Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Message from One Who Made It

Guest Post by "Blunt Academic" (a pseudonym to protect his or her snarky identity)

I graduated with a Ph.D. 5 years ago, taught as an adjunct at a community college for a semester, landed a tenure-track job in the middle of nowhere, landed a better tenure-track job, still in the middle of nowhere, and am now on the market again looking to move up. I've worked my ass off the entire time and have never had to stress about whether or not to leave the academy. I'm in, baby, I'm in for life.

But even if things hadn't worked out, I would have figured something out and made the Ph.D. worth my while. I would have found work outside the academy and never regretted getting a Ph.D. Indeed, I wouldn't have spent years dwelling on the faults of the ivory tower, or writing tortured blog posts (sorry, Eliza), or looking for other angsty ex-academics to share my miseries with. I would have just gotten on with things.

So when I see Ph.D.s fretting about how they “pissed away their youth and finances” earning a doctoral degree, and are now totally disillusioned with the academic job market and vicious tenure-track world , I wonder what all the fuss is about.

I mean, it’s just money, right? Weren’t you following your passions when you applied to grad school? Didn’t you enjoy spending your 20s thinking and learning, surrounded by smart/crazy academics, free to explore your interests, rather than sitting in a cubicle day after day making widgets and earning money. Didn't you love the thrill of working with Professor DryBones?

I know your dream is to be me. Good for you.
Is money really that important in the grander scheme of things? Probably, you would have frittered away all that hard-earned, longedfor pile of money on iphones, digital cable, trips to Vegas, beer, hamburgers, knick knacks for the domicile, what have you, just like the rest of America. BORING. EMPTY. POINTLESS.

So what’s a little debt compared to the once in a lifetime experience of getting a PhD? Seriously? Why are you so bitter about everything? You made a choice: live with it. What’s there to be upset about? Grad school helped make you the person that you are now (even if that person is poor and a tad PO at the system and depressed, but that’s neither here nor there).

Sure, it’s nearly impossible to land a tenure-track job but them’s the breaks. Not everyone makes the final cut and, of those that do, not everyone actually enjoys the academic lifestyle. Because, at the end of the day, it’s still a job, like any other, not a magical prize at the end of a rainbow. So you either suck it up and make the most of it or fantasize about something better “out there.” The choice is yours to make.

Or, if you can’t find work as a full-time professor and are forced out of the academy, you do what you need to do: stop bitching and moaning and start looking elsewhere for employment. No point blaming others or wallowing in regret. Just get out there, find a job, and move on with your life. Let go of the past. Some of you just may not be good enough (or interesting or insane enough) to land an academic job, whether you've got a Ph.D. or not. I know it sounds harsh, but that’s life. It’s short, brutal, and unfair. More to the point: In the blink of an eye you and everyone you know will be dead anyway. In the meantime, why make such a fuss?

Your Friend,

Blunt Academic

(Editor's note: I claim no responsibility for the opinions expressed in the above guest post!)


Eliza Woolf said...

I for one enjoy talking with other disaffected academics. And I'm obviously not the only one. See, for example, http://alternativephd.wordpress.com/2010/11/22/november-funk/

So there.

Anonymous said...

Yay! High fives for a breath of fresh air. Couldn't agree more with all your points.

Caitlin said...

Dear Blunt Academic,

I'll be equally blunt: We're not talking to you. Go read something else.

And let the rest of us get on with the business of "getting on with it." Sometimes that involves a little navel-gazing.



WorstProfEver said...

LOL Caitlin, you beat me to the punch. If you can't see what's wrong with the system as a whole (which is why I left, after also being 'successful'), we have nothing to say to each other.

alternative phd said...

"Because, at the end of the day, it’s still a job, like any other, not a magical prize at the end of a rainbow."

Maybe this realization (what! there's no magical prize?!) does contribute to a bit of the funk & navel gazing -- but my sense is that most of us "in it" don't see this as "just a job." We can't afford to, because as "just a job," it sucks. We make below-poverty wages for years, have no retirement plans, no conventional benefits, limited job security, etc. So I think in a weird way, academe rewards the magical prize-rainbow thinking because if we didn't have that -- if being in academia wasn't also about Being an Academic (an identity, not just another job) -- who the hell would stick around? And it's when *that* rainbow fades that we start to make some noise.

recent Ph.D. said...

