Pros and cons of the academic world

This is a topic that deserves more than one post, and given that I still consider myself a beginner in the “academic world” having only completed one year of grad school, I am sure I will have much more to say in the future. So I’m sure I’ll revisit this list one day with a more mature perspective, but I thought it would be interesting if I shared my observations, at this point, on the pros and cons of the academic world. (Another caveat: as I’ve shared before, I am a political science student. This could and probably does vary among fields.) With that being said, here is what sticks out to me.

Pros:

  • Smart people. You are surrounded by them! It is inspiring. You have professors and mentors and even people who share no interests with you but whose intelligence and passion for their subject is so evident that it motivates you with your own work.
  • Learning. This should go without saying, but many people, particularly those who actually aren’t in the academic community, forget about its most straightforward goal, which is learning. It’s not just about writing the current paper or finishing a project or getting through the semester, it’s about taking in each learning opportunity like a sponge and continuously building on your own knowledge and expertise.
  • Learning for money. Yes it’s about learning, but if it is your job, it is also about money. And my experience, at least, is that I am receiving financial support to receive an education that I will later use to continue enjoying all the “pros” on this list. Isn’t that cool? (Note: I’m not saying this to brag. However, I actually think too many people complain about the low salary of graduate students. While it is nothing to write home about, you are literally being paid to receive an education while many others with similar credentials are taking out loans to attend Masters programs or law school. So it seems like a good hand of cards to be dealt.)
  • Intellectual stimulation. Some might argue that this is the same thing as learning, but I actually don’t think that is true. There are aspects of research that require creativity, problem solving, analytical thinking, brainstorming, and sometimes it can generally feel like a giant puzzle. Even in the moments when not a lot of material learning is being done, other kinds of stimulation are likely going on.
  • Some level of autonomy. While most people in the academic world work within a college or university, there is still a degree of freedom (although it varies depending on one’s field, institution, level of seniority, etc.) when it comes to one’s teaching and research endeavors. That sounds a lot more appealing, to me at least, than being told explicitly what to do by a superior.

Cons:

  • Smart people… You are surrounded by them. Yes, this is beneficial, but it can also be a negative thing. Smart people can be great, or not so great. They can be kind and helpful, or rude and condescending. You don’t know which it’ll be, you just know that they are intelligent (at least enough to ~make it to where they are in life~).
  • Self doubt. It’s not a coincidence that most grad students and professors are familiar with the term “impostor syndrome.” This is sort of a result of the social environment of academia, but it is also just something that naturally happens when you are inundated with tons of high level material and attempting to stay above water with it all.
  • Work-life balance. I’m struggling to decide whether this is a pro or a con when it comes to academia, but at this moment I am going to place it on the “cons” list. Here comes a mini rant if you are interested in why:
    This entire blog is about my endeavor to find a balance between work and life that feels effortless. I recognize that it will never feel completely effortless, but I do strive to live my life in a way where work and “play” complement, rather than compete with, each other. There are definitely some positive aspects of the work-life balance of an academic as compared with some other professional routes. One’s time is somewhat flexible, and we can often choose, aside from a few pre-scheduled commitments, when we want to do our work. This doesn’t decrease the workload, but it allows scholars to exercise discretion in how they’d like to complete the work. On the other hand, there is a certain culture of overworking ourselves and signing up for various projects and constantly engaging in self-improvement exercises (like learning more and better methods, writing more and better papers, networking, etc.) and just generally always being “on,” that it can feel wrong or even guilt-invoking to take some time off. That’s why, at this moment, even though it is the middle of summer and I have the most freedom with my time that I have had in actual years, I’m currently seeing the work-life balance element as a “con.” However, I will say that every single day I work to foster a mindset that resists that norm, and that I hope to be vocal in opposition to the idea that we need to overwork ourselves to an unhealthy extent in order to be successful academics.
  • On the flip side of having a certain level of autonomy, it can also be problematic to work within a field so reliant on “the institution” as academia is. You’ve heard of “the ivory tower.” And if you know anything about working in higher education, you are also likely aware that it has many bureaucratic elements to it. You can sometimes feel like just one cog in a larger machine, one that you have little to no control over. The extent to which this is a problem basically depends on your outlook, although it does impact some practical realities of life as well (such as when one experiences problems with their pay, health insurance, or some other aspect of life that there is a lot less bargaining power over than there might be working for a private firm of some sort).
  • The job market. I researched the benefits and downsides of attaining a PhD extensively before I seriously considered it. The only reason I was comfortable entering this process was because I knew from the start that I was very open minded about the kind of job I would pursue in the future; if I thought I would only be willing to use a PhD to become a professor one day, I would certainly have tried to dream another dream. According to Google, the prospects aren’t getting better soon. 
  • It’s never ending. Now if you enjoy the lifestyle of an academic, then this is not really a problem. But what I mean by this is that, as one of the advisors at my institution shared in one of the first meetings we had as new students, your first day of graduate school is your first day on the job. Sure, you are still in the formal schooling portion of your journey, but when you receive your degree and go on the job market, there is no magic switch that will be flipped and turn you into a full-fledged professor. I am very keen on the power of manifestation so I try to act like I already am where I want to be in all aspects of my life, so this is actually something I love about the process. But if you feel overwhelmed as a graduate student, you can see the road ahead, and you are just perpetually waiting for that step in the process that you think will bring you fulfillment… Well, then the outlook seems bleak, my friend. It is unrealistic to think that you will enjoy the process later if you do not enjoy it now.

