Academia, the brotherhood in fraud!
Once at a conference I was going back to the hotel in the conference bus after the end of the afternoon session, and was talking to a professor sitting besides me. I was still a PhD student, and can feel how condescending his tone was. After few exchanges and his clear lack of interest in my small talk, he switched over and started talking to another professor (sitting across the aisle) who happens to be from a big and famous university. I immediately felt how the less-known professor talks less confidently now than when he was talking to me. His tone and face expression show up his uneasiness and lack of confidence against this big shot university prof. I found that somewhat amusing. This is an anecdote story but the clear lesson is how professors view and judge each other. The importance of affiliation is a clear sign of success in academia, lacking that often leaves some feel like a fraud when they are in some 3rd tier university/lab and mainly limping and keeping face.
I bet everyone who has ever gone through academia felt like a fraud at some point in this journey. It is a bizarre feeling that intensifies with the more you know. Considering the fact that almost all PhD students are actually the most academically gifted people, why is the lack of confidence obvious among most academics? I am no psychologist, but having passed through the system (and thankfully left), I would offer few explanations here that may or may not satisfy all people.
Hierarchy. There is a clear and sacred hierarchy in academia. The older professors are often treated with high respect. The older generation uses every opportunity to establish their academic superiority over the younger students or researchers. Example: A young student may gloat about having just picked up a new algorithm. The supervisor’s response is not “hurray!!”, but likely that the student has forgotten to read this old paper that sets limits on what new algorithms must accomplish! The student’s enthusiasm is often crashed immediately; feeling sometimes ashamed. The prof./supervisor may have acted in good or bad faith. But nevertheless his/her likely message was to maintain academic superiority not pass that his/her student(s). This is different in industry and real world where people come and go and everybody treats work as a day job; even though hierarchy still exists too, but it is more fluid. In industry, new technology and ideas are very much appreciated because it often equates new products and more revenues.
Solitary. A PhD or young researcher is often alone and the lack of a social life and positive interaction with other people lead to isolation and bitterness. A PhD is a crash course in survival-ship, it maybe easy to do the exams than going through the whole process alone.
Circle. A young researcher is mostly surrounded by older people. There are only few students around and mostly profs and researchers with decades of more experience. No matter what one knows, they know better. Not because they are smarter but because they have been around the block longer and seen and remember much more. Wrestling a supervisor, no matter how bright one is, often leads to a crashed soul. One may know better but they know always more. It is very irritating, but that is the reality of academia. The academic knowledge horizon moves at a slow speed, and accumulates with age. This is true about almost anything, but what makes it worst in academia is the static hierarchy.
Anxiety. Often PhD and postdocs have no clue about what to do with their lives. Sometimes the main reason why they are doing it, is because they don’t know what else to do?! This anxiety and stress may be felt or not felt; but deep down it is there. Any negative feeling has great ramification about all other sorts of emotions including feeling like a fraud. Anxiety and stress does not leave room for self-worth and you keep wallowing about the failures of your life! No better recipe for feeling like a fraud! This is the beginning and eventually depression takes over, especially due to a the lack of social life and positive interactions.
Competitiveness. There is always someone better than you! All PhD students are academically gifted who have been always at the top of their class; in middle school, high school, college/university, often in their region/state/country. But when they reach the top, and being among other top students, they are not anymore the best but competing with the best of the world (if one is at a good enough university)! Even among the best, academia still like to stifle and rank them from worst to best with more graded classes and exams. The top students throughout their school are suddenly not the best anymore, and just mediocre students who are barely limping! Academia rather than nurturing talent likes to crash it. That leads to a feeling of fraud, that you have actually been lucky (fraud) to make it through all the previous schools/exams and finally you have been figured/found out! A toxic feeling that is not only false but self-feeding! A stressed/anxious person will never flourish in such a toxic environment. Academia crashes talent rather than helping it grow, because there is enough demand and very little positions, so it filters infinitesimally.
Vastness. Academic output is large, vastly large! One can never master one topic unless it is relatively new. Hence, why most academians are humble, not because they want to, but because they have to! An academic has to know his topic to stand any chance of defending his ideas, as the job of most academians is wrestling each other’s ideas almost daily. A young researcher has to know just enough to not get consumed into passive learning without actively publishing as fast as possible. The end goal is to publish yet one has to read what has been done. Only few can master the skill of knowing just the necessary, but often the vastness of academic output is a graveyard that wears most young researchers, and leaving them often feeling like a fraud because they don’t know enough. Outside academia, you are tasked with specific measurable goals to do. No need to print new articles to take home to read (aka. guilt of not doing enough), all the time!
Stardom. No matter what your affiliation, there is often a better place unless you are at top schools in the world. If you are in “the 2nd best Uni.” in your country, good; but you are not in the best one! You are good in some state university; sure but you are not good enough to make it into an Ivy league famous university. No matter where you are, you are often reminded that there is a better institution that is harder to get into; where the brightest of the bright actually work! This is often witnessed at conferences/meetings, and you see how Ivy league profs treat the low class college/state uni. immortal profs! This is not the case in industry where prestige of the company is less obvious than the salary and role the person.
Academia is a brotherhood of fraud, where almost everyone has felt it and/or feeling it. A toxic environment that crashes young souls for years, and leaving them limping for decades to survive if they don’t leave the brotherhood soon enough. Go for academia and you will be guaranteed to feel some of the above. As often said, misery loves company.