One of academia’s very favorite myths is that everything within it is based on merit. Only the best students are accepted to the graduate program. The best students get fellowships and scholarships. The best students get the best jobs. The best work gets published. The best candidates get tenure.
And then there’s the flip side: If you didn’t get in to the program of your choice, it’s because you weren’t good enough. If you didn’t get the assistance that would have enabled you to actually get through the program, it’s because you didn’t work hard enough or you weren’t smart enough. If you didn’t get a job, it’s because you weren’t savvy enough, weren’t skilled enough, didn’t publish enough or strategically, didn’t have the right people behind you. If you didn’t get published, it’s because either your work was crap or you weren’t persistent enough. If you didn’t get tenure, you’re clearly not cut out for this system.
Even when we choose to walk away, these stories of failure dog us. (In our own minds, if nowhere else.) Leave before tenure? It’s because you couldn’t hack it. Decided not to go on the job market because you didn’t want to stay in academia? You wouldn’t have gotten a job anyway. Decided not to finish graduate school because it’s making you hate the universe? You weren’t smart enough to finish.
Excuse my language, but this is all a fucking load of steaming crap.
Even a cursory look around the academic landscape will reveal dozens of people you know personally who are brilliant, savvy, hard-working, and persistent and who have not “succeeded” in all of the ways academia suggests they will, what with all of those meritorious traits.
Brilliant and well-published graduate students who can’t find a job to save their lives because the job market sucks.
Smart, interesting researchers who don’t get published because their work doesn’t quite fit the neat little boxes of disciplines and journals or because they aren’t in the middle of the latest hot topic or trend.
Fabulous researchers and teachers who didn’t get tenure because they got caught in the gender politics of service.
I’m not saying that merit has no place in academia. But I am saying that, by the time we’re even as far as graduate school, absent true outliers, the differences between the “best” and the “worst” are, in some ways, often too small to be meaningful. Academia has been winnowing the pool since kindergarten, after all.
I am saying that the myth of merit doesn’t do us any favors. It doesn’t make most of us feel expansive and energized — it makes us feel small and scared and clenched. It doesn’t motivate most of us — it makes us avoidant and procrastinating and miserable. It doesn’t build us up — it makes us live in fear that, any day now, someone is going to figure out that we aren’t as smart as they think we are, and then they’ll kick us out.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t see a lot of merit to that situation.
We need to be suspicious of the myth of merit. We need to pay attention to how much outright luck contributes to “success” and “failure” in academia. We need to cut ourselves some fucking slack and begin to imagine that we are, in fact, smart, capable, wonderful people who, for various reasons, had a certain set of experiences with academia, some of which we had something to do with and some of which we didn’t.