Why I left Academia: Part I

About two months before I submitted the full draft of my 300+ page dissertation to my committee for my Ph.D. approval, my computer died. But that is not what this story is about.

Panicked about the time lost without a computer, I rushed to the Apple store as soon as I could. I was spending winter break in my parent’s barn that had just been converted into an apartment next to their house so I could write without interruption. The Apple store was a solid hour and a half away, in a huge mall in the center of Atlanta. It felt strange to be in such a public place, the bright lights and minimalist design of the store had always unnerved me. It was loud and crowded.  As I waited for my turn at the Genius Bar, I checked my email on a sample computer.  At the top of my inbox was an email from Academia.edu alerting me that a professor on my dissertation committee, we’ll call them Dr. Mao here, had uploaded a paper they had recently published in a journal that I loved. Curious, I downloaded the paper and read it as I waited my turn.

As I read it, my stomach churned and my heart dropped. The constant murmur of conversation around me fell away, and all of a sudden, I was completely alone with my thoughts as I scrolled through the essay. The language was so familiar, though the argument had been expertly changed just enough. It sounded like my paper, one that I had sent to Dr. Mao for advice a year earlier. I never received that advice, but I guess it had been read after all.

The paper was something I was incredibly proud of; I knew what a good idea it was, and I knew that I needed to hold it close and reveal it only when I was ready to publish. To make matters worse, I had just integrated it into a chapter of my dissertation. It was the hinge point in my argument—it was what united my dissertation topic with the broader context of global contemporary art and feminist activism. I knew that once Dr. Mao read my dissertation, they could then accuse me of plagiarizing them, for the simple reason that they had published it first. Never mind whose argument it was in the first place. My words. Mao’s words. That didn’t matter anymore. Plagiarism: this was my first thought. For a while, it was my only thought.

Wild-eyed, I looked up from the screen and turned my head to gaze wistfully at the man across from me, who was chuckling to himself about something on his Facebook feed. The fresh hell I’d suddenly found myself in did not seem to have spread to him and his Facebook universe. And then, just like that, it was my turn at the Genius Bar, where, of course, they didn’t know what was wrong with my Mac. I had to borrow money from my mother to ship it off for repair. The Mac ‘Genius’ informed me in a kind yet dispassionate tone that I’d have to wait an excruciating five days before I got it back.

As I left the Apple Store, I met up with my mother who had been returning something. As we walked through the chaotic space of the mall to her car, I told my mother in a whisper what I had discovered. I don’t remember what she said, or any of the car ride home. Sick to my stomach, I knew there was very little I could do if my suspicions were correct—a graduate student going up against a tenured professor who had everything to lose should the allegations be proven true. The odds were certainly not in my favor.

That night, alone in my parent’s newly remodeled and barely-furnished barn apartment, I came to terms with the inevitability of my situation.

I thought back to the years-worth of rides I had given to Dr. Mao because I lived just a few blocks away. I remembered Dr. Mao’s continual snide comments that subtly undermined me, such as how my car was never clean enough, and how funny Dr. Mao thought it was that I drove my dad’s well-worn Toyota Avalon. With stunning clarity, I remembered that all of my friends had told me Dr. Mao took advantage of me, and their increasingly exasperated suggestions that I try to stand up for myself in some way. Over time, I stopped talking about Dr. Mao with them as their frustration over my inability, or perhaps, refusal, to stand up for myself became more and more evident.

Returning back to the quandary I now found myself in, I realized that I had seen graduate student careers ended for far less, for not producing “good” work, for not responding quickly enough to a professor’s demands, for simply having the gall to work in the same field as their less-seasoned advisors (so that they were considered a direct threat to the precious few tenure-track jobs out there). I knew that I had very little recourse, especially if I wanted to stay in academia.

What I didn’t know then was that my academic career was already over.

I spent a sleepless night of turning the two papers over and over in my head. That morning, I went, yet again, line-by-line through the two papers in question. My mind then strayed to the crushing reality that Dr. Mao had provided me with next to no feedback on my dissertation--- nothing substantial anyway. Emails with drafts went unanswered. There was the occasional promise to read it the following month, which always went unfulfilled. Requests to help Dr. Mao on exhibitions and publications were turned down. Dr. Mao had a reputation for being cutthroat and competitive, and they held my career in their hands.

I had just been academically f*cked over. And there was nothing I could do about it. The sad thing is, I would have been honored to have been in a mere footnote, a teeny tiny acknowledgement of the work I’d handed to Mao. It all could have been avoided if I had just been mentioned in a footnote that, most likely, only I would have read.

