7 things I don’t like @ being an Academic


It’s grad school acceptance season, so here are a few thoughts if you are considering the PhD plunge. Try this genre also on the Duck of Minerva, where I also write. Enjoy your last summer to read as you choose, without following a peer reviewer or a syllabus. Such lost bliss… 

Generally speaking, yes, I like being an academic. I like ideas and reading. I like bloviating at length. The sun is my enemy, and exercise bores me. I would really like to be a good writer/researcher. Including grad school, I’ve been doing this now for 15 years, so clearly I could have switched. I am committed. But there are at least 7 things I didn’t see back in my 20s when I had romantic ideas that if I got a PhD, I’d be like Aristotle or John Stuart Mill – some great intellectual with real influence on, what a Straussnik once called to me, ‘the Conversation,’ which I took in my heady, pre-game theoretic youth to be this (swoon).

1. It’s lonely.

I didn’t really think about this one at all before going to grad school. In undergraduate and graduate coursework, you are always very busy and meeting lots of people. You live in a dorm or fun, near-campus housing, you have lots of classes, you hit the bars on the weekends, you go to department functions. Girlfriends/boyfriends come and go. So even if you didn’t like 9 of the 10 people you met, you were meeting so many, that you eventually carved out a circle and did fun stuff that kinda looked like the 20-something comedies you see on TV. But once you hit the dissertation, you are suddenly thrown back on your own, and you really re-connect, or try, with your family, because they’re the only ones who’ll put up with your stress. You spend way too much time at home, alone, in a room, staring hopelessly at a computer screen. You don’t really know what you’re doing, and your committee, while filled with good, smart people who are almost certainly your friends, can’t really do this for you, even though you try to push it off on them.

Then, when you get your job, you spend lots of time in your office or your home office, because the publication requirements are intense (or at least, they feel that way, because you still don’t really know what you’re doing). Maybe you do a joint paper, but the collective action problem strikes. Pretty soon, you spend lots of time, alone, with your office door shut. You eat lunch at your desk, and you read at night in your home office after dinner. It’s the only way to keep up (more on that below). Isn’t that a weird sort of existence that seems unhealthy given that ‘man is a social animal’? I remember at a conference once a few years ago, a colleague opened it by saying, ‘we like going to conferences, because we get lonely all day at work by ourselves.’ I’ve always remembered that remark for its sheer honesty. The room erupted in laughter and approval.

Sure I could meet people if I had cool hobbies like mountain climbing or biking, but how many academics do that? That’s…outdoors, and far too healthy. And who has time for that? I need to read 20 book and articles just for my r&r. I gotta spend my weekends reading, blogging, and chewing my fingernails in anxiety over the quality of my work. And the rest of my time goes into family. Sure, I could let myself get sucked into academic service to expand my circle, but how often have you seen academics trying to get out of service and such, in order to get back to their offices to research, alone?

2. It’s made me fat and squirrely.

Part of spending too much time by yourself, is letting yourself go. Groups helps socialize and discipline behavior, so if you’re sitting at home all day reading alone, why not just wear pajamas the whole time? Actually, this is probably worst in grad school when I recall lots of us thickened up because of the dramatic lifestyle change to sitting in a chair reading all day. If you’re not careful, it’s easy to fester, to become like Gollum living in your dissertation cave, obsessing over the precious as your nails get longer. You don’t shave enough; you write in your pajamas; you stop going to the gym. You probably start smoking. You eat crappy microwave meals and cereal for dinner, because you can bring the bowl easily to your workstation. When you do get a break, you binge drink too often. Your nails are now long enough that you really can climb the walls.

I’ve found this gets better later. I’m a lot better disciplined than 10 years ago. Marriage helps, if only because your spouse forces you out of the house when your pants stop fitting. She’ll force you to take a shower before checking your email in the morning, compel you to stop wearing the same clothes, tell you to shave more, and make you quit smoking. Students help too. Undergrads won’t respect you if you look like a furball TA, and they’re a helluva lot better dressed than you.

3. It’s made me hypersensitive to criticism.

I remember reading Walt somewhere saying that academics are very thin-skinned and hyper-sensitive.  I think I am too, although I am trying not to be. This is one reason I chose to blog; I thought it might toughen me up. But when reviewers and blog commenters criticize me, I inevitably take it the wrong way. It makes me nervous and skittish, as if maybe I’m a dilettante who got found out. (This is no plea for kid gloves, only an admission.) When I get rejection letters from academic journals, my hands shake (lame but true). I presume that means I am really insecure about my work, even though you’d think that would pass after 15 years. I think sometimes it’s because the only big thing I have in the professional world is my intellectual credibility. I have no big money, no cool DC or think-tank perch, no ‘network,’ no inside track to anything. The only reason anyone would even notice me is because I try to be a researcher who says stuff that can at least be verified somewhat. So I read at least an article of IR a day just out of anxiety. How’s that for job satisfaction?

