Is A Life in Academia for You? Here are 25 Reasons Why…

A vibrant and picturesque university campus in the fall, featuring ivy-covered buildings, students studying on the grass, professors in tweed jackets engaging in conversation, and a mix of old and modern architecture.
Academic Life… it’s great work if you can get it

         Some people perhaps thought my last post on academic life was too negative, so I want to provide some balance to people who feel passionately that they want to pursue a PhD but are also feeling a bit scared. Academia can be wonderful… or it can be hell. Knowing whether you’re cut out for it first is crucial. From bucolic afternoon strolls on lovely campuses to dedicating your life to studying and teaching ideas that you’re passionate about, the academic life is indeed attractive. Tweed jackets, coffee dates with smart people, getting paid to read books, and summers off—these are just a few of the myriad perks that make working as a professor one of the best gigs in the world. I spent six enriching years earning my Ph.D. at Yale, taught at Harvard, and still harbor immense affection for the time I spent in the hallowed halls of academia. Though I ultimately left for family reasons and a burgeoning business, I still miss it dearly.

Given my background, I am uniquely positioned to offer frank advice about pursuing a Ph.D. and embarking on an academic career. It’s a path marked not only by intellectual fulfillment but also by hard-earned successes and significant sacrifices. Here are 25 of the best aspects of life in academia, which might just sway your decision towards embracing this venerable path.

  1. Intellectual Freedom:Academia offers unparalleled freedom to explore ideas and arguments that fascinate you, without the direct pressures typical of corporate agendas. Yes, you have to navigate office politics and your arguments need to remain connected to evidence, but in the end you can pursue questions that fascinate, intrigue, or bother you.
  2. Passionate Peers:Surround yourself with people who are just as enthusiastic about your field as you are—a constant source of inspiration and challenge. If the phrase “nerd out” is something you use to describe yourself, then this may be the life for you.
  3. Impactful Research:Contribute to the body of knowledge in your field, impacting students, peers, and sometimes public policy. On the STEM side, all major practical advances have their roots in university research, so what you do to expand our collective knowledge can play a role in transforming the technology we use, the ideas that shape how we see the world, and the kinds of opportunities future generations have.
  4. Global Opportunities:Academic careers often come with opportunities to travel, study, and work abroad, enriching your personal and professional life.
  5. Academic Community:Belong to a community that values learning and scholarship, providing a supportive and stimulating environment.
  6. Lifelong Learning:Continue learning throughout your career, with access to cutting-edge research and ongoing professional development opportunities.
  7. Teaching:There’s a profound joy in teaching, in watching students grow intellectually and personally under your guidance. The relationships I built with students persists, and I remain in constant contact with many of them. Seeing them learn and grow has been a genuine blessing.
  8. Flexible Schedule:Though the hours can be long, they are often flexible, allowing you to manage your time according to your personal and professional needs. If you are a self-starter, this is ideal as you can shape your days, enjoy hobbies, and pursue family life.
  9. Tenure Security:Once achieved, tenure is a level of job security that is rare in other fields, allowing for risk-taking in research and stability in life.
  10. Sabbaticals:Regular sabbaticals allow for deep dives into research projects or a well-deserved break, something few other careers offer.
  11. Cultural Stimuli:Campuses are cultural hubs, offering access to talks, art shows, and other cultural events often free of charge. College towns often offer the best of big-city life with dining and cultural events that punch above their weight but green spaces, lovely houses, and small-town charm.
  12. Student Interaction:Engage with young, vibrant minds—students who can challenge and invigorate your own perspectives.
  13. Publishing:While challenging, the satisfaction of publishing research and advancing knowledge is immensely gratifying. There’s nothing quite like seeing your name on the spine of a book or having a paper you’ve spent years working on get published in a major journal.
  14. Academic Conferences:Participate in conferences that gather experts from around the world, offering networking opportunities and exposure to new ideas. I love conferences as spots to have intense-but-friendly (mostly) debates, meet up with old classmates, and gather with accomplished experts in their fields.
  15. Campus Amenities:Enjoy the beauty of campus environments, from libraries and labs to art centers and sports facilities. Saturdays at football games, visits to university museums, lectures by renowned experts and politicians in lovely auditoriums…
  16. Career Autonomy:Direct your own research, choose your teaching subjects, and guide your academic focus.
  17. Mentorship Roles:Act as a mentor to the next generation of scholars, guiding them through their academic and personal challenges.
  18. Research Funding:Access to research funding allows you to explore ambitious projects and collaborate across disciplines.
  19. Academic Recognition:Achieve recognition in your field, a testament to your contributions and hard work.
  20. Work-Life Balance:Academics often have the ability to balance work and personal life more effectively than many high-pressure professions.
  21. Inspiring Alumni:Connect with an extensive network of alumni who can open doors to various professional and academic opportunities.
  22. Technology Access:Use the latest technology and resources to further your research and teaching goals.
  23. Diverse Disciplines:Work closely with experts in a variety of fields, broadening your understanding and interdisciplinary connections. Though my field was in the humanities, I loved that most of my best friends were STEM professors. Hearing about what they did expanded my worldview in important ways.
  24. Creative Expression:Academic work often involves a significant amount of creative thinking and expression, whether in writing, problem-solving, or designing experiments.
  25. Sense of Purpose:Perhaps most importantly, academia offers a profound sense of purpose. Contributing to society’s knowledge and improving the lives of your students can be incredibly rewarding.

