Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

A Tale of Graduate School Burnout

I suspect– actually, I’m pretty certain– that of all the pieces I’ve written, “Journeyman” — my essay on leaving academia for the business world– is the one that is most widely-read. When it first came out, in the late 1996, I got several hundred e-mails about it (all but one of them positive); and while the volume has died down to a manageable, endemic level, it still prompts one or two messages a month.

This morning I heard from someone named Dorothea Salo, who has her own harrowing Tale of Graduate School Burnout. (To her credit, she was modest enough not to mention it to me; I found it on my own.) She admits that “I wrote it because I was angry and mournful and hurting” after leaving graduate school (right before the Ph.D. exams); nonetheless, her story of bad (or merely absent) advising, hostile bureaucracies, indifferent teachers, and exploitative research advisors rings all too true. Reading it reminded me of the high level of anxiety that graduate students and budding academics live with, often for years on end (I wonder what academic life would be like if people didn’t go through that; I suspect some of the ridiculous behavior that gives us such a bad name in places like The National Review would evaporate).

It also points out something that I was always aware but never quite conscious of: during my graduate career, I was lucky to have a few, critical people on my side– and that made all the difference. My advisors, Rob Kohler and Riki Kuklick, actually tried to teach me things, and read my work; our department administrators, Pat Johnson and Joyce Roselle, were masters of the labyrinth of rules that traps too many graduate students; and I had several fellow students with whom I learned a great deal.

The lesson is that the difference between success and failure as a scholar can come down to the good work of just a couple people.

1 Comment

  1. “Journeyman” is a wonderful essay and deserves to be widely read. I especially like your description of the dynamics of the hiring committee, and the extent to which criteria can be local and contingent.

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