The next day, I called a trusted friend and colleague, Frida. After explaining my discovery, I told her that my suspicions were probably from the mania that comes with sleepless nights and 14-hour work days that are necessary in the final stages of completing a dissertation. I said that I was probably blowing everything out of proportion. I then sent her the two papers to compare.

Frida called me back later that day and told me to sit down. As she said this, I looked over the empty room in which I stood, furnished only with a table and chair, my eyes went down to look at the floor that was completely obscured with stacks of printed PDFs, open books, post-it notes, legal pads. The room felt so isolating, so unreal. I slumped down in the chair, already wishing for another cigarette (a fun hobby I picked up at 24 when I’d began studying for my Ph.D. exams). I told her I was ready. Frida cut straight to the point: she agreed with me, the similarities between the two papers were astounding. Rage turned to horror, and then to nausea. I immediately wished that Frida had outright dismissed my suspicions.  Her outrage only fueled my sense of injustice.

She, too, was in the midst of finishing her dissertation, and our late-night phone calls over boxed white wine had become one of my only resources for sanity. Over the next few weeks, I’d call her late at night after a long day spent in isolation furiously writing. I’d sit on the side porch of my parent’s house staring up the stars, and we’d go over what we’d written that day. Quickly, our conversation would turn to what to do about the striking similarity between my work and what Dr. Mao had published. I cherished those phone calls, they were the only thing that made me feel less alone.

Each person that I cautiously chose to tell expressed shock and, ultimately, confusion about what the proper course of action was.  Frida, among others, was adamant I report it. She said that it was an ethical issue because, if I failed to report it, Dr. Mao could do it again, to someone else, another graduate student perhaps. At the time, however, reporting it was pure fantasy-- we both knew that I couldn’t do it. My career depended too strongly on recommendation letters. I also had not yet secured my Ph.D., so more immediately, I was at risk of jeopardizing that. If I reported it, not only would I lose Dr. Mao’s rec letter, but there was also a very good chance that the rest of the department would feel less inclined to write one for me as well.  Reporting it would be the kiss of death on my seven-year dream of becoming a professor. Yes, recommendation letters were, and still are, that important.

But I couldn’t let it go. As much as I wanted to, I was furious. I had never experienced this level of resentment before; I felt so violated. If I couldn’t send my work to a professor without fear of having it stolen, what exactly, was the point of earning a doctorate? More to the point, if this wasn’t an isolated incident, if it was happening to others, how could one ever expect to succeed in such a rigged system?

A few days before I flew back to my apartment in NYC, I made an appointment to speak with the dean. Or rather, since academia increasingly models itself off corporations (or perhaps, more accurately, after a dysfunctional bureaucratic government), a dean--one of the many deans that now make up the majority of academic hires. It would later be made evident to me that I had turned to the wrong dean.

When I walked into the Wrong Dean’s windowless office, he jovially shook my hand and told me he was curious about what the meeting could possibly be about. He mentioned that he was friends with my department’s administrator, and that he had reached out to her to see if she knew what it was about. Gulping down my horror that the department was potentially already aware of the meeting, I asked for the meeting to be confidential. That what I was about to discuss with him could not leave the confines of his office. He nodded seriously, giving me the adult equivalent of a Boy Scout’s pledge. He then offered me tissues, suggesting that he could already tell I would be emotional.

Shrugging off the gendered insult, I proceeded to lay out my case I had built for about a month, along with counters to the arguments that I knew would be leveled against me if I chose to make it public. In the middle of it, he interrupted me, stating he was so relieved that this wasn’t another issue of a graduate student having an affair with a professor, and that I should feel good about that as well. That I was lucky that wasn’t the case. I remember staring at a film poster of some obscure film I should have recognized that he had hanging on his wall in shock at the comparison.

He then told me that if I reported this, my career would be ruined. My reputation would be irrevocably damaged. I would have to work harder, publish more papers, and wait longer before getting a tenure-track job.  He then asked if I could prove anything. I then leaned over to pull out the folder of meticulously labeled emails, a timeline of events, and the two essays in question from my bag. Before I could do so, he waved his hands in a frantic gesture as if to say no, put them away, and said, please don’t tell me anything else, I could be deposed.

Not once during our meeting had I brought up the possibility of legal action. I had no intentions of doing so, I simply wanted to know what the procedure was for reporting a circumstance like this. I needed to have that information so that I could make the best (and most strategic) decision for my career. Sensing I had just made my first mistake in what would turn out to be a long, drawn-out and expensive process, I repeated my desire for this conversation to remain confidential. He then told me, from what I remember, that due to what he had just heard, he was not sure he could keep that promise.

