Tuesday, July 31, 2012

On Guilt, Self-Blame, and Magical Thinking in Academia

I've got a few links to share with you today, all of which are loosely related to the basic theme of Your Brain on Academia. As you know, the other postacademic bloggers and I have written at length about the effect grad school and academia has on your mind - the guilt, the self-doubt and self-blame, the boredom and the isolation and the frustration and the possible ill-effects all of it can have on the mental health of someone trying to work in academia.

Despite all of the discussion we've had, though, I always think there's room for a little bit more. And I ran across a couple of things this week that got me thinking - yet again - about the mindset of an academic. And more specifically, about how the academic guilt that grad students feel and make jokes about is actually not funny at all.

In reality, I believe that this guilt is seriously problematic. Not only is it terrible for your self-esteem, but it also clouds your reality when you look around at the structure of academia and the state of the job market.

Let's talk about this.

First, we have this post, which is by another postacademic and addresses academic guilt. The author writes:
...as graduate students, we are discouraged from discussing our 'personal lives.' We are supposed to be completely dedicated to our work. I can't count the number of times I talked about or heard others talk about all the work we have to do, how we haven't left the house in days, how we fell asleep in our office because we had to hand in that paper in the morning. Even though we talk about these things and we are aware that they are not necessarily positive things, we try to top each other in our stories of academic agony. We do it because we believe, deep down inside, that a committed graduate student does not have a life.
This description definitely mirrors my experiences in my graduate program. Discussions between grad students would often devolve into some kind of weird Competition of Misery, where we'd all talk about "how late we had stayed in the lab last night" or about "how long it'd been since we watched a movie" or visited our families or went out to dinner. We wore the overwork (whether it was real or not) as a badge of honor, with the people who worked hardest and longest being characterized as the models we should all be looking up to. And faculty would chime in when needed, assuring us that "if we just worked hard enough" we'd get a great job in the end.

But how hard was "hard enough?" No one ever seemed to know. So we just worked constantly. Or tried to, anyway. And if we didn't work on any given day or evening or hour in the lab, we'd talk about what "slackers" we were. How "unmotivated" we were. How we "really needed to step it up next week." Anything short of working every single day and evening was unacceptable.

The author of the linked post continues by pointing out that this mindset is not a good one:
Graduate student guilt, as I like to call it, is a dangerous thing. This is what it sounds like: when we take time to watch a movie, we complain that we wasted our evening. When we have some free time we think first about what we should do for work when our body and mind probably needs a break. When we can't write down 10 pages for the day, we curse our inability to produce. Grad student guilt can harm us because it can prevent us from seeing all the work we really are doing and [instead] focus on our shortcomings.
Pay careful attention to that last sentence; we'll come back around to it.

Onto the next post at a different blog, which is also about academic guilt. This author makes the same basic points about how all-encompassing and constant the guilt is:
[Academic] guilt doesn't abandon you. It is always there, nagging, when you're doing something else instead of ... oh, I don't know, furthering your academic career.
But this author goes on to make a critical point, in which she wonders aloud about what the hell those guilty academics are actually supposed to be doing with all of those hours spent at work:
I don't even know what [furthering my academic career] entails specifically, yet I'm here beating myself up for not doing it: networking, introducing myself to scholars I admire, asking people for advice, recruiting friends and colleagues to read over my work, write, revise, submit, publish, present ... anyone else feeling hot in here?
This is such an important point. Why are you supposed to be working 24/7? What are you doing that is so critical that it can't wait until Monday morning???

Look, I'm not saying that academic work doesn't matter. Hell, I did it for years, and I am ecstatic that there are still people out there who are producing important research and teaching university students and, basically, contributing to knowledge and making our world a little bit smarter. I'm not doing anything groundbreakingly important at my current job, either. I'm not just ragging on academia here, so please don't misconstrue what I'm saying.

