Dealing with writer’s block, tip 16: Scholarship is valuable

My previous post—about weaponization of doubt—was written just a few days ago, while I started writing this post months ago.  I got stuck mostly because it had gotten bloated and I wanted to either cut it short or cut it into two pieces. I haven’t done that, but I feel like this is a related subject, and I wanted to follow up a little. Doubt is one of the big barriers that scholars face—uncertainty cannot be eliminated by empirical science—and if scholarship isn’t producing any objective, certain truth, then why is it any better than just making up random stories?  In this post, I’m not really addressing the philosophical question of whether or how research is better than fiction—that would take me more space than this long post, and I’m not sure that I could do a good job arguing the point. Instead, I want to accept that there is something that makes the works of scholars valuable, and talk about some of the other doubts that arise even for scholars who aren’t bothered by the philosophical/logical uncertainty suggested by the problem of induction (or by other critiques of philosophical attempts at “truth,” such as the post-modern challenges to the idea of objective truth.

The block: “My research isn’t important”

I’ve known more than one dissertation writer who was on the verge of quitting because they felt their work was so far divorced from the “real world” that it was essentially meaningless. The common notion that the “ivory tower” of academia is somehow out of touch with the real world is a big emotional issue.  If you believe your work is so esoteric that no one will care, or so narrowly focused that it will have minimal real-world impact, then you face a serious barrier to motivation: Why work through the frustration of research and writing to no effect? If your work doesn’t matter, why do it?

In this post, I argue that the value of scholarship is great enough to justify the effort and frustration.  This post is closely related to my earlier tip 11: You have something worth saying. In that post, I focused on internal doubt and feeling overwhelmed by ideas.  In this post, I’m looking more specifically at doubts about the value of academia and academic research.  The better you feel about academia and research, the easier it is to invest effort in it. And the easier it is to invest effort, the easier it is to develop a positive and productive writing practice. (Additionally, but off the topic of writer’s block, the better you feel about your work, the easier it is to write things that other people will appreciate…but that’s a separate issue, perhaps for a future post. Please let me know if you would be interested.)

Why do people think scholarship is meaningless or valueless?

There are several reasons that people come to think their scholarly work is meaningless. Some are external, for example, the scholar who worries that no one will read or appreciate their work. Some are internal reason. For example, when you learn something new, your old work may seem off-base to you. Or you think that your work is incredibly narrow, or too abstruse, or otherwise limited.  In this post, I am more interested in the internal question of whether there is any inherent value in research. If you believe in the value of your work, the size of your audience will be less important. (But as I suggest above, believing in your work will help attract an audience. Again—that’s a subject for a different post.)

The existential crisis

I have heard more than one scholar cry, “Why am I doing this? It doesn’t mean anything; it won’t help anyone; it won’t have an impact on the world. It’s all just mental masturbation!” If you have a cry of despair anything like this, it’s hard to move forward. It’s difficult to maintain motivation for things that seem meaningless (in the sense of having value within some larger framework, i.e., “my life is meaningful,” not in the sense of sense vs. nonsense).  Existential crises are hardly the exclusive domain of academia.  People in all walks of life can struggle with doubt that their life is meaningful, which can be a tremendous source of distress. The field of existential psychology generally argues that emotional health is highly dependent on whether a person sees meaning in their experiences (see, e.g., Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning). If you doubt that your research is meaningful—if you think it has no value—then it’s pretty depressing to work on it.

Why does the crisis arise?

There are many different reasons that people come to doubt their research’s value, and to try to address them all would reach far beyond the scope of a single blog post (and this is already a long post). Generally, however, there is some trigger that leads a researcher to think that their work isn’t valuable, which drains motivation and creates anxiety about the future.  I want to exclude from this discussion doubt about your abilities. Thinking you lack ability may make you feel your efforts are meaningless (“why bother, I never will do it right!”), but that’s not a critique of academia. In this post, I want to specifically focus on doubts about academia and research, and the idea that academia is so flawed that it’s meaningless.

What is academia?

