Early career academics ‘victims of their own brains’

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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.

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