And then I begged him not to tell anyone. I repeated that I wasn’t even sure I wanted to report it, especially after everything that he had just told me. I remember saying please, don’t, I’m scared of Dr. Mao, I have been my entire graduate career. It was the first time I had said it aloud.  I told him I was a mere month away from defending my dissertation, and Dr. Mao would be the deciding factor in whether or not I got my Ph.D.

Wrong Dean then told me he would not report it to the hirer-ups if I went to the school’s ombudsperson—a lawyer hired by the school to give free legal advice to students. In-between my conversation with Wrong Dean and speaking with the ombudsperson, I went to my weekly meeting at my graduate Fellowship with my co-workers, fellow graduate students, and our boss, a well-respected professor and publishing powerhouse. All of us were from different departments. Every week we’d begin by sharing what was going on in our lives, and how our research was going. When my turn came, I told them what I suspected. The room fell silent as I made eye-contact with my friend, Tanya, who mouthed from across the table you need a lawyer. My boss was shocked. I handed her the two papers in question. As she looked over the high-lighted parts of each paper that indicated similar content, she said that this was the most egregious thing she’d ever seen a professor do to a graduate student. My boss echoed Frida’s consensus that I needed to report it, and then confirmed Tanya’s declaration that I needed a lawyer. She said she’d reach out to a few people to see what she could do.

The ombudsperson’s office was eerily close to my department. I had begun sweating on my walk across campus, so by the time I sat down in the lobby I was red-faced and shiny, despite the frigid weather. A sulky undergraduate handed me a paper to sign that informed me of my rights to keep whatever was discussed confidential. I signed it and handed it back to him. Then, after walking into the ombudsperson’s office and nervously sitting down, I, for the second time that day, laid out my case. And, for the second time that day, was told that the meeting was no longer legally confidential and that, if deposed, the ombudsperson would have to divulge the contents of our discussion. I felt violated.

Terrified of the school’s Orwellian response, and doubtful that word would not reach Dr. Mao’s ears, I returned to my cramped NYC apartment to finish my dissertation. I reached out to my beloved undergraduate advisor, who kindly met with me for over an hour as I sought out advice about what to do. He had no idea what to tell me, as he had never seen something quite on this level before.

The question that kept obsessively running through my mind was: what if Dr. Mao finds out that I know prior to my defense, and makes up a petty reason not to pass me because of it? Not only would I be robbed of authorship, but my Ph.D. would be in peril.

After hours of calling lawyers and being referred to different lawyers, all on time I didn’t really have, I finally found someone who specialized in intellectual property rights. I barely remember speaking to him on the phone for the first time. I had been up all night formatting my final chapter as I prepared to send it out to Dr. Mao. I was terrified. Absolutely terrified. I knew that if Dr. Mao actually read it, they would see the portion that I suspected to be misappropriated immediately. And what Dr. Mao would do in response was an unknown that made me feel as sick as I been in India after accidentally drinking tap water.  The only solace that I could take was that if things went south, at least I had already taken the time to find a lawyer to represent me.

Amidst this blur of uncertainty and long hours, I went about my job, and attended lectures and conferences at school. But so much weighed on me that it was hard to think about anything other than the striking similarities between the two papers. After a speaker series on a black photographer, I walked out to the parking lot with another professor from my department, Dr. Hortense, who had been a true mentor to me. I trusted and respected them deeply. And I valued their opinion. Caught in a vulnerable moment walking along a damp sidewalk lit by orange street lamps, I chose to share with Dr. Hortense what I had discovered. How I had been strong-armed by the school. How I was petrified I wouldn’t pass my defense, especially if Dr. Mao found out. Shocked and appalled, Dr. Hortense was also equally alarmed as to what might happen to the department should this be brought to light. Dr. Hortense begged me to drop it, going as far as to email me the next day to tell me that the best thing for me psychologically and emotionally would be to forget that it had happened and move on.

I had valued the conversation, but I’d left our talk feeling bullied and isolated. Instead of listening to my instincts, I continued to foolishly trust Dr. Hortense, who had expressed outrage and anger towards Dr. Mao. Dr. Hortense had also confided in me aspects of Dr. Mao’s working relationship with the department that I had no business knowing about. It all culminated in a feeling that Dr. Hortense was on my side.

I could not have been more wrong—or naïve.

For Part II of Why I Left Academia, click here