Giving Up On Academic Stardom

Source: thebiosciences.com

I have bought into the ego-driven status game in academia. Hard. I find myself sometimes wondering more about opportunities to advance my reputation, status, name, and scholarship than about creating new knowledge and empowering disadvantaged communities. Decision-making in my research often entails asking what will yield the most publications, in the highest status journals with the quickest turnaround in peer-review. I often compare my CV to others’, wondering how to achieve what they have that I have not, and feeling smug about achieving things that haven’t. Rarely do I ask how to become a better researcher, but often ask how to become a more popular researcher.

I drank the Kool-Aid, and it is making me sick. Literally. The obsession with becoming an academic rockstar fuels my anxiety. I fixate on what is next, ignore the present, and do a horrible job of celebrating past achievements and victories. I struggle to accept “acceptable.” I feel compelled to exceed expectations; I take pride when I do. “Wow, only six years in grad school?” “Two publications in your first year on the tenure track?! And, you’re at a liberal arts college?”

When did I become this way? Sure, academia is not totally to blame. My parents expected me to surpass them in education (they have master’s degrees!). I also suffer, as many gay men do, with the desire to excel to gain family approval, which is partially lost upon coming out. Excelling in college, rather than becoming an HIV-positive drug addict, helped my parents to accept my queer identity. In general, I compensate professionally and socially for my publicly known sexual orientation. It is hard to unlearn the fear one will not be loved or accepted, especially when homophobes remind you that fear is a matter of survival.

Oh, but academia. You turned this achievement-oriented boy into an anxious wreck of a man. It is not simply a bonus to be an academic rockstar of sorts. My job security actually depends on it. And, it was necessary to be exceptional to even get this job. And, it matters in other ways that indirectly affect my job security, and my status in general. You can forget being elected into leadership positions in your discipline if no one knows you. “Who?” eyes say as they read your name tag at conferences before averting their gaze to avoid interacting. I have learned from my critics that one must be an established scholar before you can advocate for change in academia.

The Consequences Of Striving For Academic Stardom

source: teen.com

I am giving up on my dream to become the Lady Gaga of sociology. I have to do so for my health. I have to stop comparing myself to other scholars because so many things vary, making it nearly impossible to find a truly fair comparison. Of course, I will never become the publication powerhouse of an Ivy League man professor whose wife is a homemaker. Even with that example, I simply do not know enough about another person’s life, goals, and values to make a comparison. I do not want others to compare themselves to me because my level of productivity also entails Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I am not a good model, either!

Dreams of academic stardom prevent me from appreciating my present circumstances, which were not handed to me. Sadly, voices, which sound awfully similar to my dissertation committee members’, have repeatedly asked, “are you surrreeee you don’t want to be at an R1?” I have zero interest in leaving, and negative interest (if that is possible) in enduring the job market again. But, I fear that, as I was warned, that I will become professionally irrelevant; and, this has made it difficult to fully appreciate where I am. I have acknowledged the reality that no place will be perfect for an outspoken queer Black intellectual activist. But, I have found a great place that holds promise for even better.

Beyond my health, the lure of academic stardom detracts from what is most important to me: making a difference in the world. Impact factors, citation rates, and the number of publications that I amass all distract from impact in the world and accessibility. It is incredibly selfish, or at least self-serving, to focus more energy on advancing my own career rather than advancing my communities.

Obsession with academic rockstardom forced me to view colleagues in my field as competition. My goal is to demonstrate what I do is better than them in my research. In doing so, I fail to see how we can collaborate directly on projects, or at least as a chorus of voices on a particular social problem. Yet, in reality, no individual’s work can make a difference alone. I also fail to appreciate the great things my colleagues accomplish when I view it only through jealous eyes.

When I die, I do not want one of my regrets to be that I worked too hard, or did not live authentically, or did not prioritize my health and happiness as much as I did my job.  Ok, end of rant.

39 thoughts on “Giving Up On Academic Stardom

  1. Thank you. Thank you for saying this, for being this reflexive, for being able to be vulnerable in this format.

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  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing this. It really resonated with me. It’s as though I could’ve written some parts myself (though obviously I come with different baggage, as I’m positioned different in regard to some aspects of identity).

    “Oh, but academia. You turned this achievement-oriented girl into an anxious wreck of a woman.” <——me

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  3. you are so right. And the result is not only a lot of anxiety at all stages from grad school through full professordom (and believe me, even as a full prof at an R1, this anxiety never goes away, because it is not about being good at what you do and making a difference, but about being “better than” someone else and there is always someone with “more”) but actually less sound science (publication needs trump acknowledging null results) and less good teaching. Seeking out collaboration, resisting doing more-more-more to be “better”, and focusing on your work making a difference to some actual somebod(y/ies) are the only (partial) remedies I’ve found for this.