Dear Blunt Academic,

You have no ethos to speak on this subject. As you say, you've never had "to stress about whether or not to leave the academy." It's a whole lot easier to sit up on your perch and say you "would have" figured something out than it is to actually be on the ground actively trying to figure something out, trying to find an alternative career. Trying to find an alternative career while busting your a$$ as an underpaid adjunct is even harder.

Why don't you go research exactly what kind of work you would have done outside the academy? For kicks, why not try applying for some of those jobs? Go see just how many nonacademic employers want to hire you.

In all seriousness, I think it would be extremely helpful for both undergrad and graduate students in the humanities if more of their professors knew more about the job scene outside of academe.

Eliza Woolf said...

"It's a whole lot easier to sit up on your perch and say you "would have" figured something out than it is to actually be on the ground actively trying to figure something out, trying to find an alternative career."

YES, recent Ph.D., I totally agree with this! That is exactly what my response was to Blunt Academic when this subject came up in the first place. If you've never had to consider alternatives, how do you know what you would have done?

To be fair, this all started because I was venting to Blunt Academic--who does not usually read the blog, BTW--about my (still unpaid) student loan debt and lost human capital, yada, yada, and wondering when I'll make a decision one way or the other about academe. I was happy others out there shared my concerns. S/he scoffed at my worries and told me to buck up and stop fixating on my losses, etc. Thus the guest post was born.

Corinne said...

The interesting/revealing thing in all this, to me, is that Ph.D.s settled firmly, and pretty happily, within the ivory tower see the rest of us in this way.

It's basically a "get over yourself" attitude, which makes sense when you think about the kind of people who tend to enjoy academe and flourish in the system. I mean I can relate to the message of life is short, no need to whine all the time, but it is HARD to make a career transition and we need all the support we can get.

Caitlin said...

My apologies, Blunt Academic. Didn't realize you were an *invited* guest!

Since I made up my own mind to split, I must admit I sometimes share your impatience with my still-undecided friends. I know few if any ambivalent academics who have gone on to make it work. I fear that simply wondering if you're sufficiently committed is a sign that you're NOT sufficiently committed.

But I still try to be compassionate. Feelings of failure and financial insecurity are nothing to sneeze at.

Eliza Woolf said...

Caitlin, I am glad to hear (and am even a tad envious!) that you've made up your mind. I know it wasn't an easy or straightforward decision. In another comment you mentioned that you're in the negotiating stage for an academic admin. position. Congrats! How is that going? Do tell! I'd love to hear more about it.

**Also, If you ever want to write a guest post about your own journey from ambivalence to plan B, and from post-doc status to employed non-academic status, I'd be honored to post it here. We need a counterpoint to both Blunt Academic and myself. After all, I'm still caught up in the world of indecision. (It's my schtick anyway, so good thing I'm such a tortured soul.)

Anthea said...

Wow...blunt academic, whilst being an invited to give a blog post has a huge ego and a pretty bad attitude. Yes, I know this this a guest post but I'm frankly suprised at their attutide. Getting that tenure track job was a combination of right time and right place, good connections, good chemistry between him or her and the other faculty and LUCK. Good grief this person's attitude as to why some seek to leave the ivory tower in the first place is despicable! Yes, all of us went to grad school since we enjoyed stretching our brains, having an intellectual challenge etc etc...but many of us know that there's several fundamental problems with those vary institutions that trained us. For example: It's clear once even find out how many people graduate a year/in each doctoral program and compare it with the number of tenure track jobs advertised in your field that there aren't enough tenure track jobs for those that do have PhDs. So, the following questions exist in my mind: "Were and are too many people being let into graduate school in the first place? Surely the administrators of these institutions knew/know that there weren't enough jobs for the numbers of PhD students being trained and if this was the case why did they permit the faculty to give us places and/or funding for these research degrees?". These questions lead me to next question of whether this overabundance of qualified people means that the administrators knew that they could treat people like garbage and pay them very little, give little or no job security basically since they know these newly qualified people can and will teach the courses for very little especially since economy is currently appalling, job prospects aren't that great even outside the ivory tower and because newly graduated PhD people tend to have huge debt loads. Dear Blunt Academic it's really not very diplomatic so to be so snarky and egocentric since you've only been lucky! Remember that.

