Recently, for a brief period, I had seriously considered quitting my academic career. This made me think long and hard about why all of a sudden, I want to give up something that I’ve believed that I wanted for such a long time. The conclusion was that I was just unhappy in life, and I just don’t have the emotional strength to push myself further. This made me think how much emotional strength it requires to get a Ph.D. and to continue on. I now have come out of that slump period (at least partially), but just wanted to share my candid thoughts I had during this process.
As much as intelligence is required, I think an incredible amount of emotional strength is required to get a Ph.D. I have seen many cases where students drop out of their Ph.D. program not because they didn’t like their research, but because they were going through personal struggles.
Let me begin with why I think the process of getting a Ph.D. and continuing on as an academic requires an extraordinary emotional strength.
First, the nature of research requires positivity, a lot of it. Doing your research is often like running your own start-up, facing a high degree of uncertainty in many steps of the way. Often, you just have to be able to convince yourself that this is going to work out, and even if it doesn’t, it is okay to waste months or years of your life on something that wouldn’t make it to publication because that’s.. research. Even after publication, you might not get any citations for years, and you just have to believe that one day, this will add value to the world. Even for an inherently optimistic person, keeping up the optimism with little to no positive feedback from the world requires a great deal of emotional strength.
This brings me to the second point. In research, short-term rewards are so scarce. Depending on the field, you have to work for months or years to get one publication. Before that happens, there is almost no reward. It isn’t like being a teacher and seeing students grow every day or being a doctor and seeing your parents improve on a daily basis. In this world of instant gratification where you get instant likes and responses on social media, academia is almost like at the worst extreme of delayed gratification.
There is another issue that adds to this: the highly competitive and high-pressure culture. Ph.D. students at top academic institutions are overachievers who excelled in their academic work, pretty much all throughout their life, and a highly-competitive culture naturally develops with this group of people. No-work-life-balance culture is pervasive in academia. I’ve heard time and again professors saying “Ph.D. students don’t (shouldn’t) have life” or “Ph.D. students don’t (shouldn’t) have weekends”. Admittedly, I was one of those people who spread this culture. But again, for an academic, your work is your own enterprise and your own brand, just like a start-up. If you spend 12 hours, 7 days a week at the office, you get more done than people who spend 8 hours only from Monday to Friday, and you’d have a stronger profile. No matter how much you do, there are always monsters who push out more publications than you. To get a tenure-track job at good universities, you have to beat them. It is hard to put a stop to this competitive mindset.
Finally.. there is the financial struggle. I’m mentioning this the last as if this is the smallest problem. But, no, the struggle is real. As a Ph.D. student, you really don’t make much more than working as a full-time waitress. You don’t need all the luxuries to be happy. But, the tiny income leaves you with no financial cushion, and this can be constant emotional stress. For instance, during my Ph.D., I lost my retainer during moving, and I was so stressed about it since replacing it would cost me a few hundred dollars, and that was a significant portion of my savings at the time. Recently, I lost my AirPods, which also cost me a couple hundred bucks to replace, but because I have a slightly better income as a postdoc, I wasn’t as stressed about it. I was still sad for like a day, but it wasn’t like that time when I was beating myself up about the retainer for weeks. Just knowing that there is a margin for mistakes relieves so much stress. Besides, you know that with your intelligence and work ethic, whatever “real” job you get will pay you at least 2-3 times more than the Ph.D. salary. You are essentially making this choice to be poor every day for your intellectual/academic pursuit, while you see your friends buying a house. This requires a certain amount of determination, and it is especially harder for students who don’t have a family who can provide financial support in case of an emergency.
Okay, so I have complained enough about how damn hard it is. Then, who the hell does a Ph.D.? Because of all of this, I think only a very specific group of people come to and remain in the Ph.D. program and academia. (**WARNING** I am only speaking from my own experience with a few local samples..)
When I first started my Ph.D. at Carnegie Mellon, I realized that I have never encountered such a privileged group of people in my life. Most of my colleagues or friends had parents who are doctors or professors. It was even common to see friends whose grandparents are doctors and professors. In the first month at CMU, one of my friends asked me what my parents do. I said my dad is a police officer. He couldn’t hide the surprise from his face and I asked him why he was so surprised. He said because he expected I’d say either doctor or professor, because that’s how most students are like. Even though the student body comprises kids from all over the globe, if you dig into their backgrounds, they are surprisingly homogeneous.
Having a privileged background means that you have stable support from the family. First, you will have fewer worries about financial troubles. In the back of your head, you know that family is your financial fall-back option. Furthermore, you’ll likely have a family that supports and shares the same values as yours. Your parents or even grandparents are well-educated and appreciate intellectual work. They’ve traveled and seen the world, have progressive thoughts, and validate your views. In many cases, they can also provide helpful advice on the difficult academic journey. They understand your situations better and give you more tailored suggestions than say, a grandma who spent her whole life on the rural farmland. Finally, this often means that you are more surrounded by friends with similar backgrounds as well.
Like how it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a rock-solid emotional support system to raise a successful academic, either from family, friends, or significant others. Admittedly, the support network that you’re born with is not the only network you’ll have in life. You can make new friends who share the same values as you, and you can meet a significant other who can be your best cheerleader/advisor.
However, if you are from a less privileged background, it is difficult to find the support you need within the graduate school or within academia. If you have to run to a hospital in the middle of the night for your family member who lost consciousness due to a drug overdose, if you have to do a second job to support your family’s finance, if you have to give birth to and raise an out-of-wedlock baby, if you have to deal with a family member’s mental health issues while you have nobody to lean on, or if you have family and friends who have a completely different set of values and disapprove of your academic pursuit in every way possible, there are few people who can truly understand and empathize. Colleagues around you would rather pass judgment than provide support. Friends who understand, who have gone through something similar are not in academia. They’ve already chosen a more chill career path since it is already overwhelming to deal with the personal issues.
Getting emotional support can be especially harder in the field of science and engineering, where the lack of human connection is prevalent and sometimes even encouraged. We all have that stereotype in our mind that a true scientific genius ought to be a sociopath.. right? For a long time in academia, I feared sharing emotions as I thought that will undermine my professionalism as a scientist since we should only speak with facts, not with emotions.
Until you get your tenure, academia is a really tough place to survive. It is a long journey. When you don’t find the right emotional support system throughout, you will likely get weeded out at some point. This really made me question.. With this current system and culture, are we left with the most talented at the end? Or, the most motivated? Or, is it the most privileged that remains at the top of the academic ivory tower?