Is Academia Evil? How Not to Suck in Graduate School

Disclaimer

As always, these are simply my views now. I had a career outside of academia for 16 years (professional and academia adjacent) and then entered the academia at age 42 with trepidation and a >40% pay cut. My wife said, “It’s okay if you don’t get tenure. Because then we can go back to making real money again.” My business partner and great friend yelled at me for over an hour about how I was abandoning children who need me, so I can write papers for other people who write papers simply to grow my ego (yep, that hurt). But I like academia. After 13 years in academia, I have been assimilated. After much resistance, I acknowledge that I am an academic. With this identity, it is important to consider whether I have gone over to the dark side and embraced a profession that is evil (or at least fundamentally flawed).

Problems

On Twitter, most of my timeline consists of folks whose experience in grad school and academia has ranged from suboptimal to traumatic. Racism, misogyny, ableism, and classism seem to be the norm. Exploitation, harassment, and assault are common. Unfair, arbitrary, capricious, and unethical decision making are the rule. Mentoring ranges from neglectful to indentured servitude to worse. Funding is low, poor, and unevenly distributed. The currency of academic success is a publication model more conducive to publisher profit than science curation. There are also the endlessly humourless tone enforcers, grammar pendants, and formatting fops. Hard and high-quality work receives lean intermittent and delayed reinforcement that can crush motivation to continue. And so many people are cripplingly insecure, have mental health issues, or are just plain mean and horrible that developing and maintaining relationships are challenging. There is also the fun realization that everything I spent many hard years learning in graduate school is now wrong, so starting over is the norm. Sounds kinda like an evil system to enter willingly.    

Academia has Value

My view is that academia is overrepresented in the vanguard of advances in civilization for science, art, philosophy, engineering, drama, medicine, economics, and many other fields. To step out and away from the known to discover new ideas necessarily means that being wrong, facing ridicule, aggressively breaking from the old, repeated failure, and offending the status quo go with the territory. Moreover, communicating and implementing novel and challenging ideas with stakeholders is extraordinarily difficult and likely to result in rejection, accidental misunderstanding, and willful misconstruing of the new ideas. When academia is at its best, these features can grind normal humans down intellectually, physically, and emotionally.

There are systemic protections to protect academics: sabbaticals, tenure, and peer supports. All these protections are under external assault from society and policy makers who are either invested in continuing the status quo of society, do not see the long-term value of advancing society, or believe that there are better mechanisms for advancing a dynamic society than universities (i.e., private sector). These external pressures have resulted in increased teaching loads, cutting sabbatical leaves, reducing government funding for arts and science, reducing tenure track positions in favour of sessional and adjunct positions, and instilling a capitalist model of competition over cooperation. Rather than pulling together as professionals, we are fracturing as academic communities under these external pressures and the subsequent erosion of protections. Obtaining and maintaining power, excluding outsiders, gaming the system, cutting corners, financial gain, reputation management, and quantifiable metrics of evaluation have replaced communities of discovery in academia.  

Other professions and work environments are also difficult, face challenges, and advance civilization. The primary differences are that reinforcements in other professions are shorter term, more clearly defined, and competition is often more explicit. Evaluations, and supervision are equally, if not more, abusive and of lower quality than academia. Peers are often competitors more so than partners. The primary difference is that working for a corporation usually involves more short-term accountability and structure. There is nothing inherently less free or less scientific about working in the private or non-academic government sectors when compared to academia. Opportunities to make discoveries, advancements, and be creative are just as available in non-academic jobs as in academia. The major advantage is that there are more non-academic employment opportunities than tenure-track academic positions.

Academia is a system that is inherently challenging to individual ego. The structural, emotional, and reward system supports are eroding. Graduate students and academics are now to the point that one must wonder if the entire enterprise is hopelessly spoiled or possibly evil. Promoting approaches to adding supports and supporting academic communities is one approach to making academia sustainable as a system and for its members.

Gross Rules

Academia is too heterogeneous as a system and the goals of individuals and higher education institutions vary, but there are four themes of activities to assist in making the profession personally and systemically sustainable.

