Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Can A Non-Academic Become Academic on a Short Notice?

Despite having done my degrees at Yale and LSE, I am rather hesitant to consider myself academically inclined.  A year in London was mostly spent traveling around Europe and drinking in pubs, with pitifully little time spent on actual reading and writing as stipulated by the courses.  Having graduated with low grades that is unenviable for anyone pursuing career academic jobs or further studies, I took off to the business world even before the final grades were finalized and the diplomas passed out.  For the next five years, apart from a short six-month stint in Taiwan doing political search, there has been nothing academic in my resume.

Yet, somewhere, for some reason, now I am heading back to do my PhD in one of Asia's top schools, becoming part of a supposedly prestigious and highly selective all-English program that is geared toward developing global, interdisciplinary talents.  Even after being admitted to the program, sometimes I wonder whether the program selection committee made a correct choice, taking up someone whose experience clearly demonstrates a multifaceted nature not suited for 100% concentration in burying his head into piles of books in order to craft the next groundbreaking piece of research.

And that is all the more surprising considering most other people in a program like this certainly ought to be the 100% academic type.  People who do PhD do not jump into them on a whim.  Most have spent their whole lives studying, progressing steadily from a rigorous undergraduate program, to a more rigorous Master's program, and finally blossoming into a qualified PhD candidate.  In achieving the rigor, they would have no time to take career diversions, doing a multitude of different jobs and having a multitude of different, sometimes questionable experiences in different parts of the world.

Of course, having those non-academic experiences does add to the program in their own ways.  Someone who has been burying in books for the past decade of his or her life simply cannot put abstract theories together with real world examples.  Someone who has traveled the world, on the other hand, can easily pull concrete stories from his or her memories.  Those memories add colors to academic theories and make them real and relevant.  The examples bring what is erudite closer to the layman, and make faraway academic with their intellectual distance more human to the general public.

But the reality is that most academics do not speak to the general public, they speak to other academics.  And together they communicate in an abstract lingo that they see little incentive to be understood by outsiders.  For them, that unique way of communicating in unique contents understandable to only a small group of intellectual elites is what makes academia satisfying.  They see themselves the pioneers of human knowledge, spearheading human civilization in a strong push to the final frontiers of what there is to know about the world and the creatures that reside within it.

So it is in this small, elitist world that academics must learn to survive and thrive.  Those who speak in non-academic ways to a non-academic audience can find themselves not only not respected by derided for their supposed amateurish attitude toward academic studies.  And it is in this environment that I, five years outside academia, must learn to fit in.  It is a challenge by all means.  The real world has become, and continues to be, too enticing.  And to see the academic world as a departure, however temporary, from the real world, is fast becoming difficult to stomach.

Perhaps I will be proven wrong.  One on the University of Tokyo campus, and sitting in the classrooms, I will find a group of people who are inclined to see the academic program as nothing more than a stepping stone into the professional world outside the ivy towers.  But even they will have to put away at least some of their professional practicality to fit themselves into the mold of their professors, who must be passionate enough about academic knowledge to be teaching them for years and decades as a full-time job.  Perhaps my worries stated above will be shared by many others.

It will certainly be an interesting three years ahead.  Even if academics are in English, the program is in Japan will feel culturally unfamiliar.  Even if many colleagues are foreigners, the overall environment will not be foreign from the Japanese perspective.  The non-academic, however used to the idea of traveling and living in different lands, will find it strange to see the foreign environment combined with a foreign academic setting.  There will only be few days, maybe a few weeks to adjust to that strangeness before performance will be evaluated, quite rigorously.  

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