Academia is a Cult

One of the workshops I’m most commonly asked to give at my university is usually called “Alternative Careers in Science.” I don’t give it that name myself–it’s what the group inviting me, or the program director, always calls it.They don’t mean becoming a music composer or a patent examiner; they mean getting a job that isn’t a professor in academia. Because, to them, anything else IS alternative, and, ergo, inferior.

Here’s a list of the common characteristics of a cult:

1. Authoritarian structure
2. Isolation from society and use of mind control techniques
3. Control of the environment

Let’s look at academia and graduate training from this standpoint:

1. Authoritarian structure

How many blogs are there by grad students writing about their frustration with their advisor, or Post-docs and PI friction? One person has the power.

2. Isolation from society and use of mind control techniques

Some of the lists of mind control techniques are both amusing and horrifying when viewed in the context of academia and grad students:

Peer Group Pressure – Suppressing doubt and resistance to new ideas by exploiting the need to belong.
Confusing Doctrine – Encouraging blind acceptance through complex lectures on an incomprehensible doctrine.
Verbal Abuse, Sleep Deprivation and fatigue – Creating disorientation and vulnerability by prolonging mental and physical activity and withholding adequate rest and sleep.
Dress Codes – Removing individuality by demanding conformity to the group dress code.
Financial Committment – Achieving increased dependence on the group
Controlled Approval – Maintaining vulnerability and confusion by alternately rewarding and punishing similar actions.

Yep. That lab coat you have to wear doesn’t seem so innocent now, does it? :)

Who do grad students and faculty hang out with? Other grad students and faculty. Students and faculty are pressured to put long hours in at the lab, which further isolates them.

To succeed, you must learn a way of speaking and thinking that is utterly unlike that of others. We teach students a “special language” of science, which is incomprehensible to outsiders. (Try having a non-scientist examine an issue of Science, if you don’t believe me. )

We teach a special way of writing, which makes information even less accessible to outsiders. In fact, I’ve had a paper criticized for being “too literary.” In other words, “I could understand it easily, so it must not be any good.”

3. Control of the environment

If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s where it becomes very clear. A career in Academia is the Only True Way. Anything else is inferior:

Mystical Manipulation: “principles” can be put forcibly and claimed exclusively, so that the cult and its beliefs become the only true path to salvation (or enlightenment)
Demand for Purity: The world becomes sharply divided into…the absolutely good and the absolutely evil… tendencies towards guilt and shame are used as emotional levers for the group’s controlling and manipulative influences (emphasis mine)

You didn’t publish your thesis? Wait, it was in that journal? You want to get a job WHERE??

Confession: sessions in which one confesses to one’s sin are accompanied by patterns of criticism and self-criticism, generally transpiring within small groups with an active and dynamic thrust toward personal change (emphasis mine)

Journal club and peer review, anyone?

Doctrine Over Person: If one questions the beliefs of the group or the leaders of the group, one is made to feel that there is something inherently wrong with them to even question….one is made to feel that doubts are reflections of one’s own evil when doubt arises, conflicts become intense

“I just wasn’t good enough for tenure.” “She just isn’t strong enough to deal with the normal demands of working in a lab.” “She’s too sensitive about her race.”….etc.

Dispensing of Existence: those who are not in the group are not enlightened; impediments to legitimate being must be pushed away or destroyed….if one leaves this group, one loses their salvation/transformation, or something bad will happen to them

Alternative careers =not a faculty member = not my choice, therefore, inferior choice.

I really hate doing that ‘alternative career” workshop, so I started giving this little presentation on cults at the beginning, whenever I talk to grad students. The reaction has been really amazing–the grad students love it.

The faculty hate it. They find it insulting. Huh.

20 thoughts on “Academia is a Cult

  1. Wow. That’s brilliant. I never thought of it that way. But it sure makes sense (except the lab coat bit – never had to wear a lab coat).