Choosing a career in academia is no small decision. It’s a path fraught with intense study, deep research, and a significant amount of uncertainty. For many, the allure of delving deep into a subject they love and contributing to our broader collective knowledge is compelling. However, the reality often differs from expectations. To truly understand if this path is for you, critical self-reflection is essential.

Next week, I’ll give my list of all the ways academic life is NOT great. 

If you’re looking at grad schools and need help with your personal statement, CV, or writing samples, let Gurufi.com help. Our personal statement editors and consultants have decades of experience helping clients get into top Masters and Ph.D. programs in STEM, humanities, fine arts, and social sciences. Our specialty is helping you craft compelling personal statements that move the needle in your admissions process! For questions, shoot us an email at service@gurufi.com. Check us out on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

To PhD or Not to PhD: Navigating the Decision to Pursue an Academic Career

Cartoon illustration of a potential PhD applicant deep in thought at a cluttered desk, surrounded by books, papers, and academic items. The young adult, with a thoughtful expression, rests their chin on one hand while gazing out a window at a university campus, reflecting on the decision to pursue a career in academia.
Contemplating the Future: A prospective PhD student weighs the possibilities of an academic career, surrounded by the tools of scholarship.

Bucolic afternoon strolls on lovely campuses. Dedicating your life to studying and teaching ideas that you’re passionate about. Tweed jackets, afternoon coffees with smart people, getting paid to read books, and summers off. There are a million things that make academic life attractive and, if you can get it, working as a professor one of the best gigs in the world. I get it. I spent six years at Yale earning my Ph.D., taught at Harvard, and have immense affection for the time I spent in academia. Ultimately, family considerations and a thriving “side hustle” that grew into a prosperous business led me to leave academia behind.

But I still miss is. I’ll never go back… but I miss it.

Given my life and professional trajectory, I’m in a unique position to be frank with people about whether they should get a Ph.D. and pursue life in academia. I don’t think it’s a simple answer; it’s a great life, but also hard to achieve success within. Choosing a career in academia is no small decision. It’s a path fraught with intense study, deep research, and, frankly, a significant amount of uncertainty. For many, the allure of delving deep into a subject they love and contributing to our broader collective knowledge is compelling. However, the reality of academic life often differs from what one might expect. To truly understand if this path is for you, here are ten critical questions to consider before you decide to pursue an academic career.

 

  1. Are You Passionate About the Subject?

Passion is the cornerstone of a successful academic career. I sometimes work with clients who seem to want to go to graduate school because they’re not certain about their next life move, and grad school seems like a fun place to park while you figure it out. This is a mistake. Grad school is intense, and after that you’ll spend years—possibly decades—researching, discussing, and teaching your chosen subject. This requires a deep, sustained interest that goes beyond mere curiosity. Ask yourself: Are you ready to eat, sleep, and breathe this subject? Can you envision yourself being just as excited about your field in ten years as you are today? If the answer isn’t an enthusiastic “yes!” then walk away right now.

 

  1. Are You Ready to Work Really Hard?

Academia demands a high level of dedication and hard work. This includes long hours of research, writing, and teaching, often while juggling several projects at once. The workload can be intense, with tight deadlines and high expectations. Prepare to push your limits of endurance and time management. Are you ready for this level of commitment? PhD programs in STEM subjects have a 50% dropout rate and in the humanities it’s even lower in the humanities and social sciences. If high-achieving people with demonstrated ability and passion in these fields are mostly not completing their PhDs, that should tell you how much is required to excel within academia.

 

  1. Have You Done the Research on What Percentage of PhD Grads Get Tenure-Track Positions?

Let’s assume you beat the odds and complete your Ph.D. The academic job market is notoriously competitive. Only a small percentage of PhD graduates secure tenure-track positions, and many spend years in temporary or adjunct roles. In the year I first went on the job market, I remember a job at Ohio State (a decidedly third-tier university) in my field received over 700 applicants. It has only gotten harder since. Investigate these statistics for your specific field to set realistic expectations about job prospects and the challenges you might face.