But for each of you who are still working in academia ... what groundbreaking work are you doing every day that requires a 24 hour work schedule? Is that paper on 16th Century Basketweaving really going to change the world? Is it really worth staying up til 2am to find find the one perfect video clip for your Tuesday class ... or will your students still learn enough without it?

One tiny tidbit of extra work isn't going to change anything, and I don't think it's worth it. So go see The Dark Knight Rises on Saturday night rather than doing that paper revision. Just take some time and breathe and look at the world around you and live. Keep your eyes open.

Now, let's bring this rambling post around to the third and final link that I wanted to draw your attention to, which I think ties in very nicely with the posts about academic guilt.

See, I can understand that some people like to work long hours, and have to tell themselves that their work is critically important in order to keep themselves motivated. That's fine.

But what I don't like to see is when grad student guilt and the "work all of the time" mindset gets so all-encompassing that academics start to think that the only factor affecting their chance of getting a job is how hard they, themselves, work. So that if they fail to get a job, it is because they did something wrong. That is a very, very dangerous mindset to have.

Because as both recentPhD and I have written before, there is almost nothing you can do to ensure that you get an academic job these days. It all comes down to chance and luck and that tricky little concept called "fit," over which you have no control. None.

But if you start to buy into the academic guilt, and if you start to believe that the most successful academics are the ones who work the hardest and never take time off, and if you start to think that your chances of getting an academic job are directly related to hard and how long you work?

Then, if you fail on the job market (as many, many of you will), you will blame yourself. And you will say things like this (from the sociology job market rumor forum):
I think I had a pretty good year, although I didn't get an offer - one phone interview for a TT and an on-campus for a one-year teaching position ...
I sent out about two hundred and twenty-five applications for the 2012 hiring season. I figure I'll need to do twice that this year...
...but I have three good co-authored papers out there for review, which should boost my applications a little next year, I hope. 
In other words, if you don't get a job like this student, you'll still be feeling that grad student guilt. Guilty that you didn't do enough. Convinced that if you just do a little more, everything will work out for you next year. And if it doesn't, you'll just work harder in year three.

Now, please don't think I'm trying to pick on this poster. Zie sounds like a far more dedicated academic than I ever was, and I genuinely hope that zie is able to land a job that zie is happy with next year. Really and truly.

But let's take a look at this Graduate Student Guilt-Based Thinking here. Sending out 225 applications and only getting one interview is a "pretty good year"? Zie shouldn't have expected a better outcome, as someone who's spent years in grad school and has written multiple papers and has teaching experience?? Sorry, no. Zie sounds like a dedicated and accomplished grad student, and like someone who should be proud of themselves for what they've done - not feeling bad for not doing more.

(Remember that last line from the first post I quoted? Grad student guilt prevents you from seeing what you have accomplished and keeps you focused on what you haven't. Indeed. Here's the self-blame that arises from academic guilt.)

And the proposed solution - to send out more applications and a few more papers and shut your eyes and hope for the best? With no critical eye toward the insane numbers of applications zie is sending out and what that might say about hir overall odds? I'm afraid that this person is just setting themselves up for future disappointment by keeping the focus on what zie is doing rather than how few academic jobs are out there.

In other words, the guilt and self-blame are morphing into Grad Student Magical Thinking. Not only is it my fault that I didn't get a job because I didn't work hard enough, but I can magically will myself a job if I just work 24/7 from here on out. There are no issues with the market or the structure of higher ed - it's all on me.

Zie goes on:
I did neglect the research part of the degree because I'd much rather teach, but now I'm thinking that was stupid of me.
See the focus on hirself again? It's not that there are too few teaching jobs out there for excited candidates like this poster. It's that zie didn't stop pursuing what zie was actually interested in to pursue something zie wasn't interested in. All hir fault, again. For not working hard enough and for not putting "getting a job" before the things zie is actually, you know, interested in doing. Guilt and self-blame.

And now, all these years later, zie can improve her odds if zie just abruptly switches course in her career. Magical thinking again.

