What Is Academia? - Definition & Overview

Ben Nickol
Expert Contributor
Lesley Chapel

Lesley has taught American and World History at the university level for the past seven years. She has a Master's degree in History.

This lesson explores the institution of academia, offering an overview of the disciplines within academia, the system of advancement for academics, and some of the controversies surrounding the current academic system.


If you have ever enrolled in a school of any kind, from kindergarten on up to graduate classes, then you, at one time, have been involved in the institution of academia. Simply put, academia is the name we give to all things school-related, whether that is the students in those schools, the teachers, the books read and published for educational use, or the culture surrounding these things. It is a broad subject.

When you hear the word 'academia', however, chances are it is in reference to a narrower slice of that pie - specifically, that group of people who make their living or are in training to make their living as college professors, a group we call academics. The rest of this lesson examines the world in which academics live and work.

Fields of Study

When a person enters academia and becomes an academic, it is almost always in a specific discipline, or field of study. The range of academic fields is staggering. You're probably familiar with the main categories (sciences, arts, etc.), and we'll look at what subjects fall in these categories, but one of the wonders of academia is that a person can invest a full career in the study of almost any topic, no matter how narrow. For instance, a professor of zoology might spend his full adult life studying the habits of one insect in one patch of jungle. A professor of anthropology might spend her life studying the traditions of a single tribe.

One of the fundamental principles of academia is that knowledge is valuable in its own right. The pursuit of knowledge does not need a practical goal to be worthwhile. And so an academic pursuing a career in academia can follow any intellectual path that intrigues her.

Still, it's useful to know some of the main categories academic subjects fall into:

  • Math and sciences (popular fields include physics, biology, chemistry, engineering, and medicine)
  • Humanities (popular fields include English and writing, sociology, anthropology, archaeology, history, philosophy, theology and law)
  • Arts (popular fields include music, dance, painting and sculpture)

Professional Hierarchy

A person enters academia (at least the narrow slice of academia we're discussing here) the moment he enrolls in a course of graduate study designed to train researchers and college instructors in that field. Starting then, there are a number of ranks that person climbs through as he pursues his career. While not all institutions and not all fields operate on the same system, most systems of academic advancement employ some version of the following hierarchy:

  • Masters student: The first credential an academic pursues is a masters degree. Most master's degrees require two years to complete. In some disciplines, the master's level is also where an academic begins teaching undergraduate classes or assisting in that instruction.
  • Doctoral student: After completing a master's or its equivalent, an academic then pursues a doctorate in her field (a Ph.D.) To earn her doctorate, she must complete some work of original research. Once completed, the doctoral student often will try to publish that work. The amount of time needed to complete a doctorate varies widely but ranges anywhere from three to ten years. While pursuing their degree, doctoral students often teach undergraduate classes.
  • Assistant Professor: With his doctorate in hand, an academic then secures a position as an Assistant Professor at a college or university. Professionally, he is expected both to conduct research and teach undergraduate classes. The balance of those responsibilities varies from institution to institution.
  • Associate Professor: After several years as an Assistant Professor, if an academic has published well (articles and books that advance the knowledge of her field), and been successful in her teaching, she will be awarded what's called tenure, whereby her job security is virtually assured, and she can pursue her work without any thought to impressing her colleagues. This awarding of tenure is accompanied by a promotion to Associate Professor.
  • Full Professor: If an academic has published a substantial body of important work and has taught well and served his department (perhaps served as the chair of that department), he will be promoted to the highest academic rank, which is Full Professor.

Criticisms and Controversies

While academics do enjoy a certain prestige, they also are the target of some common criticisms:

  • The 'ivory tower' mentality: Because academics typically confine themselves to the intellectual study of their field, as opposed to its 'real-life', or 'practical' applications, they often are accused of living in what's called an 'ivory tower,' whereby they're detached from the real concerns of real people.
  • Neglect of teaching: In academia, higher salaries and prestige are linked most directly to the quality and reception of one's research and publishing (the phrase 'publish or perish' is common in academia). While this encourages innovative research, some worry that it downplays the role of teaching in an academic's career and diminishes the quality of his students' education.
  • The tenure system: Once an academic has earned tenure, it is very difficult for her institution to fire her (basically her job is protected unless she engages in some act of 'moral turpitude,' meaning that she behaves in some awful, unethical way). While this system is attractive to academics, it has led some to believe that a tenured professor has nothing to fear, and therefore, no real motivation to perform well professionally (meaning that she might neglect her students or other duties).

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Additional Activities

Prompts About Academia

Definition Prompt:

In approximately one paragraph, provide the broad definition of academia as well as the specific definition of it as discussed in the lesson.

Example: In the lesson, academia is specifically referring to the lifestyles of academics (college professors).

Graphic Organizer Prompt 1:

Make a poster, chart, or other type of graphic organizer that lists the main fields of academic study and provides examples of the subfields within each category.

Example: History is a subfield of the Humanities category.

Graphic Organizer Prompt 2:

Create a poster, chart, or other type of graphic organizer that depicts the professional hierarchy of academia. Be sure to provide brief descriptions of the expected duties of each level of the hierarchy.

Example: Doctoral students often teach undergraduate classes.

Essay Prompt:

In approximately one to two pages, write an essay that explains the three main criticisms of academia (the ivory tower mentality, neglect of teaching, the tenure system).

Example: The ivory tower mentality criticism asserts that academics are detached from the real world.

Reflection Prompt:

Based on what you've learned in the lesson, do you desire to pursue a career in academia? Write an essay of at least one page that explains why or why not.

Example: You have always been intrigued by exotic plant species, so an academic career as a botanist would suit you well.

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