Like everybody, I like being cited. It’s flattering. Andrew Sullivan has linked me twice, which sent thousands of people to my website. But honestly, it made almost as nervous as happy – all those people pulling apart my work, maybe thinking it was just crap. Perhaps I’m just new at this, but also I think this is an artefact of the way we are trained – to ruthlessly tear apart essays in our coursework, or to ask the preening, show-off question that knocks the conference speaker or job applicant off-balance (did you select on the dependent variable?) and makes us look clever and witty in front of our colleagues. Who hasn’t seen that kind of sarcasm at conferences, cutting, ‘I can’t believe you wrote that’ sort of analysis, ad hominem put-downs, most obviously on blogs? IR has never struck me as an especially polite, well-tempered field, more like a shark-tank. Ned Lebow once told me that IR grad school is like ‘bootcamp for your brain,’ and it’s really true that we’ve created a hypercompetitive atmosphere.

I understand why of course – US IR and other grad programs wouldn’t have the global reputations they do without it. And yes, I support it; quality control is growing issue in the Korean university system, because Korea sill lacks a major, globally ranked school. And of course, peer review is absolutely central to preserving quality and maintaining the line between us and journalism. But the tradeoffs are there – enervating and unnerrving, at least in my experience. I can’t imagine how Andrew Sullivan or Stephen Walt go to sleep at night when all those red-staters, e.g., think they are the antichrist or something. I’d be pacing the bedroom.

4. The money is weak given the hours we put in.

This one is a no-brainer. Social science is nothing if not totalist. If you don’t believe me, just go watch a movie or TV show with one, and watch her analyze it to death, draining all the fun away by endlessly interrupting to explain why the Transporter is really a commentary on traffic laws or gun control. (I’m guilty of this too.) My point is that we see our work all over the place. We think about ‘opportunity costs’ when we pick movies on date night, or ‘free riding’ when the check comes for dinner. I guess this is good in one way. It means we are using are hard-won education. But it also means that we are effectively working all the time. Even if we are reading for leisure, we will still take notes or write things down if we catch something really relevant to our work. We take social science to the beach; we read Duck of Minerva on our iPhones on the subway. At this point, I read basically everything with a pen in my hand. Who knows if you won’t find a cool quote buried in the middle of Anna Karenina?

Worse of course, is the absolutely impossible mountain of material in your field that you really should know if you want to somehow get into the top cut of journals. And who doesn’t want that? That’s the whole point. That’s why we do this to ourselves. We all, quite desperately I think, want our name up in lights in the APSR or IO. We all want to be invited to Rand or the State Department. I knew a guy who had the first page of his first APSR article embossed in gold to hang on his wall like a degree. (It was more tasteful than it sounds.) You’re always under-read, so you’re reading constantly. To be sure, your other friends in white collar profession work long hours too. That’s a constant now, but they almost certainly get paid substantially more than you and think that all you do is teach five or ten hours a week. In short, when I compare the work levels between myself and the professionals just in my family and friends (doctor, dentist, automotive engineer, nurses, lawyer, computer design tech), they make a lot more than me even though I work fairly equivalent hours.

Of course, I knew when I joined that academics don’t make a lot of money, and I accept that. We all do. Rather I am suggesting that, per work-hour, we make a lot less than most white collar professionals. That’s kinda depressing, because, e.g., we scarcely have the resources to travel much in the countries we write about. You’ve probably mentioned China in some of you published work, right? But how much time have you actually spent there? Does it feel right to generalize about a place you’ve never visited?

5. The hours I put in aren’t really reflected in my output.

Connected to point 4 is, at least in my experience, the many, many hours I spend reading, blogging, thinking that result in – not very much… I genuinely wonder how someone, say Pinker, can write an 800+ page book with hundreds of footnotes, that’s also really good. Wow. That just blows me away. I’m so impressed, and how cool that he’ll get invited onto Charlie Rose or something. Or, how do Fukuyama or Bobbitt crank out multiple books of that length? Or how did Huntington manage to write a major book in each of the 4 subfields of political science? Where does one get skills like that? That just makes me green with envy. For me, I’d be thrilled if I could just land a top ten journal piece sometime soon.

