I’ve been considering a career in academia ever since I was an undergrad. I’m turning 30 this year. I think I should either get to it (PhD and beyond) or give it up once and for all.

The key source of anxiety for me is the hyper-productive nature of contemporary academia (cultural anthropology in my case). Everything I learned over the years from books, blogs, mentors, and peers leads me to believe that academia is a place where only the most efficient knowledge workers can hope to thrive.

My issue: while I love anthropology, I am a SLOW knowledge worker. I read slowly, I take reading notes slowly, and I write unusually slowly. Then there is memory; everything I want to commit to long-term memory takes a conscious effort and planning (which again, is rather time consuming).

As a HS/university student I often got on simply by throwing in as many hours as it took. However, during the MA (and especially BA/MA dissertation writing) my slow pace became a severe hindrance. I finished the BA with a 3.7 GPA (4.0 within major) from a decent R1 university. However, I was leading an increasingly unhealthy life, definitely not sustainable in the long term.

My understanding is that serious PhD candidates and junior faculty in my field are estimated to work 65h/week, and are expected to be high performers in terms of their output/teaching/service. This leads me to believe that at this level I can’t expect to succeed by throwing in some extra hours. I’d run out of hours to “throw” fairly quickly.

When I feel optimistic I think that perhaps I can relearn how I work – how I read, take notes, memorize and most importantly, how I write. I can learn to work faster/smarter/better. I assure myself, PhD programs are also about figuring THAT part out. They are also about learning how to cope with the workload.

At my lowest, I recollect late paper submissions, or the debilitating anxiety associated with being months behind schedule on dissertation work. Then I think: someone who wants to do this for a living should have breezed through BA/MA. If I haven’t figured out how to handle it better back then, perhaps it’s delusional to think that it will all magically come together now.

A part of me is afraid of investing many years only to discover that I can’t handle this type of work. To learn at 35 or 40 that I can’t do this job well. Please tell me what you think. For those who might have dealt with a similar problem, how did you overcome your SLOWNESS and become more effective?

TL;DR ---- I want to be a professor. Love the field. Had good GPA/feedback on past work. But I’m a hopelessly SLOW reader/writer. Is there hope?

EDIT: Regarding the question "How should I deal with discouragement as a graduate student?" This recommended thread is similar, but does not focus on the main issue important to me: the question of efficiency.

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    You will have to learn how to read quickly. This is something students usually pick up at the latest in the year before graduation. There's plenty sources out there and also on this site. When it comes to writing, consistency beats speed. The crux is to write early on in the project and to separate drafting from editing. Most people who have a hard time to put words on paper conflate the two, i.e. they are too self-critical too soon. Commented Jul 15, 2017 at 17:48
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    It sounds to me like the workload involved in trying for a PhD would be very stressful and difficult for you. I don't want to be too discouraging, but honestly, why put yourself through that? The goal (becoming a professor) is much harder than getting the PhD itself, and may take even longer than the PhD. As for learning to read more quickly, the key is the same as with any skill you want to get better at: practice, practice, practice. Commented Jul 15, 2017 at 21:46
  • Possible duplicate of How should I deal with discouragement as a graduate student?
    – padawan
    Commented Jul 16, 2017 at 1:13
  • @henning – I've tried many techniques, some led to small gains. But so far no breakthrough. If you have any specific recommendations let me know (here or via msg). As for writing, I totally agree with you. I think the only solution for me is the complete relearning of basic skills from the ground up. My writing habits have not been consciously developed. Rather, they are a "whatever works" kind of an improvisation that evolved since h.school. Same goes for how I read, take notes, commit things to memory, etc. The question is: can books/workshops/practice help me to relearn these skills? Commented Jul 16, 2017 at 10:10
  • @astronat – don't worry about the discouragement, I'm here for the real talk. What you write is absolutely true. Compared to what's beyond, the PhD itself is the easy part! That's precisely what gives me anxiety. I more or less know I could force my way through a PhD, but is just squeezing through enough to even hope for a job... of course not. What I ask myself is, can I learn to cope with this workload and ultimately excel during the PhD phase, and then repeat the process as a career hopeful. [Similar to, how university seems daunting to most high school kids, but then everyone adjusts] Commented Jul 16, 2017 at 10:16

4 Answers 4


It is not possible to give you a satisfying answer. The best I can offer is two anecdotes a friend of mine told me today (and they are first hand and 100% legit).

First, he goes to the supervisor, for the second time, with a bunch of paper, asking whether he should study them. The supervisor takes the papers, throws them to the ground and walks over them. Then says: "Studying is useless."

Second, the supervisors asks him to do a computation by the next day. Friend comes back and shows the calculation. The advisor writes a line of code on the computer and presses enter. The computer shows the same answer of the computation which took several hours.

Bottom line: there is ample room for improvement in terms of speed. Achieving it might require, surprisingly, to understand less and to study less and to give up on many preconceived notions about the subject and about how research work as well as about how yourself.

