7 things I don’t like @ being an Academic

by on 2012-05-11 in Duck- 23 Comments


This genre is growing on the Duck, so here are are a few more thoughts before you take the PhD plunge. Enjoy your last summer to read as you choose, without following a peer reviewer or a syllabus. Such lost bliss…

Generally speaking, yes, I like being an academic. I like ideas and reading. I like bloviating at length. The sun is my enemy, and exercise bores me. I would really like to be a good writer/researcher. Including grad school, I’ve been doing this now for 15 years, so clearly I could have switched. I am committed. But there are at least 7 things I didn’t see back in my 20s when I had romantic ideas that if I got a PhD, I’d be like Aristotle or John Stuart Mill – some great intellectual with real influence on, what a Straussnik once called to me, ‘the Conversation,’ which I took in my heady, pre-game theoretic youth to be this (swoon).

1. It’s lonely.

I didn’t really think about this one at all before going to grad school. In undergraduate and graduate coursework, you are always very busy and meeting lots of people. You live in a dorm or fun, near-campus housing, you have lots of classes, you hit the bars on the weekends, you go to department functions. Girlfriends/boyfriends come and go. So even if you didn’t like 9 of the 10 people you met, you were meeting so many, that you eventually carved out a circle and did fun stuff that kinda looked like the 20-something comedies you see on TV. But once you hit the dissertation, you are suddenly thrown back on your own, and you really re-connect, or try, with your family, because they’re the only ones who’ll put up with your stress. You spend way too much time at home, alone, in a room, staring hopelessly at a computer screen. You don’t really know what you’re doing, and your committee, while filled with good, smart people who are almost certainly your friends, can’t really do this for you, even though you try to push it off on them.

Then, when you get your job, you spend lots of time in your office or your home office, because the publication requirements are intense (or at least, they feel that way, because you still don’t really know what you’re doing). Maybe you do a joint paper, but the collective action problem strikes. Pretty soon, you spend lots of time, alone, with your office door shut. You eat lunch at your desk, and you read at night in your home office after dinner. It’s the only way to keep up (more on that below). Isn’t that a weird sort of existence that seems unhealthy given that ‘man is a social animal’? I remember at a conference once a few years ago, a colleague opened it by saying, ‘we like going to conferences, because we get lonely all day at work by ourselves.’ I’ve always remembered that remark for its sheer honesty. The room erupted in laughter and approval.

Sure I could meet people if I had cool hobbies like mountain climbing or biking, but how many academics do that? That’s…outdoors, and far too healthy. And who has time for that? I need to read 20 book and articles just for my r&r. I gotta spend my weekends reading, blogging, and chewing my fingernails in anxiety over the quality of my work. And the rest of my time goes into family. Sure, I could let myself get sucked into academic service to expand my circle, but how often have you seen academics trying to get out of service and such, in order to get back to their offices to research, alone?

2. It’s made me fat and squirrely.

Part of spending too much time by yourself, is letting yourself go. Groups helps socialize and discipline behavior, so if you’re sitting at home all day reading alone, why not just wear pajamas the whole time? Actually, this is probably worst in grad school when I recall lots of us thickened up because of the dramatic lifestyle change to sitting in a chair reading all day. If you’re not careful, it’s easy to fester, to become like Gollum living in your dissertation cave, obsessing over the precious as your nails get longer. You don’t shave enough; you write in your pajamas; you stop going to the gym. You probably start smoking. You eat crappy microwave meals and cereal for dinner, because you can bring the bowl easily to your workstation. When you do get a break, you binge drink too often. Your nails are now long enough that you really can climb the walls.

I’ve found this gets better later. I’m a lot better disciplined than 10 years ago. Marriage helps, if only because your spouse forces you out of the house when your pants stop fitting. She’ll force you to take a shower before checking your email in the morning, compel you to stop wearing the same clothes, tell you to shave more, and make you quit smoking. Students help too. Undergrads won’t respect you if you look like a furball TA, and they’re a helluva lot better dressed than you.

3. It’s made me hypersensitive to criticism.

I remember reading Walt somewhere saying that academics are very thin-skinned and hyper-sensitive.  I think I am too, although I am trying not to be. This is one reason I chose to blog; I thought it might toughen me up. But when reviewers and blog commenters criticize me, I inevitably take it the wrong way. It makes me nervous and skittish, as if maybe I’m a dilettante who got found out. (This is no plea for kid gloves, only an admission.) When I get rejection letters from academic journals, my hands shake (lame but true). I presume that means I am really insecure about my work, even though you’d think that would pass after 15 years. I think sometimes it’s because the only big thing I have in the professional world is my intellectual credibility. I have no big money, no cool DC or think-tank perch, no ‘network,’ no inside track to anything. The only reason anyone would even notice me is because I try to be a researcher who says stuff that can at least be verified somewhat. So I read at least an article of IR a day just out of anxiety. How’s that for job satisfaction?