Identify system valued units and do a lot of them. System valued units are the activities and products that each system most values. Often SVUs are grants, publications, supervising graduating students, publishing books, awards, high teaching evaluations, and such. Identifying the appropriate SVUs for each system are critical. Everyone works hard and accomplishes a lot, but many fail because their efforts are placed in activities that are not high level SVUs in their current environment. And do a lot. Submitting a single paper for publication, a job application, or a grant proposal is incredibly stressful due to the low probability and near randomness of success for each unit. Do a lot and the odds will eventually rise to generally your level of merit.

Be generous, but reserve time. Give heavily to your system, support your colleagues and students, and share expertise and data. Selfishness tends to lead to short-term advantage, but long-term problems. Moreover, academia is supported when there is a togetherness about the work. Much of open science involves assumptions of sharing and supporting, so I have become a supporter of this movement. That said, some time in the weekly schedule must be zealously reserved for individual work that is necessary to develop large numbers of SVUs.  

Building communities large and small is important for building academia. Communities range from a supportive research lab, inter-university research or teaching consortia, productive social media communities, supporting and building unions, supporting adjuncts and sessional instructors, promoting professional associations, making conferences more effective and equitable, building advocacy communities for self and others (e.g., #MeTooSTEM), journal clubs, and creating any other formal and informal system to create peer and student support. With systemic supports eroding, building communities from within academia is important.  

Fighting evil is a priority. SVUs are necessary, but not sufficient to protect the light side of academia. Make a difference through broad level advocacy, humane administration, kindness, public outreach, equity, justice, government lobbying, and using your skills and knowledge to make differences in the advancement and improvement of civilization. I had a judo instructor who was becoming frustrated with a student’s attitude*. He quoted the legendary Sensei Hatsumi, who said, “I’m not teaching you how to fight. I am teaching you how to control evil. That’s what we are really doing here.” Yeah, I know that sounds bizarre and grandiose. But I truly believe that stuff and it helps me make decisions. Will this activity promote good and contain evil or is the activity entirely self serving? This is how my activities are prioritized. Through the work of every individual academic, the system can be saved from evil.

Conclusions

I do not believe that academia is evil or fatally flawed. Certainly, academia is no more evil than other professions that value power, concentration of resources, or conflate expertise with influence. We have a lot of problems and always have had them (especially racism, abuses of power, and sexism). But as business efficiencies, market forces, and other factors that make academia more like other professions expand, the work environment is getting worse. External pressures have eroded the supports that make the best and most sustainable work possible. External pressures require academics to come together rather than turn against each other. Find your best ways to improve your little part of the world—it adds up and affects us all.

*No. The student was not me.

Bonus: See this great Twitter rant from @chuckwendig for more: https://twitter.com/ChuckWendig/status/1062341964631326720

SR Shaw

Managing Your Academic Reputation: How Not to Suck in Grad School

Managing Your Academic Reputation: How Not to Suck in Grad School

SR Shaw

This is the hardest blog post I have tried to write. In fact, this a failed blog post, but prefer to be transparent about it (there is much to be learned in sucking). I typically write one of these blog posts in about an hour and take maybe another hour to read it over before posting. This post started the same way, except about 30 minutes into writing and I realized that most of it was garbage. The entire concept of academic reputation may be important to many, but that does not stop it from being extremely silly idea. So here are shreds of ideas that are not fully baked.

I am not a great student of literature, but I do have a library card. And I remember Othello:

“Reputation! Reputation! Reputation! O I have lost my reputation!” –Cassio

“Reputation is an idle and most false imposition oft got without merit and lost without deserving.” –Iago. Iago is correct, but the context was that he was being manipulative. (spoiler: Iago literally stabs Cassio in the back.) Being overly concerned about reputation makes one vulnerable to manipulation and betrayal by others.

