Psychological Games in the Academy

Validation means to seek approval, praise.

When someone praises us, approves of what we do, it is natural to feel happy. Validation is thus a source of happiness. The problem comes when it becomes our only, or one of the major sources of our happiness.

The Academic Environment, especially, at the higher levels of Doctoral studies, works a lot on validation. It is in fact fair to say that PhD students live and die to please their doctoral advisers; dancing to their tunes (often quite literally, see academic parties), and basically being at their beck and call 24×7.

And the fact is, this cycle never really ends. The same thing continues, possibly even becomes worse, over the Post Doc, and during the time one is an Assistant Professor. One gains some modicum of freedom possibly when one is an Associate Professor, but by that time one is already close to 40 and whatever youthfulness and spontaneity that was once to be seen in the person, has long since evaporated.

What the Academic system aims, and excels at producing, are robots. At age 40, one starts doing to the young ‘uns the same thing that was one done to them. It is superficially, the same as a system of hereditary slavery – in fact, academic advisers often refer to their students as their children.

But why are these obviously intelligent people doing this? Why are they living as if they owe their very lives to someone else?

Let us at the very first, discount the factor of economics.

PhD. students are paid a living wage, as we saw earlier, by which we mean, it is a wage sufficient to keep their soul joined to their body, and little else. One is supposed to spend at least 4-5 years on that level of earnings. At the Post Doc level, wages are barely higher – average salaries are at the level of a construction worker in the US. And even Professors, who supposedly get the “Big Bucks” don’t really make that much, barring exceptions. See here and here.

Given that there is no money to made in this, and given how long and hard one has to work to make it in this business, why do people stay on at all?

See also, the competing opportunities – except for the Liberal Arts, and especially, in the STEM fields, even students with a Bachelors degree will in a few years have more accumulated earnings than those in Academics. As we saw in a previous post, a PhD has no extra earning power over a Masters Degree. All PhD students pick up a Masters on their way, at least in the US. Then why do most of them never leave?

In my opinion, its a perfect psychological trap – one of validation, and withholding validation.

Graduate school aims to infantilize all incoming students. There are processes, procedures and what one call almost call “Enforcers” (in the sense of a street gang, of course these are just Faculty Members) to accomplish this. Given that most incoming students are already fairly demotivated / depressed, or alternately too in awe of their Professors, such psychological control is easy to gain. And once gained, easy to exploit.

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