 

  1. Have You Thought About the Life You’d Live Pursuing Academia?

Life as an academic can be vastly different from other careers. It often involves relocating to where the jobs are, which might mean moving across the country or even abroad. Financially, it might not be as rewarding as other professions requiring similar levels of education. My first job was at Harvard, and I made about $90,000 per year and had great benefits. But many of my classmates from Yale were adjuncts or tenure-track professors at smaller schools, and they typically earned less than $35,000, had onerous teaching loads, bad benefits, and struggled to complete the kind of research and writing that would enable them to climb the ladder. They simply didn’t have the time.

Most people who pursue PhDs envision themselves one day living in Ann Arbor, Berkely, or Durham, with comfortable -though perhaps not lucrative- jobs that are fulfilling and provide them the time and space to think, research, and write. In fact, you’re far more likely to have to take a first job at Southwest Bumblefuck Tech and Trade School in a rural Louisiana bayou town teaching four sections of 75 students each term and making $37,000 per year. Consider whether this lifestyle—the potential instability, relocation, and financial sacrifices—aligns with your personal goals and family plans.

 

  1. Do You Have a Clear Sense of the Questions You Aspire to Answer?

A strong academic career is often driven by a clear research agenda. What are the big questions in your field that excite you? Are these questions viable for research and discussion over many years? Your ability to define and pursue these questions can significantly impact your success and satisfaction in academia. Saying “I want to study history,” for instance, is barely more useful than saying, “I want to acquire knowledge and information.” It’s helpful if you can articulate what you expect the title of your dissertation to be, not because that is what you’ll certainly write about (insider tip: nobody ends of writing about the thing they expected to when they arrived!) but because if you don’t have a really granular sense of what you aspire to pursue, you may not be ready to do so.

 

  1. Have You Done Anything That Approximates the Kind of Research and Writing You’ll Be Asked to Do in Graduate School?

If you haven’t experienced the rigor of academic research and writing, try to gain exposure before committing to a PhD program. This could involve assisting in research projects, writing papers, or engaging in scholarly discussions. If you’re STEM, lab experience really is necessary, if notyou’re your application, then to ensure that you know what you’re getting into. Such experiences can provide a taste of what your future academic work might entail and help you gauge your readiness and enthusiasm for it.

 

  1. Are You Familiar with the Field and the Big Ideas, Controversies, and Schools of Thought Within It? Do You Have a Sense of Where You Would Position Yourself?

Understanding the landscape of your field is crucial. This includes familiarizing yourself with ongoing debates, key figures, and dominant theories. Where do your interests align within these discussions? Having a well-defined stance can help in carving out your niche in a crowded academic environment.

 

  1. Do You Have the Grades, Test Scores, Letters of Recommendation, and Background to Earn Admission into a TOP Program?

Admission into top-tier PhD programs is highly competitive. These programs often provide better resources, funding, and job placement outcomes. Assess whether your academic record and references are strong enough to make you a viable candidate for these programs.

 

  1. If Not… Are You Willing to Foot the Financial Cost and Face the Steep Uphill Climb of a PhD at a Second-Tier (or Worse) University?

Consider the implications of attending a lower-tier program. When I was applying to PhD programs, my advisor gave me some great advice: you should consider admission without full funding a rejection. As such, if a school didn’t fully fund my doctoral studies, I wouldn’t even consider them. Most top schools fully fund all PhDs as a matter of course, but lower-tier schools offer fewer resources and lower job placement rates, which can affect your career trajectory. Are you prepared for the additional challenges and potential financial burdens this might entail?

 

  1. What’s Your Fallback Plan? Yes, Plan for Success… But Don’t Burn the Ship!

It’s wise to have a plan B. The academic path can be unpredictable, and it’s prudent to consider alternative career paths should your initial plans not pan out. What skills can you develop during your PhD that are transferable to other careers? How will you adapt if the academic market does not favor you?

Bluntly, the path forward for a STEM Ph.D. is much rosier than a humanities or social sciences PhD. If you have a doctorate in Cell Biology, for example, there are hundreds of private companies that would hire you at a good salary. A History or Literature PhD, by contrast, doesn’t do much for you in the non-academic job market.