Academics are obsessed with their reputations. This is reasonable as academic reputations are the commodities that are used to recruit students, achieve promotion and tenure, gain collaborators, and acquire research funding. Efforts to quantify reputation are inherently flawed and certainly have significant non-random error (i.e., bias) whether they be teaching evaluations, H indices, citation counts, total grant funding awarded, formal awards and recognitions, and other metrics. All academics desire a good reputation, but often we are unclear as to what that is or how to achieve it. Figurative backstabbing over reputation is not uncommon in academia.

What Is a Reputation?

Reputation is defined as the beliefs or opinions that are generally held about someone or something. Reputation is largely about marketing. We all know academics who spend far more time on marketing and expanding their fame and influence than teaching, research, or service to the university and profession. Likewise, there are outstanding researchers, influential researchers, and university leaders who spend no time on marketing. Somewhere along this continuum is the degree of reputation management that works well as a function of your personal goals and the needs of your system.

Reputation can be thought of as desired breadth and quality. Breadth of reputation concerns whether the focus of your reputation will be specific to your subspecialty or whether you want to be influential with the public. To some degree this is field specific. It is unlikely that a great mathematical advance would merit an appearance on The View. Whereas a psychologist, nutritionist, or physician can generate widespread interest. Quality of reputation refers to the standing of an academic by people respected by that individual. To be held in high regard by people whose opinion you value is a hallmark of reputational quality. Breadth and quality are not orthogonal. Popular and public scholars are often dismissed as dilettantes or opportunists and are not respected by scholarly peers. Those without breadth of reputation are considered dusty and irrelevant outside their specific field.

Mindful Approaches

Reputation is more than good or bad. Academic reputation is how you are perceived as a professional. We know professors who are perceived as odd geniuses, supportive aunties, father figures, work to exhaustion machines, social and friendly, people know how to game the system, charismatic performers, hyper competent, innovative, or fit a host of other evaluative terms. Academia is a broad field. The freedom to select our reputational goals is exciting for some and terrifying for others.

Given how difficult it is to gain a tenure track position or any position in academia, invest a lot of time in thinking why you are taking this career track, what you want to accomplish, and how cultivating a specific reputation can help you accomplish goals. Also important is to consider how having a specific reputation can improve or diminish your well being (e.g., a reputation as a driven and tireless worker is nearly impossible to sustain).

What Is under Individual Control?

Reputation is not always under the control of the individual. Reputation is the area in which sexism, racism, subtle and not so subtle anti-LGBTQ views, and other prejudices rear their heads. Fighting for a positive reputation and against prejudice is exhausting. It is not helpful simply to state that this is a situation that should not exist. Obviously, but it does.

So You Want to Be a Rock Star

If you are one of those people who has become an academic because you want to be famous, then you are a top-drawer looney. I would recommend selecting a different career such as Instagram model, professional right-wing troll, porn star, YouTuber, or some other activity with higher status than being an academic. The more attractive and charismatic among us often attempt to parlay research findings into Ted talks, frequent news releases, media events, becoming a guru or cult leader, and other approaches to increase visibility. None of these activities is especially problematic. However, the real problem arises when the goal of academics is to attempt to find the next big thing to gain more and more attention. Anytime a scholar is committed to the results of studies going in only one direction or thinking designed to garner attention over scholarship, then there is potential for trouble. In this case, there is incentive for scholars to deliver results that are most likely to yield attention. This is fundamentally anti-science, anti-intellectual, and is destructive.

Conclusions                                          

Abraham Lincoln said, “Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.” Be the real thing. The shadow will change, come and go, but the tree remains and grows. The best way to maintain a positive academic reputation in breath and quality is to align your desired reputation with what you do. Attempting to promote the specific type of reputation that is not consistent with your behaviour will certainly backfire and make you disreputable.

Surviving Your Doctoral Defense: How Not to Suck in Graduate School

SRShaw

The defense of the doctoral dissertation, also known as the viva, is the final stage of the doctoral program. There are a variety of styles, traditions, processes, and methods of the dissertation defense process. These vary across nations, universities, and fields of study. However, there are a set of common approaches that students can apply to reduce the potentially paralyzing anxiety and stress surrounding the doctoral dissertation defense.

