Academic Insecurity Builds Character

A tempest is brewing over at YoungFemaleScientist regarding the proper attitude to be displayed by postdocs towards their chosen careers. Part 1:

I’m sorry, but if you’re a postdoc by default, because you’re so lacking in creativity and motivation that you can’t think of anything else to do with your PhD, you definitely don’t deserve to get paid to work in a lab. And you probably didn’t deserve a PhD in the first place.

And part 2:

I’m not convinced we should coddle people who, by the time they reach the postdoc level, are so insecure they won’t even apply for the jobs they actually want. Moreover, if you don’t know yourself well enough to figure out what you want to be when you grow up, and you’re in your late 20s or somewhere in your 30s, you’re not just insecure, you’re immature on top of it. Maybe we should force people to take a year off after grad school to find themselves and figure out what they really want to do with all that training we’ve wasted on them.

My hackles are raised so high they are in pain. Hackle pain.

Everyone has rough patches and insecurity and self-doubt. I was in that bad space junior year, and the absolute worst thing, the thing that brought me closest to dropping out and fleeing science for good, was thinking that my insecurities and doubts were ironclad evidence that I wasn’t cut out for it. The worst thing anybody could have done for me then would’ve been to confirm that this was the case; the best thing anybody did was tell me that my fears were common and normal. That’s why I’m such an academic-blog junkie – I still crave the reassurance that it’s okay to not be just a curiosity machine in a jar, that successful researchers also feel frustrated and apathetic and overwhelmed.

Others (albeit mostly in the humanities) have written far more insightfully about the ways in which academic culture asks us to pretend to be dehumanized brains in jars. Suffice it to say that it’s a needlessly stressful pretension that ought to stop. Propping up the idea that insecurity is a sign of inability merely discourages those whose self-assessment isn’t systematically overoptimistic – who are disproportionately women (and minorities, if I remember things right, but I can’t find a solid reference for that at the moment).

When you get down to the real practicalities, though, I mostly agree with Ms. Ph.D. – grad school and postdochood shouldn’t be seen as the default option. Taking time off after undergrad was the best decision I could’ve made for myself, and I’ve been enthusiastically recommending it to anyone who asks. Having held a “real job” in industry, I’m surprised that anybody is scared of it – it’s half the work of grad school for twice the salary! And it was infinitely less stressful than even a normal week at Caltech. The only hard part was the boredom.

The fact that the default option is still the one with more work and less pay speaks to a greater problem with the relationship between academia and industry. I think it ultimately leads back to what Emma wrote about class: it’s helpful to have models. In particular, it would be nice to thoroughly inculcate students with the non-academic opportunities in their field – I mean, I knew a geophysics degree could get me a job with Exxon, but in retrospect I think it’s shameful that I earned a B.S. in geophysics without ever encountering borehole geophysics or environmental geophysics, for example. Figuring out how to do this isn’t easy, but I’m pretty sure berating people for their insecurities won’t help.


  1. John Vidale wrote:

    “propping up the idea that insecurity is a sign of inability merely discourages those whose self-assessment isn’t systematically overoptimistic, i.e., women and minorities.”
    Not sure that I like the category in which this places people like me – as I read it, systematically egotistical. Well, maybe I am. But not all the non-woman and non-minorities are egomaniacs.

  2. yami wrote:

    Well, there’s a difference between overconfidence and egomania – as I see it egomania involves a certain amount of ignoring other people’s contributions as well as thinking highly of one’s own. But what I’m thinking of, specifically, are studies that have shown that men/white people/”the advantaged” are statistically more likely to overestimate their ability relative to objective measures of performance. I didn’t mean to imply that any conclusions could be drawn about individuals!
    I really need to maintain a better bibliography if I’m going to keep using this blog as a feminist soapbox, but here’s one such study: on a variety of simple tests (general knowledge quizzes, guessing the length of a line, etc), men and women are found to perform more or less equally, but men expressed a higher level of confidence in their performance and therefore made less accurate predictions of their results.

  3. John Vidale wrote:

    Sounds plausible. On your side of this argument, having a daughter in fifth grade has certainly put me in favor of criminalizing the type of behavior that I often see in fifth grade boys.

  4. LDH wrote:

    I was a statistical consultant on a developmental psych study a few years back where that same overconfidence/gender interaction re: cognitive tasks was even found in kindergarteners and 1st graders (!) — interestingly though, it wasn’t found in the pre-K kids, which (of course, of course) is why we blamed the teachers (insert good-natured grin of the son of a retired elementary-school teacher *here*…)

  5. yami wrote:

    Fifth-grade boys are tiny monsters. But so are many fifth-grade girls… so it must be the teachers’ fault!

  6. Jane wrote:

    Academic insecurity is something I really struggle with. I have relied heavily on my strong work ethic to get by. Right now I’m working on my doctor of pharmacy and mba at the same time. The material does not come easily to me so I study constantly. Are there any resources out there for people like me? I really want help. I get good grades but I’m never confident in my knowledge of the material. I never speak up in class.

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