Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Atua Bear and disillusionment with a discipline

Since starting graduate school, I’ve become so disenchanted with academia. Numerous issues have led me to be disillusioned: spending too much time alone (working); reading articles about the job market; dealing with certain professors, colleagues, and students; living in the for-profit higher education industry; not finding mentors like I had as an undergraduate student; never feeling successful; and, of course, never finishing the to-do list. 

There are some discipline-specific issues that have also contributed to my resentment.  My field has a naturalist versus anti-naturalist debate in which the naturalist folks dominate: if you want a dissertation and if you want to publish in the top tier journals, then you need data.

Admittedly, I bought into the naturalist world: I use data, I predict, and I generalize. I was trained to do so as my coursework entailed extensive methods training in both quantitative and qualitative methods. I’ve even become a “great” critic—that is, in part, what we’re taught to do in grad school. But, because of all of this, I’ve become disinterested; I’ve forgotten why I wanted to earn a PhD in my field.

I have concluded that my graduate studies, like my research questions, are victims of naturalism: there can be no creative thinking about (ever-changing, endogenous) phenomena because every phenomena needs to be simplified for a model, to something that can ultimately be predicted, generalized, aggregated, replicated.

This past fall, however, I took a life-changing methods course. The course was not about discussing the number of observations or cases in the data set. It was not about whether there was enough “control” or “internal validity” or “external validity” in the study. The implicit goal, for once, was not to simplify. Rather, the course included discussions on: ethnography (though it was not a field methods course); flipping everyday phenomena on their head; questioning common definitions in the discipline; critiquing simplification and aggregation; seeing and interpreting power relations where we have ignored them; looking beyond the western lens that deems “different” as “archaic” or “incompatible.”

This class made me realize that the most interesting questions are not always conducive to simplifying models with an independent and dependent variable. I am finally unlearning what I have learned in order to start asking those interesting, curious questions that originally led me to graduate school. Am I rebelling against the discipline? I hope this isn’t interpreted as such. I don’t plan to run amok of research design (I won’t get a dissertation if I do that), but I’m no longer letting the naturalist paradigm restrict my intellectual curiosity. Just because something cannot be an independent variable, does not mean it is not worth studying.

I hope I can one day teach this course, and maybe help a lost soul find the light once again.

-- Atua Bear


  1. I was also a disillusioned grad student. When I started nearly 35 years ago, I thought grad studies would be much like what I experienced as an undergrad. I couldn't have been more wrong. My biggest mistake as a grad student was believing that "original" research meant not only investigating an original idea but developing and using an original method to do so.

    One thing I also found out was that there's little originality in research. There's a tendency towards the status quo because it's safe, one knows already what works and what's been proven, and there's often funding available for it. If one is considered excessively original, few people would understand what one is working on and whatever results might be obtained. That original thinking might also be seen as a challenge to that status quo, and it makes some people uncomfortable.

    Needless to say, I often got into trouble with my supervisors because of it.

  2. Sounds like a great course! But/and I think you're smart to think of it as the foundation for questions for a lifetime of research, rather than a paradigm for the diss. (which probably needs to fit mostly into an identifiable box, with just a soupcon of out-of-the box thinking). At least in my field, many of the truly original books come post-tenure (in the interest of agreeing that this sounds like an excellent intellectual experience -- one I hope you do, indeed, get to duplicate one day -- I won't get into the question of whether tenure is fast going the way of the dodo just now).

  3. There's a lot in your post that I can relate to with my current position working as a research coordinator with medical doctors. I was completely disillusioned with the idea of post-doc positions and hoping to find a faculty position. Although, I started from the other side with my undergrad and master's. The disciple I started in was basically the course you described and then I somehow found my way into a more medical field for my PhD where they couldn't get past the quantitative is better than qualitative point of view. Luckily, there were newer faculty with similar backgrounds as my own so that eventually changed. Now I'm working with medical doctors who could probably learn a thing or two from the course you describe. I try to do what I can but I'm really getting sick of the obsession on the validity/reliability of some random questionnaire that they don't even bother to look at, figure out how to interpret, or even question what it is measuring. They usually find it cited in a study published in a good journal and just go with it. I wish I could be more positive but I'm still trying to figure out what I can do to pay the bills and not have my intellectual curiosity hindered.

