How Not to Suck at Being a Tough Scholar

Graduate students, adjunct faculty, and tenure-track junior faculty are often unprepared for the world of academia. Not because they lack skills, accomplishments, motivation, organization, or discipline; but because they are not emotionally prepared for the rigours of academic life. There are petty jealousies, cutthroat competition, high school-like cliques, sexism, larger societal political pressures, harassment and bullying, apparently arbitrary decisions, funding cuts, racism, hazing-like activities, good ol’ boy networks, power struggles, and a host of factors irrelevant to research and teaching that serve as barriers to success in academia. These factors become more than issues of quality of work, but are soul sucking and personally devastating. Many young scholars give up on academic careers entirely rather than put themselves and their loved ones through an environment that can be hostile and take a personal toll. Many academics believe that a “thick skin” is required for successful academics. It not clear whether a thick skin is a character trait that one is born with (i.e., a genetic predisposition toward dermal density) or that thick skin is something that can be acquired and learned. Yet, I am not convinced that developing a surface armor against the rigours of academic life is the answer. Toughness may be a virtue, but a hard and thick skin is likely to be a long-term failing.

Academic Twitter is rife with primal screams about the unfairness of academia. There are calls to reform or scrap entirely the graduate school, postdoc, adjunct, tenure-track, and promotion systems of academia. The sociology of the professorship receives much scrutiny. Such discussions usually generate more heat than light and rarely create any substantive and sustainable change. Creating change in a large, hidebound, and entrenched system is an epic undertaking. Devoting so much time and emotional energy to such a windmill rarely results in a positive outcome for most scholars. Academia, like most of life, is not fair. I am not sure why anyone is surprised by this. The big question is: how does one survive and thrive in such an environment?

We have chosen to spend our career in a system that can be toxic. We need to be a clown fish among the anemone — covered with a layer of slime that protects from the sting of the environment. Or like the man in black from the movie, The Princess Bride, we need to develop a tolerance and immunity to the toxin of iocane powder. These analogies give too much power to the negative aspects of the environment of academia. They are false analogies. Succeeding in academia is a matter of understanding what is important, discipline, developing and maintaining effective coping strategies, avoiding comparison, and having useful perspective and priorities.

The mistake many junior faculty and graduate students make is that they feel they must build emotional calluses around themselves. The sting of repeated rejection is something they subject themselves to in order to develop extremely raw skin that they hope will eventually become callused. Moreover, they do not share these rejections or seek emotional support from others because they perceive rejections as failure and repeated failure is a sign of weakness. As a method of coping some scholars cease to care and lose their passion for their work in the light of repeated rejections. Those who cease to care lose the characteristics that made them a creative, courageous, innovative scholar or outstanding graduate student in the first place. The idea that success in academia can only be obtained through pain, hazing, losing oneself, intense anxiety, and continuous emotional distress is overly dramatic and counterproductive.

I have a friend who is a well known and accomplished female colleague who is nearing retirement. She is one of the best known psychology professors in her country. And every day to every one of her graduate students she preaches the value of being tough and brave. Expectations are high, work habits are demanding, and feedback can be harsh. She is explicit that the goal of this supervision style is to prepare young academics, especially female academics, for the potentially toxic environment in which they will work. She encourages her graduate students to argue, defend their ideas, and be persistent in carrying out their duty no matter what obstacles lie in their way. This professor has an interesting perspective as much of her early career was spent under Communist control of universities and many of her professors functioned as underground teachers in violation of the WWII-era German Generalplan Ost (e.g., She strongly believes that her role is to help to develop strong professors who will create new ideas and keep those new ideas alive under any circumstances. I know four of her former students and can attest that they are talented, kind, and incredibly tough. Moreover, they truly love Professor Bogdanowicz.

Mentorship would be improved by focusing on creating tough scholars. Toughness is a combination of persistence, resilience, confidence, and sense of purpose. Toughness is not in attribute that people are born with. Most graduate students tend to be introverted, slightly anxious with perfectionist tendencies, eager to please professors and supervisors, and take their work extremely seriously. Although these are valuable characteristics, they are not naturally consistent with toughness. Frequently, graduate students are so talented that they may have received little negative feedback throughout their educational careers. They may have always been a shining star in every academic setting. Graduate school or at least the junior faculty position may be the first time that some individuals have experienced negative feedback, unfair decisions, setbacks, and criticisms concerning their work or themselves as professionals. Many graduate students and junior faculty members are brittle and do not handle this first-time experience well. Mentors have an obligation to take students who have a great deal of talent, but sensitivity, and turn them into tough academics. This does not mean that graduate students must be forged in the hottest of fires, prepare for Communists or Nazis, or be bullied so that they get used to the negative experiences of academia. Students benefit from being taught to use criticism and negative evaluations in such a way as to improve their work. In addition, expectations must be raised to the highest level. Good work cannot be acceptable. Extremely talented students succeed when they are expected to produce innovative work, advance their field, and communicate their findings with the highest level of skill. No matter how good the work of a student is, mentors have the responsibility to assist graduate students to create a constantly improving level of performance.

