Academia is a Lonely Place

(For some reason people feel the need to share with me their plans to attend graduate school. It usually sounds like this: ‘I’m getting a PhD!’ In response, I feel the need to share my immediate reaction. It always sounds like this: ‘Don’t do it’. Then I walk away.)

Getting a PhD is not all it’s cracked up to be. Seriously. The five years I spent in graduate school were the worst 5 years of my life. And though to a much lesser extent, the reasons why it sucked still hold true post graduation because the fact of the matter is, Academia is isolating. Allow me to be specific.

Intellectual Isolation. The general public imposes a positive correlation on the relationship between PhD attainment and IQ. I’m here to tell you that’s a crock. Between PhD attainment and self-regulatory skills, yes; PhD attainment and initiative, yes; PhD attainment and dedication, yes. But on average, we are only a few points higher (not even a full standard deviation) in IQ than the average person. What we are, are people who know a lot about a little.  After spending 5+ years studying  a specific phenomenon, we are anxious and more than happy to discuss this topic with you. We are enthusiastic, loud, and all in your face!

Don’t fall for the trap. I repeat–do not fall for the trap. Do not speak with us about our areas of expertise. Why? Because you don’t know enough. No matter how well informed you think you are, we PhDs know the truth: you are not only misinformed, but your opinion is unsubstantiated, naive, and one-dimensional. You need to get ‘better knowledged’ (Shout out to Senator Ford in Tennessee!)

Social Isolation. No one really knows what happens during a PhD program. I won’t divulge the secrets, but I will say that most of what you do, you do alone. Many students are a part of a Lab that researches a general area (at least this is true at Researching Institutions). In that lab, there can be anywhere from 2-20 other graduate students. But here’s the rub: those people are not your friends; they are your colleagues. You each have your own research that you only talk about during weekly lab meetings to give updates on your progress. And when the others are talking, you are thinking about what you are going to say about your research. Frankly, you are just trying to graduate as soon as possible.

Because no one wants to spend their lives in grad school, by year 3, you start to pull away (or year 2 if you are me). You stop the group study sessions and the happy hours and the birthday dinners. You stop faking like everyone in your cohort is your BFF. All you have energy for is to find that next article/book, skim it, and figure out if/how you can use it. This also means you stop dating. So if you didn’t have a significant other when you started the program, odds are you won’t have one when you finish either. And while you were getting the top degree in your field, your other friends were starting their careers, getting promotions/raises, meeting the love of their life, getting engaged, getting married, and having kids. So no, you can’t afford (financially or time-wise) to hang out with them post graduation. And why would you want to be the only single person there anyway? (I’m joking–mostly. Plenty of people get married during grad school. And then it takes them an extra year to finish)

Emotional Isolation. This is the big one. A doozie. The real reason why I tell people not to get a PhD.You won’t fully understand this unless you’ve gone through a PhD program but I will try to break it down. Prior to a PhD program, you always had clear goals. And you always knew the steps necessary to achieve those goals. All of that goes out the window in grad school. Unlike other graduate programs, there is no graduation date. There is no ‘standard coursework’ that magically equates to a diploma. There are no common core standards for what constitutes a good Masters Thesis and Dissertation. There are little guidelines for how to succeed on your Qualifying Exams. Never before in my life had I felt so out of control of my own future. I’m sure I spent a total of 16 months just waiting. Waiting for feedback on the latest draft, waiting to hear back from the IRB, waiting to get consent forms from study participants.  Waiting. Waiting to get district and school approval. Waiting for my committee to email back times they can meet. Waiting.

So no, we don’t know when we are going to graduate so DON’T ASK! All we know is that we are struggling to make it on a weekly basis. And your questions don’t help.

I say all of this not to say ‘don’t get a PhD’. I say this to say: the process is not about learning (as I once thought). It is not an extension of undergrad. It is not a place to have intellectual discourse. It is not a place to meet the love of your life. It is not a place to find yourself. It is a place to keep your head down, work hard, and get the hell out of as soon as possible.


6 comments on “Academia is a Lonely Place

  1. Joy says:

    Wow! Its like you are in my head.

  2. […] of Options—in a previous post (Academia is a Lonely Place ) I mentioned how isolating the Academy is. This is especially true if you are young, a woman, or […]

  3. […] of Pedagogy ), lack of faculty diversity (I am Not My Hair ), and the arduous journey toward a PhD (Academia is a Lonely Place). My points in those posts still stand: obtaining a PhD and becoming faculty is not a gold-paved […]

  4. […] Academia is a Lonely Place  This was one of my first posts and everything in it remains true. Academia is not what people think it is. Getting a PhD is not something to be taken lightly because in doing so, you are changing almost every facet of your future. […]

  5. NiseyKnits says:

    Eek. Ok you’ve scared me pretty nicely now.

    • No no no, don’t be scared! Just be informed. I was not well informed so I got slapped in the face with these realities. I don’t want that to happen to others.

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