Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Broken feedback loop

I was talking to a friend a while ago about how life in academia leads one to think that one is constantly below average. It doesn't matter what post docs one gets, or how many publications, or how one's talks are received at conferences. Too many successful academics, like competitive runners, get where they are by keeping an eye on the person just ahead.

Except, in a race, it is always clear who the people in front of you, and behind you, are. It is not always so clear who the person in front of me academically is.  I (and many people I know) solve this problem by keeping my eye on the people who are some distance ahead of me, who are clearly better than I am. I call them my competition, and keep going. By definition, since I do not look at the rest of the population (and because I do not like thinking of people as being worse than me) I see myself at the bottom of the pool, and live my life resigned to a state of mediocrity or less.

In graduate school and during my post doc years, I made certain that I had a life beyond my work so I could be reminded that I was not struggling at the bottom of the pack in spite my years of specialized training. It is not so much that I need an ego boost from my neighbors who lead more normal lives, but that I need a counterweight to the machinery of my self image and drive.

Since leaving the US, I have not had the luxury of having that counterweight in my life. it is starting to take a toll. I received a very nice e-mail yesterday from an ex-student of mine who thanked me for the influence I had in her academic life. I wish I could say it turned a bad day into pleasant day. Or even that it turned a bad day into a tolerable day, or that it brought a smile on my face. I am extremely embarrassed to admit that the first thought through my head was something along the lines of "why do people like this not reflect themselves in my teaching reviews?" This is not to say that my teaching reviews are bad. Generally speaking, I have been an above average teacher in all the institutes I have been at that have kept records. But I have never been recognized by my department for good teaching (unless you count the undergraduate teaching chair who wanted me to teach an extra course though my teaching had been bought out because, as he claimed, he was tight on bodies to put in front of the classroom, and did not want to loose a good teacher.)

My second thought was to write my student a thank you note.

I turn into a very twisted person without something else to balance my life. I need to do something about this.


  1. thanks for putting this up here. I'm very much with you. Having the counterweight to this "bottom of the pack" feeling is so important and I often have to remind myself how much I have achieved already and that I'm not a total looser just because there are colleagues who (seem to) do better than me. It's important to set things into perspective in a broader view once in a while.

  2. At least for me, the feedback from outside academia (assuming that I am actually still an academic) always helps me feel better about myself, though not necessarily for the reasons Whoosh says. Because in my case, there is hardly anyone I know from high school or college who is not wildly more successful than I am. An established pattern of failure throughout life helps me rationalize my failure as an academic.

    Ultimately, it doesn't matter. If you got food on the table, you did good! The rest is optional... Cheers!