Why do academics have big egos?

I’m sitting in a meeting with colleagues from industry and showing them the persona of a mid-career academic. They ask, “But where’s the EGO? We heard faculty members have big egos.”

So, I’ve been thinking about that… actually, for the past 20 years or so, since I was a graduate student. I think I’m only now beginning to see it – or to have the courage to articulate it:

Academia is bad for the soul. It is bad for mental health, for psychological well-being. The individual reward system of academia, the secrecy and ambiguity of evaluation criteria, the lack of control over the products academics are evaluated on – they all create a culture of fear. Fear invites different coping and protection mechanisms, one of which is the ego. Fed on a diet of fear and occasional success that carries the author’s name in bold letters, the ego inflates.

Or, at least that’s my experience of academia, from my point of view. (See what I did there? I am qualifying, minimizing, making my opinion smaller, more precise. Good academic thinking. Powered by years of learned fear of merciless critics.)

In my earlier years [of writing in academia] I tried the opposite approach – filling my mind with critics and naysayers. I would sit at my desk and picture the faces of my least favorite professors, my harshest and most cynical colleagues, and my most unforgiving online critics.  If I keep them happy,  I thought,  or at the very least quiet, I’ll be good to go. The outcome was the worst-case scenario for a researcher or a social scientist: findings that were gently folded into a preexisting way of seeing the world; findings that carefully nudged existing ideas but did so without upsetting anyone; findings that were safe, filtered, and comfortable. But none of that was authentic. — Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness, p. 4

If you’re an academic – I bet you hear those voices in your head. I bet your advisor, reviewer #2, or that scared, mean kid back in grad school – they are in your head. You write for them. They are in my head right now. I write in spite of them, pushing, fearfully, letter by letter, through the thick fog of fear.

I bet that most of the successful research you do is just that – careful, comfortable, safe. How else would it get published? You can’t take the risk now. You’ll take it after you get tenure. Then, you will shake that tree.

The truth is, it is awfully hard to be your authentic self in the publish or perish environment of scholarly research. And, ironically, it is hard to do your best work.

At the end of the day, success in academia rewards the individual – the sole hero, HIS name (and yes, it’s mostly his name, still, unfortunately). It is HE who won the prize, who got the grants, who created The Theory. There’s no account of the team – of the nameless, faceless graduate students, for example, who were instrumental to the work. No, it’s just HIM. The Professor. The Researcher. He is worshipped, adored, and dreaded at conferences. A cloud of timid, hopeful, terrified graduate students surrounds him. He hides, he tries to protect himself from the annoyance of people without whom THERE WOULD NOT BE A UNIVERSITY. Oh, wait. Those are undergraduate students. He doesn’t know much about those. He hasn’t taught an undergraduate course since his first years as an assistant professor. Undergraduates are a complete waste of time. They distract from The Research.

Comic showing the food chain of academia

In academia, mentorship is a joke. Mentors fear mentees – the young, eager faculty, with so much more energy, enthusiasm, and hope. They are on the fast track, and they publish more, accomplish more. That’s threatening. As a mentor, I look bad by comparison. Old. Tired. Blase. I don’t publish as many papers each year. I don’t have the same kind of pressure, so I don’t. I’m worn out. I’ve got tenure. Counting down to retirement. In my own life, the mentors I’ve met who are not threatened by mentees can be counted on the fingers of one hand. The pattern is, tenured faculty bully talented, untenured ones.

Back to the ego. It is fostered, encouraged, demanded, by the nature of the system of evaluation and rewards. But, is it necessary? The most successful people I’ve met (by academic standards) are kind and humble. That is, I think, because they are free of fear. They have nothing to prove. The rest of us, are drenched in fear. Fear that our publications are not good enough. And it’s true, they are not good enough. Any research paper can be criticized and ripped apart. Any research study can be done better. Fear that our publication number is not high enough. How many publications does it take to be “good”? To be productive? The target is moving and ambiguous. The evaluators are anonymous, cranky, sometimes uninformed. We call them blind peer reviewers. Their assessment is unreliable. The same paper that is an embarrassing disaster in reviewer 1’s eyes is brilliant in reviewer 2’s eyes. The same paper that got painfully rejected from conference A got an award at conference B. Hilarious, isn’t it? Not when those are the standards that define your success.

You cannot know whether your work is ever good enough, not by the gold standard of peer review. You cannot know if you are good enough.

