In some cases, it’s just ten minutes; in others, it can take up to an hour. When the defence is an oral examination rather than a lecture, it may last longer, up to several hours.

  • The admission and role of the audience in a defence can strongly vary. Some defences are completely open to the public; some can only be attended by other members of the university; some defences happen only before the examiners. The defence talk and the questions may be treated differently in this respect. Questions from the audience can also be treated completely different: In some cases they are forbidden; in others they are allowed but rare; in yet others they are common and encouraged; and in some cases, a defence is not complete without a question from the audience.

  • The target audience of a defence may strongly differ even between groups. Some are supposed to directed at an expert audience familiar with the thesis. Others are supposed to be (mostly) understood by anybody from the field or even the faculty.

  • Australian universities usually do not have a defense at all. There may or may not be something similar with a different name. – Anonymous Physicist Apr 7 at 3:36
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    @AnonymousPhysicist: There may or may not be something similar with a different name. – This is ambiguous. Do you want to say that you do not know whether there is something similar, or do you want to say that in some cases there is something similar and in some cases there isn’t. Either way, please edit the respective information into the answer. – Wrzlprmft Apr 7 at 8:58
  • @ Wrzlprmft: I’ve added a bit on the UK-style viva system, which I guess may be also what @AnonymousPhysicist was referring to. – PLL Apr 10 at 13:17

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