How not to suck at surviving and changing harsh academic systems: A cynical optimist’s perspective

June 3, 2015

In my last blog post I discussed some of the issues related to kindness in academia and how to survive academia with your soul intact. Coincidentally, my chair gave a brief lecture at the most recent department meeting on the value of being at the office with doors open, increasing intradepartmental collaboration, being available for students, and making a more collegial environment. In addition, on academic Twitter there is a constant drumbeat of outrage that shouts about what academia must, ought, should, or needs to do in order to become the Platonic perfect work environment; or tear-the-whole-system-down rants. Although I appreciate in others and engage in wishful thinking myself, there needs to be straight talk on the most effective methods of creating systemic change in academia.

I have become jaded to the point that I dismiss completely most statements that use the words “must,” “ought,” “should,” “needs,” and other similar judgy and scolding words. Statements such as, “Professors must be public scholars.” “Professors ought to be figures for social justice.” “Professors should support adjunct rights.” “Professors need to be more supportive of others.” are mostly a waste of space, even though the goals are laudable. The response to such judgy words is: Or else what will happen if these things are not done? Why? Are there negative consequences if we do these apparently laudable things? These words are ineffective unless there is a more compelling case other than the writer believes passionately solely based on their limited perspective. I appreciate the writers’ passions for causes. Nearly every time I agree with the goals. Yet, the judgment words usually refer to methods rather than goals. For example, in order to achieve X you must do Y. There are multiple methods of achieving X. You can also achieve X using a different method; therefore, no one absolutely must do Y. In reality these judgy words are usually more of a social media primal scream of frustration than a serious effort to change a system or provide practical advice.

My personal interests and goals are to change the university and scientific culture to become more innovative, productive, implementation oriented, and effective at translating knowledge to policymakers and society at large. I make the assumption that such grandiose goals can only be accomplished by using all possible talent available. A diversity of perspectives and experiences can only add to the population of ideas to be explored and achieved. In addition, all of these perspectives and experiences are likely to be most effective when there is a culture of collective collaboration, inclusion, and team approaches. Marginalizing or chasing groups of people out of university and scientific culture defeats these goals. Racism, sexism, classism, and all other forms of discrimination are antithetical to my goals. Empowering low income, minority, disabled, immigrant, sexual minorities, women, and other groups are the best hope for universities and science to achieve my personal goals for society. So those are my biases and assumptions going into this argument.

Well…the above paragraph expresses lovely thoughts but is little different from the use of judgy words. The big problems involve the reinforcement structure currently in place in university and scientific systems. I very much like and respect my department chair, but those behaviours he wanted to promote will not occur unless we get reinforced for them and are not penalized if these behaviours lead to reduced research productivity. Universities (especially R1) have evolved into a factory model where the production of widgets (i.e., refereed journal publications and grant funds) lead to status, promotion, salary, and power. Unless the desired behaviours that we should, ought, must, or needs have direct positive effects on the production of widgets or the nature of what academics are reinforced for doing, then there will be no systemic change. The factory model also leads to a class system in which those in power work to maintain their power and those actually manufacturing the widgets (i.e., postdocs and grad students) receive low pay, have low status, and are constantly reminded of their low status by people in power.

Since the late 1970s the trend is to fetishize business models and structures in politics, government, public policy, and universities. The focus on efficiencies, productivity, competition, and short-term fiscal outcomes creates specific culture. Peter Higgs, of Higgs-boson particle and Nobel Prize fame, said that he was not productive enough to thrive in modern academia. I am sure someone of that talent would have thrived in modern academia, but I am not sure he would have discovered his namesake particle. The short-term factory model keeps universities from achieving potential. Although there have always been some problems, academia has also seen an increase in the common concerns of business such as fraud, financial mismanagement, lawsuits, chasing status and public recognition, and worrying more about the metrics of success (e.g., what is your h-index?) than actual success in the important work we were trained to do.

Sorry for the political rant. The point is that there is a huge amount of inequality built into the current university system of reinforcement for scholars. To expect scholars with power to voluntarily give their power to others against their own interests solely to create a more just world is not especially realistic. Many of the rants I hear about the current state of academia are equivalent to cries that people should give up their jobs and their salaries and donate everything to the poor. There may be a few saints who do such a thing, but it is unlikely to affect the level of systemic change required to have a more equal society in university settings.

This sounds like an unnecessarily pessimistic and hysterical screed. The purpose is to describe how the behaviour of academics is unlikely to change due to systemic realities. The emotional words mean little or nothing when it comes to systems level change. When large systems fail to respond, then more outrage occurs. This is closely followed by pessimism, despair, resignation, depression, and turning away from a valuable societal institution.

For those of you who have read my blog regularly, you know that I typically do not engage in political discussions; the major interest of this blog is how not to suck in graduate school. Most of the time this means surviving and thriving in a culture that can often be hostile, especially at R1 universities where the expectation for the production of widgets is especially high and the status of graduate students is especially low. Although there is nothing wrong with setting the outrage phaser to kill for purposes of a therapeutic scream, there are some approaches to surviving and thriving in the harsh system with your souls intact.

Personal survival.

Although it is frustrating to find that the system in place has power differentials built in that are unfair, you still need to survive and thrive as an individual. Recently, there were two related posts addressing personal survival in the world of academia.

