On Being Kind in Academia

Funding is scarce, jobs are few and competition is fierce, but can’t we all just be friends? Probably not, but it we won’t hurt if try to be kind, on the contrary…

A terrifying place called ‘Academia’?

I have been in the academia for a while now and have the experience of studying in two culturally quite different education systems, as well taking part in some international and cross-cultural academic programmes and projects. Over the time, I have had the opportunity to meet many remarkably nice and warm people, and to enjoy a genuinely friendly and encouraging atmosphere. Sadly, I got familiar with the other side as well – academics being bitter, resentful and overtly hostile to each other. Although I suppose this is the case with every other professional niche as well, I feel that is particularly necessary to address it in relation to PhD studies. Reading articles about academic life would make anyone feel uneasy. As if doing PhD alone is not challenging enough, we get overwhelmed (well, at least I was) by numerous horror stories on abusive supervisors, back-stabbing colleagues, ill-disposed administrative staff… Not to mention the second reviewer (for a good laugh, check out http://twitter.com/YourPaperSucks) and external examiner, a mythical blood-thirsty creatures.

Is it the system or the people?

Unfortunately, it’s not all fables; the worrying statistics show that both students and staff in the academia suffer from bad physical and mental health, and depression and isolation come hand in hand with doctoral studies. Moreover, at moments it seems that being kind has become such a rare and unusual phenomenon that it needs to be recorded (if you haven’t already, check out the Academic Kindness stories) or even researched (e.g. Clegg & Rowland 2010)?!

Does academia somehow attract people who are more prone to being aggressive or inconsiderate? Or is it the case that being so long in the system affects our behaviour, perhaps even our personal values and turns us into… less agreeable human specimens? The Thesis Whisperer published an interesting post related to this issue, discussing the idea that competitive and antisocial behaviour yields higher success rates in academic environment. ‘Nasty cleverness’ is perceived as respectable and powerful; such individuals build their reputation (and, therefore, their academic CVs), much faster than their more timid, not to say kinder, colleagues. Supervisors and mentors who behave like academic a**holes educate new generations of academics, who then learn that this is the easiest way to gain institutional power. As a result, we experience an unhealthy working and studying environment, which many of us are looking forward to leave behind as soon as they graduate.

Tilting at the windmills?

I am reluctant to fully agree with this view of the current situation, but it would be a lie to say I haven’t recognised some of these patterns. However, I do not believe I need to follow them, regardless of the career path I end up pursuing after the PhD. I have met many successful and reputable academics, whose kindness I have admired more than hostility and arrogance of some of their colleagues, despite perhaps more stellar academic record of the latter.

 Mitt bidrag till FotosöndagImage credits: Kristina Alexanderson/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I was fortunate enough to experience the academic kindness on many occasions. I particularly remember a potential supervisor whom I contacted almost two years ago, insecure and pretty much despairing at the time; they have invested so much time and effort in encouraging me and guiding me through the PhD application process. Although I have not enrolled at that university in the end, this person still gets in touch to check if I’m doing okay. I have had people from other departments helping me with literature review in a field I was not familiar with, colleagues driving me to job interviews, helping me find accommodation, offering feedback on my work, sharing funding application calls even if it meant we would be competing against each other. I have had lovely random Internet people  (lets go with LRIP?) helping me overcome innumerable difficulties and hack adult life, which I am really bad at (thank you, LRIP, you’re awesome!). All these little things add up to something really big and important – my PhD experience is positive and more enjoyable and, consequently, I am more than happy to treat the other people in this way, too.

Academic kindness does not necessarily involve grand heroic deeds, I think we can be all be heroes by responding promptly to urgent emails, sharing that one article somebody desperately needs or an important Call for Papers, starting a conversation with that person scared-looking person in the coffee break, by not giving monologues in conference Q&A sessions, not using up all the paper from the printer without replacing it, by thinking more about the words we say and how these might affect other people. Or, sometimes, by saying “Hang in there” or just offering to listen when a colleague has one of those days when nothing goes wells. It might not seem as much, but it’s a start!

What are your thoughts on academic kindness?

Is it dead or there is still hope for us? 🙂

I’d love to read some academic kindness stories in the comments section!

Ana Kedveš (@anakedves)

5 thoughts on “On Being Kind in Academia

  1. Reblogged this on and commented:
    This is such a good article! PhD life is so tough, surrounding yourself with positive people makes it somewhat easier. We need an organisational culture change! Be the change you wish to see in the world.

    1. Hi,
      I’m glad to hear you enjoyed reading it. I absolutely agree, it’s challenging enough even without other people being unkind. Good luck with your your journey, I hope it’s surrounded with a lot of kindness. 🙂

      Ana, PhD Life

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