You Will Be Assimilated.

Jan 24 2014 Published by under Academia, Uncategorized

Blame Bashir for this one.

In a previous post, I talked about how I wasn't yet free of academia. How it's still got hooks in me, in the form of papers that need to be published, and that won't get published until I get them out. Bashir noted that it was like Borg.




Borg, for those not familiar, are characters in the Star Trek universe. The most quoted phrase is 'resistance is futile, you will be assimilated.' Borg are partially cybernetic and act as part of a "hive" controlled by a queen. Like metallic, slightly slimy looking bees. But smarter (though I have always wondered why they have to look slimy). If you get assimilated into the Borg, it's very hard to leave, they give you all these cybernetic implants that influence your thoughts and dampen your feelings. Freeing someone from the Borg is a difficult experience, with lots of surgeries to remove the implants (for example your organs have to relearn how to function on their own). Often it's lifelong, and you are never truly free.

In particular, consider the character Seven of Nine, from Star Trek: Voyager. She was integrated into the Borg when she was 6. Grew up and lived her whole life as Borg. She then ends up on the Voyager, and they begin taking away her cybernetic implants. She begins to function on her own and build a life for herself. But some of the implants, esp the cortical node, can't really be removed well. She always has difficulty with some things, especially emotions. But she has some advantages as well, she can always sense Borg activity, for example.

(Seven of Nine. Pity her, she had emotional issues and had to wear a LOT of catsuits. Source)

De-assimilating from the Borg does, in a way, remind me of academia.

Obviously academia does not give you cybernetic implants in grad school (though if they are, they'd BETTER come with the health plan and a decent increase in stipend). But leaving academia and its culture behind can be jarring. I had been in it, in some way, my whole life. I believed that it was the best place. It is, in many ways, great. But it's also very much its own world. Some other careers may be similar, but I've only experienced this one.

There are so many things about academia that I have assimilated, and that, via slow and sometimes painful surgeries, I have to get rid of. Instead of cybernetic implants, maybe I shed them in a different way. Shreds of lab coat here, a nitrile glove there. A few examples:

1. I'm learning the outside way of behaving professionally. Emails in academia could get very passive aggressive or just out and out aggressive. Thankfully, it's a minority of people who do it, but in academia, that kind of behavior (along with other kinds of bad behavior) is often allowed to perpetuate, as long as the science is good.  I know you don't do that on the outside. I know people who feel physically sick checking their email sometimes. I still catch myself questioning many emails I receive. Was it meant to be snarky? Is there another way to interpret that? What did I do? At the same time, though, I know I shouldn't need to be handled with kid gloves.

I also don't seem to know how to communicate casually, yet professionally. I alternate between hyper-formal, ultra passive prose, and one-liners. I know there's a happy medium in there somehow, but I'm still learning where it is.

2. I don't know when to quit. If you don't have every spare minute in academia filled (and by spare, I mean til at least 1am every night, a family can count as a hobby), you are not doing enough. Find more things to do. More projects, more grants, more papers. Outside, well, don't overload yourself! Because if you do, you do everything worse. Better to do less, and do it well. This is still a major, major shock to my system. My gut is always telling me to do more and more and more.

3. I don't know how to take criticism. Or rather, I know how I SHOULD take criticism. I know I do not take it well. This is odd, because I remember a time when I took criticism well. I did a lot of theater and music, it was something you HAD to take well. I took it, I improved, worked harder, fixed things, and did better. Sometime during grad school, however, criticism began to paralyze me. Every critique felt like a critique of me, as a scientist. Since a scientist was what I WAS, all criticism began to feel like criticism of me, as a person. Sometimes it was indeed phrased that way. You are careless. You are not smart enough, why don't you get this?! You are not focused.

I remember once, my aunt asked me what peer review was. I explained, and to show what I meant, handed her a review of one of my manuscripts. When she handed it back, she was on the verge of tears. She asked how they could be so mean to me. It was an accept with minor revisions. But it was full of things like "the authors do not grasp...", "the authors fail to state...", "the authors smell..." (ok, no). And I remembered when I first read that review. How my heart sank and my stomach hurt and my PI had to TELL me is was accepted. Because it surely did not say that anywhere on there.