Conclusion

I don’t want this post to feel too negative, but the truth is that when former students come to me asking about pursuing a PhD, my first task is to try to convince them not to. If they hold their ground and answer my questions, then I am more likely to believe they have the onions for the slog. Deciding to pursue an academic career is a significant commitment and should not be taken lightly. By honestly answering these questions, you can better prepare yourself for the realities of the academic world and make a more informed decision. If you succeed, an academic career can be genuinely wonderful, and I still feel a genuine sense of affection for the students I taught and I still miss the beats of an academic year. Just begin the process disabused of the notion that it’ll be a fun idyllic life, prepare yourself for the high chance of failure, and commit yourself to working your ass off.

For more help with your personal statement, check us out at Gurufi.com. Our personal statement editors and consultants have decades of experience helping clients get into top Masters and Ph.D. programs in STEM, humanities, fine arts, and social sciences. Our specialty is helping you craft compelling personal statements that move the needle in your admissions process! For questions, shoot us an email at service@gurufi.com. Check us out on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

A Non-Minority Student’s Guide to Diversity Essays

An animated image featuring a diverse group of medical school students in a classroom setting. The students, representing various ethnicities, genders, and backgrounds, are all wearing white lab coats and have stethoscopes around their necks. Some are engaged in conversation, holding medical textbooks, or examining medical charts. The classroom is equipped with essential medical tools, adorned with anatomy posters, and includes a skeleton model in one corner. Their expressions convey happiness and a shared enthusiasm for learning, illustrating an inclusive and collaborative educational environment
Embracing Diversity in Medical Education: Future healthcare professionals learning together in an inclusive environment

As a non-minority student, it’s important to approach the writing of a diversity essay with sensitivity and an open mind. Here are five tips to help you write an effective diversity essay:

  1. Think of “diversity” expansively. When most people think of diversity in the context of admissions, they focus on racial, ethnic, national, gender, and sexual identity. But you should also think about experiential diversity. How has your life been different? Think about the kinds of people you’ve encountered, what they taught you, and how you grew. Reflect on the places you’ve lived, unique trials you’ve faced, jobs you’ve held, training you’ve received, or unusual insights you’ve gained. Then, take the additional step of asking yourself how these things would help you make School X a more dynamic, challenging, accepting, and comprehensive educational and life experience for your peers.

  1. Acknowledge privilege: It is important to acknowledge any privilege you may have as a result of your race, ethnicity, gender, or socio-economic background. Reflect on how your experiences may have been shaped by these factors, and how they have impacted your understanding of diversity and inclusion. A frame that can be helpful is to complete this sentence, and then expand on it in a brainstorming writing session: “my privilege has allowed me to ______, and as a result, I feel compelled to _______ in order to _____.” For instance, “My privilege as an upper-middle class man raised in a healthy home has allowed me to have access to mentoring, networks, and advice that many of my peers never had, and as a result, I feel compelled to mentor others, build robust inclusive networks, and look for talent in unexpected places.” This sort of opening could provide the foundation for an insightful, frank self-assessment that gives the reader genuine insight into your values.”

  1. Show empathy: Demonstrate your ability to understand and respect different perspectives and experiences by expressing empathy and a desire to learn from others. Describe how you plan to continue to learn about and engage with diverse communities in the future.

  1. Highlight your commitment to diversity: Emphasize your commitment to promoting diversity and inclusion in your academic and professional pursuits. Explain how you plan to use your experiences and understanding of these issues to contribute to the graduate school community. Identifying and listing your values is good, but providing stories and examples is much better.

  1. Seek feedback: Before submitting your diversity essay, consider seeking feedback from someone who has experience with these types of essays. This could be a mentor, a teacher, or someone else who has a good understanding of the graduate school application process. Their feedback can help you refine your essay and ensure that it effectively communicates your commitment to diversity.

Importantly, our editors and consultants at Gurufi have extensive experience helping people write diversity essays.

Lastly, we recognize that this form of essay can feel unusual or uncomfortable, especially for non-American applicants who aren’t conversant with the world of DEI, why universities value diversity, or even what this idea means. After all, many applicants come from places that are largely mono-racial.

So, while there can be a learning curve, your mindset should ultimately be that the diversity essay is an opportunity to demonstrate your understanding and commitment to promoting diversity and inclusion, whether or not you are a minority. By reflecting on their experiences, acknowledging privilege, showing empathy, highlighting their commitment, and seeking feedback, non-minority students can write effective diversity essays that showcase their ability to contribute to diverse and inclusive academic communities.

For more help with your personal statement, check us out at Gurufi.com. Our personal statement editors and consultants have decades of experience helping clients get into top MBA programs. Our specialty is helping you craft compelling personal statements that move the needle in your admissions process! For questions, shoot us an email at service@gurufi.com. Check us out on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.