In academia, ideally, we seek abstract objective truth—things that are true for everyone. Laws of nature. The sciences are, in a way, most emblematic of academia—seeking evidence by which we discover the operation of nature in a way that is generally true. A chemist looking for a compound with certain properties will assume that laboratory experiments reflect the general behavior of the compound. A computer scientist developing an algorithm will assume that the properties (runtime, for example) will be consistent with general principles. Even in fields where the very idea of objective truth is explicitly rejected, there is an underlying presumption that scholarly work—the use of evidence and reason—has some underlying general value. Even a Jacques Derrida, who wrote work far outside of scholarly norms and who questioned ideas of absolute objective truth, retains some underlying sense of right and wrong perspectives—after all, why argue against objective truth if you really believe that all ideas are purely subjective?

The limits of academia

The search for answers to questions or solutions to problems, however, is limited in many different ways.  There is the inevitable uncertainty—it’s disappointing to find out that academia rarely offers certainty. There are the political dimensions: academic institutions, like all institutions made of people, are made up of different people with different motivations, purposes, and desires, which creates the political reality of academia: your work isn’t evaluated in a vacuum, but rather by self-interested people. There are the practical dimensions of research: the ideal experiment may not be possible, and we’re forced to do projects that only make small steps towards that ideal.

The practical dimensions of research—our ability to gather and process information—force scholars to focus narrowly even when they are generally interested in broad questions. The grand and noble search for, e.g., a cure to cancer, a solution to homelessness, or the best possible economic policy, etc., gets reduced to one specific analysis of one specific factor among the many, in an attempt to produce research that contributes to understanding a larger whole. It’s disheartening to think that the one specific factor you’re studying is only one among many, and also disheartening to think that the one experiment only reveals a little about the large picture (and even perhaps only a little about that one specific factor).

The sense that research is meaningless is also partly an unfortunate outgrowth of the nature of research practice, or, more generally, a natural progression of human experience: as humans, we change and grow, including the things we value. And, in particular, we experience a big difference between novelty and familiarity.  It is said that “variety is the spice of life,” and “familiarity breeds contempt.” Both sayings address the general shift from new to known. With the new, we’re likely to focus our attention on the best parts, and not notice problems. With the known, however, we it’s harder to avoid problematic aspects. The product that looked so promising when you researched it, stops working smoothly. The journey that promised such fun when you set out, suffers through periods of hot, dusty, boredom. The relationship that starts with passionate love, ends in boredom or hatred. And the research that starts with enthusiasm, gets bogged down in details, bureaucracy, politics, etc.

The value of research

At risk of over-generalizing, I will argue that whatever the cause of your existential crisis, you can ease it by focusing on the value of research.

What is the value of research? Why might it meaningful to you? There are number of different possibilities, in two main classes:

  1. Personal value
    • you want to satisfy curiosity/learn
    • you enjoy it 
    • it provides career opportunities
    • it provides a sense of self-worth
    • it develops useful skills (e.g., critical thinking, communication)
  2. Value for others
    • it solves social problems
    • it helps others solve personal problems
    • it entertains/amuses/educates other people

Research, despite all its limitations, offers the potential for all of these. It is important to remember them when the practical and political realities of academia can easily make it seem like your work isn’t important. It is, for example, easier to believe that your work is valuable if you think lots of people will read it than if you’re thinking that no one will. If you’re find enjoyment in the work, or you think it will help you to a better career, then you may not need to think many people will read it (for example, a dissertation may have a big impact on a career, even if it only has a small audience).  The more dimensions of value you see, the easier it is to maintain motivation.  If you say only “I enjoy it,” that’s less motivation than saying “I enjoy it; it will help me have a good career; it will help me do work better; and it will help other people, too.”

Rediscovering value or finding it anew

It seems something of an irony that scholars come to view their work as meaningless when the basic work of the scholar is to understand and explain the world, and thus give meaning to the incomprehensible.  In the abstract, isn’t knowledge of the world valuable? And, more practically, isn’t knowledge useful?

In my experience, the people who enter academia are generally interested in and motivated by a search for a truth that has some personal or external value (or both). People sometimes set out in academia motivated by curiosity, trying to find answers that are personally valuable.  Many set out motivated by some altruistic desire to help people (e.g., to cure depression, or eliminate homelessness, etc.). Fame, fortune, and power are usually more common outside academia, so people who want them generally won’t end up in academia unless they also see positive value in academia. 

