“Too academic”

I’m not getting into this. But what I picked up was the use of being “too academic” as an explanation – as if being “too academic” were a bad thing. It’s not, not always [1].

Here’s my list [2] of the main characteristics of being “academic:”

Has this been said before?

Academics research thoroughly what has been written before on their topic and related concepts, in one or more disciplines. They don’t reinvent the wheel. Lack of familiarity with previous literature reduces one’s credibility and increases the risk of reinventing the wheel. Keyword: library (yes, library!)

I remember of a dear and very much appreciated analyst who was working on a report on communities and was crowd-sourcing the definition of “community.” There are full library shelves on the concept. Read ’em. Cite ’em. Think of the literature review as a different from of crowd-sourcing 🙂

Claim + Supporting evidence

Academics follow this formula very rigorously. For every single claim (every single sentence, sometimes word in a publication), you need evidence.

Claim: Tomatoes are red.

Evidence: ??? Can be empirical (inductive) – based on observations, surveys, etc. or can be a logical argument. In which case, avoid fallacies.

My dear mentor [3] would question every single statement in my papers and in the process taught me that you cannot make a claim without solid supporting evidence. And when you only have this much evidence, you make a smaller, more specific, claim.

So, if: “The public has been ignored in public relations” = claim, what is the evidence for that? What kind of evidence would you provide, and are you sure that the evidence is sufficient and valid?

Academic writing is specific & precise

… and that’s what makes it inaccessible. Oh, why do we need the word “stakeholder” when we have “public”? Well, because we define concepts and we need words to refer to the specific concepts. We need to avoid confusion with the general usage of the word. Inaccessibility is the downside.

The upside is that, good academic writing is not vague – it has (almost – see[1]) surgical precision. You need that surgical precision to stand up to scrutiny, to make sure you don’t over-generalize, and that there’s good fit between the evidence and the claim.

I strive to produce both academic AND accessible writing, and maybe so should you. Go ahead. Be academic.


[1] Academic thinking will teach you to avoid overstatements and over-generalizations; to be specific if possible, inclusive or ambivalent otherwise.

[2] I can hear my dear mentor’s [3] voice: Why do you put only these things on the list? How do you know you’ve exhausted all possibilities? What are the criteria for inclusion/exclusion/sorting of the list? Beware the laundry list fallacy.

[3] Carl Botan


This is why I recommend graduate school. I don’t care if it will make you more money or get you a better job. It will sharpen your mind, enhance your critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and teach you humility – at least you know what you don’t know, and you learn to question everything, your work and yourself included (downside: bye-bye, self-esteem!).

7 thoughts on ““Too academic””

  1. Andrew, I am very sorry to hear that, I can imagine how frustrating it is. I wish people appreciated academic rigor more, and it’s up to us to do our part to educate about that… though it’s much easier in blog posts than in job interviews!

    Good luck finding your professional home – a place that needs and appreciates the skills you bring in.

  2. Dear Mihaela – I really appreciate the opportunity to read your thoughts regarding “too academic”, because this morning I had a phone call from a extension district director telling me that I am not hired for the position of County Extension Director because I am “too academic”. I could not believe that the search committee said that and they hired another person who does not have any academic degrees and reads notes while presenting ppt slides. My students say it’s boring.

    I was so much confused and understood that in order to get this job. I should not be in contact with audience, but give them boring lecture on the topic which was very much important for the community.

    People prefer to listen, not to learn. I do not think that this community will grow in tough economy, because they do not care about learning how to survive and how to be successful. That is very much frustrating.

    Thanks again for your thoughts on “too academic”

    Andrew Novotorov, Ph.D.

  3. Bob, thank you for stopping by.

    The institutional pressures do not validate flawed research, but they explain why it happens. I point this out as part of my very, very long term mission to change the structure of academe 🙂

    Of course, there is no perfect research method, and certainly no perfect research study. But most academic research studies, even the deeply flawed ones, acknowledge their flaws.There is a level of reflection in academic thinking that I like, respect, and recommend.

    I am not arguing against qualitative research methods. I practice them myself. I am arguing for rigor and critical thinking, and against using “academic” as an insult.

    As about feelings, yours are yours, Brian’s are his, and mine are mine. I will not argue with that, but I will remind myself and others to be compassionate now and again.

    Cheers, M.

  4. Hi Mihaela,

    There is a place in PR and Comm. research for narrative-based work and/or “action research,” etc. I don’t think tenure and the terrors of the tenure process validate the shoddy, undergrad survey “studies” that are pushed as “research” in PR.

    I point to two examples. First, as a professional at a gigantic corporation, I probably received a half dozen surveys from PR profs and grad students per week. To be honest, I can’t say that I always gave these my full attention or even divulged information that might not be in the best interest of my corporation. I’ve spoken to others who acted similarly…even when answering the Grunig-led so-called “Excellence Theory.” People know these surveys are b.s. and proceed as such.

    Second, as an academic, I teach one of our large (150-500 student) “Mass Communications and Society” lecture/recitation classes. Again, grad students and profs ask to survey these students quite often. These are mainly undergrads and they don’t know much about anything, let alone the kind of strategic survey questions they are being asked.

    Now, if the survey were to find info about college students in Florida, the survey might be fine. Otherwise, it’s preposterous to pass this off as “research.”

    This is a bit off-topic, but I thought I would chime in.

    P.S. As an author, I would love the kind of thoughtful criticism that Bill gave Brian. That is gold. Why put a book out if you don’t want to engage in the larger intellectual world?

  5. Short answer: Robert, Bill: I know…

    Long answers:

    Robert: sampling fallacies are a huge problem everywhere. In academia, they’re dictated by institutional structures and policies (tenure clock keeps ticking, students are available).

    Bill – anecdote and opinion rule not only the blogosphere, but also a lot of the popular business literature. That’s why I appreciated your book review. As much as I hate being subjected to it, I do respect the blind-review process.

    I’m not getting into the conversation on your blog because as a book author, I know how much it hurts to have your baby critiqued. (hasn’t happened to me, but I’d rather the book not sell than have to read a negative review). It’s hard/impossible to separate your sense of self from your work.

    I’m sure Brian did the best he could, and he’s handling it beautifully. I agree that opinion, experience, and passion are wonderful, but it takes integrating them into a rigorous approach to make a book. I also agree that many people will find it useful. It’s a different type of knowledge, but maybe it is not what we expect out of a business book.

  6. Thanks for a great post, Mihaela. Probably a wise move on your part NOT to join the discussion at my blog 🙂

    As a practitioner who turned academic, I’ve come to appreciate the rigor that solid research, investigation and critical thinking bring to any topic. And I’ve become pretty adept at spotting the pretenders — who are many, indeed.

    Weird, but I actually enjoy reading the footnotes, and often find myself tapping the author’s sources for more information and understanding. Sadly, in public relations (my field) and too many other business disciplines, theory and serious research are dismissed as not being “real world.”

    Anecdote and opinion pretty much rule the blogosphere in the PR world, which, sadly, is more about popularity than substance.

  7. I like this, Mihaela. Shall be sharing it with students. ;o) Thanks!

    I hesitate to add this, but I will. My gripe with academic research isn’t so much the writing … it is the sampling. Why, oh why, do so many rely upon underclass students for so many studies … then try to apply the results to a greater population. Oy! It makes me shudder every time I see it.

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