A healthy mind requires we divorce ourselves from our behaviors. Just because an act, or a behavior, is not good enough, this does not mean the person is not good enough. Bullshit. In academia, it does not work that way. As a researcher, as a writer, I put my heart and soul into those papers. My mind works on them day and night, during a movie, during vacation, who knows, maybe even during sex (do academics even do that anymore?). It’s non stop. You can’t turn it off. You can’t stop thinking about it. You see the solution in a dream, and then panic when you wake up having forgotten it. The work consumes so much of your life. Most of us have a hard time turning it off. I remember working on my dissertation, and how I could not take a break, even when I did take a break. I worked on it non-stop for 2 years. It was exhausting. But, you ask, don’t you have something else in your life, something else to make you feel worthy, accomplished, outside your work? I don’t know, maybe children. I don’t have children, I don’t know. I don’t have a life. I don’t have a hobby. Academics who have hobbies are losers. Who has time for that? Or for taking the weekend off? I remember the advice of a well meaning mentor, or maybe it was a workshop on academic life: You should be sure to take half day off during the weekend (oh, no – it was a talk from a university provost, at a celebration of accomplishments, telling us we can relax a bit now). Half a day. How generous! (Note for the assistant professors out there: this does not apply to you. Please work all weekend.) So, no, there’s not much else. If there is, you are lucky, and you must have worked really hard at it. Because, if you’re an academic, as long as you are awake, you are working. And your brain continues working on problems when you are asleep. So, then, you bet your smartest body part that that paper is not divorced from the sense of self. When anonymous reviewer #2 writes a snarky comment about your research methodology, you read it as a comment about your own self, your worth. Many a therapist would say that is not healthy.

As you can gather, this entire experience is rather unpleasant. It is full of fear. Fear of the snarky comments. Fear that my work is not enough in quantity or quality. Fear that I am not enough. So then, what does the poor psyche do, to protect itself? It builds a big bubble around it, a big bubble I’ll call ego, and it fills it with hot air and it feeds it with acts of bullying that reassure it that, after all, I do have some power – power over something, someone, that starry-eyed assistant professor, that hapless student who dared write me an email.

I’ve been noticing a lot lately, in various writings (Tara Brach, Brene Brown, Gary Zukov) – that fear is related to feelings of powerlessness. I plan to explore that in the near future.

Academia operates on powerlessness. You are trained to be fiercely independent. Yet you have no power over whether you even get to do the work you want. You depend on the unpredictable game or research grant funding (oh, what a circus that is!). You have no power over your publications. You write them, but you don’t know if and when they will see the light of day. And yet, your success – your job, your salary, depend on a certain number of high quality publications seeing the light of day in a given time frame that you have NO CONTROL over. You try to please anonymous reviewers, and to work to standards that are not only secret – they are infinitely ambiguous and debatable. It’s not that you’re being judged, like in a Kafkian novel, in secret, by criteria unknown to you. You are being judged, in secret, by criteria that evolve and shift as the evaluation is being conducted. What would Kafka say about that?!

It is no surprise then that this environment of powerlessness breeds fear. Fear breeds ego – and we create a world where we are too scared to be kind, vulnerable, authentic. So we become assholes. Yes, yes, there are exceptions. Fortunately, a lot of us academics are decent enough human beings, and introspective enough, that we are able, to varying degrees, to keep these fears under control, and to not let them rule our behavior. But it’s not easy. And it is not healthy.

Let me get it straight. I loved my job in academia. I loved what I was able to do, and that I was able to do it. A lot of great work gets done, a lot of lives are changed. But this does not make the environment healthy or positive for the people who call it home.

I’ve been thinking about the authentic self a lot. For me, the moments when I was able to be my authentic self in academia happened only in the classroom. A lot of magic happened in my classes, I think. Enough to keep me alive, happy, and in love with my job.

If it’s all so bad/sad, what is the solution? I don’t know. Perhaps we need to rethink “Publish or Perish.” Many much more informed minds have already thought about that. I believe it takes a systemic solution, but I can’t even begin to wrap my head around it.

On an individual level, I can tell you what helped me: yoga, meditation, therapy, friends who could see and love my authentic self, antidepressants, books, my love for students, my husband, my cats.

That being said, I love academia. I love the way it teaches you to think, the freedom it provides (tenure is not all bad!), the privilege of living a life of the mind. I know many people who thrive there, and some say I might be one of those. I was even happy there. I was very much in love with many aspects of my work. Yet I’ve always known that parts of it (well, the Publish or Perish part, specifically), is not healthy. I have a lot of fear, and it’s deep in my bones, and I know it is still keeping me from being my authentic self. But I think I’m beginning to feel ready to look it in the eye, thank it very much for trying to protect me, and work my way to authenticity.

I leave you with another quote from Brene Brown, something she said during her interview at Microsoft the other day:

I had so much fear about my career that I engineered smallness.

And the first sentence of her latest book, Braving the Wilderness:

When I start writing, I inevitably feel myself swallowed by fear.

What do we do about that fear, babies? How’s your soul doing in academia? Are you able to find a home there for your authentic self? Teach me.

P.S.

Like any good academic, I leave you with a reading list. Here are some of my favorite books about academia:

#1 – Jane Tompkins, A Life if School: What the Teacher Learned (nonfiction)

#2 – David Lodge’s trilogy of satirical novels about academia 

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