Am I an Ex-Academic?

There’s been a thread, loosely running through my favorite academic blogs, on the emotional effects of grad school. I’ve identified on an almost therapeutic level with some of it; for the past four years, I’ve struggled to maintain health and balance while watching bits of my intellectual self-confidence flake off like pieces of pastry that I’m not allowed to eat. Sometimes I’ve managed, and other times I’ve hidden under my pillow.

But all these nice sympathetic blog-entries have come from people in the humanities, and many (most?) of the proffered explanations have a humanities-specific basis. Which is nonsense; scientists have feelings too, and lots of them are feelings of inadequacy. I’m not alone in my bitter rants. So… what are the shared features of a prototypical graduate education in the humanities, and my particular undergraduate science program?

Not the disrespect with which much of the world treats the humanities; mention a major with the word “physics” in it and everybody (modulo mathematicians) thinks you’re smart. Probably not the vicious professional spats: Departmental fragmentation has absolutely killed the introductory computer science curriculum here, but apart from that we undergrads are usually not involved, certainly not at ego-busting levels. Definitely not our training to unquestioningly question everything in a frightening relativistic framework.

But I do feel like a quitter for not going to grad school. It’s the default option, it’s what Caltech grooms us for with its theory-heavy curriculum, it’s what my academically successful friends are doing. The culture of being locked in to an academic career, because that’s what smart people do, is definitely going strong in the dorms.

My instinct, though, is to look at the mad mentoring skillz of my professors. A little praise goes a long way, and for me, very little praise had to go a very long way. Nor was I swimming in clear pools of criticism; I just got B’s. I remember leaving frustrated from help sessions because a TA told me the correct way to approach a problem, but would not even hint at why my instinctive approach was unfruitful. Apparently my instincts are just wrong. These are motivational and pedagogical problems, but I never got the sense that many people thought they were real problems at all – so I blamed myself. The comments on Baraita get into this from a slightly different perspective.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from myself as a student, or what I wanted to get from my undergraduate experience. Actually, I was sure, but not for more than three months at a time, and this is an important thing. Grad school is not a place for wafflers trying to explore their options, but an undergraduate education is meant for that sort of thing. You can’t reasonably expect a college sophomore not to become seriously disillusioned about at least three things before breakfast.

I don’t know. I wanted to keep this to a strict look at how my experience compares to all y’all in the humanities, but I’m not sure how helpful an exercise it really is. Maybe it’s more a fancy way to say “hey, stop blaming your post-pre-post-modern relativistic death discipline, and blame something I can blame too!” In any case, I’d best stop writing soon, because the last three points I’ve considered and discarded were progressively whinier whines with no link to external reality.

Good night.


  1. yami wrote:

    Original comment by jake · June 26, 2003 02:29 AM

    Don’t let ‘em grind you down mate. Don’t let ‘em upset your mind. Take it easy, your own path will emerge.

  2. yami wrote:

    Original comment by Rana · June 29, 2003 10:50 PM

    I once heard that smart people are more prone to neuroses because they have too much brain power for ordinary function, and so expend it replaying thoughts and worries over and over. Maybe that’s a factor?
    (If nothing else we can all say, “Ha! I _must_ be smart — I’m neurotic!”)

  3. yami wrote:

    Original comment by Rana · June 29, 2003 10:55 PM

    Also, I have vague recollections of stumbling across a science blog that was commenting on the slightly different take of science post-academics; I’ll see if I can remember where I saw it.
    (It might have been one of the sites listed at as being part of’s “cosmos”.)

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