So many of the young people who enter graduate programs do so because they care about something deeply, or are interested in something deeply. And much of the conventional wisdom about, say, “getting a Ph.D.” is that you should only do it if you care deeply about the subject.
This is actually bullshit.
Academics is a terrible place for people that care, whether about the world or about a subject. I’ve seen (and closely known) far too many smart, driven young people—who deeply cared either about a cause or about a field—get absolutely pillaged in the academic world, and leave it embittered and disillusioned, absolutely without correlation to their level of achievement. They couldn’t hack it not because they weren’t smart or learned enough, but (frankly) because they weren’t ruthlessly amoral enough.
Make no mistake, academics is a place for hard-nosed climbers who are determined simply to do something—anything—that is intellectually interesting, and who have nerves of titanium and the grit of a large-scale industrial power sander. Today it is not a place for people who feel… anything, frankly.
My wife and friends will happily tell many that I am capable of being both more horribly rational and more gritty than most of the people that they know. Sometimes, when push has come to shove, one or two of them have even told me that it would be nice if I’d grow a heart. But even though I completed my Ph.D. I was nowhere near hardassed, single-minded, unattached, and steely-eyed enough to really make a go of it in a traditional academic career.
No, sending idealists and topic enthusiasts into academics is like sending young fodder to the Somme. A bloody waste of life.
That’s not to say that there aren’t pleasures in it. I find myself wishing I was there all the time. It is an intoxicating and stimulating sphere. But the fact is that even I was far from being competitive, not because I wasn’t capable (my apologies to the many that had high hopes for me) but because in fact at the end of the day I wasn’t willing to do the very practical things required to make it stick. Effectively abandon my family and spouse entirely. Move from place to place to place every year for years on end, without attachments of any kind. Network relentlessly and ensure that conversation is always exploitable from the career perspective, rather than merely congenial. Cynically hop on the latest journal fad and ride it with as much trite overwriting as possible. Backstab. Exploit. Reappropriate. Pursue.
In general, in fact, the path to success in academics demands that you care far more for “academics” as a field and set of titles than for the integrity of the field of knowledge that you’re in. There are experts. And there are academics. Sometimes these two things overlap, particularly amongst the old guard who entered at a different time. But they are not at all the same thing.
Professors ought to stop selecting for recommendations the students that are smart, or driven, or enthusiastic, or idealistic, and send instead their most unflappable, unattached, and unapologetically resolved students. The ones that say, in abrasive and cold tones, “I don’t care about this topic, I don’t care about anything, and I don’t need anyone. I’m just here to get a grade.” The students from this cohort that get an ‘A’ are the best candidates for the current academic career trajectory. They have a chance of being successful, and of not doing too much damage along the way.
None of this is to say that I’m bitter about academics. I’m grateful to the institutions and fond of many of my professors and contacts. I still find “The Work” both tremendous and exciting.
But I do wish faculty that teach undergrads would stop sending so many into the killing fields. It’s not a place for the starry-eyed. For the older generation, it was; it was a job; it could be done like any other job, with hard work and dedication and integrity and care.
But times are different. The market is different. The logic of the marketplace is different. The field of labor is different. Now, academics is a journey into 1970 Cambodia, and it takes a Captain Willard or a Colonel Kilgore or a Colonel Kurtz to make it out the other side alive.