Academic Woe-Be-Gone (a.k.a. The Education Eeyore Effect)

Dear Academica Readers,
It is my honor and pleasure to introduce Academica’s very first contributing guest writer, Stacy Austin! Stacy is a close friend of mine since our high school years (the exact years I refuse to disclose), and she has graciously written a few of her own thoughts on her experiences in graduate school to share with you. We hope she will be the first of many to rise up and express their grievances about academic culture. Please enjoy!

Lee Ngo
Co-Founder | Academica


I clearly remember the first day of my graduate program. It was supposed to be a quick two years master’s program in communication. I went to orientation, met with my cohort, and even updated my Facebook status: “First day of grad school, complete!” I was genuinely excited.

Then came the endless academic journals, the competitive nature of my colleagues, and unrealistic expectations I set for myself to publish and present. Every morning, I would wake up, cry deeply, and say to myself,

“I think I’ve made a mistake.”

Along with endless academic journals,
be prepared to scour the library for more things to read.

My department is very reputable and strong, but it has recently gone through a massive upheaval, i.e.

  • Faculty retiring,
  • New faculty recruitment,
  • A move to a new building, and
  • New core program requirements.

After losing my thesis advisor to a department change, I voiced my frustration to the department head over the lack of guidance and information I had received. All s/he told me to do was  “soldier on.” How could professors who are  scholars, experts, and educators in communication… be so poor at communication?

I’d often spend time with graduate students in other programs.

“I’m miserable,” I’d tell them.

And they’d reply, “We are too.”

Look at these students loitering on campus.
They appear to empathize with academic pains.

Even though they didn’t have the same problems I did, they certainly had their share. Academia is full of problems.

When I asked a professor for more positive feedback, he actually retorted, “…But I don’t get any. When my work gets published, no one pats me on the back.”

I really don’t mean to complain. Yes, I understand that…

  • There are dozens of people who are rejected or wait-listed from my graduate program each year,
  • Having an additional degree has numerous positive effects for my future, albeit currently unbeknownst to me, and
  • I should be happy to work with and for my esteemed professors.

The library is a cold, sterile building,
but I’ve spent so much time there that empty chairs always look really welcoming.

Let me share a bit of advice given to me by a peer, of which I still pass on to others. Participating in graduate classes and teaching undergraduate courses are the easy part of grad school. Working on my thesis, however, has been the real uphill battle. If you decide to stick it out and finish your program, here are five tips for completing your thesis and graduating out of the “Eeyore Effect” (see Winnie the Pooh to understand).

  1. Every time you email your thesis advisor a draft, let them know how many weeks are left in the term and your expected graduation date. This may seem unnecessary, repetitive, or even annoying, but let’s hope it’s an idea that must get planted in their heads. Don’t just cross your fingers; take initiative to move the process along.
  2. Keep the graduate advisor in your program updated about your interactions with your thesis advisor every month. You will have a paper trail and the department can assist you in case your thesis advisor drops the ball or goes rogue on everyone. Also, if you are concerned about your thesis advisor returning emails or providing feedback within a reasonable amount of time, tell your graduate advisor as soon as possible.
  3. If you email or call your thesis advisor, and they don’t reply, contact them again. If they don’t reply, do it again until they finally respond. If over a week passes where you’re unable to work on your thesis paper due to a lack of feedback, you will have lost valuable time.
  4. Get your forms and deadlines in order, marking them on a calendar. Graduation is often contingent on getting your department to sign and turn in the correct paperwork on time. Help them help you.
  5. Follow-up on EVERYTHING you tell your thesis advisor. To them you’re merely vacationing in academia, while they’ve made it their life’s work. No matter what, you will be perceived as a lower priority to their own concerns. Pertinent information about you can easily be forgotten by them.

Maybe your program is a breeze and you’ll never need to utilize these tips. If so, good for you! If not, plenty of people will empathize with you, so don’t ever feel like you’re ever alone in how you feel.

As I was once told, “A good dissertation is a done dissertation. Dissertate and graduate!”

Good luck!

Stacy Austin is a master’s student in communications and a freelance writer. Visit her blog or follow her on Twitter at @stacylaughs.

When Good Professors Make Bad Mentors

Red ink triggers PTSD flashbacks for many graduate students.

Allow me to tell you a personal anecdote, one that I buried deep within my soul because it pains me to recall it.

During my first quarter of pursuing a PhD in cultural anthropology, I received the following from one of my professors (broken up into palatable sections but otherwise taken verbatim from the actual email):

“Dear Lee,

I was very surprised by your comment as we left class today — ‘was I offended by your questions?’ — and realized afterwards that you had totally misunderstood my email asking you to rework your questions.

My email had nothing to do with your comments on my book, it had to do with my long efforts as the prof, over the whole quarter, to get you to pose the kinds of questions that are most appropriate for a graduate seminar.
Questions that just ask something about the topic at hand at not the best questions. They direct attention away from what the seminar is trying to understand.

The grad seminar is directed at understanding a particular set of methods, theories, and concepts, best exemplified by the chosen readings. So, the questions students pose should be directed internally, toward the readings, toward previous readings, or toward the intellectual engagement with the topic at hand generally. They should not be questions about anything at all that comes to mind from doing the reading.

Do you understand this? I have tried again and again over the quarter to make this point to you — by intervening repeatedly to say ‘but we can’t
answer that question from our materials’. I was trying to make a crucial pedagogical point but, judging from your questions, below, I did not get through. Do you think you understand now what I have been trying to convey
all quarter?

Professor X”

Immediately after reading this email, I wrote a letter of resignation to the chair of my department. Yes, I will admit and concede to a certain ignorance on my part about the seminar process, especially given that it was my first quarter and I was not yet accustomed to reading an average of 600 pages of dense literature per week. However, it was never my intention to be perpetually digressing or tangential in that class – I was trying to make the works assigned to me comprehensible for my own sensibilities.

The bottom line is that this professor’s passive-aggressive pedagogical approach failed to change my seminar habits. Instead, it made me want to quit altogether, a mere two months into my program. Moreover, this professor was fully tenured and highly reputable in the field of anthropology. The sentiments made me believe that my pursuing this PhD would waste everyone’s time for the next few years.

I kept the letter of resignation in my desk, but I ended up never submitting it, largely out of the fear of going back into the working world. After all, it was 2009, the sub-prime mortgage crisis just happened, and there was no bailout in sight for people like me. I was completed trapped.

It was not until my second quarter that I worked with truly engaging professors who, despite their own personal struggles and angst towards the ivory tower, engaged directly with my interests, connected with me out in the “real world,” and treated me with the utmost courtesy and respect. Because of these professors, I shredded my letter and moved on from that terrible first experience.

If you’ve come to this point in this post and you’ve got a similar story to share, we at Academica would love to hear it. If you do share it here, however, please do so while maintaining the utmost anonymity. Academica wants to start constructive conversations on improving relationships between established and budding scholars, and that conversation starts with you.

It does gets better,
Lee Ngo
Co-Founder | Academica

Side note: The most ludicrous part is that this professor’s email was driven by a facetious statement I made just to clear the air between us. Apparently, despite the fancy pedigrees, the full tenure, and the numerous publications that probably less than 100 people have ever willingly read, the professor failed to quite grasp my tongue-in-cheek sense of humor.