How Not to Suck at Saving Your Soul

May 2, 2015

The dismissive, arrogant, negligent, and emotionally abusive supervisor is so common as to be the clichéd default of the academic world. Academic Twitter has become a therapy couch from where the cries of aggrieved graduate students, wailing of terrified junior professors, and loud calls to tear down the entire system from adjuncts (and many others) are heard. Fortunately, there are many sources of academic kindness, understanding ears, and sage advice available to those who are being run through the spin cycle of an early academic career. I would like to be more positive, however the vast majority of young academics eventually fall into four large categories: those who quit graduate school or leave academic life altogether upon graduation; those who become successful and acquire the dismissive, arrogant, negligent, and emotionally abusive behaviours that they experienced as a graduate student and a post doc; those unable to find satisfactory employment and struggle with serial postdocs or adjunct work; and those who successfully obtain tenure, but are then experience existential crises as to what to do with the rest of their careers and lives. None of these options are especially appealing to an aspiring academic. All four outcomes can be corrosive to the soul. I believe it is possible (but not easy) to have a fulfilling academic career, a good life, and keep your soul intact.

For me there are only two ways to survive academia and keep your soul intact. Those are: to have an appropriate and well-established set of personal perspectives and priorities; and to be kind.

Perspectives and Priorities:

Perspectives and priorities are difficult to establish and usually require hard knocks, experiences, and a clear worldview. The value of having effective perspectives and priorities is that the rejection, being treated unfairly, or any number of slings and arrows of academia can be disappointing; however, they are not personally devastating. To survive it is necessary to shake it off, learn, and move on to the next task armed with better skills and knowledge.

Perspectives are the points of view that establish exactly what is truly important to you. This process is different for everyone. I have what I refer to as “hard earned blessings.” For example, before entering academia I was a school psychologist for 16 years in schools, hospitals, and private practice. During this time I was cut by a teenager with a knife, bitten by a six-year-old (and still have a small scar), many of my patients in pediatric oncology succumbed to their illnesses (exactly 33), performed CPR twice (both with unsuccessful outcomes), came home with vomit or blood on my clothes several times, and was the first person to tell many parents that their child has intellectual disabilities or autism. Putting things into perspective, a rejected manuscript is just not that big of a deal. I also have a lightness of being about my career and little career ambition. That is, I do not worry about it much, am happy to be employed, and have the joy of doing the work that I want to do. I simply do the best that I can, try to improve every day, hope that is good enough, and if it is not then I will get another job. My perspective is not for everyone and may be unique, but be mindful about your perspective.

Establishing priorities also comes fairly easy for me. I am fortunate enough to have been married for 23 years and still going. I have two teenage children who are healthy. They are the priorities. Nearly every student has experienced me rescheduling a regular meeting to take a child to the dentist, attend a school function, or go to one of my wife’s office functions. Just last week I missed our lab party in order to register my younger daughter for extra math tutoring at school. I am sure the party was much more fun without the boss present. Nonetheless, everyone who works with me knows that I need to be home at a reasonable hour on most nights so I can cook dinner for my family, take the dog on a long walk, and be present almost every day. I certainly could publish more papers or do more travelling in order to become a high status or famous academic (or maybe not). To what end? To be a rock star academic (*snort laugh*)? I am never going to be rich and famous because I have a different set of priorities and I am happy with that. All families and professionals prioritize features of their lives differently, but this is what works for me and I am comfortable with it. However you establish your priorities, the most important thing is that you are comfortable with them.

Kindness:

Trying to change the culture of academia or the behaviour of a challenging colleague is not an especially fruitful endeavor. We have to live with a career that can be capricious at times (like most careers); and an environment that often seems to reward arrogance, Machiavellian actions, and prideful behaviour. Railing against this environment is fine for outlets such as Twitter, but an exhausting way to function on a day-to-day basis. The only inoculation against the soul corrosive nature of academics is to be an unwavering and expanding island of kindness.

