Academia backstage: Conversations on community, meaning, and the hard parts of academic life
(posted on behalf of @Sai Kalvapalle)
In planning my final post in this role (sad face), and as I slowly transition out of being a PhD student looking for a job (happy face), I have been reflecting a lot. These reflections were particularly punctuated by recent conversations around integrity in academic work, and what we owe to science, society, and what is perhaps the most central but least discussed element in all of this – community.
My community has helped me write my papers, teach my courses, navigate the job market, overcome imposter syndrome, feel less shitty when rejected, when batting curveballs, when feeling malaise with the system…I could go on. Community has been everything for me.
As I was warmly reflecting on this, I was thinking not only retrospectively, but also laterally – at community members who I felt overwhelmingly got things right.
So, like many other times in the past, I reached out to these role models – individuals who embody, with great intention, what I believe it means to be an academic.
I spoke to Sophie Bacq (IMD Business School), Sadhvi Dar (Queen Mary University of London), Thomas Roulet (University of Cambridge), and Jan Lodge (Erasmus University Rotterdam), who shared powerful insights and reflections on their PhD experiences (on both sides of the fence), as well as on academia more generally. We talked about values, challenges, rejections, precarity, and, you guessed it: community.
Sophie is a Professor of Social Entrepreneurship at IMD Lausanne, and during our conversation, reports experiencing a “summer of transitions” as she moves into her new role from being at Indiana University for the last four years, and USA for the last thirteen. Thomas, also a recently appointed Professor at the University of Cambridge, reminisces about overlapping trajectories with Sophie as “academic babies.” In addition to scholarly publications, they’ve both got books they’re working on, so…stay tuned!
Jan is an Assistant Professor at the Rotterdam School of Management (Erasmus University), and previously worked as a management consultant before returning to academia. Sadhvi is a Reader at Queen Mary University of London. In continuing with happy coincidences, Jan and Sadhvi both did their PhDs at the Judge Business School, at different points in time.
What all our panelists share, in addition to being generally awesome people, is a keen interest in elevating marginalized discourses and challenging mainstream institutions, be it through community entrepreneurship, negative social evaluations, mental health, or postcolonial studies.
We talked a lot about the hard parts. There was no debate that we all tend to have a lot on our plates, be it the personal nature of doing meaningful work, increasing demands of career advancement, geographic displacement, balancing work and family, and doing it all while constantly facing rejections. The emotional toll of academic work is high, and what was particularly striking for me after these conversations is the way our institutions shape our experiences, and how we can, from intrapersonal, relational, and institutional angles, overcome these challenges and keep the focus on the work itself.
The biggest, most obvious hurdle we all identified was rejection.
“I think the number one thing we experience as an academic is rejection,” emphasizes Thomas. “Rejection, rejection, rejection! Everyday you wake up with a rejection. It’s important to have a collective defense mechanism, [like talking to your co-authors about the rejection as well].”
Sadhvi adds, “[rejection is] unfortunately a very everyday occurrence in academia. I’ll tell you one thing though. When I first started, I really held that rejection in a very high regard. Not just a rejection of a paper or a funding application, but of me. Of my ideas. And that goes really deep.”
Jan lends further nuance here, “there are different types of rejections in our jobs. Sure, there are paper rejections, but even at a micro level, there are idea rejections. Like when you’re just having a chat with people and they hate your idea. And that doesn’t feel good because you start questioning, is it me, is it the idea, what’s going on?”
This notion of ‘rejection of the self’ seems to pervade our experiences. While terrible that it is so widespread, the shared nature of this experience means that we can all build and share strategies on how to psychologically protect ourselves from what is, essentially, part of the job.
Further perspective here is that rejections are rejections for now. Sadhvi shares her experience with a paper that was rejected for seven years, until it was eventually published: “I think these rejections are also sometimes ways of the paper growing and shaping in an organic way. I know I couldn’t have written that chapter seven years ago, because it was an evolution of thinking, reading, and re-scripting that kind of took it to a place that I thought was much more meaningful, much more grounded than it was before.” So sometimes it might do us good to think about rejections as purely about the trajectory of a project.
And the most resounding point of agreement here was that everyone gets rejected. This is something Sophie drove home:
“Reflecting on my own PhD journey, you feel like this is only something that PhDs go through, and the senior professors they know how… and they write 10 papers a year, right? Literally everybody has their ideas rejected or their papers rejected or whatever it may be all the time, so it’s not something that’s confined to a certain group. We’re all part of this thing where it takes ages to get stuff out, and we go through troubles.”
Why does everyone face rejections? “The filtering mechanism in our field is so selective, that there is a lot of randomness, and even great work gets rejected,” explains Thomas. “You have to understand what the expectations are and how you can play around those expectations when you know that odds are, in general, really, strongly… against you.” Sophie adds, “The most prolific scholars get rejected as much as the PhD students! It’s just that they have a higher volume of submissions.”