Now, granted ... I don't know whether this person is plagued with academic guilt or not. But, you know, most of us are. And I'm sorry, but it's not an innocent little quirky aspect of the academic personality. I'm tired of treating it like it is.

Because in the end, when guilty, self-blaming grad students don't get picked for a job, this is what you get. Self-blame, magical thinking, and an even heavier workload ("I'll just work on those three other papers and refocus my career on research!!"), with no stopping to breathe or to think or to look with a critical eye at a system that causes you to beat yourself up because you only sent out 225 job applications this year.

If you go on the academic job market and don't get anything, please try not to blame yourself. You're in a system where you're competing with 200+ other people for every job, in a career path with a four-month hiring system, in a structure where you have to basically re-apply every single year in order to keep doing the same exact job you've been doing satisfactorily for years. And you're part of a system where administrators are learning that they can save money by paying faculty almost minimum wage and by canceling contracts when they get too expensive, since there are no tenure contracts to honor.

If you've worked your ass off but didn't get an academic job, it's not your fault. Please don't beat yourself up and just uncritically buckle down to work more. Please start at least casually looking around for a potential career path and work environment where you'll be treated with the respect and dignity that someone with your education and skills and work ethic deserves.

Yes, I said it. You deserve better than a 24/7 workload and unending guilt and self-doubt.

It's not your fault that academia is broken, and you shouldn't drive yourself crazy trying to fix it. If it's not working for you, then start looking elsewhere.


  1. Posts like these are like manna in the desert. Thank you so much, JC.

    -- One of those exhausted, self-loathing readers who originally discovered your blog by Googling "I hate grad school"

  2. Great post! I feel like academic jobs are a never-ending graduate school, which you can never get out of. You always need to drive yourself to be an A+ to please some higher authority...But whom? Yes, the same type of perfectionistic personalities who think that workaholism is actually a normal way of life and that they are somehow special because of it.

  3. Advisor to me:

    "And now you can rest in the weekend by reading some "easy" papers on your work".

    Email to me Saturday 19.00:

    "Could you please finish the deliverable on the weekend so as to review it on Monday morning?"

  4. Bravo.

    I started reading this blog last fall when I was realizing I probably wasn't going to get an academic job, despite all my publications and hard work, and was beating myself up about it. Your blog made me feel a lot better.

    Now I have finished my PhD, have well-paying work in the real world, and am a million times happier -- and this post is helping to relieve the lingering academic guilt that, despite all my good fortune, remains. The cult of grad school is very hard to shake off. Thank you for exposing it for what it is -- insanity.

  5. Ah, the magical thinking! Funny, isn't it, how graduate students are encouraged to think critically about everything except their own situation. It's that magical thinking, after all, that keeps the system running!

  6. I think faculty members promote this kind of magical thinking because it's the only way of creating the illusion of control over an arbitrary and statistically-nonexistent job market. If job candidates have zero control over the whims of search committees, they need to slave away over any element that they do have control over as if it will be the deciding factor. Yet I've seen people with books come up empty and people with no publications get a dream job because, at the end of the day, it's about whether the kind of work you do is a "fit." If it's not a fit, no amount of publishing will be enough.

  7. The other thing to remember is that - even if your magical thinking gets you a TT position - the guilt & self-blame don't stop there. They're just transferred from job apps to grant apps. E.g., 'If only I had 3 more publicns/5 more grad students/more pedestrian research hypotheses/etc., they would have awarded me the grant'. (a true quote directly from my own experience!)

    My colleagues constantly try to outdo each other with how late they stayed in their office, how bad their grad students were, how much fieldwork they did (and how long they stayed out to do it - which becomes an OH&S issue). By not playing along, I'm sure some have decided I'm not 'serious' about my work.

    Unless you have some superpower that allows you to maintain a rock solid personal image and to shake your head at these things and stay 'real' (whatever that means) - I agree with JC. Look for something more fulfilling that will leave you less beat up in the end.

  8. "This is such an important point. Why are you supposed to be working 24/7? What are you doing that is so critical that it can't wait until Monday morning???"

