Predictable Identities 26: Academic Identity

Why do smart kids go to grad school, to be underpaid and overworked for the prime years of their youth in a setting that sextuples their chances of suffering from anxiety and depression?

Scott Alexander posits that academia is like a drug gang: the suffering is worth the 5-10% chance of becoming a kingpin tenured professor. Tenure is pretty great. You get paid six figures to converse with intellectual peers, do research, and have your ideas read by an admiring public. But wait: I get paid six figures, chat with the best shitposters on Twitter during work hours, do research, and you’re reading my blogchain instead of an academic paper. Most people smart enough for a PhD can follow a similar path to corporate sinecure with a much more certain success rate than the academic lottery.

What I’m missing is the identity of an academic. An academic is an intellectual, a truth-seeker and truth-teller, a lifelong learner. Whereas I only do those things, if I feel like it.

An identity gives you permission to do all the above. External permission, such as being allowed in a laboratory if that’s where your interests are pursued. But it’s also about allowing yourself to engage in intellectual pursuits. Or even: being afraid that without the external pressure of people expecting (predicting) novel intellectual output from you, you would not create any.

Consider this tweet:

Who would stay in a job that drives them to anxiety attacks and tearful breakdowns? Only someone who literally put “Scientist” in their name, who made that epithet more painful to lose than their mental health.

The dark irony of this all is: since your identity is in the hands of academic institutions, they exert vast control over you. It could be benign, but it could include demanding that someone betray their actual truth-seeking and truth-telling work if it goes against the institutions interests. The identity is not the thing; sometimes you must choose one over the other.

Series Navigation<< Predictable Identities 25: External ControlPredictable Identities 27: Craving and the Pill >>

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About Jacob Falkovich

Jacob is so proud of his blog,, that it's on his online dating profiles. He also tweets @yashkaf.


  1. Academy is basically a high medieval institution, a guild. Guilds served education and quality control and they worked fine … until too many journeyman never had a chance to become a master and there were too many outcasts / illegals who could offer their trade for a much lower price. They eroded before industrialization.

    Still, I do not expect academia to be dissolved by the market place and academics being substituted by self marketed bloggers or something alike. As with sports there is a desire for segmentation and I don’t see that exploitative practices in professional sports hasn’t made it any less attractive for young people. Suffering for fame isn’t vile.

    The sociology of everyday life just depicts struggling little ants leading a noisy life. At best you develop some Mutterwitz: you can show that all big guys have their flaws, that they are out for a tenure and chatty intellectual conversations and blonde female students and six digit incomes. How funny, how ordinary.

    I would like to go a little more meta on this. Nietzsche discovered that resentment has been the greatest normalizing social force, the road to equality, democracy, socialism and so on. At the same time he has gone from an academic whizkid to an outsider very quickly after publishing “The birth of tragedy”, a mystical book, devoted to a pessimistic and heroic culture. In his own view the academy and the sciences were just practicing bourgeois virtues and a petty rationalism for utilitarian bean counters. Things have changed a lot since then but it isn’t so much the academic work and the implied subjectivity but science has gone blockbuster. The successful mission to Pluto or the first image of the shadow of a black hole, are heroic events of the scientific culture which justify it as a whole.

    • directory says

      Sure academia is its own piquant flavor of hell, but can’t we say that collective resentment within it at society and from society towards it a special sort of normalization proxy ressentiment?

  2. To be fair to that particular Tweeter, it seems that her anxiety attacks are due (at least in part) to a preexisting condition. Also, if you’re an experimental scientist, it’s hard to get access to certain tools without an institutional attachment, and alumni laboratory access seems to be pretty limited. (I think Harvard has a lab space program for life sciences, but I don’t know if it includes access to the best toys really expensive instruments.)