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    • Very, very good points. This was part of my decision to pursue liberal arts jobs — to find some value for teaching (and the expectations and resources to back it up), and a hope for work-life balance(ish). But, no matter the context, one could still remain on this path for academic stardom; it is important, then, to opt-out (to the extent that you are still productive my department and university standards). That means unlearning some of the norms and values from grad school!

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  4. Great essay and thrilled you said these words out loud in this order. I came to same conclusion several years ago when I realized I was satisfied with what’s going on with my career. “Success” however you define it takes patience and dedication. We often forget that we’re comparing ourselves to people who have been doing their work for years and whose professional journey happened in a different political/social/historical context.

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  5. Hello Eric,

    From what I can gauge I am one year ahead of you on the tenure-track at a place that would probably be considered worse in the eyes of your mentors than a small liberal arts school: The “Doomed” Regional State University!

    I am taking a break from writing (yes, I have time to write even with my 3/3 load – which will be converted to a 4/4 eventually) to post here and join the chorus. I read a few of your posts and it seems that we have a lot in common. Like you I attended at top R1 for graduate school. Like you I have no desire to go back on the job market at this time. Like you I have mentors who mean well but have a difficult time negotiating my personal values within the context of what they think is best for me professionally—the “one size fits all” approach to academic mentoring. Like you I live near family, and love it! Like you and I am African American (a woman) and understand having the desire to excel in order to “represent well.” I also have a husband with a career and a job he loves that he commutes to from our home in the metro NYC area. (He has moved twice across the country for me already and is happy to be back on the East coast, a mere 1 ½ hour drive or train ride from his mother in Brooklyn.) My two children are settling into school and daycare in our new city. I am finally finding a balance between family life, my social life, and the three-pronged package of academic life: teaching, service, and writing/research. I am tired, but very happy.

    Still, it seems that everyone thinks that I should want more and I struggle with accepting that I am not ambition in the ways that I am expected to be. Like you I am involved in community and creative work and have goals and projects that relate to my scholarship (I am a historian, btw) but that it is all deemed irrelevant in the eyes of workhorse researchers (even though the folks at my current institution think its all pretty rad). I have modest publishing requirement to meet in order to get tenure, and I like to think that I will surpass them. *fingers crossed*

    Anyway, not sure what I hoped I’d accomplish by posting here other than to have my values affirmed and to remind others that they are not alone. I think it is important to maintain a work-life balance that you are comfortable with and to not be ashamed that you have no desire to be a rock star. I have friends who are rock stars in the academic world, and while I am proud of them, I know that it is not for me… at least not now. I am also pretty confidant that people never become irrelevant and that as professors we always have opportunities to reinvent ourselves through our research agenda if we feel up to it later. Get tenure for sure, but do it your way.

    In the last few days I drove several times the hour between my home and churches and restaurants in my hometown (Bronx, NY) in order to attend a friend’s birthday dinner, my cousin’s baby shower, and the homegoing service of someone that I loved dearly. I could have been writing, but to me, this is the real “stuff of life.” We are rock stars to those who love us no matter how many times our article is cited. That’s the great thing about life. Stay blessed.

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    • Wow, thank you for sharing this. I do see a lot of similarities in our careers and the decisions we’ve made along the way. It’s great to hear that you’ve done what is right/best for you, and that it has paid off. So long as you do your job (in order to keep it and excel in it), there’s no need forgetting that there are (more) important matters in life — family, community, stability, health, happiness, spirituality, etc. Thanks for the affirmation — it’s definitely appreciated.

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    • Yes! To everything you said. There is more than one arena in which to choose one’s rock stardom 🙂

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  6. Great post and I am looking forward to following your blog!

    I feel my work has suffered in the same ways you mention. It is not that I want academic stardom but quite simply, a decent, permanent position (something more stable than a postdoc). As I don’t have a tenure-track position, I really feel I need to stardom at some level or at least significant publication success to get a position. Even liberal arts and regional institutions are so competitive that 10-20 publications is not uncommon for successful applicants.

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    • I knew that pressure leading up to the job market, and still struggle with it now in a tenure-track position at a liberal arts college that equally balances teaching and service. Simply put, we feel we have to be the best to even be considered. Sadly, I think that just contributes to the competition, so the bar for “the best” gets higher and higher, cutting more into our personal lives and well-being. I wish you success, both professionally and in finding some acceptable balance with self-care.

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  7. You know, this is not just true on campus. Those of us in administrivial positions in the edubureaucracy struggle similarly. Especially when we do good work that fails to get noticed because we opted for the honest and plain and not the glitzy that drives controversy.

