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

Thursday, October 20, 2011


In case you've missed it, over at 100 Reasons NOT to Go to Graduate School, there's a superfantastic shitfest going on in the comments to this post. I wasn't going to get involved, but the Honey Badger summoned me (just go read the comments) to rebut something and I couldn't resist. What occurred to me -- as I went blathering on in comments of my own -- was that, while the academic job market may have a fair lot of myths surrounding it, there are also a lot of myths and misconceptions that academics have about nonacademic work and vice versa.

The hostility and acrimony expressed in those comments say more about what academe does to people than anything else. On the one hand, you have the people who have gotten out (either before or after grad school) who try to convince themselves they made the right choice but still harbor some regret and a lot of insecurity. On the other hand, you have people committed to getting the Ph.D. and/or who now find themselves stuck on the adjunct track (with or without degree) and need to convince themselves they're happy and have settled for the lesser of two evils -- even though they may have tried and tried to get out! The nonacademics piss on the academics for being stupid losers who can't get their lives together, and the academics piss on the nonacademics for being superficial, money-motivated jerks who never belonged in academe to begin with.

It's sad, really, that the conversations degenerate like this. Because the issue we should be focusing on is Academe itself. Because ... really? We need educated citizens if democracy is going to function properly. The current system is destroying the next generation of faculty while charging students more and more every year. If we can't have a rational conversation about what's wrong with academe without flinging poo at each other, we're never going to get to the point of talking about solutions.

So. I've digressed a bit already. What I wanted to say is that there are some common misconceptions about nonacademic work among academics (and would-be academics) that prevent them from both accurately assessing their current situation and figuring out how to get out -- if getting out is what they want to do.

Misconception #1: There's a secret "inside track" for all the good jobs. If you're not on it, you'll forever be stuck in retail or restaurant work.
While it's absolutely true that networking helps and that your connections may give you access to jobs unavailable to others, it's also true that many people do gt interviews and jobs just from answering job ads. Personally, I'm terrible at networking. It's something I really need to work on, but, while I've seen people over the last few months come and go because of their connections, I got all of my interviews and this job by answering an ad. At the same time, this so-called "inside track" is one people work hard at creating for themselves. There's nothing magical about it. It's accessible, but you have to take the initiative.

Misconception #2: All nonacademic jobs are boring. Adjuncting isn't great, but it beats spending the rest of your life in a cubicle as a corporate slave.
I don't even really have a response for this other than maybe ... grow up? If you're happy enough adjuncting, then keep on adjuncting. I'll be the first to point out your complicity with the system, but I'll also be the last to tell you to quit -- if you're really satisfied, that is. But don't cheat yourself by using the "boring" excuse to avoid exploring other kinds of work. Sure, there are plenty of corporate, cubicle jobs out there, but there are also plenty of non-corporate, non-cubicle jobs. Even the corporate, cubicle ones are probably not in practice what you imagine them to be in theory. Broaden your horizons.

Misconception #3: The economy is bad everywhere. Other industries treat their workers poorly. Adjuncts should be glad to have any job at all, especially if they like what they're doing at least a little.
It's true that the economy is bad and that other industries treat their workers poorly and that -- to a certain extent, with almost 10% of the population unemployed - a job is a job is a job. But looking at the issue in these terms sidesteps some of the problems unique to academe. The trend towards casualization began several decades ago (as the "I told you so" tenure-track types are fond of saying ... except not to their bright-eyed, bushy-tailed undergrads). It's been exacerbated by the recession and certainly mirrors problems we're seeing elsewhere in the economy, but the "market" for jobs in academe is grossly distorted in ways it is not in other industries. Academe has figured out that it needs workers and that a great many people will work for far less than they are worth -- a great many people who could be doing other things but believe they are destined for Living the Life of the Mind. Class is a factor, too, for many. You may be on food stamps, but, as faculty, you're middle-class in a way that your uncle Joe the Plumber never will be, even if he earns 10 times your salary. I'm sympathetic to this position, but, on the other hand, if your work as a teacher and researcher has so much more "class" value than being a plumber does, why aren't you getting paid accordingly? In my book, that's Catch-22: You like what you do but that's how you're getting screwed. And your exploiters know it, and that's why they're continuing to exploit you. Do you really like adjuncting THAT much? Are you SURE you wouldn't like being a plumber even a little bit ... or maybe a secretary?

Misconception #4: I don't really like adjuncting that much, but all my efforts to find another kind of job have failed. Nobody wants to hire someone with an M.A. or Ph.D. in the humanities.
As I understand it from reading around the blogosphere and talking to people, there is a lot of geographic variability here. If you're someplace that's been particularly hard hit by the recession, the odds of you finding even a secretary job like mine are probably much lower. You might want to consider relocating, if that's an option. If geography isn't your problem, take a good, hard look at the kinds of materials you're sending out and the kinds of jobs you're applying for. I've said before but I'll say again, I didn't start getting responses until I started marketing myself as a career changer. It puts you in a different category in the minds of those doing the hiring and makes you eligible for positions above the entry level, even if you have not worked in those particular occupations before.

Misconception #5: The nonacademic world doesn't have anything to offer me. I'm smart and talented, and my gifts would be wasted outside academe. I'm not really happy with what academe has to offer me, but I'd be even more unhappy outside academe.
This is a narcissistic variation of #2. No wonder you're unhappy. Really, the nonacademic world doesn't have anything to offer YOU? No wonder nobody is calling you back about those applications. It's not about what they have to offer you but the opposite -- what you have to offer them. They don't want your narcissism and arrogance. They don't want someone who thinks they're too good for the job they're applying for ... or the company or the industry. They want someone who not only has smarts and talents but is willing to creatively use those smarts and talents to DO something productive within the organization. If you're willing to use your smarts and talents creatively and positively, they won't be wasted, and you won't feel like you're wasting your time.

If you fall prey to these misconceptions, you will be more like the Slowass Sloth than the Crazy Nastyass Honey Badger:


  1. Slow clap. It's funny - I read the comment thread at 100 Reasons late Wednesday night (before it really blew up), and it inspired me to start outlining a post about how the "outside working world" looks (and how it's not exactly what academic types imagine it to be). I didn't get very far, but I'm glad ... this is much, much better than what I was working on.

    And you're right. The petty infighting between people who want to cling to the academic life and those who have left (or want to in the future) just distracts us from the larger problems with grad school and higher ed staffing that need to be addressed. And that does no one any favors...

  2. Great post, thank you for writing this. I think that the petty infighting that's existing between those people who wish to keep the idealised version of the happy academic world as they wish it to be is preventing the larger and more important problems regarding higher ed staffing, training of future grad students etc...from being addressed.

    I saw the comments over at last posting by the author of '100 Reasons NOT to Go to Graduate School' and all I could think was that there was far too much vitriol and vemon that I'd like to see. Yikes! Time to get my steel helmet out.