    Absolutely nothing. And I'm a postdoc in academic cancer research. Something snapped in my brain in the last year or so of grad school. I can either keep myself on the endless guilt/shame treadmill and push myself ever closer to burnout, or I can pull back, realize that nothing of use is likely to get done if I push myself beyond 45 hours of work in a week, and go home at night to see my spouse. Spend time on the weekends tooling around markets or visiting family and friends. Drink coffee and read newspapers in my pajamas on Sunday mornings. Cancer is not going to be cured any more quickly if I don't take regular breaks. If I've been reasonably productive during the week and have something to show for my time, there's no reason to beat myself up for not being superhuman. Work smarter, not harder. The other post-doc and grad student, both of whom seem to be unhappy and bent on burning themselves out, probably think I'm a slacker. I really don't care. I've been productive, the PI is happy. My CV looks good. That's enough for me. I can only control so much. Life is too short to burn it all away with endless guilt/stress/work.

  9. I suffer from the guilts probably because I suffer from impostor syndrome. I can't help but feel that I don't really have what it takes to get a job in academia because I don't think the sacrifices are really worth it in the end. I've missed a lot of time with my family because of this job, and the low wages. I will never get that time back. I would much rather have the benefits and ability to travel than to keep this up anymore.

  10. Well said JC; this is you best post!

  11. I've read this post numerous times now, and really just "I love you" for this one. I am a current grad student, and I love my research and teaching enough that I don't want to leave---but the work/life balance is a killer and I refuse to be held sway by magic thinking any longer. No more academic Kool-Aid!

  12. I am working on my PhD right now, just finishing up my field work, and I am not intending to pursue an academic career path. In fact that was never my intention, and this post illustrates quite clearly WHY. The job market for tenure track professorships is insane, you have to start by working in some second rate school in the middle of nowhere, and MAYBE if you are lucky by the time you are in your 40s you might have a tenured position at a university in a place you are comfortable living. Maybe. Personally I went for my PhD so I could do applied work out in the real world. Would I like to keep my hand in? Sure. Will I publish? Probably, but one or two articles a year is fine with me...I'm not looking to work the insane hours I see my advisory committee doing. I like the outdoors and I only have one life to live! I do think however that the academic guilt/competition of misery etc mentality is not restricted to academia. I am not from the USA, but living there for ten years I found that attitude in all the offices and organizations where I worked. 9-5 was really 8 to 7 and weekends. There seems to be a culture of over-work in the USA. Just my opinion.

  13. "you're part of a system where administrators are learning that they can save money by paying faculty almost minimum wage and by canceling contracts when they get too expensive, since there are no tenure contracts to honor."

    Administrators who got their college degrees for a fraction of a fraction of what it costs nowadays, so egregiously that inflation can't even come close to explaining the rate of the increasing costs of higher ed. It's all a racket, higher ed has become big business and big business opens the door to big corruption.

  14. Yet if by working more there is a greater than zero chance that things could have been better, then if you didn't work more it is simply logic to conclude that it is your fault.

    If you are working so much that you can't work anymore, and you are still not succeeding, then you just might not be good enough.

    The universe doesn't care, in the past what would happen to people who are not good enough is that they die.
    Or in a modern society, they don't get a job and become homeless and struggle to get food each day; unless of course you are from a rich family and they support you.

    If some as yet unimagined catastrophe would wipe out all life on earth, but it could have been avoided if everyone throughout all histopry had forsaken joy and happiness to work more, then the blame for the extinction of life on earth can and should be placed oin everyone who chose to not work.

    You do not matter.
    Your happiness does not matter.
    Your spouse, your friends, and you children, do not matter.

    This is the structure of the universe.
    You can ignore it if you want, but it will eventually cause your descendants immense harm, and you are a fundamentally immoral person for doing so.

    At least that is the message that I get reinforced every day by every single iteration with the society I live in; academia is no different to everywhere else in that regard.