If you feel like the subject is important and close to your heart, give it a try. Many people start a PhD in their 30ies. But don't be silly, do:

  1. Ask for advice before making choices.
  2. Think carefully when picking your advisor.
  3. Lay out many plans B and be ready to execute them.
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    The supervisor takes the papers, throws them to the ground and walks over them. Then says: "Studying is useless." -- At this moment, the student was enlightened.
    – JeffE
    Commented Jul 16, 2017 at 8:47
  • Love the stories! Not sure if I could put up with someone this eccentric. Sir, please don't walk on my notes to make a point, k? Deep down, if all other factors were unimportant (dismal job market, time, age, ability) I would just go for it. Scholarship is the only thing that truly excites me. That being said, I don't want to be delusional. Perhaps my inability to work fast coupled with the hyper competitive job market is enough to call it a day and just do the Plan B. The opportunity cost of a PhD+ is huge. This is why I'm here. To determine if my plan is impossible or just unlikely. Commented Jul 16, 2017 at 10:40
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    Don't get me wrong, this guy advisor was a nightmare, but he made a couple of good points on how you get faster, which is not by studying more. It's good you are making a careful decision, but in the end your question has no answer until you go and do it and see what comes out of it.
    – Three Diag
    Commented Jul 16, 2017 at 10:44

"Is there hope?"

The simple answer is yes, there is always hope.

The reality, of course, is not so simple. The physical volume of work is only one component of a PhD; other factors to consider are how well you work independently, how creative are you when problem solving, how determined are you to persevere and find solutions? (The list goes on...)

In your question and comments you mention you have a lot of anxiety, and speak of being afraid of the work and in particular your ability to complete it, especially before deadlines. You say

"Then I think: someone who wants to do this for a living should have breezed through BA/MA."

Do not listen to the imposter syndrome.

I strongly recommend that you seek professional help for the anxiety (either through medication, counselling or both), especially if it is preventing you from working to your full potential. It sounds like you've struggled in this way for a long time, and while yes, academia is a demanding environment to work in, it should not be making you ill.

Your main concern seems to be the speed of your work, in particular reading and writing. While I am not well positioned to give advice about specific techniques, I will say that I don't think any beginning PhD student is expected to be as quick at reading and writing as a fully-fledged professor.

A PhD is essentially training you to become an academic, and part of that is developing your academic reading and writing skills. As with any skill, the key is to practice as much as possible, so you could start now by finding some short papers in the field you're most interested in, to get a feel for the writing style. This will also help you to figure out if you really will be able to cope with the work (i.e. reading and writing at that level).

Finally, I want to emphasise something mentioned in the other answers: take your time in finding the right supervisor for you- someone you gel well with and whose working style and expectations match with yours. This will hopefully make your PhD and its difficulties that little bit more manageable.

  • Thanks for your insightful answer. It's true that anxiety is a factor for me. I'm very self-critical and tend to overthink things. I like to be in control at all times. For these reasons alone, contemporary academia might not be the right fit. But if I do decide to give it a shot, developing a positive outlook and guarding mental health will be a top priority for me. I believe stressing over the many factors makes sense during the decision phase, but once I commit, it's time to let go and just do my best. Commented Jul 16, 2017 at 11:16
  • The above makes me think of a passage from "How to Build a Life in the Humanities." Alex Galarza: "Once you have made an informed decision to complete your degree and found answers to the fundamental questions, your next goal should be to develop a positive outlook about the process you’re about to undergo; doing so will help you weather the various setbacks you’re bound to experience along the way." Commented Jul 16, 2017 at 11:18

A point that I always keep in mind:

If you are not good at something you wish to achieve, work 100 times harder at it

Though this cannot always be theoretically true, it really is a mental boost to think nothing is impossible with hard work. It goes without saying but practice makes perfect.

I too was a slow reader and (still am) a slow writer and personally don't like reading much either. That didn't stop me from going over 400 papers for literature survey. With enough practice, I was able to pick up speed at reading papers, recognizing good papers from bad ones and so on. I strongly believe my writing speed would improve as well.

Most of my colleagues who are doing PhD are 30+ and some in their 40s. The final point is that if you are really passionate about academia, go for it. Do not be hurdled by your weaknesses, overcome them. Also bear in mind the last three points of @ThreeDiag's answer; getting the 'right' advisor is crucial for your career.

  • Ébe Isaac, did you find ways to improve your speed while working? (reading / writing / absorbing information / other) If so, could you share some techniques that worked for you? As far as work efficiency is concerned, did you feel like you made significant gains during your PhD? Also, as a slow reader, what's your pace? When reading (not skimming) an article in your field that's important to your work, how many pages per hour can you read? Commented Jul 16, 2017 at 10:29
  • It was at the time I had my course work for PhD. I had to learn two subjects and handle 4 hrs of lab per week. At first, my speed was around 10 (2 col.) pages a day and then it gradually came up to 30 pages a day. I prefer reading as PDF as opposed to printed pages and store notes as a LaTeX Bib doc. Whenever I download a new paper, I take the BibTeX info using Google Scholar button and create a annote field to store notes and add my own keywords for grouping. The grouping changed as my knowledge in the domain grew. I didn't record my pages/hr yet; maybe I'll do so and report it soon :-)
    – Ébe Isaac
    Commented Jul 16, 2017 at 12:05

Something not directly addressed here is that your colleagues are probably not reading every word. You should not, either. Indeed, in fields that tend to publish books (rather than concise, pithy articles or proofs), it is a key skill to learn how to evaluate a book and skim for the content you currently need.

A great resource I recently found was Paul Edwards' advice on How to Read a Book. Also, finding systematic ways to take notes can really help you. (E.g., this set of questions may or may not fit the kinds of literature you read. You'll need to memorize less, and you'll have to reread less.

Finally, the time and effort you have spent so far demonstrates your commitment, and your slower reading might also be deeper or more effective than others'. There is research that when reading is physically harder to do ("disfluency" based on fonts, for instance), this leads to greater understanding, apparently through the pathway of disfluency-> lower confidence -> nervousness -> increased attention to material.

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