Anthea said...

Dear Blunt Academic,

I must apologise for coming across as frustrating but find it worrisome when some people luck out and get a job in the academy and then tell those outside of it, who haven't be as lucky that this job for whom many more have trained...that 'at the end of the day, it's a job like any other'...because none of us were trained to see it as such. It was for many a calling which for some have been lucky enough to have it as a job.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you, Blunt. I wouldn't have traded my 10 years in grad school for anything. I loved meeting all my friends, and every single one of them who didn't go on to get a t-t job has a good job doing something else right now, and are paid more than they would be if they didn't have a PhD. The ones who are in academia are fine too. I feel exactly as you do: I'm pleased with my own job, but if I hadn't got it, I'd be doing something else now and not regretting learning for learning's sake for a decade. I loved spending hours in a a library, and after hours drinking with good, smart, engaging people. What's to regret?

chruups said...

I don't think BluntAcademic is saying the system is fair. I think the post is saying we all need to take a little more responsibility into our own hands. I had a Plan B when I was in the last months of the job market and fearing I wouldn't get an academic job. I don't think the academe owed me a job, and I was eager to see what else I could do with the PhD. But I landed a nice tenure-track position that year. You'd think I'd gotten the holy grail, but I continue to yearn for what could have been outside academia. I think about leaving, and I feel drained at the idea of teaching for the rest of my life.

Eliza Woolf said...

I agree that Blunt isn't saying that the academic system is fair, only that getting a Ph.D. is(for some) and should be a worthwhile experience regardless.

But, like Anthea noted, for a lot of Ph.D.s failing to become a professor after the years spent in grad school is quite a blow. They really do view teaching, etc. as a calling and are seriously depressed and sometimes bitter when a job fails to materialize at the end of the process.

Plus, it's still true that grad students at R1s in general are taught to consider the academy as the only legitimate professional option post graduation. So when Ph.D.s complain that they don't know what to do with themselves or need help making a career transition, it's because they're inexperienced with the non-academic world of work. I know I am!

Anthea said...

I think the hard part is making the career transition since especially as Eliza says "R1s in general are taught to consider the academy as the only legitimate professional option post". However, what about the rest? I'm sure that none of us are told explicitly, by our profs what are our marketable and transferable skills. So, the hard part is working out what are our marketable and transferable skills. This makes the post PhD process even harder.

james said...

Sorry, I forgot to put my name on that last one (telling Dr. Blunt to get over himself and get a job)

James from selloutyoursoul.com

michaeledits said...

This just makes me wanna burn my PhD.

Anonymous said...

I would have many fewer regrets if I had spent hours in the library studying things I care about, and after hours hanging out with the many good, smart, engaging people in my program.

Not everyone's experience is like this!!

Fellow grads have confided their desire that the grad school experience were more like this. In reality, the time is spent on teaching, taking full course loads (there are a few great courses in this very respected dept., but most courses are far more demanding than stimulating), CV building, and budgeting.

Spending the remaining downtime with other graduate students is a rare guilty pleasure. And it really is downtime; talking about our real interests, at the end of the day, is usually exhausting and depressing. And this is a group of students who like and respect one another!

Regret is what you feel when you sense that in meeting the expectations of graduate school you have become increasingly duller and less competent, more insular and less educated than you were when you started, and when you've given up not just earning potential but also important relationships (not enough time, not enough travel money), and damaged your health (whether you've foregone exercise, sleep, dentistry, or neglected a health condition), and when you're getting farther and farther away from the very same things that MEANT SO MUCH TO YOU that you went to grad school in the first place -- and the sacrifices were all only ever supposed to be worth it if you landed that tenure job someday in the future, and maybe that's not really going to happen, and maybe it's not even within your control.

In my experience these feelings, though they're well hidden and seldom voiced, are not uncommon, and my experience is in an incredibly friendly and supportive department that does pretty well on the job market.