I am reminded of a complaint by Schiller about Goethe’s poetry. He envied Goethe’s ability to easily reel off lines and lines of wonderful material while he had to work very hard to produce much less. In Amadeus, Salieri complained that Mozart seemed to be taking dictation from God, even though he worked hard too. When I read really good IR, it makes me wonder how am I not fitting together what I read into good insights, whereas writers so much better than me seem to be able to do so. How do they do that? Are they reading social science all the time, on Christmas morning too? How much more do I have to read? I feel like I read all the time already. I find this a chronic source of professional frustration.

6. Few people really give a d— what you think.

Unless you scale those Huntingtonian heights and get to Charlie Rose or Rand, your reach is pretty limited. Policy-makers are bombarded with a huge volume of material, but I recall reading somewhere that they almost always consult internally produced material (memos and reports from within the bureaucracy) rather than the kind of stuff we generate on the outside. So we aren’t really policy-relevant much, unless you are the really big fish like Bernard Lewis (who got to meet W on Iraq – and blew it).

Beyond that, there are so many IR journals now (59 in the SSCI alone) that your work easily slips into the great ocean of Jstor. If you land APSR or ISQ, that’s awesome, but beyond the biggest IR journals that we all cite to each other, it’s hard to get profile for yourself. This may be another reason to blog. You can go around the editorial r&r process and speak directly to the community. But of course, blogging or op-eds aren’t peer-reviewed, and, as Steve Saideman noted, that is (and must be) the gold-standard. Worse, everybody’s blogging and tweeting and consulting now, so you’re still lost in the crowd. This too can be enervating and depressing, especially as you came into grad school as one of the better students of your college. You thought you were pretty smart, and you’d make a big splash. Now you find out that there are lots and lots of others in the field, all very smart and clamoring to be heard. Good luck.

7. I miss the ‘classics.’

The super-nerdy intellectual in me really misses this. Those black-edged Penguin Classics were the books that really got me interested in politics and ideas when I was in high school, and I never read them anymore. The first time I read Thucydides was an absolutely electric experience. I roared through it in 4 days. Same goes for stuff like On Liberty, Beyond Good and Evil, The Communist Manifesto, Darkness at Noon, 1984. God, I miss that stuff, the sheer intellectual thrill of new vistas opening. Now all I read is hyper-technical stuff, loaded with jargon, mostly from economics, so I can sound like a robot (defection, spirals, stochastic, satisficing, barriers to entry, iteration) when I talk if I need to. See Dan Nexon on this too.

As with everything else I’ve complained about above, I understand why we do this and I accept it. We can’t really read Plato or Bodin all day in IR, but I sure wish we could. I’ve often thought the IR should have a book series of classic works in our field with introductions and notes connecting classics like Thucydides, Kant, or Clausewitz to contemporary IR. We make throw-away references to these guys all the time in our introductions to make ourselves sound smart and grounded in the long tradition of political philosophy. But we don’t really read them, because we‘re reading post-Theory of International Relations stuff most of the time. When is the last time you opened up Sun Tzu or Machiavelli?

So taking a cue from Doyle’s effort to tie IR to the ‘Conversation,’ we could be release volumes like the Norton Critical Edition series or the Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought. But the selected texts would be more narrowly relevant to IR and the editorial matter and essays would explicitly connect the book to the IR. Reading Hobbes in an edition solely designed for IR readers would be pretty fascinating, no?

Bonus Immaturity: I knew I was a hopelessly cloistered academic the first time I glared at a difficult student over my glasses on the end of my nose, while sitting behind my desk. Good grief. I remember that pose from my own undergrad and that I wanted to punch professors like that…

22 thoughts on “7 things I don’t like @ being an Academic

  1. I just wonder how authors in disparate fields, like Robert Caro (LBJ for almost 50 years) or Stephen R. Donaldson (almost 50 years), can dedicate themselves to a single project for a lifetime. But, Caro’s example brings up a question: why are so many politics/IR books, as well as many popular social science books written by journalists, who then become think tank and academic fixtures? Is the journalism track any better for publishing success and still having a balanced life?


