Early career academics ‘victims of their own brains’

Aspirants are convinced they can succeed against the odds because they have always succeeded in the past, analysis of ‘quit lit’ suggests

July 21, 2020
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Doctoral students’ prodigious intelligence consigns them to a life of “purgatory” as they pursue largely unattainable dream jobs and reject more realistic careers as failure, a study suggests.

An analysis of “quit lit” – a genre in which people announce their departure from academia – has found that many early career academics are victims of their own “above the data” brains.

Their self-belief fuels dogged quests for ongoing academic employment. “It doesn’t matter how many times you tell someone in this situation that there are no jobs,” said lead author Evie Kendal, a bioethicist at Deakin University.

“They always think that eventually they will succeed, because they have always succeeded before.”

The research, published in the journal Studies in Higher Education, scoured about 80 quit lit articles for common words and phrases that indicated trends in the authors’ experience.

Dr Kendal said the term “above the data” – a quote from one of the articles – represented people who consistently exceeded academic expectations.

“They’ve been told: ‘You can’t always be top of the class. If you got 90 per cent in high school, you’ll get 60 per cent at uni.’ These are the students that are still getting 90 per cent at uni. They end up with PhD scholarships – and then [in] contingent academic employment, in many cases,” she said.

One author likened early academia to a First World War scenario where a captain informs soldiers that they face a 99 per cent probability of death and “each assumes that they will be the one to survive”.

The 114,902-word sample of articles included 16 references to “hell”, 31 mentions of “mourning or grief” and 138 variants on “loss”, “pain” or “hurt”.

The analysis also included eight “staypieces”, in which people justified their decision to remain in academia and often implored quit-litters to do likewise.

Some said academic work was “better than most jobs” and characterised quit lit authors as “complainers” who “want others to fix their problems” – even using quit lit to reduce competition by shepherding others away from academia.

The analysis also identified 113 uses of the word “industry” and 119 variations on “alt-ac” – alternatives to academic employment – with quit-lit authors lauding the impact and “real-world value” of such work and decrying academia as “irrelevant” and lacking originality.

But those who switched into alt-ac careers had to overcome a constantly reinforced prejudice that non-academic work was “inferior” and a waste of their qualifications. “I have been indoctrinated to think ‘academy or flippin [sic] burgers’,” one wrote.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Young academics ‘victims of their own brains’

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Reader's comments (11)

My my! This is bound to upset a few readers. But I agree most definitely. Yes, everyone's research is good, but there will never be enough jobs due to the overproduction of PhDs. And quit-lit is often just cringeworthy.
A concise and realistic article. It sometimes saddens me to see able brains falling into the delusion that only academia offers intellectual challenge and satisfaction. There are many demanding and satisfying tasks outside academia that would benefit from the attention of these people.
As someone who quite a well paying corporate job to pursue a Ph.D and be in academia I find this article in poor taste. The problem lies elsewhere- you certainly don't need a Ph.D to pursue a non academic career. Perhaps what needs to be discouraged is the number of people trying to get a Ph.D or even a higher education. There is no mention of why academics fail and the structural problems within academia that are the causes for the doing so. Perhaps we just need less people in university!
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Even for those who do "make it" with tenure, is it worth it, with the hours required, and the risk of burnout and the effects on personal life? Late forties, no husband or children, still struggling to buy a home.
This is a misleading article that confuses, alarms and after reaching the end, provides no sensible conclusion. Obtaining a PhD should be for those who are intellectually able and who have an aptitude and suitability for academic life. Others may be as intellectually elite but wish to pursue careers outside academia because that is a better career choice. The less intellectually able should not pursue a PhD. Confounding the issue with ridiculous terms like 'quit-lit' is not necessary.
Strange. I did a degree & then research in botany, found there were not jobs going in academic botany, which - along with commiting the cardinal sin of going home to write up and then getting married - contributed to not submitting my thesis. I took a sideways step into computing, working in a software house, as a consultant, and in web development, thence into FE via appointment as a college webmaster... and now back in a university in the computer science department, loving & thriving at academic life (and finally getting round to doing a PhD!). It wasn't planned this way, but I'm delighted how it's all turned out!
If the brain is ‘good’ it should be able to find needles in haystacks ... where ever the stack and whatever shape the needle. There is a certain ‘ cultural protectionism’ in academia not found outside of it. True brains should be able to survive as much inside that protectionism as in the wild. The wild often lacks a road map. Coming up with one is the proof of the pudding for the truly prodigious brain. Anything else is ‘ well beaten path ‘ ... pseudo originality . Basil jide fadipe.
Blame the victim! If a person has invested in a career through education and research and proven themselves, how can the survey researchers be so stupid and premise their belief that something is wrong with the surveyed's self-belief. The idiots (there is no solid philosophical argument for them) have fallen for the fallacy in the belief that the truth is in the social-economic statistics rather than lives matter, person's matter, and a person's career ambitions has validity. Ethical incomprehensible and incommensurate with social values.
Everyone seems to be missing the point. It's not about jobs. Rather, if you make scholarship & learning be about getting a job, you've constrained your mind -- whether you end up getting the job or not. Just go to university for the love of knowledge, not for employment & money. Jobs are just an unavoidable part of the daily routine grind of the current human world. Knowledge is something completely different, it's in another existential realm altogether. University should be engaged as a romance with knowledge,and you stay true to that throughout your time there. It's best to let the chips fall wherever they may afterwards. I did that, and never once regretted it.
Well said!!

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