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At The End of The Day, Being an Academic Is Still A Job
What The Academy Won't Teach You
In Paris, I sat down for coffee at Café de Flore with a local named Andre. The day was unbearably warm, and under the green shades of the terrace, we talked about everything from literature to our peculiar upbringings. After an hour of bantering, the conversation finally circled to a question most Americans would bring up from the get-go:
“So, what do you do for a living?” Andre asked.
“I’m heading back to university to finish my thesis, then after that, maybe a doctorate before I start teaching.” I said, “And you?”
He cleared his throat as if I’d just asked a deeply sensitive question, “I work in IT four days a week.”
I was trying to hold back my shock. For context, Andre was born in Brazil and integrated himself seamlessly into Parisian life. He organised a Proust reading group over the weekend and took Friday nights off to listen to classical music. On top of that, he was fluent in at least three languages and read effortlessly in French, English and Portuguese.
“The job pays well, and I can use the rest of my time to do things I enjoy.” He rounded his answer off with a little shrug. “But what about you? What do you enjoy doing?” He raised his coffee cup and took a sip, waiting for my answer.
As legends say, French people have a completely different outlook on work. While it is conceptually easy to grasp, seeing it in person is still jarring. In the Anglophone, we were taught to work a job we love, to the point where work becomes our life. I enjoy my life at the academy very much and would not trade a minute to do anything else. But at times, I do find myself on a Friday night twiddling my thumbs, not knowing what to do with time outside of academic work.
“I guess I enjoy reading in my spare time,” I said.
“But you read for your work anyway, no?”
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Of all the areas of work, academia might be the toughest case to come to terms with. For anyone who had the early inclinations to join a scholarly community, their visions were usually tinted with rose-coloured fantasies. They think of the pleasure of immersing themselves in old books while a scented candle burns next to a dark window. They think of wandering around campus under flaming autumn leaves, always on the verge of pushing the boundaries of human knowledge.
While it is true that, as scholars, the goal is to advance human understanding, the reality could be quite jarring if we’re not prepared. During the first honours seminar, my thesis advisor told the class that ambitious ideas should be cautiously tempered. “Think of human knowledge as a tree. The main trunk is pretty much set in stone,” he said, “what you’re doing is growing a branch of a branch by one millimetre. And you need to back it up with rigorous scholarship and citations.”
Specificity and a limited scope are the main success criteria for a good thesis. Still, after a while, it starts to sound like technical number-crunching instead of a thesis in Literary Studies.
After a few weeks of research, I realized what research is and isn’t. It isn’t brooding out of a window with a collection of Keats’s poems while watching the dark clouds on the horizon. It isn’t riding a bike while reciting Proust to myself. Instead, it’s rushing to advisor meetings after skipping my morning coffee. It’s spending hours hunting down an obscure book published in 1943, and it’s also coming to terms with the fact that people won’t know what the hell you’re talking about in a normal setting. Whenever someone asks: “So, what is your thesis about?” My immediate reaction is a long sigh followed by my best attempt to speak normal English.
The conversation with Andre started to make a lot of sense, and I think it’s crucially important to distinguish work and life clearly, especially for the academically inclined. While it is romantic to fancy oneself a jittery academic, waking up thinking about ideas only to carry them to bed after a whole day of research, this will only become an express line to burnout. Without the pressure of a full course load, I had more free time to ask the question rarely asked by overachievers: what do I enjoy? And the scary part is that maybe the academy didn’t teach me how to live after all.
The allure of academia is that it entices you to put your life on pause when your head is up in the sublime. But I find it way healthier to treat it as a job for an optimal pace. I would clock in when I head to campus and try not to take all the ideas home by the time I finish a day of work. I would, like Andre, lean into what I enjoy outside of academia during my time off and re-emerge with a clear mind to continue my research.
This, for me, is still a work in progress, and I’m slowly leaning into the simple pleasures: Ice skating, going to the movies and sharing a gelato cone with my partner on a Friday night. Because while academic research might supply us with answers in the realm of the intellect, it is still inadequate when it comes to matters of the heart.