Like everybody, I like being cited. It’s flattering. Andrew Sullivan has linked me twice, which sent thousands of people to my website. But honestly, it made almost as nervous as happy – all those people pulling apart my work, maybe thinking it was just crap. Perhaps I’m just new at this, but also I think this is an artefact of the way we are trained – to ruthlessly tear apart essays in our coursework, or to ask the preening, show-off question that knocks the conference speaker or job applicant off-balance (did you select on the dependent variable?) and makes us look clever and witty in front of our colleagues. Who hasn’t seen that kind of sarcasm at conferences, cutting, ‘I can’t believe you wrote that’ sort of analysis, ad hominem put-downs, most obviously on blogs? IR has never struck me as an especially polite, well-tempered field, more like a shark-tank. Ned Lebow once told me that IR grad school is like ‘bootcamp for your brain,’ and it’s really true that we’ve created a hypercompetitive atmosphere.

I understand why of course – US IR and other grad programs wouldn’t have the global reputations they do without it. And yes, I support it; quality control is growing issue in the Korean university system, because Korea sill lacks a major, globally ranked school. And of course, peer review is absolutely central to preserving quality and maintaining the line between us and journalism. But the tradeoffs are there – enervating and unnerrving, at least in my experience. I can’t imagine how Andrew Sullivan or Stephen Walt go to sleep at night when all those red-staters, e.g., think they are the antichrist or something. I’d be pacing the bedroom.

4. The money is weak given the hours we put in.

This one is a no-brainer. Social science is nothing if not totalist. If you don’t believe me, just go watch a movie or TV show with one, and watch her analyze it to death, draining all the fun away by endlessly interrupting to explain why the Transporter is really a commentary on traffic laws or gun control. (I’m guilty of this too.) My point is that we see our work all over the place. We think about ‘opportunity costs’ when we pick movies on date night, or ‘free riding’ when the check comes for dinner. I guess this is good in one way. It means we are using are hard-won education. But it also means that we are effectively working all the time. Even if we are reading for leisure, we will still take notes or write things down if we catch something really relevant to our work. We take social science to the beach; we read Duck of Minerva on our iPhones on the subway. At this point, I read basically everything with a pen in my hand. Who knows if you won’t find a cool quote buried in the middle of Anna Karenina?

Worse of course, is the absolutely impossible mountain of material in your field that you really should know if you want to somehow get into the top cut of journals. And who doesn’t want that? That’s the whole point. That’s why we do this to ourselves. We all, quite desperately I think, want our name up in lights in the APSR or IO. We all want to be invited to Rand or the State Department. I knew a guy who had the first page of his first APSR article embossed in gold to hang on his wall like a degree. (It was more tasteful than it sounds.) You’re always under-read, so you’re reading constantly. To be sure, your other friends in white collar profession work long hours too. That’s a constant now, but they almost certainly get paid substantially more than you and think that all you do is teach five or ten hours a week. In short, when I compare the work levels between myself and the professionals just in my family and friends (doctor, dentist, automotive engineer, nurses, lawyer, computer design tech), they make a lot more than me even though I work fairly equivalent hours.

Of course, I knew when I joined that academics don’t make a lot of money, and I accept that. We all do. Rather I am suggesting that, per work-hour, we make a lot less than most white collar professionals. That’s kinda depressing, because, e.g., we scarcely have the resources to travel much in the countries we write about. You’ve probably mentioned China in some of you published work, right? But how much time have you actually spent there? Does it feel right to generalize about a place you’ve never visited?

5. The hours I put in aren’t really reflected in my output.

Connected to point 4 is, at least in my experience, the many, many hours I spend reading, blogging, thinking that result in – not very much… I genuinely wonder how someone, say Pinker, can write an 800+ page book with hundreds of footnotes, that’s also really good. Wow. That just blows me away. I’m so impressed, and how cool that he’ll get invited onto Charlie Rose or something. Or, how do Fukuyama or Bobbitt crank out multiple books of that length? Or how did Huntington manage to write a major book in each of the 4 subfields of political science? Where does one get skills like that? That just makes me green with envy. For me, I’d be thrilled if I could just land a top ten journal piece sometime soon.

I am reminded of a complaint by Schiller about Goethe’s poetry. He envied Goethe’s ability to easily reel off lines and lines of wonderful material while he had to work very hard to produce much less. In Amadeus, Salieri complained that Mozart seemed to be taking dictation from God, even though he worked hard too. When I read really good IR, it makes me wonder how am I not fitting together what I read into good insights, whereas writers so much better than me seem to be able to do so. How do they do that? Are they reading social science all the time, on Christmas morning too? How much more do I have to read? I feel like I read all the time already. I find this a chronic source of professional frustration.

