Pulling a bit harder

A rant about academia

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.

I discovered the concept of “alternative academics” or alt-ac through twitter and reddit briefly after starting doing research outside academia and although I had not discarded the idea of finding a tenure track job, I was drawn to the concept of alt-ac almost immediately without having a clear idea of its full context. It didn’t take me long to notice that many alternative academics seem to be quite disgruntled about their situation. But why is that? Why is the perspective of a potentially better-paid, less stressful job so unappealing?

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”.

It is no secret that graduate students face mental health issues in astonishingly high levels. This is a generalized problem that has been reported extensively and has led to recommendations to increase support to students within graduate programmes. This should not be a surprise, Ph.D. students in full-time programmes spend years putting their prospective careers and livelihoods (and sometimes their families’) in the hands of their program managers and supervisors, which is already a pretty difficult situation to be in, particularly if those students have never really experienced life outside academia. But the fallacy of meritocracy creates a particularly dangerous mindset. It makes students believe that their success is up to them and that they are solely responsible for their failures. These failures can take many shapes but in the specific case of students for which tenure is the goal, not getting it can be quite destructive, and the devastating truth is that less than 1 in every 5 Ph.D. in Canada are employed as full-time professors. More optimistic estimates suggest that 1 in every 4 Ph.D. students will eventually become professors. Whatever the number, there is a lot of people that will feel that anything else than this false merit-based system is unacceptable.

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?

It is time for Ph.D. programmes to stop recommending students to take care of themselves and address the issue by being upfront about the reality — and not the ideal — of academia. If students are enrolling into Ph.D. programmes thinking that working hard would be enough to succeed (whatever that might be), they are being openly deceived. Academic institutions should also stop suggesting that they are only responsible to support the true alt-ac (graduates that remain within academic institutions in administrative and staff positions), disenfranchising scholars that did not fit the institution's agenda, and start accommodating those who have been already victimized by the system. Finally, the role and influence of the supervisor should be crystal clear for graduate students. I was fortunate enough to have a very supportive supervisor but not everyone is so lucky. I have also witnessed cases that can only be described as explicit emotional abuse. Any call to tackle the mental health of graduate students in these conditions is just hypocritical.

After this rant, one might think I am one of those disgruntled academics. Fair enough. I would not mind getting a tenure track position, only because I know what to expect. But it is not academia that I want to change, instead, I would love to free those 3 or 4 out of 5 Ph.D. students from their learned helplessness, I want them to enjoy their non-academic jobs, I want them to know that there is a place for them on the other side. I want them to know that they also won. I want the elephant to pull a bit harder… that’s all.



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