But our panelists also emphasize that the inevitable nature of facing these barriers against your ideas and interests can be overcome. “If it’s an important piece to you, you should keep trying to publish it, because it might be important to other people than just yourself,” says Thomas. I find this a profoundly important notion, because belief in an idea doesn’t come from nowhere. “And being a reviewer is also very helpful, because you’re on the other side, and you understand what works and what doesn’t work and what flies and what gets a paper rejected.”
Naturally, experience plays a pretty critical role here. Not only does it build the ‘rejection muscle’ as it were, it also simply affords more learning opportunities, and opportunities to have more projects and know more people who can help you withstand lengthy review processes. But during the PhD, or even as junior faculty, we don’t have pipelines yet, nor do we necessarily know how to build sturdy ones. There is also the critical tension of growing expectations for PhD students to be publishing as they are learning, while simultaneously making mistakes, trying and failing, and developing in that way…you know, what learning is meant to look like.
Thomas emphasized that the phase of finishing the PhD, looking for jobs, and even the first year of the new job is an extremely challenging part of an academic career. Speaking more generally, he says, “I think there are very high expectations overall in our profession that are very difficult to meet and there is no end to meeting those expectations.” This sentiment was also echoed by Sophie, who recalls feeling overwhelmed during the earlier part of her career. When discussing with her mentor, she says she had a feeling of “there’s no way I can do all of that!”
If that isn’t the most relatable feeling…
And then there’s the general bewilderment of what it even means to be a “job market entrant.” Sophie reminisces about her own job search process, and says, laughing, “I was on the job market, and I had no idea what I was doing! I didn’t know you need a job market paper, and all of these institutional symbols…I guess I was just confident that something would play out. But you know, I didn’t know. [She nods her head]. I was doing the job market, not really winning, not really knowing where I would end up.”
Thomas also shared that there were many parts of his career in which he experienced great doubt. Reassuringly, he convinced me that “the first job is a bottleneck to pass and things get better after that – but it is shattering.”
We talked about the mental health concerns that accompanies all of this uncertainty and self-doubt. In thinking about her own struggles, Sadhvi generously shares, “I remember going through a period of burnout and really feeling like I’m never going to be able to write or work ever again. And I think that’s another thing I want to address in this conversation is around mental health issues. Because I think a lot of that self-doubt can feel very overpowering, and we should be kind enough to ourselves to take it seriously, and to seek out support wherever we can. I think supervisors should be given more training on noticing when this is not about a student turning their back or disappearing or going AWOL, but this is a mental health issue where that person is feeling considerable amounts of difficulty and challenge coming back to the work and feeling good about their work. And to also just remind ourselves that we did feel this way before, and we came out of it. I know I need to remind myself of that. That I was there, I was in a worse place, but I got out of it. I came out.”
Wow. Not feeling good enough is something most of us battle, particularly in light of the constant rejections, but I don’t think we acknowledge enough that intellectual work might even require a certain amount of self-assuredness and holistic well-being. To further complicate this, however, there is also a sense that academic career progression is a “fixed pie,” particularly when applying for academic jobs, or submitting to journals or conferences. The evaluation of doing good work or being a good scholar then tends to be premised upon self-comparison, even though it is deeply problematic to even compare.
Sadhvi elaborates, “The question [on self-comparison] itself contains an assumption that we are all comparable. That it’s a meritocracy. But academia is highly gendered and highly racialized, and women of color do poorly. So, it goes back to having our own value systems by which we evaluate our own worth, and not internalize those external systems of value because they are very, very skewed.”
Jan offers a complimentary perspective to this institutional understanding of performance: “Rationally, self-comparison just doesn’t make sense, because we’re all on different journeys. We all have different methods, different contexts and theories… different access to co-authors, different supervisions, different institutions that support us more or less, different money for PhD students to go out and do fieldwork.”
Self-comparison, as our panelists explain, is therefore both a psychological and a systemic question, on what these metrics are that we are evaluating ourselves by. I will admit, when I started my PhD, I naively believed in a very linear hard work-output model of success, but then struggled with questions of self-worth when I didn’t feel like I could meet standards in the same way all the time. My biggest takeaway here, then, is that we are all lucky to different degrees, and we all fit into these spaces to different degrees. I just hope that there are more such spaces to fit into.
These deeply honest and personal reflections on how difficult this job can be, but also how we can situate and make sense of the challenges inherent to the process, were very validating. In getting a better sense of how these faculty members I look up to shape their experiences, priorities, and identities, I asked a very simple question – “so what do we do about it?”
The answers I got I will remember for a long time.
To start, Sadhvi reflects beautifully on what makes it worth it: “Much of the work I’ve done is in an autobiographical sense. We bring our positionality, our memories, our experiences into how we engage with the world and what makes it meaningful for us.”
