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The Good, The Bad and The Ugly: Stereotypes in Academia.

We need to get rid of the stereotypes of old, white men in armchairs, reading dusty books no one has ever heard of, or writing even dustier books no one will read.

Not too long ago I asked the beautiful people of Academic Twitter what they thought the stereotypes were in and of academia, both before they entered and now that they have entered. And this is what they had to say: Looks and ability This is going to be one for the women (and non-binaries who adhere to what is judged in society to be feminine self-expression): your looks, although they shouldn’t, are going to matter. Now it’s not because you’re attractive (or not), but because of how you present yourself. Academics aren’t known for being dressed to the nines, or having the most formal and luxurious suit attire, but they are also not known for being creative in their self-expression. Read: make-up and fashion. A big stereotype is still that if you aren’t dressed as an old sock, you can’t be taken seriously. So no heels, no colourful make-up looks or bodycon skirts and dresses (or whatever may suit you). Apparently your self-expression isn’t creative, it’s distracting and a sign of you being much more about your cover than your content. This is obviously bollocks. Now what can you do about this? I’m not suggesting you conform, I hate conformity and defaulting to the way things always have been done doesn’t exactly inspire change. You just need to be prepared for comments, looks and possibly backlash. If you’ve got no issue with standing out, be the best version of yourself! If this is something that hurts you, maybe tone down the “academic look” and be your best creative self in other aspects of your life. That choice is only yours to make. I won’t judge, I’m just applying yet another colour of eyeshadow to my rainbow look.


Positive Discrimination and Desert Some institutions have active quota: 40% of their employees or newly hired staff need to be female, non-white or of mixed abilities, you name it. Now these measure are seen as a form of positive discrimination which is aimed at restoring sectors which have become dominated by old, white men. I, and many with me, support these measures whole heartedly, as I think we can do with a re-set. People who do not support these measures very often use the same argument: desert. Who says a member of a minority DESERVES to be in a job, just because they are in a minority? The flaw in the argument can easily be spotted. These people aren’t applying, being interviewed and potentially being hired because they are a minority. They are invited to apply, interview and work because they have the required skills and experience. This is also what will get them hired. They are not “token minority” they deserve to be their because of the hard work they have done. There is the inherent bias that because you are white and male, you are knowledgeable about things (or maybe a deeper voice just sounds smarter, who knows…) I would argue it the other way round, if we are blatantly generalizing: if you are white and male, you are playing life on easy mode. If you have the same skills as someone who is female, non-white or of different ability, you have clearly underperformed as compared to them, as their route in life is harder. Thank you, next. And don’t forget, the initial quote didn’t focus exclusively on talent either, the initial quote was 0-100%, 100% white male, that is.


Junior vs. Senior Networking is a necessary evil in every job sector, academia not excluded. What a lot of more senior and experienced people have seen is that those in grad school (US) or during the PhD (EU) don’t network, or simply interact outside of classes, with the academics that teach or support them. This is such a waste. The perception is that more senior (especially those with an immense list of titles and publications) are just too busy and too prominent to just pop an e-mail, or stop for a 5 minute chat, which might lead to a 30 minute chat. As an “insignificant junior” you wouldn’t want to impose, would you? Well, I’m afraid you’ll have to. Networking doesn’t just happen at network events. Most of it happens outside of them. When it comes to approaching academics about research specifically, they are very open to it. Most academics actually got to be academics because they do want to discuss ideas, as silly or radical as they might be. So, don’t waste this opportunity. There is nothing scary about an old, white, male academic. They can be quite nice and supportive.


The Misunderstood Genius Complex This is a stereotype which I was surprised to find in the list, and I think this stereotype might fuel the former stereotype discussed: most academics are awful “misunderstood geniuses”. This complex would then manifest itself as an academic bullying other academics, specifically younger ones. I do know academics who would like to make themselves heard, and think they are THE expert on the topic (sometimes they actually are, more often… well I need say no more). This can be annoying, but often doesn’t come from a bad place. Even if these people were experts, that gives them no free-pass to behave like an a**hole. If this behaviour ever is directed towards you, especially during a presentation of your work, you are more than entitled to tell them that if they can’t play nice, they should just leave. If you do see clear inappropriate behaviour, you are always entitled to support and protection, and might even want to have a discussion with the HR department. No one deserves to be bullied at work! I would like to emphasize that this behaviour does not represent the majority of successful academics, who you might dub as genius.


Academics are the failures from Industry I love this stereotype, because I have also so often heard the opposite: “people who left academia to work in industry just couldn’t hack it.” When push comes to shove, these fields are merging, but they are still quite different. Some people suit the academic lifestyle well, others just don’t. I think it’s mainly the lifestyle that comes with one or the other that makes people decide to switch or stay, rather than the skillset, effort, or knowledge required. A stereotype that from both sides is absolutely untrue. There are very different and very similar and overall very successful people in both sectors!


The Trajectory to Being an Academic Last Stereotype for today: the linear trajectory of being an academic. Or, there only being one trajectory to being an academic. True? Nope.

There isn’t a one-way-suits-all trajectory to a lot of jobs and careers, and academia isn’t an exception. When I started out as an MSc, who then decided to pursue a PhD, I did think there was such a linear strategy: MSc, PhD, Post-doc (maybe even 2…), apply to associate professor positions until one sticks and then work your way up to tenure and become a full-fledged professor. I do think a lot of (older) people have gone through this trajectory, maybe even a shorter version of what’s described above. However, as the market for academics is becoming quite saturated and PhD degrees are now being used to compete in industry, things seem to be changing. The linear track as described above will keep you on terrible pay and really not great working conditions for a very long time which, given the amount of training and certification you have, seems insane (now that’s privilege and desert talking!). As a result a lot of people are dropping out, and going to industry to make a name there (and make money) and then maybe eventually come back to academia not doing post-docs and associate-ships but skipping ahead, when finances and reputation allow for it. This is one, non-linear, way of doing it. The way I have just described isn’t even the only non-linear pathway to professorship, if that is even what you’re aiming for when you say you want to be “an academic.” As I’m still a young academic (PhD student), I might not be the best person to ask about alternative pathways, but there is a plethora of people who have done this, just dive into twitter!


I hope this article on stereotypes and whether they are grounded in reality was a good read. Please do tweet me @MoneyMindMerle if you’ve got any more stereotypes for me to look into, or just to share your own experiences within the world of academia!


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