Before academia, I would have taken criticism and said "I can be more careful, I will work on focus. Intelligence will just have to deal." But after academia...criticism still makes me work harder, but I first spend a period completely paralyzed by panic. Panic, gnawing self doubt, and shame. Why couldn't I do better? What's wrong with me? Why am I such a terrible person? Why am I not smart enough? Isn't there a way to make myself more careful, more smart? Outside of academia, I am relearning to take criticism. It is a long process.

4. When the professional is often personal. Not that there weren't professional standards in academia of course. But when all your colleagues are all your friends (and often your only friends) and are often also your significant others, well, things get mixed up. There were colleagues you couldn't work with because your friend had divorced them and it got ugly. And of course, you're all talking about work outside of work. Often, you feel like you don't know HOW to talk anything else but shop.  Academia was my life. Soon you just become wrapped up in it, and everything else begins to lose importance. Outside, I've been relearning perspective.

5. You can be positive. So much of academia is based in criticism. It's important criticism. Science would not advance if we just said things looked nice and sent it along. You have to probe, you have to say "that's unacceptable with an n=3," you have to say "that explanation isn't adequate." It's incredibly important. But it also, over time, can make people really negative. Things you screw up become "how could you!?" and things you did right...well they were what you should be doing and deserve no praise. I've observed before that only academia could turn successes into mere not-failures. If you DIDN'T see something wrong with that talk you were just at, well obviously you don't know anything about the field! Too gullible!  Cynicism makes you look smart.

This isn't the case outside. I love that I can be enthusiastic about my ideas...and that's ok! Other people are too! We work with ideas and refine them, rather than ripping them apart before building them again. The net result may end up the same. But the process is so much sunnier. Even when people don't like your idea, they say "well, I don't think we're interested in that," as opposed to "how could you attempt something so stupid." People are congratulated on their achievements...and you feel they HAVE done something good. Sure, it's your job, it's what you are supposed to be doing, but you're good at it, and that deserves praise. This, above everything else, has made me happy to be where I am.

I'm sure there are others, pieces of academia that I will shed over time. But I hope I keep the positive things. Seven of Nine could sense Borg. She could also act without panic in a crisis. I hope I will keep my academic remnants, my training, my questioning, my background and my ability to do research. I hope I will keep some of my cynicism, so I remember to look for the flaws and stick to careful interpretations. There are advantages to assimilation, after all.

7 responses so far

  • Bashir says:

    heheheh more Trek the better.

  • Geoffrey says:

    Doing the "almost-full-time-at-work-but also taking computer science grad classes" thing and flitting back and forth between the two worlds on a daily basis has been...interesting.

    As for figuring out workplace emails...I offer this for your Borg research powers:

    It's a CS paper by a professor I had last semester, doing textual analysis of hundreds of thousands of corporate emails. From Enron, so he actually had to correct for Evil in the experiment design. 🙂

  • KateClancy says:

    I can relate to 1000% percent of this, which is maybe why I so often feel uncomfortable as an academic. AARRRRGH.

    Thanks for writing -- it's nice to hear your perspective, and the ways you are healing, and the cool things you are able to do now. 🙂

  • My experience has been that none of those things are general features of academia as opposed to non-academic professions, and are much more correlated with particular individuals/institutions. And I do get that now that you are gone from academia, it makes you feel better to think about how much better everything is outside academia. But academia is no different on structural grounds from any other highly competitive winner-takes-all profession: art, writing, law, business, journalism, sports, etc.

    • Anonymous PhysioProfFan says:

      THIS.^^^ she forgot "insular" and "encouraging of self-delusion, self-doubt, or self-absorption in individuals yet highly subject to of groupthink where major decisions about individuals are concerned", but THIS.^^

  • Tara says:

    Resistance is futile! Seriously though, you sound as though you're transitioning okay -- at least you're aware of what is different.

  • usymmons says:

    Love the analogy 🙂 And I totally agree. For example, talking about work outside of work. In my first lab it was kind of taboo to talk about sciency stuff at lunch, which I hated. But then, in grad school, I was so happy to be around other nerds, I slowly got dragged into almost exclusively talking about work. At some point I figured that I was completely out of touch with reality and could barely make conversation with non-scientists. So now I really make an effort to follow what goes on in the world (although I still try to avoid politics 😉 I am kind of hopeful though that if you recognise these aspects of academic life, you can actively work against them (like going home at 10pm rather than 1am, and then reading a book, not a paper...).

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