Pulling a bit harder

I am writing these lines two years after starting in my current job and roughly a year after defending my Ph.D. My job does not put me in a tenure track but it comes with all the fun stuff that involves doing research, except that now I have the resources, time and the mandate of transforming all that research into tangible outcomes. I manage a team of researchers with which I get to design projects and monitor the transformation of such research into products; some of those projects have even ended in academic conferences and publications. This work is not produced in isolation. Since I was hired, I have had the opportunity to collaborate with many other researchers in several different disciplines from within and outside academia. Above all of this, I have maintained my personal publication quota and teach every now and then, not because I have to but because writing and teaching are activities that I genuinely enjoy.

The myth of merit

Although I cannot speak about academia in general, there seem to be common patterns across several (if not all) disciplines. A fairly common one points to the fact that academia is a meritocracy as much as any other work environment: it is not. And yet, the reputation of academics (and academia in general as an institution) comes precisely from the notion that academia is fueled and governed by true merit. This would explain both the outrage and the surprisingly swift application of justice (often denied in other aspects of American life) after the recent scandal involving some U.S. schools’ admissions. The truth is that privilege, policy and luck (among other factors, just like everywhere else) are more influential than we would like to recognize. An academic career can be (and often is) entirely built based on the reputation of a supervisor, and the ability to attract research funds through grants depends more on the agenda of the funding agencies than on the eloquence and clarity of an application. However, once someone gets a grant, the likelihood of being funded increases as grant holders become “safer bets” for these agencies, perpetuating a personality cult mentality that has prevailed for many many years. Now, is all of this inherently bad? Maybe not, maybe that is the only way in which academia as a model can be sustained. But if that is the case, it should be openly known by aspiring scholars. It should be crystal clear that academia is simply not a meritocracy.

The elephant and the chain

You probably know this one. To ensure that adult elephants won’t use their great strength to escape from the circus, their caretakers would tie them to a tree with a chain strong enough to restrain them while they are still babies. The elephant learns when is a baby that the chain is enough to hold its attempts to escape and it is this lesson (not the chain) what holds the elephant for the rest of its life. This story is often used to illustrate the effects of learned helplessness in humans formulated by Seligman in the 1970s. Wikipedia defines learned helplessness as “behaviour that occurs when the subject endures repeatedly painful or otherwise aversive stimuli which it is unable to escape from or avoid”.

The elephant in the room

Could it be that some of these disgruntled alternative academics learned that their only value comes from succeeding in a system that is based on circumstances over which they have very little control? Are Ph.D. students a perfect case of learned helplessness? Is this preventing Ph.D. graduates from embracing non-academic positions? Could it be that a relatively simple way to address the mental health issues within academia is to get rid of the ridiculous idea of academic meritocracy, as some have already suggested?

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