If you’re struggling with anxiety related to doubt about the value of academia, it’s important to reconnect to your personal sense of purpose: what is important to you? What value can you find in academia if you momentarily set aside the myriad frustrations and look to the most hopeful possibilities? Consider the different personal and social benefits that could follow from your in the most optimistic outcomes. Look back to the reasons you entered academia and ask whether they still are important to you. It’s possible that you have changed and grown and that, therefore, some other choice of career might suit you better—it is possible to have a good life outside academia even after investing years.  But, I think for most scholars facing the existential crisis, the initial motivations get obscured behind the many frustrating practical details of research.

Exercise: Why did you enter academia? What were your hopes and dreams then? Taking time to write about your original passions can help you reconnect with an early sense of purpose, and that sense of purpose can then provide support for developing and dealing with the practical limitations of academic research.

Narrowly focused projects

The well-known expression argues that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. In academia, good intentions generally pave the way to narrowly focused projects of small scope. (And such projects can come to feel like hell, especially if things go wrong.)  It is likely that every decision that you made  en route to your project was the best decision you could make with the best intention to produce the highest quality research. (Of course, you—like anyone—might have made some mistakes along the way, but your making a mistake is hardly a reason to think that academia is suddenly worthless (nor is it reason to think you’re not good enough). Making a mistake and having to fix it is frustrating—but that’s true in and out of academia, and you’re just as likely to make a mistake after you leave academia as you are while in it.)

Academia produces narrowly focused projects because, practically speaking, the best way to study things, especially to gather empirical evidence, is to focus narrowly. Without narrow focus, projects include too many dimensions and aspects for any sort of close analysis in any reasonable time. The world is vast and complicated, but scholars/researchers, as humans, have limited time. It is certainly more imaginatively powerful to do research that encompasses the whole scope of an issue—homelessness, mental health, market regulations, world hunger, Victorian literature, etc.—than to do something tightly focused—for example, an analysis of one specific market regulation and its effect on one specific product. But, pragmatically speaking, a close analysis of a specific data set using specific theories focusing on specific aspects of an issue takes time and effort both to execute and to explain to others (i.e., to write it up and publish). The larger the scope, the more time necessary.  Scholars who want to contribute to a research community have to make a choice to limit the scope of their work so that they can finish.

For those worried about narrow focus, it’s valuable to remember that research is a community effort to which scholars usually contribute by adding little pieces of work. Only occasionally does a scholar completely redefine a field in the way that Einstein did for physics, and it is even more rare that the full scope of such a revolution is recognized in its time. For the most part, scholars work within theoretical schools that have been developed over previous years, and they contribute details to more fully understand the implications of the theories.

It is this process of many scholars contributing to a community process that has led to the many benefits of research in sciences, social sciences, and humanities. (I’m not going to try to argue that research does lead to benefits—one the one hand, I think it’s obvious, and on the other it leads into a mire of evaluation: what counts as a benefit?)

Focusing on details can lead to losing sight of larger context

If you become narrowly focused on details of the project you have chosen, it’s possible to lose sight of the context in which it was created.

Exercise: Reconnect your current project with the motivations that inspired it.

What were your initial motivations? What inspired you? Were you motivated by curiosity? Was there some specific problem that you wanted to address? 

How far are you now from those previous motivations? Have you abandoned them? Or can you see how they led you to where you are now?

The size of your audience is not the only measure of value

One specific cause of distress for many scholars is the idea that their work is only read by a handful of people. Let’s acknowledge that it is often the case that work is only read by a few.  Does that necessarily mean that the work is not valuable? Many philosophers have been rejected in their own time but appreciated by posterity. In the middle of the 20th century, some scientists started writing about climate change. Was their work unimportant simply because it was largely ignored?

The fact that only a small number of people might read your work may be disappointing, but it is not an accurate reflection of its value. (As I mentioned above, a dissertation can have a big impact on your career even if only read by a handful.) A small audience can have large influence.


Academia is not perfect, but that’s no reason to assume that it’s not valuable. New ideas are accepted only slowly. Good research often depends on precisely the sort of narrow focus that limits its scope, and limits the size of interested audiences.  This does not mean, however, that the research is not a valuable contribution to a valuable communal exercise.  

If you have lost sight of the purpose and value in your work, it can be hard to maintain motivation.  It’s crucial to find again a sense of purpose. It’s possible that you won’t (in which case you should probably leave academia). But if you step back and think about your original purposes and the general aspirations of academia, I believe you can rediscover a sense of the value of research, and that sense of value can help you rediscover motivation.