Back to the Academy

In the past few months, I’ve been seriously considering making an effort to go back in the direction of aiming for some sort of an academic career.

It’s a future I’d dreamed of for quite a while, but there was a point in my life when I experienced some real hesitation. That hesitation began because a professor I knew, for whom I had some respect, was outspoken in his opinion that PhDs were a bad choice. It’s really hard work, and at the end of it all you probably won’t have very good job prospects, so if you’re really smart you’ll just do something else with your life. Because of how strongly he seemed to believe this, it left a deep impression on me.

There were several other factors that contributed as well. I’d heard, for instance, how much of a toll doctoral studies could take on a person’s mental health, and I’d seen signs of that. I was also, in a way, frustrated by how constricted a program of studies could feel. I wanted to read the complete works of Plato, to tackle the great books and authors and thoughts of the past, and instead I was forced to spend immense time and energy reading and writing on the comparatively short and unimportant texts assigned by professors with the narrowest focus. Getting out of the academy felt like a liberation, and I did take advantage of it to read many of the things I never had time for as a student.

What felt central to me, though, was my burgeoning conviction that the most urgent, most important thing was to grow in virtue, to be a good person. I turned away from an academic future because I felt sure it would be an obstacle to virtue. The further I went, the more I noticed qualities in my fellow students, in the students who were ahead of me, and in my professors, that I didn’t think I wanted any part of. It was becoming clear to me that for our academic system to accentuate a person’s virtues rather than vices was not impossible, but at least exceptional. And it seemed highly likely that there was a causal connection — that these were vices not simply displayed in an academic style, but caused by the pressures of an academic life. I saw in my own personal development how my studies fostered intemperance, irritability, insecurity, arrogance, envy, sloth.

And then the longer I was away, the more life just seemed to get in the way of getting back to it.

So then having said all that, what could change my mind?

One extremely important point is that I’ve had a chance to read much of the great thought and writing that I wanted to get around to reading. I’ve read enough of it to feel okay with slowing down. There’s still so much more that I’m hungry to read, but I’ve reached a point where I’m happy to slow down and focus on one smaller (even less important) collection of texts under others’ supervision for a time.

Probably the pivotal moment for me was the realization that I just do desire to be part of the scholarly community, and that in our day it is very very difficult to do so without a PhD. I found myself already spending as much as possible of my spare time studying languages and history and reading journal articles and great books, and I realized that I could be doing all these things and getting paid for it, rather than doing all these things without compensation and while losing opportunities to spend that time doing other important things.

And that sort of leads me back around to the topics of mental health and progress in virtue. In the past several years, I’ve developed several good habits that relate to studiousness, habits that will remain in place (to one extent or another) whether or not I am in the orbit of academia. This gives me the hope that rather than being driven by my program of studies, which is how things have always gone in the past, I might be able to stay more in the driver’s seat, using my good habits to spend my time responsibly. I’m taking a class this semester and I can already see how the stresses of timelines and deadlines can cause some problems for my habits that weren’t there before, but on the other side, I can also see how the habits are preserving me somewhat from the unhealthy tendencies that would otherwise be afflicting me, and enabling me to do a far better job than I would have been capable of in my former way of doing things.

I’m open to what the future holds! I don’t know what will come up, or whether an academic future is realistic for me to contemplate. It’s back on the radar, however, and for the moment that’s feeling pretty exciting.

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