A Dissertation Is Just A Term Paper (And Other Myths)

Sep 8 2014

It's high time we poke fun at some of the misperceptions non-academic people have about scholarly work, professorships, and the daily grind of academia.

"I'm working on my dissertation"

An academic hears: I'm neck-deep in one of the most difficult projects I've ever imagined. I constantly feel unsure of myself, overwhelmed, underprepared, and uncertain about the future. The word "committee" strikes fear in my heart, and I actually sweat every time someone says "defense."

Everyone else hears: I'm grousing about a late term paper.

"I did some research on it..."

An academic hears: I can recite the names of the major scholars in the field, and cite their major accomplishments. I have read several peer-reviewed journal articles on that topic, and currently have several books checked out of the library, too. I'm stalled reading one because I have to translate it from a foreign language, and that slows me down a bit.

Everyone else hears: I googled that once.

"I just got tenure"

And academic hears: For the last several years I have been speaking, researching, teaching, and writing. I've submitted dozens of articles to the most respected journals and academic publishers. And finally my peers have judged me capable enough to warrant full professorship. Next up: Writing that book I've been putting off.

Everyone else hears: I'm not a good teacher, but at least now I can glide my way to retirement.

"I'm teaching all grad classes this semester"

An academic hears: Thanks to the good will of the department chair, I have an entire semester with the best and most brilliant students. I can look forward to stimulating classes with students actually interested in the material I teach, and I will probably make it through an entire three months with nobody's third grandmother dying.

Everyone else hears: I'm teaching night-school to a bunch of MBA wannabes who think an extra degree will get them that six-figure salary.

"I just got published in the Excellent Journal of My Field!"

An academic hears: Due to scholarly excellence, tons of research, a summer without a vacation, a TA's digging, and a weekend writing retreat, I just accomplished a major goal. I'm eagerly awaiting the feedback of my peers, whom I hope will read this article and find it worthy of discussion. Has anyone cited it yet?

Everyone else hears: My writing style is so stilted and complex that the only publisher I could find was some stuffy and obscure magazing that couldn't even afford a picture on the cover.

"I received a grant for research"

An academic hears: After writing lengthy applications for a scant amount of money, I may be able to skip teaching that 100-level class this summer and instead focus on a topic that I am passionate about.

Everyone else hears: I'm so unhappy with my pay that I begged someone else for money.

"I'm on sabbatical"

An academic hears: I'm working on a book, and have a semester devoted to library research and writing. I'll be sequestered in my study if you need me. But only call if it's a big emergency. I really want to get this manuscript done before the next term starts.

Everyone else hears: I'm on a long vacation, and I'll probably be at the beach working on my tan and drinking Mai Tais.

"I have a 3-3 course load"

An academic hears: With committee work and wrapping up that journal article, teaching a full load both semesters is going to result in my delaying the new book that I really need to write if I am going to stay on track for tenure. If I get a TA assigned, maybe I'll scrape together enough time to at least begin research.

Everyone else hears: I only have to work a 9 hour week.