Academics like actors? Different stages of academic performance

So this happened back when I was an undergrad Philosophy student.

After our first ever lecture on Heidegger we wandered out into the corridor in a state of stunned amazement – the theory seemed so deep and complex, touching on the most intimate experience of everyday being and yet it was so difficult to grasp… also because the lecturer made a point of quoting the most crucial fragments and concepts in German…

Regardless, we were deeply impressed – both with Heidegger and with our professor who appeared to have read the 800-page “Sein und Zeit” with pleasure, and even understood the oeuvre (apparently, it is all very simple if you read it in the original). When we were already on the doorsteps of the building, lighting our Gauloises cigarettes (mandatory attribute of young philosophers, in case you didn’t know) and exchanging whispers full of reverence, a fellow student approached us, with a strange look on his face.

– You know… this is really embarrassing – he said – but… I just met the professor in the bathroom

What shock! In that moment, we weren’t ready to accept the fact that a giant, a supreme being who read Heidegger in the original (and with pleasure!) still needed to use the bathroom. No way!

The thing is, when you’re a student, you often assume lecturers and professors belong to some kind of different species which inhabits uni corridors, libraries and offices with heavy oak furniture, only occasionally roaming into more remote territories… like the philharmonic. One thing is for sure: professors are not to be spotted at McDonald’s, on walks with silly-looking dogs, in the queue to the bathroom or performing other actions devoid of proper decorum.

View from the other side…

So this is back when I was an undergrad. Now, I am in the 3rd year of my Phd and I often find myself on the other side of the great student – professor divide. For while doctoral candidates are officially called ‘PhD students’ they often perform actions typical of full-fledged academics: giving talks at conferences, writing research articles, delivering workshops for undergraduates…

To be honest, it’s a confusing stage of life. There are moments when you take a step back, look at your work to say “gosh, that reads like a real article! And it’s me who wrote it!” And then there are moments when you realise that this ‘real researcher’, unbeknownst to anyone else, is actually a girl with a silly nick-name, a tendency for mid-week lie-ins, and a weak point for glossy magazines (which she claims to read ironically).

Noticing a gap between these two different personas leads to a strange psychological state in which one might ask questions like: So which one of these persons is real? And if only one of them, am I lying by letting the other one perform? Will my audience notice? Perhaps this sort of experience is more common than we think. It might actually lie at the root of the famous impostor syndrome.

Everyone’s an actor

What I discovered in conducting interviews with academics for my doctoral project, is that such an experience of ‘fragmentation of self’ is not something limited just to the PhD period. If anything, ‘academic selves’ become even more complex over time. While my current struggle is to marry my ‘private’ self with my budding ‘scientific’ persona, established academics will usually have at least one more ‘layer’ in their identity – namely, their institutional role as directors of programmes, coordinators of courses, heads of departments etc., employees, managers, bosses… Interestingly, it seems that for many academics the ‘scientific’ self can be at odds with the ‘institutional’ one. For instance, different values and qualities in assessing academic work will come to the fore depending if the person is speaking ‘as a scientist’ or ‘as a research manager/administrator’.

My interviewees usually seem to move between these different positions with ease. Perhaps this is because they have realised, over their long careers, something we PhD students need to learn – that these different ‘selves’ within one person are not at all contradictory. In fact, they are complementary, and perhaps necessary if one wants to survive in academia.

Many academic hats

Initially, in my analysis I applied Erving Goffman’s notion of ‘front stage’ and ‘back stage’ to account for the differences between the academic persona (exposed in official academic contexts, like my professor’s lecture on Heidegger), and the private one (like going for a… walk with one’s silly-looking dog). On reflection, I realise another theatrical metaphor describes even better what is going on with our ‘selves’ in academia : the revolving stage. Here are a few pictures of what I have in mind.



I believe a person’s identity has many sides which (s)he might want to show depending on the circumstances. Each side is real and each is actually constructed for an audience. For instance, even the private self can at times be exposed in public (in some strands of inquiry, like in feminist research, it is not problematic to merge  personal experiences with scientific reflections). The English expression ‘to wear many hats’ also neatly describes the complexity of social and professional roles we perform.

Observing, on the basis of markers in discourse, how my interviewees switch between different roles they play, had consequences not only for my analysis, but also for how I see myself (or my self) in the academic context. I realised it is normal to have various ‘hats’ and to wear the one which is most suited to the scenography and the audience.

And this in turn made me feel more comfortable on stage.

by Marta Natalia Wróblewska


Featured image (photo): Holly Hayes, flickr, Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford

Images in text  (modified) from:


Goffman, E. (1956). The presentation of self in everyday life. Edinburgh,: University of Edinburgh, Social Sciences Research Centre.


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