Reinventing Academia

I’m a lifelong learner and student, and have spent about 24 years in school. My stint at Stanford consisted of seven years. The first two years I worked as assistant to the late and inimitable Steve Schneider, who later became my doctoral advisor. When he died unexpectedly in 2010, life changed for me and I began to see, without his caring guidance and support, that life in academia was, well, madness. I was surrounded by people perpetuating a system that hurt them. Here’s a laundry list of what I observed about academic culture:

  • Academics in research universities do a several types of work, including teaching, research, mentoring, and serving on committees, but they are ultimately evaluated with the most weight given to the number of publications, so they are always under pressure to publish, and tend to think in terms of publications
  • Scholars, including grad students and professors, don’t sleep much and by that I mean about four hours per night
  • Very rarely do academics show emotion, in fact it seems to be a taboo
  • Underneath the stoicism, most academics are overcomitted and working very frenetically to keep up with all their projects; at Stanford we call this The Duck Syndrome – it is associated with suicide…
  • Academics don’t know how to say no and are often overextended
  • Academics tend to be perfectionists who are afraid of reviewers and others finding mistakes in their work
  • As much as scholars may collaborate, there is a hierarchy and set of protocols  that can disadvantage students and their creative spirit
  • Grad students are at the bottom of the totem pole; postdocs are in a sort of limbo twilight zone; both constitute cheap and sometimes free labor
  • Being on tenure track is a bit like chemotherapy: it almost kills you so you can have your own life back
  • The pay for postdocs is dismal and discouraging, and even for professors the salary can be meager depending on the field, especially when compared to the long hours they put in
  • Many people in academia are stressed and chronically ill
  • There isn’t enough explicit discourse about much of the above

During my graduate student career, I became aware of these issues and that resulted in my departure from academia immediately after obtaining my doctorate. I loved many things about being in a university, and I still do some of them, like teach, mentor, and conduct research, but from the fringes.

I didn’t want to participate in a system that made people sick and treated them according to what the hierarchical system dictated. Worse, I didn’t want to work with people who didn’t love themselves enough to challenge that system. I created a system that would be different. A system that I could thrive in and from which I could support others. That system led to the development of Alchemus Prime. It also led to the development of our Career Manifestation Program, where we help individuals, teams, and organizations master win-win solutions for people and planet as they meet their own personal, professional, financial, and service goals.

Recently my perspective was affirmed in an article about the stress climate scientists encounter and the need for wellness and mindfulness in the lives of scientists. Steve’s spouse, Terry, and I were both interviewed for the article.

I would be remiss though if I didn’t offer what I perceive to be potential solutions to these challenges, for the sake of not only academics who are suffering, but the institutions too, which I consider to be important hives of learning, ripe for transformation.

Here is what might help, based on the Alchemus Prime Diamond Model, which integrates behavior change, design thinking, biomimicry, and meditation:

  • A non-hierarchical platform where collaboration and creativity are valued more than rank and publication
  • Fair compensation that enables academics to make a good living without inordinate amounts of stress
  • Metrics that don’t prioritize peer-reviewed publications above all, and that don’t necessitate superhuman levels of work, but include unstructured time for creativity, invention, rest, idleness, and play
  • Incentives that incorporate personal wellness and teamwork with professional advancement for students, professors, postdocs, staff…everyone
  • Open fora where suggestions can be made for how to improve work-life balance
  • Workshops for how to balance work and life that include exercises that build self-efficacy, teach biomimetic skills, and integrate design thinking processes
  • Various types of meditation classes and sessions available throughout the day and evening
  • Outdoor seating options for class sessions as well as short outdoor contemplation breaks built into class designs
  • Open fora where people at all levels can discuss their emotions, ego, fears, and progress (suppression of emotion leads to a host of ills).

It’s very uplifting to note that some small steps are visible. I have friends at Stanford who are embracing yoga and other practices for their personal wellness, and are sharing those practices with others. The establishment of the Windhover Center, where academics can go to meditate, is a beautiful milestone at Stanford. The Health Improvement Program (HIP) includes some wonderful offerings, and is where I began my love affair with Reiki, but is currently only available to employees…why not scholars?

It’s also heartening to know that Dr. Emma Seppälä works on campus and is working within the Stanford system to change it – I’ve been blogging about her science-based approach to success through happiness, as well as the importance of mindfulness for charismatic leadership. Academia is a world of possibility, and we will innovate and achieve at our highest potential when we empower our scholars with balance. Stanford is a hub of impressive innovation; just imagine how that innovation could be enhanced if everyone was healthy and happy too!


Academia can be a foggy world where our goals, financial needs, personal and family time, and creative inspirations don't gel.

Academia can be a foggy world where our goals, financial needs, personal and family time, and creative inspirations don’t gel, leaving us overextended, anxious, and stressed. Thankfully, solutions are available and easy to learn.


  • This needed expression and now its done. More academics need to see what is killing them and seriously consider the solutions offered. Definitely time to change for the better. Thank you Marilyn for being so candid and fearless to say what needed to be said and offer solutions. We all are learners and change agents forever but are afraid to be seen and heard.

    • Marilyn Cornelius

      Thank you for your encouragement! I did feel this needed to be said :-) and I am optimistic in light of the positive changes now taking place!

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