Those are my observations so far, and please don’t take this list as an indication that there are more “cons” than “pros.” If I had to sum up all I’ve learned about this journey so far in one sentence, I would be sure to make the point that almost ever positive aspect has a negative side to it, and vice-versa. This could be discouraging, or it could be a great thing depending on one’s ability to selectively focus on the “good.”

Do you consider yourself to be a part of the “academic world”? Have you shared some of these experiences, or are there other elements I missed? Comment below!

-AK

5 lessons I learned in college

College was not long ago for me, and I am already nostalgic about it; I really miss that time in my life. As a student living on campus, I felt like I had the world at my fingertips and was surrounded by possibilities. I learned so much in my classes, and I enjoyed the academic aspect of my life. One could say that I was, and am, a nerd. However, now that I have the gift of retrospect, I can recognize that some of the important lessons I learned as a college student didn’t involve my classes at all. The mix of being in an environment with so many opportunities and also trying to figure out my first few years of actual adulthood led to interesting experiences, and if I were advising an incoming student, these are some things I would want them to know.

  1. Time is valuable and your most important resource. Once you spend time, there is no way to get it back. Time can fly by so easily, and to be happy and healthy we need sleep, exercise, and social interaction. However, balancing the three as well as your academic work can feel impossible. I recommend finding a time management method that works for you, to avoid those days where one moment you are talking with your friends in the common room and the next it is 10 pm and you haven’t even started your work that is due tomorrow. (Soon I will be writing about how I stay organized, so look out for that if you find this challenging!)
  2. There is no formula for success in your chosen field, and there is no one path that will bring you to the desired destination. This became extremely apparent in every career center seminar I was forced to attend attended. Successful professionals would participate in talks and panels and discuss their “nonlinear” career paths and how life never really goes as planned. There are some things you can do to make this reality less intimidating and more exciting. Learn how to think about your strengths in terms of what skills you have and why they make you unique, not just in terms of your specific job “experience.” For example, I had several internships in DC, where I worked making some Excel spreadsheets and gathering historical documents about people who nobody has ever heard of. When I decided to attend graduate school, rather than apply for jobs straight out of college, I could have marketed these skills as “proficiency with Excel and ProQuest,” or I could have emphasized how these experiences taught me to see research as a puzzle waiting to be solved, and how my drive to solve that puzzle in addition to the practical skills I’d learned made research a natural fit for me. Which one do you think sounds more appealing?
  3. The importance of your GPA really varies depending on your specific goals. I personally prioritized my GPA over almost everything else, including the social aspect of college, because I wanted more than anything to go to law school and I knew I wouldn’t forgive myself if I slacked in any way that could make me a less appealing applicant. I didn’t end up attending law school, but I did decide to go to grad school, where my GPA was also important. But say I’d decided to apply for jobs instead. Having a fantastic GPA certainly wouldn’t have hurt, but having a great or even good GPA might not have made any difference when paired with useful internship experience. The difference between the amount of work a student would put in for a 3.75 versus a 4.0, though, would make a difference in their college experience. Remember that there are trade-offs involved in any decision that you make, and learn how to determine which option is most valuable to you personally, and why, rather than relying on what is conventionally recommended.
  4. Thinking of your classes as an opportunity to learn, or even as a game/ challenge, makes them far more rewarding than regarding them as an obstacle you need to overcome just to receive a diploma. This is similar to having an “I get to do this” attitude rather than an “I have to do this” attitude. It may just sound like a cheesy line your high school teachers or coaches throw at you, but viewing your obligations as opportunities makes them feel more worthwhile. Many, many people cannot attend college, or even attain lower levels of education, due to financial or other constraints. If you are lucky enough to be in a position where you have the option, you should recognize your privilege and appreciate the opportunity to learn as much as possible.
  5. Your success depends largely on how you play the cards you’re dealt. If you attend a large university where it’s nearly impossible to develop a personal relationship with professors, you might need to get creative about communicating with your TAs and classmates to really understand the material. If you attend a small liberal arts college that nobody has ever heard of (me), then you might benefit from participating in activities that get you involved in the broader area and expanding your network. If academics do not come very easily to you, finding a passion or a club where you can gain leadership skills might increase your desirability to future employers. Maybe instead of trying to be a jack-of-all-trades, find opportunities that align with your strengths and do what you can to downplay your weaknesses. Nobody is great at everything, but being really good at one thing gives you a unique edge.

What are the most important lessons you learned as a college student?

-AK