6. Few people really give a d— what you think.

Unless you scale those Huntingtonian heights and get to Charlie Rose or Rand, your reach is pretty limited. Policy-makers are bombarded with a huge volume of material, but I recall reading somewhere that they almost always consult internally produced material (memos and reports from within the bureaucracy) rather than the kind of stuff we generate on the outside. So we aren’t really policy-relevant much, unless you are the really big fish like Bernard Lewis (who got to meet W on Iraq – and blew it).

Beyond that, there are so many IR journals now (59 in the SSCI alone) that your work easily slips into the great ocean of Jstor. If you land APSR or ISQ, that’s awesome, but beyond the biggest IR journals that we all cite to each other, it’s hard to get profile for yourself. This may be another reason to blog. You can go around the editorial r&r process and speak directly to the community. But of course, blogging or op-eds aren’t peer-reviewed, and, as Steve Saideman noted, that is (and must be) the gold-standard. Worse, everybody’s blogging and tweeting and consulting now, so you’re still lost in the crowd. This too can be enervating and depressing, especially as you came into grad school as one of the better students of your college. You thought you were pretty smart, and you’d make a big splash. Now you find out that there are lots and lots of others in the field, all very smart and clamoring to be heard. Good luck.

7. I miss the ‘classics.’

The super-nerdy intellectual in me really misses this. Those black-edged Penguin Classics were the books that really got me interested in politics and ideas when I was in high school, and I never read them anymore. The first time I read Thucydides was an absolutely electric experience. I roared through it in 4 days. Same goes for stuff like On Liberty, Beyond Good and Evil, The Communist Manifesto, Darkness at Noon, 1984. God, I miss that stuff, the sheer intellectual thrill of new vistas opening. Now all I read is hyper-technical stuff, loaded with jargon, mostly from economics, so I can sound like a robot (defection, spirals, stochastic, satisficing, barriers to entry, iteration) when I talk if I need to. See Dan Nexon on this too.

As with everything else I’ve complained about above, I understand why we do this and I accept it. We can’t really read Plato or Bodin all day in IR, but I sure wish we could. I’ve often thought the IR should have a book series of classic works in our field with introductions and notes connecting classics like Thucydides, Kant, or Clausewitz to contemporary IR. We make throw-away references to these guys all the time in our introductions to make ourselves sound smart and grounded in the long tradition of political philosophy. But we don’t really read them, because we‘re reading post-Theory of International Relations stuff most of the time. When is the last time you opened up Sun Tzu or Machiavelli?

So taking a cue from Doyle’s effort to tie IR to the ‘Conversation,’ we could be release volumes like the Norton Critical Edition series or the Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought. But the selected texts would be more narrowly relevant to IR and the editorial matter and essays would explicitly connect the book to the IR. Reading Hobbes in an edition solely designed for IR readers would be pretty fascinating, no?

Bonus Immaturity: I knew I was a hopelessly cloistered academic the first time I glared at a difficult student over my glasses on the end of my nose, while sitting behind my desk. Good grief. I remember that pose from my own undergrad and that I wanted to punch professors like that…

Cross-posted on Asian Security Blog.

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  • Guest

    Regarding your fifth point, the answer is research assistants. 

  • Guy Fox

    Way to show the wizard behind the curtain, who may be less intimidating but more likeable than the projection.

    If I may offer some advice, forget the external measures of success and just do work that you’re proud of. You’ll be happy whether you meet those external measures or not.

    Why not read and write about the classics? If you cherish them so dearly (which is a *good* thing in my books), what do you gain by focusing on repetitive pablum like spirals and junk. If that’s what it takes to be policy-relevant, wouldn’t your time be better spent criticizing the policies based on it? And don’t the classics have plenty of ideas about the dangers of presentism and the false priority of sophistication over meaning?

    To thine own self be true, yo.

  • Dan Drezner

    Regarding your seventh point, I teach a “Classics in International Relations Theory” course that starts with Thucydides and ends with Schelling precisely to avoid this problem.  

  • ADTS

    This is really a superb post – great, great job.  For what it is worth, I have reflected of late that it may be borderline unethical to permit 21-year olds, still in college, to apply to and begin PhD programs.


  • Gerard van der Ree

    I object to limiting ‘output’ to publications. Teaching is an output so much more important than anything else. I know it doesnt count career-wise, but to me there is nohing more fulfilling…

  • http://twitter.com/russglenn Russ Glenn

    Fantastic post. Scarily accurate.