    We see others paraded and quoted and receiving raves while behind a falsely cheerful face we note, “I did it first.”

    In the end we have to decide. Is it the attention we want or the work? Is it enough to be the background that allows the glitz to glitter?

    Twenty-three years into this I still struggle with the questions. The envy. But the work wins out because I love the work more. Far more.

    I suspect you do as well. The fact that you put this out here makes it plain.

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  8. Hi Eric–Let me join the large chorus of thank you’s! As I read your article I was reminded of my response to Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure. Rejecting the pressures of success and prestige is such a revolutionary act!

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  9. You’re brave and honest here. As someone with the privilege of tenure and a job I love, I’ll grant that we need some external validation to get and keep our positions. But it is distracting and counterproductive for teachers and researchers to worry about “stardom.” Some are underrated, some are overrated, and, yes, the biases tend to be systematic rather than random. But stardom corrupts. As academics, we’ve got tremendous range of motion — we can be teachers, managers, writers, methodologists, mentors, publishers, public intellectuals, and/or a community liaisons. Worrying too much about how we’re perceived limits our development and blurs our vision of what we care about and want/need to do. Sometimes our best work is done one-on-one with students who need our help, which has zero influence on our academic reputations but is richly satisfying if we are lucky enough to have such jobs (and aren’t these the things we bring up at the dinner table with non-academic friends and relatives? not a new publication in AJSR).

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    • Thank you, Chris. I agree wholeheartedly. Of course, the institutional, disciplinary, and professional values play a role, too — “publish or perish.” And, as a practical matter (perhaps survival, even, for many of us), we must be attuned to how we’re evaluated. I can give up on wanting to be a publishing powerhouse only to the extent that I’m still meeting my department, my university, and (albeit to a lesser extent) my discipline’s minimum requirements for publications toward tenure. But, I can certainly balance what they value and actually count with my own values. I’ve got a few role models (like yourself) in sociology who are prolific scholars *and* great teachers and/or advocates and … So, while the expectations rise, I still feel optimistic that I can have a fulfilling and authentic career in academia.

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  10. Thank you for your honesty. Having been mentored by a couple of rock stars as a graduate student, I have often thought about this myself. (And wonder if I am a disappointment…) My first job was at a liberal arts institution and I think it helped to “save” me from the push to be a rock star because I was more focused on my students than my career. But I still feel the angst of being on the edge of academia, at times, despite plenty of accomplishments in my own sphere. We may not be rock stars but we have an impact that is equally important, though perhaps a bit closer to home.

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    • Thank you for sharing that, Becky. I see some similarities in our career paths. I agree that it helps to remind ourselves that there are many ways to have impact as an academic, no matter how they are valued (or not) by other academics.

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  11. Nitpicking the grammar does not contribute usefully to the discussion.
    Thank you for writing that Eric.

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  12. Drank, drunk…dialectal difference, not wrong or right.

    Be productive each day, treat your students well, eat and sleep well, be physically active, have a love life. You’ll do fine. Relax into a record of continuous, even if modest, productivity, and it will add up. Look for ways to build your college and bring distinction to your students.

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  13. Hi Eric,
    thank you for sharing your story! Although you and your circumstances are personal to you, there are so many familiarities in your narrative!! How many of us bought into academia as a way to get recognition and acceptance? How many of us have decided that the best way to go through life was to get lost into the mind and to construct a Berlin Wall around us with the academic persona we fought hard to become and the knowledge we worked hard to acquire? Academia feeds a disconnection with the body that taxes us sooner or later. I love what you share about the realisations that came to you when your body stopped you and you accepted that you have to reimprint the relationship with you and with the world.

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    • Thanks — you make a great point. And, we’re supported (and expected, in some ways) by academic institutions and norms to remain disconnected. Yet, so many of us came to academia to make a difference! The onus falls on us to figure out the best way to maintain a fulfilling career in academia.

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  14. Yup! – “Obsession with academic rockstardom forced me to view colleagues in my field as competition.”

    As for the person criticizing you for the “drunk, drank” thing – I just learned yesterday that it’s “More important, XYZ” and not “More importantly, XYZ” – so whatever.

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  22. Love the essay. It is very timely for me. I see so many of my colleagues online doing their thing on high-profile panels, on twitter with thousands of followers, and being guests on national television talk shows. Then I think…”hmmm, they don’t have kids, or a spouse, or a life outside of work.” Then I remember, “I am more fortunate than I realize.” It is hard to not get caught up in the popularity contest nature of it all because institutions perpetuate it and use it to advance their own social media profiles. It makes it difficult to find work when you don’t contort yourself into something you’re not, or can’t become.

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