How to Survive in Academia

Hello all,

I’ve been casually strolling through my first semester in grad school, and I think I’ve found a few surefire ways to survive academia.

  1. Profess no values. Obviously, I don’t mean profess NO values. I just mean that the person you are in the office with students must be someone completely different from the you who befriends certain students* from the person you are in a classroom or in a departmental meeting. If no one in power can pinpoint who you really are in a negative way, then you can never be held accountable.
  2. Become the king/queen/nonbinary overarching despot of networking. The good thing about having literally unclockable values is that it makes you ripe for becoming one of the networking elite. It doesn’t even necessarily matter if the schmoozing makes sense within the department–just entrench yourself so deeply within the departmental psyche that you’re on everyone’s lips and thus no one can get rid of you. Even if you do something wrong, like argue in bad faith or something.
  3. Continuously play 4 dimensional chess, with everyone. This one is related to 1&2. Basically, don’t ever let the opportunity for an interaction go by–cause if you’re slick enough to break into academia, you’ll also be maximizing every interaction you do have to your benefit. If you stay ahead of the competition or latest departmental politic, you’ll be out of the reach of accountability while also cementing your reputation in the department. Who is going to check you when you’ve already perfectly manicured every situation since day 1?
  4. Subscribe to the fractal theory of relationships. What I mean by this is: be double minded, if not double hearted. Academia doesn’t care about your Deeply Held Morals–it cares solely about your ability to churn out intellectual paraphernalia that your university itself didn’t have to pay for. This will put you in the tricky position of knowing you need to performatively help those beneath you, but without actually changing the status quo in any functional way. Separate your relationships into  non-overlapping spheres to prevent people below you from colluding with those above you. This way, you can LOOK like you’re doing the most and the rumors of your allyship will generate social capital for you; when really you are just buying into majoritarianism at your power level and higher. Do the most to protect your working, high-return relationships; do the least in all others.

In case it was lost on you, I am clearly being caustically sarcastic. This is not actually the way anyone can survive in academia–at least not with our souls and moral sense of self intact. However, the reason I am saying this-and the reason I am sure it stings for some of you-is because a lot of people in academia really do these things. There are professors Out Here telling students that they (the prof) need to prioritize working relationships over departmental relationships with students–as if being on committees or even friendly with students is suddenly a huge act of political posturing that will render people in power persona non grata.

If people who are successful at landing and scoring positions in academia-and later, tenure itself-are literally just practicing the art of doublespeak until they “feel” able to profess the Real Values (TM) they hold, how is academia supposed to move forward? How is academia supposed to change for the better if there is no possibility for change from within–from grad students, from postdocs, from pretenure or nonTT folks?
I,  a white passing Latinx, can barely speak my mind at departmental happy hours without having bad faith arguments about the nature of diversity in STE(A)M thrown at me. When I knock back against these arguments, even without my usual fanfare, suddenly I get professors telling me I’m putting my career in danger–even when those same people professed allyship before. How can academia and the academics inside it still pretend that academia is at all a meritocracy, when I might not even be able to form a committee for my PhD thesis unless I learn to play political patty cake in the department?

If we are constantly waiting for the final moment of “safety” to unmask our real selves, then academia will never actually change to include the underrepresented. It is one thing for those URMs to play ball long enough to survive; its another for those majoritarians already in seats of relative academic power to try and claim danger. What I think makes a lot of academics uncomfortable is the idea that their relative merit in their actual fields doesn’t shield them from critique in other settings. They want to cling to the ‘respectful’ ,majoritarian centering customs of polite society;rather than come to grips with the idea that eventually, we as intellectuals eventually must pick moral lines from which to stand and operate within the world. (The first half of this post articulates it pretty well)

And, something I really do want to ask all those TT folks who tell me they need to hide who they are, or punt when senior faculty members approach URMs in bad faith, or whatever you find yourself doing that is against who you claimed to be.

Do you really feel like this steady subversion of yourself, who you are, and what you stand for is worth it? I don’t even mean this as a guilt trip for all the people you will have hurt or neglected in this process by accident or by design, although this will inevitably happen. I genuinely mean this as a question of : are you okay?

I mean, when you look at who you are in the mirror the day you submit your tenure packet,

when you look at yourself and see how profoundly you’ve hurt yourself to reach this goal,

Will all this have been worth it?


One thought on “How to Survive in Academia

  1. Thanks for this. I have just discovered this blog and am so happy to find some solidarity with other women/womyn in academia.

    I’m an advanced graduate student and had a tenure track prof, respected in our field, gas light me via email. I feel I have two options: 1) remain honest and firm in my boundaries, don’t apologize because I didn’t do anything wrong or 2) apologize (for *HIS* misunderstanding and entitlement??). I feel that both options do damage to me, one to my career potential and one to my psyche. I do want to hold myself in a strong way that is true to myself. And I want a job. After this nth experience of sexist microaggressions, I am wondering if academia is a place where both are possible, or if I need to look elsewhere.

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