As is usual on this blog, the suggestions reflect my experiences and are not intended to be a substitute for real expertise in the matter. But after serving as a supervisor for six successful doctoral theses and a member of the defense committee for 49 doctoral theses, there are some behaviours of candidates that differentiate high-quality versus low-quality dissertation defenses.

Prior to Defense

Wait until the dissertation is ready. There are many candidates who have artificial deadlines and timelines due to job commitments, financial considerations, or other requirements that the defense take place by a certain date. Rushing to meet a specific defense date increases the likelihood that the dissertation is rushed. Take the time to make sure that all appropriate supervisors, peers, and other trusted reviewers have the time to read the document carefully. This is a situation where it is critically important to ensure that the document is sound and well-developed before moving on to the defense.

Presentation rules apply. The general rule of presentation is to know the information so well that you could carry out your entire defense if your computer locks up, the projector fails, or there is some other technological problem.

Select external examiners. Nearly all universities require that an expert from outside of the university reviews the document. This can be a challenge. I usually recommend the following steps be taken. Early in the literature review process, students are asked to take note of leading scholars specific to the field. Students are encouraged to email those scholars with questions and inquiries about current and soon to be published research. Those scholars who respond productively and seem somewhat reasonable can be put on the list of potential external examiners. There have been cases of unfair external reviewers giving poor evaluations because of disagreements concerning theoretical orientation or other problematic evaluation approaches. In selecting external reviewers, cultural traditions are also important. For example, there been cases of reviewers from the United Kingdom who have expectations of extraordinarily long dissertations, who have rejected North American dissertations for being too short and lacking detail. There are no guarantees, but it helps to have external reviewers who do not have an agenda or are from an academic culture are far different from the candidate.

Practice the presentation. Most dissertation defenses begin with a short presentation by the candidate. A 15 to 20-minute presentation is an extraordinarily difficult timeframe to present multiple years worth of work. This is the part of the doctoral defense in which candidates have the most control. This needs to be practised repeatedly with significant feedback. In some places, the time limitation is strictly enforced, so be sure to time all of your practice activities.

Attend several dissertation defenses. It is valuable to understand the process and dynamics by observing them firsthand. You can also find styles and approaches that candidates use that are worth emulating.

Preview with your supervisor. Asked the supervisor to share potential questions and assist in developing reasonable responses.

Choose your guests mindfully. Dissertation defenses are typically publicly open. There are some departments on lab cultures where 20 to 30 peers attend for support and others were only the candidate and the committee are in attendance. I am surprised how often parents and significant others attend the defenses. That would never work for me. Although it is difficult to go against these cultural trends, you can invite who you need for support, but not distraction.

Sleep. The doctoral dissertation defense is an extremely stressful experience, but get some sleep.

During the Defense

Enjoy the Experience. Attitudes towards the dissertation defense vary across universities, but often the experience is more of a coronation or celebration rather than a rigorous evaluation with a high risk of failure. Your supervisor would not allow you to defend the dissertation and was the project and your presentation was in good shape. You are ready and you have been preparing for this for years. Honestly, there is something that inspires confidence in a candidate who smiles and appears as comfortable as possible.

Stamina is a key. Dissertation defenses can last from 90 minutes up to three hours. Understand and prepare for your local norms. Many people will want to sit while answering questions. Have water available. It is also good to have a piece of fruit or something else to eat to prevent any blood sugar crashes. Maintaining concentration and focus throughout is a major factor.

Understand the questions. Listen carefully to the questions being asked. Most committee members are not nearly as expert as the candidate who has spent years researching the specific topic. Questions from the defense committee usually consist of: some form of a question asking why a different study was not done; specific details to the point of minutia on methodology and analysis; there will be questions about larger theory, context; and which studies you choose to reference; and there may be committee members who make long statements intended to show off for their peers. And most of the time someone will ask if you could change one aspect of your project, what would you change? My experience is that it is rare to have a committee member be hostile or extremely adversarial, but it does happen sometimes. The key to all these issues is composure. Listen carefully, take a deep breath, ask the committee member to repeat the question if necessary, and take some time to formulate your answer.