  • ADTS

    I just caught the last part.  Many years ago, while considering graduate programs as an admitted student, I encountered a most unpleasant and impolite person coordinating the admissions process that year for said person’s school.  I had the same exact reaction – I genuinely wanted to hit (as in, physically strike) that person.  Thankfully, civilization rather than primordialism asserted itself and I remained in compliance with both law and social norms.  Also, said person sent repeated rude emails after a decision not to attend said person’s program was made and communicated.  Fortunately, the physics of distance and email preempted any possibility of an unlawful and unwise physical strike on said person.  Still…

  • Mjtier

    Great post.  Lots of interesting ideas and a lot to agree with.  But, on point #1, how lonely you are depends, in part, on the style of research you choose to do.  If you are solving for equilibrium in obscure strategic games, reinterpreting Plato by reading/translating from Ancient Greek, or writing a macro-transhistorical history of sovereignty, then its probably really lonely.  Those things take a lot of uninterrupted time and individual mental energy and are probably best done with your door closed.  But, if you are running a 10 person team of field researchers in Uganda, a 30 person team of RAs, or a 2-3 person paper collaboration, then it can be quite social and not at all lonely.  Collaboration comes with its own costs, but loneliness is rarely one of them. 

  • ProfPTJ

    For similar reasons, my “Theories of International Politics” course goes Thucydides-to-Hegel, then E. H. Carr, before spending a few weeks on a smattering of contemporary stuff — largely to see what if anything of the classic themes and questions of political philosophy survives in the post-behaviorist world of US-dominated anglophone IR.

  • Vanajaprob

     Hi. Just wanted to communicate that your post was pleasing to a mom sitting in Florida, and commiserating with the lives of her academic (very adult) children. You write so very well. Enjoy.

  • http://genotopia.scienceblog.com/ Nccomfort

    Lol, god how I love how most of the comments “take issue” with one thing or another, thus perfectly illustrating points 1-6. Nice piece–I wish I’d written it. Oh shit–point 5!

  • http://asiansecurityblog.wordpress.com/ Robert Kelly

    Sounds like a great class. But I wonder how that translates into research and publicati0n. I never get told in my r&r’s that I need to re-read Thucydides. As I said in the OP, I think we tip our hat to these guys in our intros, but when we write, we cite the usual suspects of Patrick’s modern, anglophone IR. I don’t want us to be divorced from political philosohpy either, but I see why it has happened, and that is reflected in our hyper-technical  journal literature, no?

  • http://asiansecurityblog.wordpress.com/ Robert Kelly

    This is the most heartfelt comment I think I’ve ever gotten in 3 years of blogging. Thanks. I imagine my mom would agree; it can be nerve-racking. Best, Bob

  • http://asiansecurityblog.wordpress.com/ Robert Kelly

    Thank you. I wonder about that too. I hesitate somewhat to counsel getting a PhD when students ask me about it. I had a smart girlfriend during my dissertation years who later said she’d never pursue a PhD after watching me go through it. Ironically, I strongly believe in IR and academia, despite all my whining in the OP. I really want to replenish the field, but given how high grad school attrition is, I wonder if it is good careeer advice.

  • http://asiansecurityblog.wordpress.com/ Robert Kelly

    Good point. I like teaching too actually. I like being a dorky academic, and good students make my day. But as you even admit, the incentive structure in the field is so loaded in favor of production…

  • http://asiansecurityblog.wordpress.com/ Robert Kelly

    Thank you. My experience with co-authoring has been mixed. Disagreements over the direction of the paper, resulting in compromises that don’t fit too well. Implicit background fears of free-riding. Or maybe I’m just a pain in the neck. I dunno. But the large group collaboration you describe sounds really cool. Can’t say I’ve had that sort of opportunity though, or know too many people who have.

  • Mmanjiki

    But what we really want to know is—did you write it in your pajamas?

  • http://asiansecurityblog.wordpress.com/ Robert Kelly

    Alas, such Delphic Mysteries must remain hidden :)

  • http://asiansecurityblog.wordpress.com/ Robert Kelly

    Thank you.

    I suppose so, but I think we all would also like peer-recognition for what we do, not just personal satisfaction. My definition of success is closely tied to the definition of success in the field that I have worked in for so long and that helps give me a sense of identity and community in the world.

  • ProfPTJ

    …which is THE biggest problem with academia as a profession nowadays.

  • http://asiansecurityblog.wordpress.com/ Robert Kelly
  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=708328273 Jarrod Hayes
  • http://asiansecurityblog.wordpress.com/ Robert Kelly

    Great catch! Sounds right – armies of part-timers, balloning admin, weak pay for years at the beginning. Sounds just like where I teach too.