  2. BWA-HA-HA! Absolutely brilliant analysis.

    And of course, some departments are more pathogenicly cultish than others. During my time in the department, my advisor left, another prof killed himself (tho’ no one talked about it), and the head also left. NOT a happy place.

    And of course, Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions also fits into that analysis.

  3. “We teach students a “special language” of science, which is incomprehensible to outsiders. (Try having a non-scientist examine an issue of Science, if you don’t believe me. )”

    Never mind non-scientists, try a scientist looking at a paper outside their speciality.

    “How many blogs are there by grad students writing about their frustration with their advisor, or Post-docs and PI friction? One person has the power.”

    As a PI, all I can say is BWAHAHAHAHA!

    Bob

  4. As PI, you have the budget power. That counts for a lot. You also have ultimate veto over proposed research topics. You can deny access to equipment and supplies.

    I think you underestimate how much power you really have over students. Now, how much power you have in your institution–that’s a different story! :D

  5. I’m in a maths and stats department, so there’s not much equipment to deny, except possibly computers (and they’re provided by the department).

    Hmmm, now that’s a thought. Get them to do their simulations the old way, with pencil and paper…

    Bob

  6. You know, I think simply framing (sorry!) the experience this way helps. The students that I work with have an epiphany moment when they realize that it’s a completely f**ked up world view to sees a position in R&D at a leading biotech company as “failure” and/or “selling out.”

    Or that choosing to teach at a community college because you like serving low income/struggling students means that you weren’t “good enough” to work at a “real” university.

    It’s crazy. But a lot about academia is crazy, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon

  7. Cult or merely an echo of it hierarchical origins?

    Anyway, I like to think of it as a hypermutile closed Darwinian system.

    Ciao Baby!!
    Luv, Blader
    aka, your 5th reader

  8. I’ve made this same comparison myself, much to the amusement of my peers. :) Though usually I don’t go any further than, “The only other kind of group that requires this much dedication is a cult….”

  9. It took me a few years, but after my second postdoc I could recognise these aspects of academia. I wish a few of the blind-to-any-other-kind-of-life scientists could learn to see it as well as it may help them get somewhere in life (even if it isn´t the professorship they always thought they deserved).

  10. Well done and spot on. The only thing you missed were the silly hats and flowing robes that are adorned by members of the academy on ceremonial occasions, including the induction of new members into the academy.

    I’ve worked in both camps (private sector -> academia) and what I witness on a daily basis in an academic institution is usually grounds for dismissal and either civil or criminal charges elsewhere. The level of corruption and deceit displayed by academics never ceases to amaze me. I would never encourage a student to pursue an academic career. In fact, I am notorious for turning my students to the “dark side” where they have the opportunity to do good and useful work and to create real products and services that improve and save the lives of others.

    If the work of academics had to undergo the same scrutiny that the ideas of a any business does when raising money in commercial markets (loans, not grants), the vast majority would be out of work because the few of them can answer the simple questions as to who buys their product (other than the taxpayer).

  11. oh, you’re right! How could I have missed the silly hats!
    And yes, having moved from academia to industry to back again, I feel the same way. :(

  12. So true, and when things go wrong (experiments not working, creepy staff members, past the funding limit, psychological anxiety), the cult mindset is so apparent. I did the suck up option (ms phd blog), took a year off to get less anxious (unfortunately it came with a financial penalty), but did finish my PHD. But because of this, i don’t want to do a post-doc, and would rather move into industry or another field altogether. However, lots of jobs out there need a post-doc, so what to do? I’m still de-brain washing myself and re-integrating with the outside world. You realize after you graduate that you spent n years, 10-16 h/day hanging out with other chemists/biochemists/molecular biologists/etc that your immediate circle of friends is limited in scope.

  13. Great post, as far as I understand it. Personally I am not an academic nor will I ever be. I am a humble BS in Mechanical Engineering from the sliderule era. But, my son is a PhD in Political Science and an Assistant Professor. Doctor Mike, as I like to call him, only reads books written by other professors thereby insulating himself from the world of raw experience. He is definitely going to get a copy of this!

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