2021-07-28 The underbelly of university

I was recently talking about university with @susannah, remembering…

I remember finishing my master’s degree with great grades and an informal PhD offer, and yet sitting on my bed, crying, feeling like a terrible loser, and my girlfriend being confused: why this breakdown? It was hard to explain that I could not be proud about work done in an environment full of cheating, lying, overlooking, creative statistics. I had realized in my last year that way too much of it all was fake. I wanted no part in it. That’s how I experienced it, in any case. I’ve heard different experiences, later. But mine was not cool in a weird way.

I remember being part of a “gifted students” program. A professor involved in the program suggested that I apply, and so I did. I had to bring two or three recommendation letters. The professor making the suggestion wrote the first one. I remember asking one of the quiet and unassuming professors, a real nerd, with an office at the far end of a long corridor. I looked up to them because they seemed entirely unconcerned about the publish or perish craze that was starting to pick up at the end of the last millennium. In the end, they did what I felt was right: they told me they weren’t going to write that letter because they felt that where as I was a good student, they didn’t feel like I was exceptionally talented. I knew they were right. The professor that had made the suggestion, however, decided to ask the department head, who had spoken to me maybe once or twice. And without actually knowing me, they wrote that letter. Yay? I definitely felt like a gifted student impostor.

I remember writing an excellent introduction for my masters thesis, then doing my research, failing and not finding anything convincing, and my advisor telling that no, this wouldn’t do. I would have to rewrite it. And so I did. Same results, but now it was a success story. I had proven the trivial thing that somebody had already postulated, with the name that obfuscates the fact that still nobody knows what’s going on. I so desperately wanted it to be over. I wrote day and night, eyeing the deadline I had set myself. I got an excellent grade. Perhaps my advisor was right? It didn’t feel right.

I remember the final oral exam with the department head. I had answered a bunch of questions but was struggling with the last one, then time was up. I waited outside. After a while, they call me back in. I get the best grade: “With a little more time, I’m sure you would have answered that last question as well,” he said, smiling. Yay! I might have deserved a good grade, but this strange admission that they were giving me the best grade because they believed in me, not because I actually answered all the questions? I guess their point of view makes sense if you’re a professor and don’t believe in grades, either. But back then, I believed in grades. I believed in the impartiality of tests. Stupid, but impartial. But that’s how it was. Some of the professors believed in me, but I did not believe in me.

Would it have been possible to accept a PhD position without losing my integrity? It might have been. It’s not the easy way, that’s for sure. Perhaps the difference is just the illusion that academia would be different than everything else. But there, as everywhere: narcissism, careerism, power abuse, sweeping failures under the rug, sweet talking. Sure, the ideals are shinier. Sure, a good life is possible, with a small circle of friends, mutual support, a networks of trust, by treading carefully. I guess I wasn’t up to it.

Now that I’m older I often think that perhaps I shouldn’t have dropped the ball. Perhaps I might have stuck around, found a niche where I might have set up shop. Now work is about churning out code for clients and none of it is going to save the planet, either. So I guess if you’re in a position where you’re feeling like an impostor in academia, I wish you the best of luck. May you succeed where I failed.

Think of that PhD comic where one of them stands before the group, saying: “Someone in our group … is an impostor!” And then they all confess to being one.

May you avoid it! Live long and prosper. 🖖


It’s depressing, I hear very similar sentiments to what you’ve written a lot from people in academia, but like you say towards the end, at least in academia there is the potential for self-directed work, meaning in theory and at some point you can work on what you believe in, instead on what the market demands of you.

– Karim 2021-07-28 20:02 UTC

I can relate to your experience. I have already been sick of academia after 2 or 3 years. The bureaucracy, the intrigues and the all important fight to get tenure... all these frustrated PhD teaching as assistant professors that were very talented sometimes... and the tenured professors without any clue or merit, but that were obviously good at marketing themselves or networking. There was also a lot of statistical cheating or dressing up of results in my field of psychology. So it become very clear for me that academia is not my world and it was quite a struggle for me to bring up the energy to finally get my master’s degree. I never had any regrets of leaving academia behind. I very much prefer a client and results oriented field of work in a small business in the free market than the totally self-contained world of academia (or big corporations)... not to speak of all the political correctness and thought control that was already rearing its ugly head in the late 90s... I still remember one seminar in German literature, where we talked about a text of Derida and its statement that human beauty is a pure cultural construct. I made the counterargument that there might be a biological component to what humans find beautiful and with reasons anchored in reality and survival. And the professor became totally mad at me and silenced me with the notion, that this remark was “borderline facism.”

– Peter 2021-07-29 15:03 UTC

I guess the professor was thinking Max Simon NordauDegeneration (1892, dt. Entartung) → Entartete Kunst.

I remember a conflict during a philosophy seminar on life after death where the professor postulated that the spirits of cows were obviously less developed than the spirits of humans, and I challenged that, asking him how he proposed to support that claim, suggesting that maybe we could use the complexity of behaviour as a proxy? But he didn’t want to spend time on that, it was simply a given. And me being a zoology student and a natural scientist with relentless enthusiasm for Karl Popper – I couldn’t listen any more. I ended up dropping philosophy as a minor and wrote up the missing lab reports I needed for my physical chemistry to count as a minor. Too young to struggle for philosophy, I was.

– Alex 2021-07-29 16:40 UTC

I think it was more of the usual premise of academics in humanities like sociology/literature/philosophy that everything is learned and cultural. From their view, arguing about biological factors of behavior or preferences is “biologism” or “fascism”.

Norbert Bischof, the best professor I had, was teaching evolutionary psychology and was a former pupil of Konrad Lorenz. He was obviously sick of all these discussions, but nevertheless always emphasized that many people in humanities become victims of the Moralistic Fallacy: “Men and women have to be equal so there can’t be any biologic differences by birth.” Whereas many biologists (and obviously some true fascists) might be victims of the Naturalistic Fallacy: “Men are biologically better made for fighting and women for child care, so men have the obligation to make war and women have to stay home and raise children.”

– Peter 2021-07-29 17:48 UTC

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