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Strategies for understanding and navigating the “academic underlife”

Newcomers to the academy do not necessarily or immediately find its rules easy to grasp.


Academia, like any of the social and political worlds we inhabit or study, operates within sets of rules, normative practices and expectations. While there are of course official policies and practices governing academic life – found in institutional policies, guidelines, performance records, and the like – many of the norms and social rules are informal, unstated, ambiguous, and may come as a surprise to newcomers. This includes graduate students, postdoctoral trainees and junior faculty.

Newcomers to the academy do not necessarily or immediately find its rules evident to grasp. This could be especially true for someone from a different career who is resuming studies as a mature student, or someone who had a nontraditional path into graduate studies. Since there is generally little discussion about the social organization of the academy in graduate school, we commonly figure out how the “academic underlife” works in situ, through trial and error. Over time we develop insider understandings and an organizational literacy that lead us to know how things work, including what relevance prevailing social arrangements have for our academic life and wellbeing.

An important part of in situ learning about the academic underlife involves developing critical consciousness about the difference between the normative discourse on academic life and what studying and working in the academy feels like. For example, in an idealized portrayal of academia, teaching and researching are commonly represented as equally valued, where research, represented as scholarly and scientific, takes place within relations of collaboration and shared exploration. However, particularly in large, research-intensive universities, teaching and research are generally not equally weighted. The research enterprise can also be more competitive than is publicly acknowledged. We see that time allocated to teaching, research and service activities often play out differently than how this triad is stipulated in employment contracts or in the material conditions of our workdays.

Explore and analyze norms

While this dissonance between policy and practice might be confusing or even produce anxiety for academic newcomers, such discrepancy or tension also offers opportunities to explore the informal and understated norms and contingent rules that colour and fashion academic lives. For example, the idea of the “hidden curriculum” in medical education refers to knowledge students acquire informally through socialization. While this sort of learning might not be publicly discussed or acknowledged, it is nonetheless critical to learning how to become a doctor.

A similar hidden curriculum resides in the learning that is needed to become an academic. Strategies we have found valuable in this leaning process are to practice distinguishing between the different roles and social statuses that people occupy within a university, and also to practice building understandings about the different relations, rationales, politics and rewards that are attached to the various social spaces that people occupy. Like any other social and political institution, the academy is an amalgam of various sorts of people working in a workplace hierarchy. Turning sustained analytic attention to our workplace can enhance our understanding of the relationships between people in various social and organizational locations.

Look at academic roles in relation to others

Reflexive consideration of the academy from the social standpoints of different actors within it has helped both of us to begin to understand how academia works, including what is at stake for those around us (and for ourselves). A pre-tenure faculty member will tend to prioritize activities that are valuable for tenure assessment, for example. She might participate with some reserve in longer-term activities or so-called “low value” undertakings. A graduate student’s performance reflects on his supervisor, and that can significantly affect, for better or worse, the relationship between the two. Administrators and faculty members have different responsibilities and accountabilities, which can place them at odds with each other. It is also helpful to know that what happens at academic conferences is as much about the reporting of research results as it is about self-representation and social positioning.

Understanding what motivates and constrains the constellation of individuals that populate and make the university work – students, faculty, administrative personnel, among other people – is a critical part of effectively participating in the academic world. A way to do this is to talk with, listen to and otherwise connect with people who occupy various positions within the academy. There is literature exploring academia as a subject of research from the perspectives of the wide diversity of actors working within it, including, for example, women, persons of colour, or persons from poverty or working-class origins (see references section). Writing of this sort provides thought-provoking context for social and political currents that shape contemporary academic life.

A practical strategy for understanding and navigating academic life is to carve out and cultivate a place within an intellectual community. Such alliance with others can sustain and enrich our academic life in the short and long terms, and can open up opportunities that we might not have known about had we not taken steps to nurture connections with colleagues. Developing awareness and sensibilities around social position and connecting with colleagues can enhance our ability to understand our own position within academia so that we might align our personal interests, situations and career trajectories in ways that best suit us.

Dr. Bisaillon is assistant professor of health studies, at the University of Toronto Scarborough. Dr. Eakin is professor emerita and former director of the Centre for Critical Qualitative Health Research at the University of Toronto. This article was adapted from an invited talk they gave together to doctoral students at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health.


Craggs, R., & Mahoney, M. (2014). The geographies of the conference: Knowledge, performance, and protest. Geography Compass, 8(6), 414-430.

Darville, R. (1995). Literacy, experience, power. In M. Campbell & A. Manicom (Eds.), Knowledge, Experience and Ruling Relations: Studies in the Social Organization of Knowledge(pp. 249-262). Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Hafferty, F. (1998). Beyond curriculum reform: Confronting medicine’s hidden curriculum. Academic Medicine, 73(4), 403-407.

Naples, N. (1996). The ‘Outsider Phenomenon’ in Rural Iowa. In C. Smith & W. Kornblum (Eds.), In the Field: Readings on the Field Research Experience. (2nd ed., pp. 139-149). New York: Praeger.

Ryan, J., & Sackrey, C. (1996) (2nd ed.). Strangers in Paradise: Academics From the Working Class. Lanham: University Press of America.

Tokarczyk, M., & Fay, E. (1993) (Eds.), Working-class Women in the Academy: Laborers in the Knowledge Factory. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Zingaro, L. (2009). Speaking Out: Storytelling for Social Change. Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press.

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