As a research fellow and PhD candidate at a German university I am, for better or worse, part of a world called academia. Entering and navigating this world means understanding the specific social codes and languages by which it is structured, learning the dos and don’ts of writing emails to academic bigwigs, appreciating the value of conference small talk and that „fake it till you make it“ is sometimes really more than just a saying. Though the academic mode doesn’t always come natural to me, I have learned to switch it on (and off) when need be.
However, not even in my fiercest academic mode can I laugh about the various PhD cartoons, memes, GIFs, and funny tweets that float around the internet and make their way into our PhD WhatsApp group, followed by their litany of LOLing emojis, or onto the walls of our office doors, where nods and grins are guaranteed.
Maybe it’s me. Though I normally consider myself a fairly humorous person, I just don’t chuckle to myself when I see a cartoon that depicts young, constantly overworked scholars suffering from slowly crumbling self-confidence. I don’t knowingly smirk when I read tweets such as „Deep down, academics want the same thing as everyone else: acceptance, with minor revisions.“ I don’t even want to identify with memes suggesting PhD candidates live solely off coffee and/or alcohol, have permanent writing guilt and no life apart from work. In the best case, academics are depicted as just plain awkward. In the worst case, we are nervous wrecks who scrape a living doing research on a niche topic nobody really cares about anyway (and really, if that’s what you want, why not just watch the infinitely more charming 1941 screwball comedy Ball of Fire). It’s all just delightful.
I know, I know. These are jokes, deliberate exaggerations, not to be taken too seriously. RELAX. Maybe they do offer comic relief to some (or rather, many) who often feel stressed and overworked. I even understand how sharing these memes can function as a sort of glue that helps strengthening the bonds of the (often young) academic community: We all panic, we all procrastinate. Let’s all break out in nervous laughter, because we are all in this together! And we are self-ironic! HA HA.
But isn’t this precisely the problem? Carrie Bradshaw style, I can’t help but wonder: Is laughing together about sad-funny memes the new rite of passage of the academic field? What if you don’t laugh (or cry, for that matter) when you scroll through „24 Academic Tweets You should totally read instead of finishing the grant proposal that's due by midnight“ on BuzzFeed? Are you still in this?
I wouldn’t mind these memes/GIFs/cartoons so much if I could just consider them boring in-jokes, awkwardly self-referential and self-pitying. Whatever. Teachers, doctors and artists all have their own fair share of overworked or underappreciated job-related lolz. What bothers me with academia memes however is that they reiterate and manifest a normative image of the (young) scholar, and, en passant, jokingly downplay an unhealthy work life. Academia is one of those highly competitive and precarious professional fields in which imposter syndrome is a given, and actual cases of burnout or depression are not uncommon. So how is it funny to share a meme that, translated into literalism, says simply I AM CONSTANTLY OVERWORKED? It’s not. It means that we secretly pride ourselves on such a lifestyle. And that’s rather troubling.
Let me end on a more positive note. Doing research is actually very fun. We read a lot. We write a lot. It’s a cool job. We can do better than academia memes. Or at the very least let there be more ridiculous but wonderful memes of llamas quoting French Critical Theory.
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