by Post-ac Career Coach Jessica Langer
Academia is a climate of constant and unrelenting criticism.
This is obvious in a professional sense: our work is often called “criticism” as a catch-all, and in the process of building upon our field colleagues’ existing work it is often necessary to counter it. Some of this work is necessary: reading “against the grain” of dominant cultural or critical texts, for example, and identifying problematic elements in texts.
After a while, criticism may become the academic’s dominant mode of thinking. This can be great in a professional sense: you become attuned to minutiae and intricacies in arguments that you wouldn’t otherwise have identified, and you gain a more nuanced perspective in your work.
And if it ended there, it would be perfect. But most of the time – particularly, though certainly not exclusively, for women, people of colour and other people who are variously and/or intersectionally marginalized – it isn’t. Because when you are trained to look at everything with a critical eye, it’s almost inevitable that such a critical eye will turn inward.
There is no “you are good enough as you are” in academia. There is no “you are enough”, in fact. There is, instead, a constant drumbeat of necessity for accomplishment after accomplishment, paired with the constant risk of failure. And this doesn’t end when you pass your comps or go ABD or get your PhD or get a tenure-track job or even when you get tenure (especially since tenure itself is changing and, potentially, ending). There is an endless lineup of paper submissions and conference presentations and manuscript reviews and student evaluations, all of which represent instances in which you are being explicitly judged. Judgment after judgment, often carried out anonymously (and viciously).
In academia, you are your work – as I’ve discussed before, the academic system deliberately cuts its acolytes off from their outside support networks and from outside sources of income, so as to develop total devotion to the system on pain of failure that is not only professional but personal. And if you are your work, and your work is constantly criticised as part of its purpose, then academics live in a state of constant surveillance and criticism – and junior academia live in a state of constant self-surveillance and self-criticism, as they add ‘try not to piss off anyone senior or important’ to the list.
One of the most significant things I’ve noticed in my post-academic work with clients transitioning out of academia is the extent to which they have gotten into the habit of extraordinarily harsh and total self-criticism, to the extent that they are sometimes unable to recognize their own accomplishments as accomplishments. One of my clients teaches at an Ivy League university that everyone reading this has heard of; she actually didn’t mention it initially, and when I told her – incredulously and with no small amount of awe – that literally any employer would be impressed by the fact that she taught at this school, she demurred and said, “Oh, but I’m just an adjunct there!” (Protip for the reader: no one outside of academia cares if you were an adjunct. If you teach at Major Ivy, they will be impressed as hell.) My clients will have incredible things on their resumes, things that would impress almost any non-academic employer – years-long stints abroad doing fascinating work, major grants, speaking gigs at European embassies – and will demur because they simply cannot see these things as the impressive, high-status things they are.
What’s more, these people with these incredible experiences and accomplishments will often see themselves as failures because they don’t have a TT job in academia. For no other reason than because they aren’t on the tenure track. It’s astonishing. But I think I know why.
My theory: because academia trains you to be abusive to yourself. To constantly criticize your own work as well as others’, and never to be satisfied or even content with your work. To put yourself in situations in which you are infantilized and made powerless within a strict hierarchical system in which you are a waste product, not an intended outcome. To accept negativity from yourself that you would never allow to be directed towards someone you love.
This constant self-criticism and inability to see or accept success is very common among my clients and among people leaving academia in general, and it breaks my heart.
So here is my message to you:
Your accomplishments are worthwhile, and they mean something, and they are important. You are not a failure. The academy does not get to determine whether you are OK. You are OK no matter what.
And if you can’t accept that, then here’s a shorter message, especially if you’re leaving academia:
You are no longer obligated always to second-guess and think twice and surveil yourself. You are allowed to be who you are.
You are free.