  4. One thing that keeps me going is the shitty professors I had as an undergraduate. No kidding: I know that, no matter how unnecessarily hard my administration makes it for me to do research (the latest whopper is deciding that students don't need travel advances, so if any of them ever want to go to a conference or to do field work, they have to pay in full up front, and then be reimbursed from grants), I KNOW I am doing a better job than those unimaginative, lazy old goofballs, who were abusing their tenure by coasting to retirement. My students are getting MUCH better than I got, and I KNOW it---not that many of them ever do, of course.

    I also agree with CC: a thesis is mainly an internal document, so the university can certify that you are an expert in your subject and therefore deserve a degree. Once you have that and are ensconced in a reasonably secure job, it may be easier for you to revolutionize your field: you'll be a recognized expert then, after all, not just some unknown grad student. ;-)

  5. You seem to be experiencing the tension between reductionism and holism. I well remember the unease: "This is just a model; the real situation is surely more complex! How will this explain anything?"

    We allow ourselves the temporary conceit that we can study a piece of the puzzle, and that our piece will fit neatly with others already and yet to be known. But the pieces are not guaranteed to remain the same shape when put together! Even as we acknowledge that potential, we must recognize that expanding our study to explain more might be just the first step on the way to making it the Grand Study to Observe and Explain Everything but Never Got Done.

    Maybe you've known people who claimed to be writing a novel (or composing an opera, or designing a fusion reactor, or . . .), and who when asked to demonstrate what they've got so far, always answer "Not till it's finished." They may be the next Einstein or Faulkner, but their great ideas will likely die within their bodies.

    I'll now be reductionist: the point of your PhD is simply to get done. In getting done, you show your committee that you can work through cognitive dissonance long enough to bring a project to some reasonable milepost in order to put it out there warts and all for others to grapple with and fit into their own studies. People who can get done will move the field forward, and they'll probably make good colleagues.

    You can do this. Get done.

    1. This reminds me of a joke:

      (Q) What do fusion physicists (or aerospace engineers) do on their honeymoons?

      (A) Nothing, except promise how great everything is going to be in 20 years.

    2. Ogre hits close to something I've been thinking about how best to say, though I thought it more in terms of mathematical versus verbal theories than reductionism and holism. People frequently do fetishize the tools of good research - the data 'metrics' or the mathematical models. But the tools of research really do help to answer those interesting, curious questions that led you to grad school.

      The problem is those who take a crappy 'metric', or simplistic analysis and treat it like it's absolute, capital-T truth. Administrators do this a lot when they take something like the number of pages published, or grant dollars won, and treat it like the be-all and end-all of scholarly merit (no - I'm not bitter - why do you ask?). It sounds like this attitude is what you are rebelling against and you should.

      But a well designed metric or study is worth its weight in gold (Ignore for a moment that metrics are abstract concepts that don't have any mass - just go with it). Same for a rigorous mathematical theory. So even as you try not to lose sight of the bigger questions in a thicket of metrics and statistical analyses, make sure you don't throw the baby out with the bathwater either.

      It's something I often struggle to get my students to recognize in class - that the math isn't just some exercise in number-crunching. It's a way to think rigorously about the original concepts that the course is about. When the American Association for the Advancement of Science developed a set of science literacy desiderata, here's what they say about mathematical enquiry:

      "Using mathematics to express ideas or solve problems involves at least three phases. (1) Representing some aspect of things abstractly; (2) manipulating the abstractions according to rules of logic to find new relationships between them and (3) seeing whether the new relationships say something useful about the original things." (Science for All Americans, Oxford, 1990)

      Sounds like you're grappling with finding the right balance between these phases.

    3. Ooh, I like that R &/or G. I especially like the fact that it was written in 1990, and still holds true, even though we can crunch the numbers much faster (and create pretty pictures with them much more easily) now. I'm no expert on mathematical reasoning, but it's my sense that if researchers (and those who read their work) thought seriously about how well all 3 steps were implemented for a particular project, we'd have a lot less buy-in into junk (or at least weak) science.

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