    • I can’t speak to journalists at think-tanks. Maybe they get those gigs by writing a big book and getting famous. And think-tanks aren’t basic research anyway, so they aren’t really PS/IR. They’re prescriptive. I don’t think journalists land gigs in PS departments in the IR section though. IR is super-formalist now, with really strict expectations of methodology in the writing. So we read people like Ricks or Woodward, but they aren’t doing IR. IR as we understand it is in the journal lit, like ISQ, eg.


      • I agree. But, there is this split personality thing going on in publishing: academics – boring; journalists – coffee table material and maybe readable. The journalists set the mark for writing popular politics commentary. Only professors read professors, but professors learn from journalists how to be popular. So, if a grad student wants to pay off his/her loans, why not become a journalist or join a think tank, and later return to hard science? I’m thinking of former grad students/bloggers, like Matthew Yglesias or Ezra Klein. Or, someone like Robert Wright. Others at DoM have criticized the academic lifestyle. But, isn’t it fair to offer at least a foil that might give grad students an alternative?


      • You’ve cemented my path Bobby K. I am a late bloomer; partied hard in the Bay Area until 30 through two Silicon Valley booms, lucked into a staff job with a major newspaper at 31, got my BA in PS at 33, my MA in English at 39, started a magazine at 42 and now (even after reading this) am actually submitting my PhD app this Friday –cruising six months along into the ripe young age of 45. And I do it all for what? Gonna pen me one o’ ‘dem ‘der coffee table books by 50. Yay.

        Getting such a late start in the game my one missing component is the ‘hard science’ and I feel a PhD is the next step in the (de?)evolution of my intellect. I have been warned by an IR specialist that the study of such things might well beat the journalist out of me. Will take my chances. I am quite excited about the next few years.

        See you on whoever takes Charlie Rose’s seat in 4-5 years. I think they give us a free coffee mug after taping. Once again: Yay.


      • Congratulations!

        I didn’t mean to dis the academic track. I just has noticed a trend where postgrads had found a niche n blogging and in journalism. I’m also a big history buff, and if not for a really good IR intro class in Poli Sci, I was seriously considering Ancient Studies/Archaeology. IR is multidisciplinary, which is its strength, but the emphasis on statistics blunts that appeal. I agree statistics is a crucial corrective, but IR can’t be the “Queen of the Sciences” if its so scientific. Journalists I think intuit better where to draw the line.

        I look forward to that doorstop,,,,weighty tome from you!


      • I’ve never heard IR referred to as the ‘Queen of the Sciences.’ Where did you get that one?


      • Actually, right now, it’s ME. For some reason I associated it with E.H. Carr, but right I can’t find any passage in “The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919-1939” I have to check my class notes. Perhaps a professor planted it, or I am creating my own discipline. I guess philosophy is still the “Queen”. I had begun to believe, that IR subsumed philosophy, science, social science, ethics, and diplomacy. My bad. I also associate IR with both theory and practice, science and diplomacy, and that belief has stuck with me since I was an undergrad. I still would argue, that journalism still has something to offer IR.


      • That’s actually an interesting point that has occasionally occurred to me. IR does seem to be absorbing lots of other fields, most obviously econ, psych, and soch. I believe it was Plato in the Republic who referred to philosophy as the dominant discipline, because it pulled all the others together under it. But I’ve still never heard the term ‘queen’ used to describe an academic discipline.

        Social science’ concern with journalism is primarily methodological. As a source of data and instant analysis, it’s fine. But rigor in research design, data collection, theory, method, etc. is what social science strives for, almost to the exclusion of the original issue of inquiry, which is why so many people who like politics don’t like political science.


      • To circle back to your main point, I question the value of science that doesn’t at least consider how its practitioners apply their conclusions in the world. On one hand, science is in one sense always useful, because it corrects human error – Michael Shermer’s argument. But, social sciences involve people and their lives.

        There’s a scene in David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method” when Jung asks Freud if science might not help people and Freud says no. Jung insists science can help to investigate the paranormal. Some of Jung’s ideas might have been fanciful, but he did influence the formation of Alcoholics Anonymous.


      • In my (Australian) undergrad, we were always told economics was ‘Queen of the Social Sciences’ but it was never attributed to any one person, just something different professors said from time to time.


      • If you really like the ‘life of the mind,’ a PhD is the way to go. The training and mental discipline is invaluable. You will write better than you ever did before. But it’s hard, and attrition is common. What field are you applying for, and where? IR? Good luck. If this post helped you go in with your eyes a little more open, then I have helped a little I guess.


