Maybe You’re Just a Jealous Academic

February 20, 2017

Tim Cook for The Chronicle Review
The appropriate reaction is to be happy when people share their good news, right? Like when that friend from graduate school emails to say he’s just won a tenure-track professorship at [insert name of elite institution]. You’re not supposed to think: "Damn, that position should be mine." Or when you run into a colleague in the corridor who is perky because her book manuscript has just been accepted by a major scholarly publisher, you force a smile but you’re really thinking, "I deserve a contract. What have I got to show for my hard work?"

Any of this sound familiar? To paraphrase John Lennon, maybe you’re just a jealous researcher.

According to Sybil L. Hart, editor of the Handbook of Jealousy: Theory, Research, and Multidisciplinary Approaches: "The word jealousy stems from the Latin zelus, meaning passion."

Passion can be great, but not when it comes to jealousy. The word "jealous" implies a profound sense of bitterness toward someone who has something you want — and, perhaps, something you feel you deserve.

Very little has been written on jealousy in academic life, and yet, anecdotal evidence suggests that it is prevalent in our profession. This is unsurprising. As Chronicle readers are well aware, academe today is a place of increasingly precarious employment conditions — where the "publish or perish" mantra is more relevant than ever and the pressure to win grant money has reached fever pitch.

In such an environment, it’s little wonder that jealousy can take hold. I’ve certainly felt my share (and I herewith apologize for privately cursing those of you who got positions and/or book contracts that I wanted). Jealousy may come with the academic turf but that’s rarely a good thing. So what can we do to better manage our envy at all stages of the academic career?

Accept that you’re jealous. Don’t blame your envious feelings on a bad day or a bad week (though you may well be having one or both of those). Most important, don’t pretend those feelings aren’t there, and that everything’s fine.

Just say the words — "I’m jealous" — and you’ll be in a position to tackle the rest of these suggestions.

Recognize the state of the industry. Academe is competitive. That is as true in Australia (where I’m based) as it is everywhere else. Hundreds of seriously bright, seriously hard-working and seriously determined scholars can apply for a single position. The days of graduate students completing a doctorate and walking into a tenure-track position without working up a sweat are gone. (Did they ever exist?)

Recognizing that academe is competitive and riddled with inequalities won't make you smile. Nevertheless, it should help alleviate any fixation you might have on a person who's reaped the rewards that you so fervently desire.
And let’s face it, academe has never been a level playing field. Consider factors such as nepotism and ideological bias. Consider, too, the myriad forms of discrimination (sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism). The mere existence of campaigns such as "Why is my curriculum white?" (in Britain) suggests that even the more "progressive" parts of the academy still have some serious work to do.

Recognizing that academe is competitive and riddled with inequalities won’t (and shouldn’t!) make you smile. Nevertheless, it should help alleviate any fixation you might have on a person or persons who’ve reaped the rewards that you so fervently desire. You’re one of countless people around the world who are trying to develop (or enhance) their research careers — there’s not just one or two of us.

Focus on you. Seems obvious, right? We all know that progress in your academic career is all about putting your best foot forward. You constantly need to argue why you are the best person for this professorship, or why your project should receive funding above all others.

Remind yourself regularly: It’s unhelpful to direct resentment, envy, and anxiety at someone who has achieved some measure of success that you desire. When you do that, your energies — the ones that you could be putting into your own research and career progression — are instead being channeled into that other person. You’re focused on what they’ve done, what they’ve achieved, when what you really need to do is figure out the steps you need to take to get where you want to go.

Protect your reputation. You’re not putting your best foot forward when you rant to other researchers about how Professor X got the promotion that should have come your way.

At best, that kind of talk can paint you as sour and uncollegial. At worst, it can make you seem unprofessional and worth avoiding. I once heard a colleague indulge in just such a rant and I emerged from it thinking: "Well, what’s that person saying about me behind my back? Why would I want to work with them?"

If you do genuinely feel the need to voice your grievances, perhaps speak with a mental-health professional. I say that without a shred of sarcasm. Your mental health is paramount, plus confidentiality is assured.

Develop interests outside the academy. I almost screamed when my therapist made that recommendation. Did he realise how busy I was — what with writing lectures, marking term papers, answering student queries, producing job applications? How could I have any kind of life outside the university?

Yes, all of those activities take time. Plenty of time. Yes, they must be undertaken if you hope to avoid dropping off the scholarly radar.

That said, developing interests outside the seminar rooms and grant-writing workshops can help prevent you from becoming too entangled in the daily grind of scholarly life. Outside interests can help alleviate the strain and tension that can manifest in emotions such as jealousy.

And so, I took my therapist’s advice and purchased a gym membership. I assure you, there’s nothing like sweating it out on the leg press to temporarily block out those multiple deadlines and the heavy teaching week. Stressed about that seminar paper? Work it out on whatever hobby allows you to step outside of your academic persona.

Given that our industry is increasingly volatile, jealousy is an almost inevitable aspect of academic life. But we don’t have to let it overwhelm us.

Jay Daniel Thompson is a cultural-studies researcher who teaches at the University of Melbourne and at Victoria University in Australia. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and blogger.