"In many disciplines, for the majority of graduates, the Ph.D. indicates the logical conclusion of an academic career." Marc Bousquet

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Stop Comparing Careers in Academe to Careers in the Arts

In frequent blogosphere conversations about the difficulties a recent Ph.D. may face on the job market, someone (usually someone already tenured and otherwise well-situated) almost always compares the competitiveness of finding tenure-track employment to building a successful career as an artist, musician, writer, or actor.

I find this comparison not only inaccurate and misleading but unhelpful to the larger project of – maybe one day in the far distant future – remedying some of the systemic problems that have caused the shortage of tenure-track positions in the first place.

We should agree to stop making this comparison because:

Unlike aspiring artists, aspiring academics are needed by the institutions they serve.
Aspiring academics who start graduate school as teaching assistants and work their way through and beyond as adjuncts, postdocs, and VAPs are serving a vital institutional and societal function for a pittance without a clear path towards job security and a living wage, no matter how good they are as teachers and scholars. Colleges and universities could not function without them. While aspiring artists also do not have a clear path towards job security, may also be working for a pittance, and do make valuable cultural contributions, they are not serving the needs of this country’s major educational institutions. We cannot continue to promote the idea that “every child should have access to a college education” without publicly acknowledging the unfair labor practices that make fulfilling this mandate a realistic possibility.

Artists can be working artists while working “day jobs”; academics cannot.
Aspiring artists, actors, writers, and musicians may earn little as they build their careers drawing caricatures at carnivals, teaching stage fighting at community centers, writing poetry in the evenings, or playing wedding gigs on the weekends, but they have the liberty of working “day jobs.” Aspiring academics do not. Even after we have acquired as much teaching, publishing, and conferencing experience as we will ever need to be “good” candidates for assistant professor positions, we must remain affiliated with an institution in order to retain our long-term credibility as academic job candidates, which means sacrificing the financial autonomy and “real world” work experience a “day job” can offer a graduate student or recent Ph.D. for the exploitive absurdity of adjuncthood.

The personal and financial investments are not equivalent.
Aspiring academics in the humanities spend 6-10 years of their adult lives acquiring professional credentials in graduate school. A Ph.D. is necessary to becoming a “successful” academic, but no such credential is necessary to achieve success in the arts. While “successful” artists, musicians, writers, and actors are highly skilled, they may or may not have acquired that skill through formal education and may not have even completed a four-year degree. The personal and financial investments are not equivalent – that is, nobody still “aspires” to be a symphony musician at 38 years of age with fifty thousand dollars in unpaid student loan debt, yet this situation is not uncommon among aspiring academics.

It is a myth that there is a clear and well-defined line of merit – in both academe and the arts – between those who “make it” and those who do not.
Yes, people who become symphony musicians and tenure-track professors are very good at what they do and deserve to be where they are. And, yes, in both professional domains there exists a spectrum of talent, but most people who are good enough to get paid (or underpaid, as the case may be) to play an instrument or teach English at a university fall somewhere in the middle, neither completely  incompetent nor extraordinarily gifted. In both examples, the symphony musician and the professor, there are many, many others who could be doing their jobs – indeed, even excelling at those jobs.

My point here is not to say that “successful” people are undeserving or that competition is bad but rather that what we are talking about when we talk about the “competitiveness” of achieving success in academe and in the arts is only partially about merit. Yes, talent gets you in the door and up the first few steps. Talent and hard work make you “competitive” as a candidate for that symphony or tenure-track position, but it isn’t – with very few exceptions -- what ultimately gets you the job. You get the job because you were not only “competitive” but because you were in the right place at the right time, because you were willing to take anything and go anywhere, and, above all, because you “fit” – because, among the two or three or ten or a hundred or a thousand “competitive” candidates, your personality and scholarship “fit” within a department, your instrumental tone “fit” a conductor’s orchestral conception.

By arguing this last point, I am, in fact, claiming that there is a valid comparison to be made between careers in the arts and in academe, but it is not the comparison usually made by those who have “made it” – at least not in academe. Those academics who usually make this comparison do so to validate privilege and to justify complicity with an unjust and exploitative system of labor.

We should demand equal pay for equal work.
Valid comparisons aside, the violinist who plays wedding gigs and teaches fourth graders is not performing the same work as the symphony violinist, even if they are equally talented. The symphony musician works under a different and more rigorous set of demands, and those demands are reflected in hir pay and benefits. On the contrary, adjuncts and professors often teach exactly the same courses. In an English department, while adjuncts may teach the majority of the composition sections and tenure-track faculty the majority of graduate courses, there are a great many courses in institutions that rely heavily on adjuncts, including courses for majors, taught regularly by both adjuncts and professors.Yet, the inequality in compensation is startling. Numbers vary from institution to institution, but they never come out fairly. For example, an assistant professor at a regional state university may earn $48K for teaching 3/3. Since a 4/4 teaching load is considered full-time, that means ze should be devoting three quarters of hir time to teaching responsibilities and one quarter to research and service. In other words, ze is paid $36K to teach six courses a year. That’s $6K per course. Adjuncts in the humanities at flagship R1 state universities don’t earn anywhere near $6K per course, let alone adjuncts at regional state schools.

