Several months ago, I asked my best friend Bri if wanting to do research made me a bad person. Sometimes I minimize the trauma I have experienced in academia, and Bri reminded me of our conversation from several months ago as an example of how academia has affected me. The fact that I even asked that question aloud highlights the breadth of heinous events I have witnessed in my academic career so far.
To provide a non-exhaustive list of some of the shit I have been through in academia: 1) a couple of people calling me argumentative or saying that I “lack active listening skills” when I call out white supremacy in a direct tone, 2) someone telling me that they treat me in a harsh way because they themselves had been treated that way, instead of just treating me better and breaking the cycle, and 3) seeing several scholars, including scholars of color, get awards for their research and contributions to the field when I know that they have mistreated at least one of their graduate students. Part of me feels whiny naming these grievances. Then I remind myself that I am allowed to whine about harm I have encountered and witnessed.
Do I want to stay in this profession? I asked myself that question while driving to a friend’s house after I passed my dissertation defense a couple weeks ago. While I passed my defense, some parts of the experience felt so invalidating to me, which reminded me of several other invalidating comments I have received over the past several years.
My reflective process in my car reminded me of a conversation I had with one of my favorite research mentors in undergrad, when she told me that at times, she wants to flee academia. When that conversation first happened, I felt taken aback when she said that. This mentor had several publications in top-tier journals, came across as relaxed and regulated at all times, and always seemed so proficient in her roles as a teacher and research mentor. Now though, several years later, I can see why she would say that, because several of the qualities I like about her most clash with academic culture: she has no ego about research or getting cited and invests in research for the sole purpose of promoting social justice, she takes time to nurture her students and check in with them instead of only caring about tangible products, and she does not define her life by productivity nor does she glorify feeling stressed and busy.
My relationship with this mentor reminds me of what I like the most about academia: the ability to have caring and compassionate relationships, while fighting to further social justice. During my undergrad years when I dealt with my PTSD in-depth for the first time, working with this mentor always felt so stable and affirming due to her responsiveness, kind and constructive feedback, and how we could rant about white supremacy in a raw and unfiltered way. She, as well as a few Asian American women mentors, have encouraged me to say what I want to say about white supremacy in psychological research even if it may make white people uncomfortable and challenge the status quo.
Now that I have more experience with research, I feel that my viewpoint contains more nuance. While I feel more efficacious at providing therapy than conducting research
unless you’re a member of an academic hiring committee who’s somehow found this blog post two to four years from now when I’m on the academic job market, lol , I do enjoy elements of research: thinking thoroughly and innovatively about topics related to social justice, the warmth and compassion present in healthy research collaborations, and the flexibility and independence of an academic schedule in which I can go on jogs or go grocery shopping in the middle of the weekday. At the same time, I despise the elements of academia that stem from white supremacy culture – the abuse that faculty can get away with because they publish a lot, the egoistic and narcissistic drive of some researchers who produce so they can get clout while simultaneously mistreating vulnerable students and colleagues, and the maintenance of hierarchies such as through requiring letters of recommendation which can trap students in unhealthy power dynamics.
Right now, I feel okay about my wellbeing in academia. I do my best to minimize toxic interactions, care for my students, and place my self-worth in my relationship with myself and my close friends over a system that prioritizes accomplishments over genuine compassion. In my moments of more intense despair, I remind myself that if I ever get too abused or have to act against my values, I will simply leave academia and take my gifts elsewhere. I recognize too that similar abuses of power occur in other fields such as the nonprofit industrial complex and that the issues in academia perhaps pertain more to labor inequity and exploitation broadly than academia itself. Still, I appreciate my angst about academia because even if it feels weighty, I would rather question the system and honor my negative emotions about it than turn away from or not acknowledge the problematic parts just because they feel difficult.
I write this post to honor my lived experiences, because as Zora Neale Hurston once wrote, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” I share because even though it feels vulnerable to do so, I can imagine a better academia, one where certain faculty of color do not project their experiences of racism onto their students of color, one where we dismantle hierarchies through abolishing letters of recommendation or at least facilitating evaluations where advisees can openly provide feedback without fear of retaliation, one where healthy communication matters more than production. I recognize we may need to dismantle academia to return it to the people, even with the existence of community-based research. In the meantime, I hope that what I share here can help others feel less alone, or encourage others to ensure that they do not treat people how I have been treated way too many times.
What has your experience in academia or research or even work in general been like? How have you coped with negative experiences and what do you feel like we can do to prevent these types of abuses from occurring in the first place. On a side note, I also dislike how we glorify academics and put them on pedestals (similar to how we deify celebrities) because we ignore how all academics and all of us in positions of power can mistreat folks if we are not intentional. Anyway, I often try to space out my posts as opposed to posting twice in a week however my birthday is on Tuesday and I turn 26 so I can do what I want lol. Until next post, which may be before or after my birthday!