Six deadly academic sins

How to avoid personal and professional pitfalls of an academic mindset


5/24/20245 min read

Every person I have ever met with a PhD has struggled to overcome issues of self-worth stemming from their academic experience. Many are still suffering, in the sense that the problem negatively impacts their personal and professional lives.

Some people recognize the issue in themselves, while others seem blisslessly (it’s a word now) unaware. They show up in the way these PhDs act and the things they say, which reveal how they see themselves and the world around them.

These are some of the most harmful mentalities:

  • Attaching your worth to an occupation: the feeling that your personal value comes from, and is totally encompassed by your job title, your duties, and your performance or professional accomplishments.

  • Low self-worth. Feeling as if you really aren’t special, that you don’t matter, that you’re really not that good at what you do, and that your time, effort, and labor don’t deserve much compensation, if at all.

  • Grandiosity. The least common trait I’ve encountered, but enough to be a pattern that coincidentally overlaps with being an asshole. With PhDs, this usually expresses itself as a pompous know-it-all attitude. Imagine a person with deep(ish) technical knowledge in one field who not only assumes that the knowledge makes them superior to others, but that their niche expertise makes them qualified to weigh in on any matter outside of that expertise. Notably, they tend to use that presumed qualification generously and judgmentally.

Before you suggest that these are just the types of people drawn to PhD programs, I should point out the systemic factors within academia that fuel, if not downright train these mindsets into aspiring PhDs and cement them into those who stay in the academy.

Oddly enough, each of these issues might stem from the same root causes, a set of two competing pieces of propaganda that exist in academia.

See if you can spot the conflict:

  1. “Being a scholar isn't just a calling, it's the BEST one. It is morally superior to be an academic compared to anything else, which is just selling your soul for money... Hmm? What’s that? GRANT MONEY IS DIFFERENT.”

  2. “You know nothing and you are nothing. There’s always an expert that knows more so keep grinding away. Review papers in your 'spare time' for journals that you don’t work for. Pay? Nobody gets paid, this is community service! YOU pay your dues so you can get tenure, which we promise never to take away, wink wink.”

As with all gaslighting, it’s hard to notice it if you’re too close to the situation.

The consequences of self-esteem issues

It's not just about temporary feelings. Even PhDs who have left academia struggle with breaking harmful cycles of self-sabotage:

  1. Drinking the organizational kool-aid: It's already easy for academics to get drawn into the cult-like mindset that scholars are superior to everyone else. But even for those who leave, there is a similar trap when you join another organization. Out of the pot, into a different pot. It’s easy to fall into old habits, especially if you jump into certain parts of the industry that really emphasize how important their company is to the world and the human race, and suddenly you’re part of something bigger. You are, but that doesn’t mean it should consume your identity. Focus on who you are outside of your job. Honestly, it's really not that important.

  2. Expecting your work to be recognized for its value automatically: In academia, there was a (dubious) expectation of meritocracy. If you’re good, others will know, supposedly. The problem is, that’s not the reality anywhere. You need to be your own cheerleader so that others know exactly how awesome you are. Otherwise, and here’s the truth: nobody cares enough to notice what you’ve been doing unless it affects them.

  3. Perpetual modesty: you’re trained to never assume you’re the best in the world in your field. But the way this is beaten into PhDs manifests as an almost neurotic habit of modesty that, more often than not, just makes other people de-value you. There’s a balance. No one likes a braggart, but the other end of the spectrum isn’t great either. Gentle confidence will get you far.

  4. Underestimating your market value: this ties directly into the financial exploitation of academic workers. You are literally on the cutting edge of knowledge in something after studying it for 5+ years, but you’re supposed to expect a salary that matches someone with a high school education and little to no experience? Your pay expectations are off kilter because your frame of reference is not in line with the rest of capitalism (aiming this at mostly my US viewers, some other countries do better). The solution for this is something you can learn quickly because it leverages skills you already have: do your research!

  5. Not asking for what you deserve: this is similar to the last one, but there’s a difference between knowing your worth and asking for it. I’m talking about advocating for yourself in negotiations for what you’re supposed to receive for your work. In most cases, it’s not about not negotiating enough, but failing to negotiate at all. Imagine knowing you're valuable, but deciding it's rude to ask to be compensated for the value you provide from the people profiting off of it. There's an art to it, and it's a skill to be learned.

  6. Forgetting to learn: When you've reached what seems like a peak, there is always the temptation to coast; to rest on your laurels. This can look like doing the same type of work over and over again. It can be sticking to your own work despite working on a collaborative team. It can look like deciding that none of the new developments in your field are worth your attention. What happens if you do these things is that you get stuck in a rut. You gather years of experience but limited wisdom. Your growth gets stunted, and that becomes your brand. You're the same person you were when you started. Instead, keep the flame of your curiosity alive. The world is bigger than you ever imagined, and the person sitting next to you knows parts of it you don't. Keep asking questions.

Solving all of these problems

I put a tiny bit of guidance into each of those problematic behaviors and mindsets that I highlighted above, but I'm going to be honest with you: Reading those paragraphs won't solve all of them for you; my words unfortunately don't have that much power.

Here's what it takes to solve any one of these problems:

  1. Recognizing you have a problem: Hopefully I've helped with that.

  2. Believing you can change: I certainly believe in you!

  3. Wanting to change: This is all about you. Do you see these affecting your life in ways that you don't want?

  4. Knowing how to change: Some of the advice I gave is more easily followed than the other ones; some of them require practice, others require gaining knowledge and skills. I'm hoping that I helped point you down the right path.

  5. Making a commitment and an action plan: Most people know HOW to get in better physical shape. How successful they are depends on their actions.

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girl standing near plants
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grayscale photo of girl in polka dot long sleeve shirt
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Spider-Man leaning on concrete brick while reading book