The first post was a positive and productive essay on career advice in The Chronicle written by Dr. Robert Sternberg ( with thanks to Dr. Stacy Cahn for bringing this essay to my attention. Dr. Sternberg provided a series of personal long-term strategies to promote a positive and happy career in academia. I especially enjoyed his advice to avoid jerks and work in environments that make you happiest. My only quibble with Dr. Sternberg’s post is that it was written from the perspective of a highly successful professional with many career options. Many of us are barely scraping by in our career trajectory and may not have the options that he recommends. That is a minor concern. He can only write such advice effectively from his own perspective. I found his words to be wise, generous, and helpful.

The second post was from the career advice section of Science by Dr. Alice Huang. A writer requested advice concerning a supervisor who continuously looked down the female postdoc’s shirt ( Dr. Huang replied that such behaviour is inappropriate, but recommended that this postdoc “put up with it” because the postdoc needed the advisor and his advice. Dr. Huang was widely criticized for this acceptance of dehumanization and blatant sexism in the research lab. Dr. Huang was giving advice for personal survival, but not addressing larger issues. There are people who will sacrifice their personal careers for a systemic larger goal. Yet most academics value personal career survival over larger causes. Although my advice would have been far different from Dr. Huang’s I understand her position as that supporting personal survival. (FYI — my advice would come from the adjudication of ethical complaints under the American Psychological Association where the first step is to try to resolve the ethical complaint with both parties. This places the postdoc in the difficult position of telling her supervisor that the direction and intensity of his gaze not only makes her feel personally uncomfortable, but detracts from the professional atmosphere of the supervisory relationship and laboratory in general. This personal comment should be followed up with a receipt notification email to establish a paper trail should the problem continue and the concern need to be addressed at the next level.)

Personal survival in the face of systemic challenges requires self advocacy, courage, resilience, confidence, and social and peer support. Academia is not a uniform profession. There is a host of skill sets, attitudes, ambitions, and approaches that all work well in the academic world. For example, the demands of an R1 university are very different from the demands of a liberal arts college. Personally, I do not have the skills to be an effective professor at a liberal arts school. I wish I did. My skill set and approach to my career is most consistent with graduate-level professional training and a research university. Personal survival means finding the best career and employment fit to your skills and having the persistence necessary to overcome systemic challenges. It is not up to others to suggest what you should, must, ought, or need to do; it is up to you to create a person-system fit that works best for you.

The focus on personal survival may seem selfish to some. In some cases personal survival is a systems change statement. For example, I have a colleague who is both gay and a paraplegic. He usually declines opportunities to be involved in or sponsor student or faculty protests and major gay- and disability-rights initiatives on his campus. He told me that he barely has enough energy to survive and thrive in his chosen profession. And also his very existence and success is the most powerful statement he could make. You cannot make systemic change unless you are engaged with the system.

Small scale changes.

Systemic change can be as much bottom-up as top-down. I try to control what I can. As graduate program director, I have encouraged students to start their own formal graduate student association specific to our field of study. In this fashion there is a formal and informal network of students designed for peer support. My research lab consists of 13 graduate students and multiple undergraduate research assistants, and am also graduate program director of our little graduate program. We try to create an environment that is as inclusive as possible. I insist that most people considering working under my supervision talk to current lab members. The lab members have veto power and control over who their peers in the lab will be. My role as supervisor is to be a liaison between the students in my lab and the larger systems of the department, faculty (i.e., college), and the university. I believe that all of my students know that I am their advocate who has the responsibility to support students in the achievement of their professional goals. I certainly use the judgment words. However, I back those up with a rationale. For example, you must do X because the university policy requires X for your graduation. In this context the word must is less of a judgment in more of an imperative describing both methods and goals. Take care of your corner of the world to try to make it as just as possible and help people thrive in a harsh environment.

Initiating large scale changes.

Large-scale systemic change is a long process. I am a grumpy cynic. I do not believe that most people and systems make decisions for reasons of fairness or any other virtue. I doubt I would be an advocate of kindness, fairness, and equality unless I truly believed that such an approach leads to improved productivity in the outcomes for which I am rewarded. I always try to make cases for systemic change on the basis of efficiency, long-term sustainability, and productivity. Usually, such long-term thinking leads to kindness, fairness, and equality. A good example is that the state of Nebraska recently eliminated capital punishment. In this generally conservative state, capital punishment was stopped not because of any moral reasons or long-term efficacy issues, but because it is so expensive to administer. Money swayed legislation to make a decision for the good. For universities, sexism and racism for example, lead to a loss of academic talent, discouraging diverse points of view and innovation, wasted resources when students drop out of school, tainted reputation of the university, and eventually financial loss due to lack of support from donors and government policymakers. The cost of this inequality will eventually drive universities to move from the short-term thinking of a factory model to the value of long-term thinking and planning. Under the current culture any effort to make change starts by speaking the language of policy makers.


I understand that this post is the blog of a cynic. I respect the passion and enthusiasm of those trying to make systemic change because something is just and right. I also respect those who have been wronged to such a degree that they feel the need to have a therapeutic primal scream across blogs or social media. Passion is necessary for breaking inertia, but little more than that. Let’s make real change. Change happens when you survive and thrive as an individual; make your little corner of the world a just corner; and learn the goals of the system that you are trying to change, provide alternative approaches, and more just methods to achieve those goals. Using the judgy words of must, ought, should, or need without justification does not lead to change; but gets you labeled as an emotional scold who is not taken seriously by policy makers.

S. R. Shaw


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