Elliot Berkman Profile picture
Aug 6, 2018 25 tweets 5 min read Twitter logo Read on Twitter
Contrarian advice for people starting a doctoral program and seeking a career in #academia: A thread I hope will scare and/or anger you (~20 tweets)
1/ The following summarizes some of the darker realizations about academia that I wish I had earlier in my career. So I'm passing them along here for the benefit of early career folks. Longer version here: psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-mo…
2/ Academia is a pyramid scheme. Each rung up the ladder has fewer openings than the one below it. And people above profit from the work of those below. They need you as much or more than you need them.
3/ This structure makes academia competitive and unfair. There are not enough jobs for all the deserving people, so the selection process among the qualified is, er, stochastic.
4/ Also, the higher you go the less qualified you become to do anything else, and academia can be very insular. In that sense, a more apt metaphor might be a rocky cave that narrows as you burrow further in.
5/ And the pay is pretty shitty considering how bleak that cave is. For what it takes to get to the bottom of it, you could make a whole lot more money.
6/ So my first piece of advice: Introspect hard about what you want out of this scheme. If it's social impact, relevance, or money / prestige, you're probably better off somewhere else.
7/ There are tons of useful skills and knowledge you can learn here, and very few things that you do only from within academia. Plus there are simply not enough jobs here for everyone who could be here (remember: pyramid scheme / bleak cave). theatlantic.com/education/arch…
8/ So my second piece of advice: Be willing to leave. Figure out what you need, get it, and then get out. You and the world will probably be better off for it. nature.com/articles/d4158…
9/ And you shouldn't be ashamed to leave. There are lots of good reasons to do so: more impact, more options, more prestige, more money outside. I'm proud when my students contribute to society by exporting what they learned here.
10/ Leaving is related to my third piece of advice: Realize that, like all professions, this job is not for everyone. If there are aspects of it you despise, you'll probably be doing more of them as you progress, not less.
11/ Again, no shame there. If you don't like teaching, writing, public speaking, etc, you might be unhappy here. If there are large swaths of a doctoral program that are unpleasant for you, then you'll probably be miserable as faculty.
12/ Why force yourself to suffer? Again, consider what really drives you. What do you want your life's work to be? For most people, whatever that is can best be accomplished outside of academia.
13/ Plus, if you stay your competition in the race to the bottom of the cave will be pathetic albino people like me who love every aspect of this; have no hobbies; and work all the time because it defines who we are.
14/ Too often when I ask prospective students why they want to be in the program they answer that they want to be a professor. That's not a sufficient answer. Why do you want to be a professor? What do you want to do that only professors can do?
15/ If you must stay, my advice is: Do something useful. And, no, publications are not useful on their own. The products we are incentivized to produce are mostly useless. Our cave is constructed to insulate us from the world.
16/ As Rita says, we are ridiculously privileged. Job security. Freedom from almost any accountability. Sabbaticals! What an anachronistic concept.
17/ But we have abused this privilege to an obscene degree. We have abandoned the goal of contributing to society in a real way, and voters are starting to notice. A key reason why political for public universities is so low is because people question our value to society.
18/ It is incumbent on us to produce something demonstrably useful in our scholarship or in the students that we matriculate. The neglected flip side of our privilege is the obligation to give back. Faculty are quite resistant to this form of accountability.
19/ What is useful? You need to talk to people outside the cave to find that out. Contribute to society. Catch a predator. Eat a peach. There are so many good things we can do that don't because we're myopically focused on our paper/grant hamster wheels.
20/ One thing I do know is that academia is TERRIBLE at being useful. Many people here still pride themselves on being useless and are quite successful at it. We are connoisseurs of useless knowledge and procedures, and the deeper we burrow into the cave, the snobbier we become.
21/ So don't expect your PI or grad program to help you there. You've got to take matters into your own hands here. But that's fine - you're a grad student so one thing you will learn is how to teach yourself things.
22/ More generally, my advice is to take ownership of your career and set your learning goals for yourself. If you don't, you'll be defaulted into the academic tract (pyramid / cave). Don't let your life be dictated by the default option.
23/ When you feel like a pariah for thinking about “applied” issues, remember that the faculty in your program are professional cavedwellers. They've gotten where they are by focusing all their energy on their narrow little hamster wheels. Is that the life you want?
24/ Your time is your most precious resource. Carefully consider your goals - not just your career goals, but the values you want that career to enact - before investing your time in any activity. Especially academia. /end

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