* * * * *

For all the reasons listed above, we should stop comparing careers in academe to careers in the arts. It is an inaccurate and misleading comparison that distracts us from the real problems with a two-tiered faculty system – a system that has led to a serious class divide which ultimately threatens the quality of postsecondary education in this country. Academics tend to lean left politically, often arguing through their scholarship and teaching for more equality in our society, yet the unfairness and class division within our own community is shameful. Comparing ourselves to artists – adjuncts to starving artists, professors to stars – romanticizes a problem we ought to be working harder to fix. We need to look honestly and critically at who WE are, not at who we might fancy ourselves to be.


  1. Thank you, thank you for saying what you've said here. It had to be said. I also find the analogies between careers in academe and those in the arts frustrating and imprecise. I agree with you that perhaps by looking at who WE are that we're on the very beginning of starting to work on the existing fundamental problems that exist within academe.

  2. Another big, big difference is that people in the arts often succeed by going against the grain and being mavericks and doing things for themselves.

    Eg. the writer who prints up his own books and finds good ways to market them, then the "real" publishers come calling, or the musician who starts his own indie label to put out music, or the director who gets a few people to invest some money to make his own feature and uses that as a springboard.

    In academe it is much different - it is much more to do with pleasing who you are under and toeing the line. While you are sometimes supposedly encouraged to present groundbreaking work, it is often down to the supervising professors as to how far you can stray, whereas in the arts you can hugely rewarded if you break new ground.

  3. Hey Clarence. Thanks for stopping by.

    You know, the ironic thing is that the tenure system in academe is supposed to protect original, "groundbreaking" research, but, given how current labor practices have perverted that system, producing original research isn't necessarily what gets people "good" jobs. Oh, you can be "original" once you get tenure, but, given how terribly you have to "toe the line" before that, I wonder how many of today's truly original junior scholars are going to comprise the tenured professoriate years from now.

    I was lucky to have a committee that supported my idiocyncrasies and permitted me a great deal of independence in the research and writing of my dissertation. But when I went on the market this year and last, I found very, very few positions (and this is relative to what everybody acknowledges were terrible years for finding jobs for everyone) for which I was a good "fit" because my research doesn't easily fit into conventional specializations.

    So, I said "fuck it" and am now in the process of remaking myself as an independent scholar. I have no doubt that having a background in the arts, being a musician, helped me make this choice. We'll see how it works out...

  4. The differences you claim are derogatory to the value and dedication of artists:
    * Art is necessary and useful to institutions and society. My sister-in-law, a painter, makes part of her living doing paintings used to decorate hotels. It's not always high art, but it has an economic value, and she does it proudly.
    * Becoming an artist has a high personal cost with little chance of remuneration. Some of the best musicians I've ever met were waiting tables in Nashville.
    * Success in art isn't entirely a matter of merit, just as success in academe has a good-sized element of luck. (Otherwise it would be hard to explain Flav-o-Flav and Ke$ha.)
    * Both artists and academics are in similar economic situations: they have spent years honing their skills (music lessons, grad school, or both), only to enter a difficult employment market. Many never succeed in their chosen field. That's a pity, but it's not unpredictable. Caveat emptor. Plus, playing the violin is exactly the same amount of work whether you're performing at Carnegie Hall or bar mitzvahs. Yet the pay differential is significant.

    Recent PhD: Your committee did you no favors supporting your idiosyncrasies. If your research really doesn't fit into conventional specializations, that's a good indicator that nobody but you cares enough about it to hire you to a conventional job. That doesn't mean your work is pointless - just hard to sell to the people you were trying to sell it to, like hawking bathing suits in Siberia.

    You can be proud of your idiosyncrasies or get a job - but usually not both at the same time.

  5. Friend, sharpen your critical reading skills and read what I actually wrote. There's nothing derogatory about artists here.

    For the record, I am a trained musician and am on familiar terms with both career paths. I know of what I speak. You, on the other hand, speak with bitterness and resentment. You launch personal attacks on someone you don't know. Why? I don't know and don't care to know, but it says more about your flaws than mine.

    My idiosyncrasies have paid off in enourmously rewarding ways since I left academe -- ways I could never have imagined before leaving. I have an outstanding and hardly conventional job these days (it's been awhile since I quit the initial post-ac admin gig). I get to use the intellectual tools I honed inside academe in equally satisfying ways that have much greater public impact.

    I am indeed proud of my idiosyncrasies, and they did, in fact, get me a job. Have fun hawking your bathing suits in Siberia. Clearly, it has make you into a noble specimen of human thoughtfulness and empathy.