In order to accomplish this, many students require the introspection to change their attitudes about professionalism, reviews, feedback, rejection, and life as a scholar. Although mentorship can be important for helping students adopt positive approaches to academia without losing themselves, students and junior faculty are well instructed to consider developing productive coping mechanisms:

Perspective and Priority: This is a difficult topic for me to discuss because I am aware of how many fortunate advantages and earned blessings I have in this area. I am a white male, which gives the significant advantage of privilege. I also have a wife and children, who are always my top priority and I would gladly give up an academic career if it would benefit my family (this is not the case for every academic with a family, but few would admit to it). I am also a school psychologist. Unlike my colleagues in philosophy, if my academic career would suddenly end, then I could still get a high paying and high status job and my family could still eat (Despite the rise of alt-ac careers, there are few philosophy factories currently hiring). Therefore, success in academia is not my entire life or career. I have also worked as a psychologist for 16 years before entering academia. I have performed CPR (twice with unsuccessful outcomes), been cut with a knife, was threatened with a gun, was bitten Walking Dead style (have not yet turned zombie, but had to get several shots), gave life-changing diagnoses concerning young children with autism or intellectual disabilities to well over 100 parents, testified in court on cases of horrific infant and child abuse and neglect cases, and attended far too many funerals of infants and children when I practised in the department of pediatric oncology. For me, perspective and priority is fairly easy. A rejected paper or grant that does not receive funding is no big deal. I still care about the quality of work and would much rather have a paper accepted than rejected. There is still some frustration when I feel a review is unfair or simply wrong. Hopefully, I learn from the negative outcomes and become better today than I was yesterday. But the role that a paper or grant or job plays in the story of my life is tiny. Scholars need to learn that they are bigger than a single paper, a failure experience, or not receiving accolades that their heart depends on. Be bigger.

Stop the Entitlement: No one is guaranteed success. You may be a star scholar at every opportunity, you may work harder and longer hours than anyone, and you may have the most impressive CV that is filled with stellar accomplishments. Failure and rejection will still find you. There is no guarantee of success and many extraordinarily hard-working and talented people fail. You are not a special snowflake. Sorry. Failure is not a problem; not getting back up, improving, and attacking the next task with enthusiasm is a problem.

Probability: Although failure and rejection will happen to everyone, there are approaches to minimizing the probability of permafail. The odds are often against your application for a single academic appointment or grant proposal. There are often arbitrary reasons for the failure of a single opportunity. Many times those reasons have nothing to do with you or your work. Although the reasons for failure and rejection can be infinite, some of those are – reviewer two is an idiot, the funding envelope for granting agency may be especially small in a given year, reviewer three knows your mentor and thinks he is a jerk, a grant reviewer may hold a grudge against your university, you are too female or gay or disabled or Hispanic or heavy or young or old or Black or Conservative or outspoken for the job. This stuff happens and it should not happen and it sucks. The secret to overcome is to produce a lot and make a lot of professional connections. Eventually, good work will find a way. When a single paper is rejected there may be error in the process. This error is minimized when you submit 20 papers. Do more. Continuous rejection is either an indication that there is bias (nonrandom error) in the system or your work does not meet the appropriate standards and requires improvement. Fight against the former and improve for the latter.

Comparison: Generally, comparison is the enemy of happiness. The only truly valuable comparison is comparing what we were like today to what we were like yesterday. In academics, it is extremely easy to lose track of the value of intra-individual comparison. There are grant competitions with only X number of funded proposals, there can only be one award winner, there can only be one person hired for a job, and so on. Much of academics is focused on a norm-referenced approach to success. This is where the knowledge of the standards for accomplishments in your field in relation to your own comfort level are useful. For example, it is important to know that in your field eight top-tier journal publications and holding $500,000 in grants per year will make you competitive for an award or promotion. This is a level of productivity that you are comfortable with and provides a good benchmark and goal to assess your professional accomplishments. However, if a colleague publishes nine top-tier publications or has $800,000 in a given year and they win the award or receive the promotion, then this needs to be okay with you. Competition and comparison will not improve the quality of your work and only lead to frustration, personal conflicts, and eventual burnout. Norm-referenced benchmarks are not completely under your control and not helpful. In a norm-referenced model you can succeed simply by sabotaging everyone else—not good for science or improvement—and perpetuates the current oft-toxic system. Criterion-referenced benchmarks are positive and attainable.

