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

What am I studying? My research interests

2nd post of the day because I am behind again 🙂

As you likely know if you’ve read any of my previous posts, I’m a graduate student studying political science. But, a “PhD in political science” can mean various things, so I thought I would discuss in greater detail what my research interests are. (Please note that I do not have, nor am I (yet) anywhere near having a PhD.)

I always kind of knew that I would study politics in college. I’ve mentioned this before, but I spent 4/5 of my life “knowing” that I was going to attend law school, so that combined with my interest in politics made it the natural choice for a major in college. Luckily, I developed great relationships with a few of my college professors, and it is probably no coincidence that I adopted some of their research interests as a result. As of now, my research interests are still somewhat broad and subject to change– I’m only entering my second year of grad school, but I hope to narrow that down a bit this year.

During college, I was a research assistant for one of my professors who was doing a project on media coverage of the Affordable Care Act. My work consisted mainly of coding news statements in accordance with several predominant frames that mainstream media were using in discussions of the ACA. Although the work itself was somewhat tedious, I found the overall topic and approach to be extremely interesting. It was crazy to me how distinct the primary frames used seemed to be (i.e., certain news networks adopted visibly more conservative/ liberal approaches to discussing the issue, and this was evident not through overt statements but through the use of certain, essentially “coded,” language). Having taken a media and politics course with the same professor, this experience cemented my interest in the media and political communication. In short, I find it really interesting to study the institution that is primarily responsible for informing citizens, because the opinions that they form are a consequence of the information that they take in.

Another topic I am interested in is gender & politics– less because of the issue of the gender disparity in politics (although that is a real issue!) but more because I find it particularly important to look at how our institutions work in terms of representing groups that have been historically disenfranchised. I also have taken various classes at this point relating to women and politics, have written several papers about it, and my current research assistantship involves that topic as well, so I’ve kind of naturally begun to focus on that area. There are, of course, other minority groups and groups that have been disenfranchised from the political politics, so it is likely that in the long term my interests will extend to studying more than just women and politics.

Those are the particular topics I am interested in, but in terms of the approach I’d like to take to better understanding them, I am leaning more toward an individual behavior/ psychological approach rather than an institutional approach. The way I see it, our political outcomes are the consequence of vote choice, and vote choice is the consequence of individual opinions, which are the consequence of various things– socialization, personal experience, the information one consumes (hence my interest in the news/ media), etc. So I am interested in finding some unexplored areas in the literature to examine further when it comes to why people believe the things that they do, particularly when individuals are under false impressions about reality, or hold political preferences that are counter to their own advancement, and so on. I am interested in making sense of the opinions people hold that don’t make sense. When it comes time to decide on a dissertation topic, I’ll probably try to combine these interests in some way that also involves applicable current events.

I tend to think of politics as a problem waiting to be solved. If individual behavior and institutional outcomes made perfect sense, there would probably be no political scientists to study them. But there are, because puzzles and problems exist, and we want to make sense of them. I am an Americanist (I probably should have mentioned this earlier), and in our system– in case it isn’t obvious– there are lots of problems. People aren’t always represented, outcomes aren’t always beneficial to the majority, people don’t always hold opinions that make sense. I think resolving this last issue would have a positive impact on outcomes, as preferences would be more aligned with actual individual needs and desires. I’m not naive enough to believe that my research alone could actually resolve this problem, but I do believe that political scientists studying individual behavior play an important role in demonstrating empirically that these problems do exist, and there is a need to take action to solve them.

-AK

Challenging myself…

Hi everyone! Happy 5th of July. I hope everybody’s 4th of July celebrations included Lays potato chips (see my Twitter poll for a sad depiction of the reality of today’s potato chips market).

So I’m a deadline-driven kind of person, and I don’t have any deadlines related to my blog. Hence, not many recent posts. I used to see my friend Mary (check out her blog) do blogging challenges occasionally, and it seemed like a good way to get into the habit of writing more often. For me, the problem is that inspiration and creativity usually strike all at once and then wither away. So, while I feel inspired, I decided to outline the topics I hope to address this month, in order to hold myself accountable!

