The Underwhelm of Academia

Adapted from a FB status last night (and added onto significantly):

All achievements in academia seem to be underwhelming. You write and write waiting for that moment of validation (“send it on to the committee”), only to feel completely underwhelmed when it actually comes through because you’re so emotionally exhausted from the entire process. Are all jobs like this, or are academics just weird?

This has happened to me before.  I remember finishing up my MA and defending my thesis and just feeling kind of… numb.  I think we bank for some sort of epiphany/life-changing feeling to wash over us when we hit those milestones, and when it doesn’t come, it’s just… well, it’s nothingness.  Maybe it’s because I graduated in the summer, a year after my original cohort, but I felt absolutely no motivation to even walk in that ceremony.

You work for years and years on a degree.  Other than an 18 month “break” from academic work (though I did still adjunct during that period), I have been in school since 1989.  I’m set to earn my Ph.D. in 2015.  26 years of school.  That’s longer than my father’s military career.  Will the end have that “payoff” feeling?  I joke with people all the time that the only reason I’m getting the Ph.D. is for the cool hat, but what happens on that special day when all I feel like I have is a cool hat?

Luckily, I have my head far enough out of my ass to be able to say this:  it’s not all underwhelm (yes, I’m coining this as a noun).  There are moments of such pure joy when a thesis finally comes together, when a colleague gets into that cool conference/journal/job that they’ve always wanted, when your students really *get* something.  They’re little joys that keep you going along the emotional rollercoaster.

But it is a little crummy when you anticipate an emotional payoff – that joy you will feel just to hear your adviser say good work, your proposal is ready – and when the moment comes it’s just… blech.  Because you can’t find it in you to just pause and enjoy that moment.

You’re already onto the next step, the next thing to stress over.  The next labor of love.


3 responses to “The Underwhelm of Academia

  1. I know exactly where you’re coming from on this one! I got my PhD in 2008 and didn’t walk in the ceremony. To me, the dissertation defense was the defining moment of accomplishment, but even that seemed underwhelming, as you say. I didn’t think it was so much something wrong with academia as that I was simply not personally enough invested in it. I’ve had much bigger highs, but they’ve always come from things I’ve invested more emotion in, like my creative writing, or my love life. Maybe some people get the high from academia that I get from those other thyings?

    • Great comments, Sharon! And I totally hear you. I think part of the problem, sometimes, is that the “high” we expect comes in places/times we don’t plan for. Because when it comes to the “big” things, we’re so stressed or focused that we can’t take that step back. But in the middle of something fun (I recently did a Doctor Who and Religion conference that was an utter blast), those overwhelmingly huge emotions actually can come through. I just think it’s fascinating how often this “underwhelm” comes up – and I need to figure out what to do about it.

  2. Michael C. Jordan

    Just read your latest blogs. You are brilliantly seeking truth with unwavering courage and strength of charter. To say I am proud of you would be a huge understatement. Truth is the essence of existence. Seeking it without regard to consequence is heroic.

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