What makes someone pursue an academic job?


I’m 3.5 years through a PhD in a department where PhDs take 5.5 years on average. I’ve been thinking about what to do next. Many of my mentors have suggested an academic career. I’ve tried to unpack what it is that motivates people to take pursue an academic career as a way to help me understand if it would be a good fit for me and my goals.

My personal enquiry has led me to believe that there are five motivations (which I will call “pillars” to sound more sure of myself) that lead people to become academics. The academics I know recognize at least two of these pillars as part of their own motivation. Often they recognize three. Usually they recognize at least one as the motivation of other academics, and sometimes they find them irrelevant or repugnant.

Pillar I: Discovery. The joy of delving into the unknown. To say something is “unknown” is often linked with the idea of being the only person to know something, which is an excellent segue to the next pillar.

Pillar II: Ego. When you’re a PI, you get your name of a lab website. You get your name on papers. You get to be the first one to discover stuff. You strive to be the top person, the most notable person in your field.

Pillar III:** Contribution.** By “contribution” I mean doing something that will improve the world. This selfless motivation is, to my eyes, intimately tied up with ego, since, to believe that you can make a substantial contribution as an academic, it means that you think that you have great ideas that other people don’t have and that you can only implement in the unusual academic ecosystem.

Pillar IV: Not being part of a hierarchy. This means both independence (not having a boss) and some sort of mild anarchism (not being a boss).

Pillar V: Education and mentorship. This pillar is different from the other ones. I went to a liberal arts college where this was a central motivation for most of the faculty to take academic jobs. I’m still shellshocked by the relative apathy that the other large institutions I’ve been at have given to undergraduate education. This being said, I’ve heard from multiple academics that mentorship –being part of the intellectual life and personal growth of 20-something-year-old graduate students– was a critical part of their motivation for pursuing an academic job.

Articulating these pillars helped me understand what parts of an academic job excited me, which ones did not excite me, and how motivations for pursuing academic jobs relate to and contrast against other kinds of jobs.