Here is my list 🙂

July 6: My fitness routine
July 7: 7 things I can’t live without
July 8: My weekly “refresh” routine
July 9: Grocery haul + meal prep overview
July 10: 23 things I’ve learned in 23 years
July 11: People who inspire me
July 12: Veganism from an economic perspective
July 13: Top 5 things I learned in college
July 14: July playlist
July 15: 15 random facts about me
July 16: Staples for a vegan diet – foods I always have in my kitchen
July 17: How I stay organized
July 18: Biggest pet peeves
July 19: Being yourself (in the face of criticism)
July 20: My favorite YouTube channels
July 21: Podcasts I’ve enjoyed (as someone who doesn’t enjoy podcasts)
July 22: Weekend snapshot: family beach trip
July 23: My experience with music
July 24: What I’m studying & my research interests
July 25: Pros and cons of the “academic world”
July 26: My tips for productivity
July 27: My biggest weaknesses
July 28: Taste test – reviewing a restaurant or coffee shop
July 29: My thoughts on pursuing a (political science) PhD
July 30: July favorites
July 31: Round-up of the funniest things I’ve seen on the internet this month
August 1: General + August goals
August 2: How to apply to grad school
August 3: Useful apps for students
August 4: Places to study in Washington D.C.
August 5: Advice for first-year grad students

And that’s it! (For now.) I hope you come back to read some of these posts, whether it’s because you just want to see me roast myself about my biggest weaknesses, or because you find some of these topics interesting and informative!

-AK

End of PhD Year 1, Traveling, & Other Plans

I have been woefully inactive on here recently, so I thought I would do a little update. It’s almost like grad school takes up a lot of your time! Actually, though, I am a firm believer that if you want to make time for something, you can, and it has been one of my goals to make more time for blogging and other aspects of my creative life. I’m hoping that if I create that habit now, it will be easier to maintain when life picks back up again.

But, life is moving at a bit of a slower pace now, because it is summer! I finished the first year of grad school! This year, my mind was stretched in ways I never knew it could be. When I was apprised of the existence of 4 (+) – dimensional graphs, I felt like a whole new dimension was added to my brain as well. In a sense, the transition to grad school from undergrad wasn’t all that drastic for me. At college, my classes were also small group seminars and I took it really seriously so the workload, while more challenging now, wasn’t too different either. But, I definitely feel like I am learning how to “think like an academic,” and I now see what all those gradcafe threads meant when they referred to the academic socialization process. (Note: this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I think it is kind of inevitable when you get a bunch of smart people together focused on the same goal.) (Note also: if you are a prospective grad student, save yourself and don’t even go on gradcafe.)

Anyway, while it feels like an accomplishment to have finished this year successfully, there is still a long way to go. As a PhD student, one eventually must figure out what their own research will be about. I have a very amorphous idea of what I want to study long-term (and this is a generous characterization). So, this summer, one of my goals is to take time to read a lot of the literature in my area of interest (media/ political communication/ political psychology, etc.), given that not everything makes its way to my class syllabi. I think doing this will help me solidify, or rule out, what I think I want to study. Also, we underestimate how important regular reading is for our mental acuity. I.e., I took 2 weeks off for vacation and to relax, and I tried to read an academic article and my brain was like “what is this?” — so I am going to try to avoid that.

Speaking of vacation, I went to Punta Cana! My boyfriend, 2 of our friends and I all went as a sort of graduation celebration. Here are a few pictures. It was very awesome. If I could live in a tropical climate year round, I totally would.

 

 

In terms of the rest of the summer, here are some things that will be taking up a lot of my time:

  • fitness — I was getting in pretty good shape prior to vacation and, well, you can guess how that turned out 🙂
  • moving!
  • writing — whether for this blog or for potential research projects
  • cooking and baking — I am hoping to have some new summer recipe ideas to share
  • music — I have had an on- and off- relationship with my guitar, but I miss the days when I played every day. It is therapeutic.
  • exploring DC museums that I have not visited yet
  • pool — yes, I really am just trying to pretend I’m still on an island somewhere, but you have to do what you have to do to make reading about selective exposure interesting in the 80 degree weather.
  • more reading, but for fun! I have not had this much flexibility with my own time for over 7 years to be honest, so I want to indulge in books I haven’t had the chance to get to.

Of course, I am sure Netflix will make its way into this list somehow– it always does. But I feel energized and motivated to try new things and also make this a productive summer, so I am looking forward to sharing what that looks like.

-AK