And this is what helps her negotiate the demands the institution might place on her with her own value system. “There were many times that I wanted to leave. Many, many times. But I saw it to the end. But after that, I promised myself that I wouldn’t really negotiate on some of the commitments I have with certain politics, like anti-racism, feminism…I do want to do work that nourishes that or stays loyal to those values and ideas.”
Echoing the idea, we previously discussed doing work you believe in, this strong alignment to one’s own value system creates or changes institutions in specific ways. To this end, Sophie adds, “Research is advancing in a way that has meaning. Management academics have been embracing understanding how businesses and entrepreneurs affect the earth and human systems. And I think that has manifested in the kinds of publications accepted in journals.”
What is also getting better is more awareness about equity in academia. Sadhvi notes, reassuringly: “There is space for building community, for sharing stories, for understanding why and how certain careers are not meant to grow within the system. And I think having that understanding means we are not internalizing that shame, that we are not internalizing the worthlessness or devaluing. That we can kind of come out of it and see it for what it is. And then challenge that on its own terms rather than beating ourselves up about it.”
But as we all battle our own differently-shaped demons, what I think we don’t acknowledge enough is the necessarily creative nature of our work, which is by design punctuated by moments of clarity amidst tumults of doubt.
Sadhvi shares, “It's a very natural part of being creative, which one has to be if one’s a scholar, to have moments of non-productivity. And to have a sense of isolation. When we read writers’ biographies or their memoirs… it’s almost like a condition of being creative, that we do have these moments.”
Just take a look at one of Charles Darwin’s diary entries, where he laments, “But I am very poorly today and very stupid and hate everybody and everything.” Poor guy. But like, same.
For Thomas, reaching this awareness meant a serendipitous encounter with a blog (yay blogs): The Thesis Whisperer. Feeling “crushed” after a seminar (something I felt a visceral gut twinge when hearing), he shared that he wouldn’t have continued on an academic career had it not been for this very real acknowledgement of assholes, and an urgent call to build circles of niceness.
How do we do so? By having the right value systems. Jan eloquently states, “A value I would never compromise on and one that I think we should think about more is something like kindness. Because academia can be such a tough environment, and we’ve just talked about all the rejections…it doesn’t help that sometimes we get upset about somebody else’s work and we get mean and start shouting about it. So, I think just being kind and compassionate also if things don’t go well and just kind of help out…it helps make a more livable community. And it’s such an easy thing to do to be kind, as long as you’re conscious about it.”
I couldn’t agree more.
But the circular nature of (not) niceness can also come from skewed perceptions of fairness. As Thomas explains, “people reproduce the models they have experienced themselves. If they have had hell through their review process, they are horrible with those that they review. It’s really important to disentangle the experience we have with the experience we reproduce with others.”
A specific way of doing so, as described by Jan in our conversation, is to rebuild whatever you tear down. Paraphrasing advice he got from an academic colleague, he says, “You can absolutely go ahead and tear down a paper and rip it to bits and set it aflame and stomp on it and everything,” says Jan. “But then it is your responsibility there and then to rebuild the idea. And to say, this is what you can do, this is how you can move forward, and constructively improve it.”
Beyond taking ownership of how we provide feedback, being mindful of the behaviors we reproduce necessarily requires that we do the work of not letting the pressure seep in and warp our perceptions, actions, and attitudes.
“I just really try and focus on my own journey,” shares Jan. “I focus on my own projects, I focus on the people I’m working with…the work I need to do next to get this next paper out. And just accepting that sometimes I work a bit slower than others, and sometimes a bit faster.”
Sophie similarly contextualized her approach as a practice. ““It’s you and yourself,” she explains. “I try to be really present. I try to clear my mind of everything I’m not doing at the moment to relieve the pressure.” She also shows us her daily material reminder, in the form of a bracelet that reads presence.
“It’s my word of the year.”
From my limited editorializing and generous quoting of this panel discussion, it is quite apparent that we had many rich discussions of our shared experiences as members of one community. Believe it or not, this is me being selective. There is just so much more I wanted to include here, deepening my/our understanding of the institutional architecture we are a part of, the necessary role of PhD supervisors who are “tuned in,” diversifying the meaning of productivity in academia, choosing co-authors, and more.
Maybe there will be a Part II. Regardless, I want to leave you with one call to action shared by Sadhvi:
“We need to be better about sitting down and talking about what’s at stake. I think that in terms of a call for action, that would be it. That we are not coming together to present a paper or talk about an idea, but really what is the stake of higher education and universities as a space of creativity, generation, politics, struggle. What does that mean today? How will it change over the next few years? What can we do to safeguard and secure young people’s futures? That’s what I want us to do. That’s my call for action.”
I hope many of us can be a part of such a dialogue.