Your Work: Separating yourself from your work is an important survival mechanism. I know your work is important and you have passion and commitment to it, but your work is not you. It is the work that you may have created. The work may need to improve. The work may suck. The work may require extensive support from multiple people. This does not reflect upon your worth as a student, junior professor, or human being. Your goal is to make sure that your work is better every single day. Every review or failure experience is an opportunity to improve your work and is deserving of your gratitude.

So How Do You Accomplish These Things?

The negative or shadow CV has been a valuable experience for me. My first contact with the Shadow CV was in the description by Devoney Looser in the Chronical of Higher Education. In the shadow CV is placed every article rejection, unfunded grant proposal, award application not received, poor teaching evaluation, rejected book proposal, and unsuccessful job application. For me, this is a reminder of two things: one is to ensure that I learn something positive from each of these experiences. What have I gained or learned and how has my work improved? Two is to remember that the majority of lines in my proper CV are the products of the entries that once appeared in my negative or shadow CV.

Let it go, shake it off, move on, and laugh a little. I actually received this review during my first article submission as an assistant professor, “… this paper truly stinks. I really hope that this submission is from an undergraduate student because the content is worse than awful and is the product of a woeful scholar.” Wow. What a douche. It did not hurt my feelings. I felt sorry for the person who wrote those words. It must be difficult to have your work set such a negative tone. Yet, there were some valuable points in that review. I revised the paper and it was eventually published in a good journal.

Self reflection and honesty are important. However, most of us can never truly be honest with ourselves. I have never met anyone who claims to have a poor sense of humour or be a less than high quality driver. Yet everyone knows someone who fits these descriptions. Likewise, not everyone is appropriate for an R1 university or an academic career. The scary part is that the culture is such that we must work our hardest and put our heart and soul into academia in order to succeed. This creates delusion. Just because you want to achieve a goal more than anything in the world does not mean that you can reach that goal. Sometimes our best is not enough. It is an extraordinarily and unusually mature person who has that level of honesty with themselves.

One’s worldview can dramatically affect toughness. Some of us have personal and closely held beliefs that may be counterproductive or lead to excessive levels of sensitivity. Other beliefs may engender toughness. Personal beliefs stem from culture, family, religion, and experience. Here are a few that seem to work for me, I suspect that they may only work for some of you.

  • The world is not fair. The fair is where they judge jams and pigs (and that is not likely to be just either). Things will not always work out for you despite your best efforts, high quality of your work, and your optimistic and positive mental outlook. All you can do is work to change the probability of success. But do not expect anything other than to work hard.
  • Take the work seriously, but do not take yourself seriously.
  • I always enjoyed the quote attributed to Gandhi, “Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.” The act of doing is your achievement.
  • Pride is a fault. I am never proud of my work. I am gratified that it helped others in some small way, but wish it was more. Pride is opposite of humility and creates self-satisfaction that interferes with learning and continuous improvement.
  • Your sole purpose on the planet is to ease the suffering of others to the greatest degree possible. If you cannot ease the suffering, then at least do not contribute to it. Of course, do not harm or impede others, but also do not set up your career so that it is defined by martyrdom and self-flagellation. Have fun and be happy.

I think of myself as a happy warrior — ferociously optimistic, endlessly seeking improvement, and honoured and humbled to have the opportunity to serve others. Such a mindset demands toughness and confidence. I have limitations and am okay that those. Many of us desire a thick skin in order to ward off the slings and arrows of a challenging profession. This form of armor hardens, isolates, and suffocates us; and changes our outlook in negative ways, where fear of failure rather than opportunity to innovate and discover becomes the primary motivating factor. Developing hard and thick skin is not a productive goal. The goal is to use the environment as energy, no matter how hostile and potentially toxic, to assist you in achieving your personal and professional goals that are consistent with your worldview. I prefer the translated quote from Lao Tzu, “water is the softest thing, it can penetrate mountains and earth. This shows clearly the principle of softness overcoming hardness.” Nothing is as tough as water.

Steven R. Shaw

A version of this blog post will appear in a forthcoming book edited by Staci Zavattaro and Shannon Orr on the topic of academic survival. This book will be published by Palgrave Macmillan.



One thought on “How Not to Suck at Being a Tough Scholar

  1. Reblogged this on Emma and commented:
    Developing hard and thick skin is not a productive goal. The goal is to use the environment as energy, no matter how hostile and potentially toxic, to assist you in achieving your personal and professional goals that are consistent with your worldview. I prefer the translated quote from Lao Tzu, “water is the softest thing, it can penetrate mountains and earth. This shows clearly the principle of softness overcoming hardness.” Nothing is as tough as water.

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