Do not BS. Some of the questions being asked are not relevant to the document at hand and generally far afield. If you do not know the answer at all, say that you do not know. Attempting a long and convoluted BS answer does not leave a favourable impression.

Depth and breadth. The secret is to have a depth and breadth of knowledge that you can marshal to answer the questions. Given that you have lived with this material for some time, this should not be too challenging. Knowing the major scholars and year of publication can be helpful in demonstrating your detailed knowledge. Understanding how your research could be applied, used for future investigations, influence theory, or otherwise placed in the larger context are also critical.

Managing impressions. It is rarely a problem if a candidate does not know an answer to a specific question or two. Overall impression counts. I have been surprised that how incredibly poised nearly all candidates are at their defense. Even students I have known to be very nervous, seem confident and poised when it comes to their dissertation defense. Confidence and poise will go a long way.

Develop a strategy if you get lost. Losing composure or getting lost under a barrage of questions for an hour and a half or longer is common. The candidate has a lot of control in setting the pace and tone of how questions can be answered. A frequently used an effective approach is to have a set script when you are stumped by a question. A decent script is to say, “That is a really useful question, I have not given that much thought before, so give me a moment to put my answer together.” If you have the script prepared in advance, then you can say it and typically buy a little bit of time to develop and articulate an answer. Likewise, it is always possible that you realize that you have no idea how to answer the question and it is best to say, “I do not know the answer to that.”

Bringing back around. Given that you only have a 15 to 20-minute initial presentation, it is unlikely that all your information will be covered during that introduction. Have several extra slides prepared with additional figures or data. If a question is relevant, then you can go to the appropriate extra slide and spend a lot more time on some of the information that you do not have time for an initial presentation, and this approach also signals that you are well prepared to answer questions.

Have a copy of your full dissertation document with you. You never know when a question or may get very specific. For example, “On page 172, paragraph three, line 4 you made this statement. Is that inconsistent with your similar statement on page 87, paragraph one, line 5?” You will need to be able to move quickly to compare detailed text. Whether this is done in paper or print depends on your comfort level.

Post Defense

Be happy. I am really surprised how rarely I see a successful candidate look happy. The predominant expression is relief and fatigue. I have seen quite a few tears of release or disbelief. This seems like a good time to be happy. Enjoy your hard-earned success.

Schedule a meeting with your supervisor. Almost certainly someone on the committee will find typos, requirement for clarification, or maybe even additional need for changes in the dissertation document. Schedule that meeting quickly so that your supervisor can guide any changes, revisions, and edits that need to be made.

Thank your committee.  Be sure to thank everyone on the committee, even those who were difficult during the defense process, after the process over. It is also good to take note of the first person to refer to you as Doctor.

Contact and thank everyone involved in your project. This could be anyone from technicians, support staff, administrative staff, undergraduates, and others. Acknowledging all the people essential to your success is a responsible thing to do. Many people who provided important services to your project may not know that the project was a success until you contact them. Say thank you.

Contact and thank personal friends and family. Sharing your success is an important part of the process. A lot of people have made sacrifices that have led to your accomplishment. They have certainly provided support and have been there for you in difficult times.

Do not be weird. I really wanted to write and gloat to my 11th grade physics teacher who told me I was “too lazy and stupid to consider college. And if I did manage to get into college would certainly fail.” I wrote the letter, but did not mail it.

Closing

The doctoral defense is a ritual that can be mysterious and scary. With the use of your supervisor, peers and others, learn as much about the process as possible to demystify the activity. Understand the specific procedures that are written in your faculty or University guidelines. Observe how other people manage this. There is nothing wrong with having a series of meetings with peers at similar stages in your degree program to share and brainstorm ideas.

If you are at this stage in your degree program, congratulations. Listen to your supervisor, take deep breaths, and you have got this. It will be a short period of time until you hear the words, “Congratulations, Doctor.”