  2. Due to its candid tone and straightforward observations, I’ve been forwarding this post to several of my contacts, as some of them are already enrolled in a PhD whilst others are preparing to start theirs. Some of the passages are great, in a very tragi-comical way. Though presented in a bleak light, I do not necessarily believe it should become any easier than it is – which was not implied in the text. One must remember that a PhD is the climax of one’s intellectual march toward attaining an authoritative position in a specific field of study.

    I was (un)fortunate enough to have two years of paid research after my MA as I prepare myself to do the PhD I believe is worthy of my time and skills. And at the end of the day, if anyone you’re taking a PhD as a “force multiplier”, a 3-5 years program to advance your career coming right out of a masters course and settle you right in amongst other qualified people in the field, then they probably shouldn’t have taken it in the first place. True, most of the decisive turns in one’s career might come when a title already precedes your name, but if a PhD was not a groundbreaking event, well it quite frankly should’ve been.

    But I create no illusions. Most of the requirements that are conducive for a good PhD are obtained before enrolling. Study discipline, ability to commit to several tasks simultaneously, juggle professional responsibilities with personal affairs, set out objectives and strive to achieve them, maintaining a good sense of the surrounding world and its intricacies, all these are qualities which I would suspect are necessary for any PhD Candidate but that cannot be acquired over the course of 3 years. If one is adapting to the faculty work and new demands during the first semester, while spending the last one franticly fine-tuning the thesis with new source material, smoother phrasing and fewer mistakes, what is left is 2 years of proper work, which is admittedly not enough if one is starting from scratch.

    Anyways, it’s edifying to read such sincere self-reflections on the life of a PhD student. Will continue forwarding it whenever appropriate.


    • Thank you for your kind words. I am flattered you would forward my work. I believe you commented once before on my writing about IR in Asia, right?

      I am glad you discerned that I was not trying to overturn the standards of social science. I was just noticing how hard it is to meet those standards. Good IR is very hard to do in my opinion. Everybody writes; the question is whether or not it is good enough to be worth being read by serious peers with a lot of other reading to do. Few of us write that well.

      I also hope this doesn’t deter you from pursuing a PhD. For all my complaining, I believe strongly in what I do, and a PhD will make anyone much smarter and a much better writer, regardless of the other costs I mention. Good luck.


      • Yes indeed, on a post concerning the state of academic debates in East Asia on IR affairs, though I’ve been a follower for a longer period of time.

        I completely agree with your assessment. I’m often reminded that it’s not because others will read that you have something to say. Paradoxically, however, there is also a time when one has to crawl out of the reading chair and venture out into the world. As you sensibly mentioned, peer-pressure and peer-reviews are an essential part of the learning and publishing process, so no matter how hard one crams all the sources and turns them into tidy, dense footnotes, the heart of the matter is still lacking, which is convincing others of the relevance of your analysis.

        In a way, it is inevitable that it is so. The sheer thought of imagining how many people – scholars, policy-makers and enthusiasts alike – have read Kenneth Waltz, Samuel Huntington or suchlike, would immediately deter the faint-hearted. And two points follow from this: first, only the really top-tier material make it to that level of notoriety; second, to continue on the top-tier scholarship is even more demanding than pulling one good work.

        This relates to what I mentioned earlier. Nowadays, a solid PhD program is one of only a few ways to develop that level of expertise. Avoiding that certified purgatory is a sure way to deprive oneself of a place in the marathon.

        Lastly, you have not deterred me at all. On the contrary, I have been preparing myself to undertake mine. So sincerely grateful for your words.
        Looking forward reading future posts.


  3. Man, great post, love the honesty. I don’t plan on doing another degree, but this reminded me of how much I love reading and ideas. I teach English at a middle school in Gwangju, but it’s not like I can have a conversation with anyone. I keep Plato, Solzhenitsyn and Royko on my desk to read after lunch, but like you said, it’s lonely.

    But still loving life, family and travel,
    Mark L.


  4. Pingback: So What do you think of Open Access Journals? Ever Submit to One? | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

  5. Congratulations for the very insightful and informative blog and the lovely family. I ended up here ALSO because of the BBC interview where the kids walk in and reading you is as addictive as the video. Great thanks from Romania!


  6. To sum up, you have an academic occupation for living, you still don’t make money and friends, you are discontented, bold, fat, and squirrely (no wonder) + stinky.

    Isn’t it the definition of literally “the one-dimensional life of the stupid, vulgar lower classes”? It is 1.1-dimensional to be precise because of a hole made by your twisted desire.

    Would you tab the complete delete button?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s