August 14, 2022

Grad school survival skills in competitive academia (01)

I am currently relishing paternity leave from Stanford and it has given me sorely needed time to reflect on the last five harried years of graduate student life in competitive academia.

The last couple quarters were particularly harrowing. I almost entirely stopped emailing or texting anyone anything. This is especially isolating if most of your friends and family live on the opposite coast of the continent. When I did manage to send a message, I felt emotionally shucked.

When I finally mustered the juice to bushwhack through the bureaucracy to take a leave of absence,1 I felt an enormous fog dissipate.

Since then I have been reflecting on how I veered so deep into that fog. Caring for a fresh baby and shaking off my deadlines revealed areas where I had been neglecting my emotional and mental health. I thought I might as well share the insights by writing up some gentle conclusions. This is the advice I would have benefited to hear a few years ago although I would not have learned it otherwise.

Here is the first of what I think will be a sporadic single-digit-part series over the next few months.

Survival skill 1a: Cultivate relationships that reciprocate care/attention

1b: Cull relationships that sink your care/attention

By design, selective graduate programs surround you with an obscenely biased sample of humanity. There are pros of course. A very high proportion of the people I interact with know a lot about the history of children’s life insurance, social networks, and dramaturgical theory. I don’t take for granted the privilege of access to such an absurd community.

As for the cons, conservatives often gripe about academia’s liberal bias which is even more pronounced in sociology but there are several other biases to be aware of. The sociologist Dan Hirschman for example points out how academics move much more for their careers than the median American. How much does it affect the culture of a place to be surrounded by people who are quicker to distance friends and family to pursue career goals?

A different bias, one I have been thinking of as attention sink bias, contributed substantially to my recent funk with grad school. I believe that academics are disproportionately likely to soak up others’ attention without reciprocity. They are attention sinks. And the problem likely becomes worse the more competitive the university. There are at least two important pressures pushing academics to demand more attention than average and at least two important pressures discouraging academics from reciprocating the attention they receive.

The first push is that the research a PhD requires is extremely demanding and requires tacit knowledge about niche subjects as well as the social scenes devoted to those niches. The only way to succeed in such a circumstance is to receive substantial quantities of teaching, advising, and care from people in the know. Researchers who cannot grab enough attention to channel enough of that teaching, advising, and care their way are at a disadvantage.

The second push is emotional and dramaturgical: Much of the purpose of grad school is to teach students how to perform the role of expert” convincingly. An important indicator that your performance of expert is going well is that you are holding your peers’ attention. As a result, one of the most affirming things you can do for an academic is give them your attention. Maintaining the motivation to continue doing difficult, often technical work for years requires a steady diet of such affirmation.

These two push pressures alone could still allow for wholesome research communities were it not for the pressures against attention reciprocity.

First, academics often put themselves into situations where their time is scarce and the attention they can devote to others’ work is in zero-sum competition with the attention they can devote to their own work. If one can find a way to minimize the attention they give to others, they free up more of their own attention for their own work.

Second, academia offers anemic rewards for attending to others’ work. Teaching is widely considered a burden and almost irrelevant for status in the field. The same is true of reviewing journal articles or appearing in the thanks to” section of a published article.

The sum of these pressures is, based on my experience at Stanford, a universe full of attention black holes. People are thrilled for you to listen and discuss their ideas but very quick to check their emails the moment you propose yours.

In nearly all Stanford classes I took, seminar and lecture alike, graduate students spent much of class time texting, emailing, internet browsing, or working on their own projects. The moment they were required to present or discuss they would perform the appropriate role (often convincingly) and thereafter return to their own business. This is especially galling to me in workshops where communities of around 6-20 academics all interested in the same arcane band of research meet weekly to discuss their own work. Even in this egalitarian setting with peers presenting their own work, the majority of participants feign attention while carrying on with their own business. Attention sinks may have a few thoughtful questions ready to pitch but as soon as exchange is over, they have served their time and back into their own business.

Having grown up in small school communities2 nearly my whole life I was terribly equipped to manage all the attention sinks I find at Stanford. In small learning communities, attention reciprocity is the rule of the land. Students are very aware of peers who chronically fixate on themselves and withdraw attention accordingly. Teachers, empowered by smaller class sizes, can also dole out their attention much more liberally as situations call for it.

As a baby grad student, my response to the attention sinks was to doubt the extent of the problem. Perhaps people only seem focused on themselves because my ideas were still undeveloped and uninteresting? Perhaps people just needed to see me grant them my attention first before they felt safe to give me theirs? But these guesses were only true for a scant few cases. Overwhelmingly Stanford attention sinks are fully committed to keeping their own noses to their own grindstones and are not looking up unless their careers benefit from it.

My recent conclusion has been that I can’t beat the game and trying to beat the game ground my capacity for caring down to a nub. The attention sinks won Stanford long ago although some attention reciprocators do fight valiant, parochial battles of resistance in corners throughout the university. I have to do more adaptation. I have to be aware when I am interacting with attention sinks and give them just enough attention to get by.

That is the survival strategy.

The thrive-ival (?) strategy is to hold my fellow attention reciprocators all the closer and dearer. I have met some wonderful, generous, caring researchers at Stanford and it’s a disservice to them as well as myself and to waste my care on the sinks.

  1. Not actually that difficult for someone operating with normal servings of juice, to give Stanford some credit↩︎

  2. ~6 students per grade for K-5th, ~10 students per grade for 6th—8th, ~60 per grade for high school, and ~170 per grade for my first year at Bennington College.↩︎

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