My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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the demons

I’m often told that academics chase their demons. They study what they can’t understand in themselves, following their demons out of a desire for resolution.

I’ve also noticed that many of my professional colleagues work to avoid their demons. They travel to outrun them and work so excessively in fear that their demons may confront them.

I started wondering what it means to be a workaholic academic. Does it mean that you’re chasing your demons as they chase you? Or does it mean that you find masochistic joy in constantly facing those demons? Or does it mean that you become your demons?

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9 comments to the demons

  • Rayne

    Third time in a week I’ve thought of Nietzsche: He who fights against monsters should see to it that he does not become a monster in the process. And when you stare persistently into an abyss, the abyss also stares into you. Hmm.

  • On the other hand, how well do students and professors do, who do not work obsessively — who maintain a life outside their specialty, who do not express the pressure of time and the inordinate demands placed on them at every turn? How well would a student do, who didn’t make it look like she was working hard? How long would a tenure-track academic last, who didn’t teach three classes, who published papers too quickly and made her colleagues look bad?

    How many Ph.D.-level graduate students are not depressed?

  • “He who fights against monsters should see to it that he does not become a monster in the process. And when you stare persistently into an abyss, the abyss also stares into you.”

    This is what Nils Bohr would call a great truth. Beautiful quote, didn’t know it was Nietzsche.

    “I started wondering what it means to be a workaholic academic.”

    Now you made me ask myself, what does it mean to be called a workaholic. What are the characteristics of a workoholic academic?

  • David Molnar

    Part of the “workaholic academic” phenomenon is that in principle, we are doing exactly the work we love to do. Why else would we stick it out through graduate school? Further, to a degree rivaled only by entrepreneurs and the self-employed, we can set our own hours and our own agenda. This makes it harder to just leave work “at the door” – first, it’s not always “work,” and second, there is no “door.”

    Mor Harchol-Balter has an essay on applying to grad schools and the grad school experience that’s worth reading in this context.
    http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~harchol/gradschooltalk.pdf

    Of course, in practice the work we love to do doesn’t quite always end up that way. It’s widely remarked how filling out grant applications, for example, is one of the worst parts of a professional academic’s job. Then there’s the tenure crunch and the up-or-out dynamic of academic hiring (assuming you’re fortunate enough to land a tenure-track job at all). These actually aren’t the parts I’m seriously worried about. Every job has its ugly and tedious parts, and while tenure is scary as hell, you can get fired from other jobs too. Of course, I’m going through my fair share of this kind of stuff, but it seems manageable.

    I start becoming alarmed when I figure that I’ve stopped wondering about the questions that drew me to my field and start worrying about the professional aspects. When it’s no longer “gee that’s cool” but “what gets me a paper in the right conference,” that’s a problem. When I feel in danger of losing my love for the work I do, that’s when I figure I need to do something, anything, even if I don’t always know what. Fortunately for me, this hasn’t been so bad recently…

  • randomtruth

    “It’s only work if there’s someplace else you’d rather be.”

    – George Halas as quoted by Bernie Siegel

  • I don’t know in my case if it is demons, as much as a variation of apophenia(no pun intended). While I am quite bored and content to work my job as a (in)security guard, I enjoy it better when I can read, watch, and listen to the news and then see what I can get out of it. A different way of looking at it, thoughts from another angle, etc. Some people might call that demons, since I can draw out how current events are connected, but couldn’t tell you if Brad and Jen are still married.

  • Tim Wu

    Being a workalcoholic academic makes for a unstable identity. You start to worry about things that don’t really matter much. Worse, you might begin to take yourself (as opposed to your interests)seriously.

  • nicole

    I think there is an inherent component of “workoholism” in academe due to the blurred (non existent?) boundaries between “work” and “not work.” To some, this in itself is workaholism. When is an academic not working? Very rarely. ie Sunday morning finds me reading the New York Times. I mention an article during lecture tuesday afternoon. Was I working Sunday morning?

  • Erin

    I’ve been reading and enjoying your page for several months now. I love this post for many reasons not the least of which is that my end of semester paper is on this subject.
    Thank you so much for this post!