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7 things I don’t like @ being an Academic

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It’s grad school acceptance season, so here are a few thoughts if you are considering the PhD plunge. Try this genre also on the Duck of Minerva, where I also write. 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…

Filed under: Academia, Culture, Political Science

Robert E Kelly
Assistant Professor
Department of Political Science & Diplomacy
Pusan National University


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