Somehow kindness has been conflated with a lack of scientific rigour. I believe strongly that one can be demanding, rigorous, and have the highest possible expectations without in any way sacrificing or diminishing the humanity of colleagues or students. There are times when students mistake the negative evaluation of their work for me being unkind to them personally. This is not the case. It is extremely rare for me to think poorly of a student simply because some of their work is not up to my expectations—I just don’t. Some exceptions are lack of work effort, unethical behaviour, not behaving in a manner that supports the team, and making excuses; but these are rare events. I see my job as that of a teacher. Some lessons are hard and unpleasant, but I will not lose perspective and will support students in their effort to reach their own objectives and my expectations. If I do my job well, then all students know how much I respect them and wish for their success. This is simple. “This work needs to be better. Here is exactly how you can make it better. Good. I believe in you and I know you can make these improvements.” Kind, demanding, and rigorous. I believe strongly in the three principles of Chinese Zen leadership: clarity, courage, and humanity. When you lose your humanity or forget the humanity of others, then you cannot be a leader or teacher. I view the clarity principle as that of scientific rigour and expectations; and the courage principle as the insistence that clarity and humanity be connected.

There is always snarkiness and even some pathology in the academic world. I have teased people by telling them that academia is one of the few jobs in which you can be successful with close to zero social skills. Those who have forgotten their humanity and appear to receive pleasure and status from making others feel less are extremely sad people. They have had poor role models, are insecure, and lack perspective of the value of their opinions. The response to these people needs to be kind as well. I recall my first conference presentation at which I was insecure about how to handle the dreaded pointed and unfairly harsh question. My mentor told me to say, “I am having difficulty interpreting your comment and question as being productive. Could you please rephrase the question so that I may interpret it more productively?” In this way the questioner must either reword the question so that it is easier to address or acknowledge that the purpose of their question was not to be productive. I have never had to use that response, but it is nice to know that it is still there.

As a professional, I am mild-mannered and take all efforts to find a compromise solution to any conflict, which demonstrates clarity, courage, and humanity. However, I will call out individuals who consistently behave in a destructive manner. I will not reject their papers or deny their funding, but will recuse myself from any participation in their work in any way. If there needs to be a confrontation, then I am completely comfortable with that tactic. But destructive behaviours will not be allowed to pass. We need to remove the professional reinforcement for being an asshole. They are not eccentric or delicate geniuses, but are damaged, damaging, and are an impediment to the advancement of their field of study.

I do not believe that most academics are destructive or pathological on purpose. They simply believe that kindness takes additional time and energy that they do not have. My belief is exactly the opposite. Kindness is free. Be generous with it.  My worldview is that everything good in my life is because my intention is to help others and everything bad in my life is because I thought of myself first. Not everyone shares this world view. But, kindness is pragmatic. When I am kind to a student they will work harder. Fear and bullying are poor long-term motivators. Scholars who are fearful produce mundane studies of minutia rather than fearless advances of knowledge. This is the difference between fanning a spark into a flame and extinguishing the spark. When I model kindness to students, they learn to expect to be treated with respect. They become kind when they are placed in a position of authority. This helps to create a culture of a team or lab that is creative, fearless, collaborative, and highly motivated. They produce quality ideas and return energy to me through their enthusiasm, ideas, and work habits.  Kindness is a simple and productive investment of my time.

Conclusions:

As seen on academic Twitter, there is a not-completely-met need for kindness in the academic world. There are many examples of professionals attempting to expand academic kindness via social media (e.g., the Twitter accounts of @CitizenAcademic; @AcademicKindnes; @raulpacheco) and in their personal behaviours. Kindness is not a personal characteristic only. It is a winning strategy for developing individuals and advancing thought within a field. Unfailing kindness in conjunction with perspectives and priorities are the best ways for saving your soul as an academic and being a productive contributor to your field

S. R. Shaw

@ShawPsych

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2 thoughts on “How Not to Suck at Saving Your Soul

  1. I think you’ve got a great philosophy, and you’re benefiting yourself as well in the long-run by being kind. You’ve also got your priorities right by putting family first. I’m sure there’s a lot of people out there who don’t go as out of their way as you do for their family. Great words of wisdom and very relatable. It sounds like you’ve had a crazy road in those 16 years in the schools, hospitals, and private practice. I can certainly relate to having to be the first to tell a parent their child fits the profile of a student with autism. It’s really tough, yet these types of stories are almost inevitable as school psychologists. Yet after all that, as well as your years in academia, you’ve still kept a positive attitude and that’s what I’m hoping to preserve as well. Great post!

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