One of the biggest stumbling blocks I faced every time I thought about leaving academia is that I began with the question ‘Am I smart enough to do this?’ Somehow it seemed easier to be able to answer that question – that if I could just say ‘No, no, I’m not smart enough for this wonderful institution’, I would be able to leave without a backward glance. I did this for the longest time – and sometimes the answer would be yes and other times no. I never got to the point where I had a definite answer either way. Now I see that not only is it the wrong question, it’s a trick question.


There is no one way to ‘do’ academia, there are teaching universities, research universities, places that combine both, and I can pretty much guarantee that there is a place somewhere for you to be an academic at the level you’re at (which may not be the level you want to be at or think you’re at, but that’s a subject for another post). Almost anyone who has managed to get through 16 + years of education and get into grad school can do it given the right training and mentoring (whether you have access to them or can get them is also the subject of another post. I’m not saying that everyone has access to mentoring, but assuming you do, your level of smarts is not going to be the deciding factor in your ability to survive academia).

Notice I did say almost – the system is not perfect and there are a few people who are simply not capable of doing any type of research or teaching, but they are rare so let’s just leave that situation aside. Though I do understand the temptation to believe that you are that one person who has managed to hide their addled brain from every member of the education system they’ve interacted with – until that fateful moment when they are taking their comprehensive exams/defending their dissertation/giving a job talk and their dissertation chair/department chair / random-faculty-member-who-hates-their-guts bursts into the room waving a sheet of paper ‘We just found this, it says you have an IQ of 18, and confirms what we thought all along. You are the village idiot’. Not that I’ve replayed this particular scenario in my mind in excruciating detail or anything – why do you ask?

Anyway, moving along, – this question of whether I was smart enough, it was just a lovely way to put my life on a pendulum for a decade or so. Back and forth I went on one long, crazy ride. Yesterday I was smart enough, good enough and gosh darnit people like me (to paraphrase Stuart Smalley) and I was going to be an academic for the rest of my life. Today, today I found out the truth, I really have an IQ of 18, I’m stupid, worthless and will never ever get anywhere in life, it would be better if I just left now to start my next career as a dog walker.

Then things changed – I started getting feedback that I was smart enough, I finished my dissertation, got a coveted position as an Assistant Professor, began to hold my own with well known members of my field, got a paper through 2 rounds of review at the journal – you know, the one that lets everyone in the field know that you have arrived. I began to have my own personal Sally Field moments – ‘they like me, they really like me’. My belief that I was a complete moron just wasn’t being supported by the data. I had the answer, I was smart enough, I could stay in academia! Great! I finally had my answer! I could buckle down, focus and make this my life! Wasn’t this wonderful! Except for the fact that I developed an unnatural attachment to a bottle of Gin and also a bad case of ADHD as far as my research was concerned. Every time I sat down to work on my research I wanted to weep from boredom. I tried to force myself to work on it for a few more years and eventually had to accept that this was not something I wanted to do with my time (that last sentence took me about 3 years to figure out and admit out loud).

The other day I stumbled upon this quote about how one knows that one is smart enough to do science: ‘ The length of time it takes me to solve a problem never exceeds the length of time that I am interested in it.’ Read the post here. I love that answer because it has very little do with how smart you are and focuses on how long you remain interested in the question. I was frequently smart enough to solve the problems, but wasn’t consistently interested in it for long periods of time. That was the problem, not whether I was smart enough or not. But for some reason, I did not allow myself to see that. If you’re reading this hoping to find out if you’re smart enough for academia – stop wasting your time and ask yourself a different question.

Advertisements