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

Thursday, March 8, 2012

What Counts as an Academic "Success" Story?

Spanish prof's post about how her department measures success among their recent BAs got me thinking about what counts as success at the graduate and early career levels for academics. Really, it's a matter of perspective, but whose perspective dominates and why? Perspective is relative to position, and it's worth observing how someone with a particular set of accomplishments looks very different to those comfortably ensconced within than it does to those on the margins of academia. And yet, not surprisingly, it's the dominant perspective that informs starry-eyed, prospective graduate students and other outsiders who romanticize what academic life must be like and prevents tenure-track faculty and administrators from having to confront the real life consequences for their students of the system they prop up.

Here are the facts of our "Success Story":
Success Story finished undergrad at the top of hir class and was accepted to a PhD program at Fancy Pants U. While a graduate student, Success Story continued to earn many accolades. Because ze produced poetry in addition to the required research and analytical writing, professors praised hir "originality," fellow graduate students admired hir "devil may care" attitude, and the undergraduates ze taught for nearly 8 years enjoyed the edginess of hir classes. As a graduate student, ze published a handful of poems in very respectable venues and handful of reviews in obscure academic ones, but ze never published any substantive criticism or interpretation. Nonetheless, during hir last semester ABD (hired ABD perhaps because ze went to Fancy Pants U and hir brilliance was a foregone conclusion -- I digress), ze was hired as Visiting Assistant Professor (VAP) at a 3rd tier, teaching intensive, regional public university in the rural South, thus smoothly transitioning from graduate school to professorhood. A year into this 3-year appointment, ze publishes a book of poetry but still has no academic publications, other than a handful of reviews.
Here's how former professors, advisers,  and other drinkers of academe's Kool-Aid will see Success Story:
Ah, of course Success Story got a job! How could ze have done otherwise? Ze is brilliant, a brilliant poet with a promising future. And, of course, everyone from Fancy Pants U DESERVES a job. They wouldn't have gone to Fancy Pants U in the first place if they weren't true professor material, truly ready to dedicate themselves to the Life of the Mind. This wonderful VAP position is a great step ahead on the career ladder for Success Story, with the market as terrible as it is. Only the best and brightest get jobs of any kind, and this one will give Success Story the opportunity to prove hirself as a teacher with a VERY different set of much more challenging students from the ones ze taught SO successsssfully at Fancy Pants U. And we congratulate Success Story for having hir first book of poems published. Ze is as much a poet as a scholar, and we have no doubt ze will soon be able to turn hir attention to producing the scholarship ze needs to progress from successsssssful VAP to even more successssssssful tenure-track assistant professor. We have faith ze will be hired into an even better position when the term of hir VAP ends.
 Here's how other graduate students and adjuncting recent PhDs still entertaining hopes of an academic career but somewhat sobered (if schizophrenically) by the realities they see all around them might see Success Story:
Oh, Success Story is soooooooo lucky to have gotten a job, any job at all. I'd kill for a 3-year VAP position, even if it was in Rural Subtropical Wasteland. But ze really does have to teach a lot down there. The load is 4/4, which doesn't give hir a lot of time for research. No wonder ze chose to work on that book of poems. At least it was something ze wanted to do and is getting recognition for. But ... it won't look great to tenure-track hiring committees if, 3 years out from the PhD, ze still doesn't have any academic publications, not unless the position ze is applying for is in creative writing, ideally somewhere that offers an MFA. And we all know how many of those there are! Still, ze went to Fancy Pants U. Ze will get something. I sure wish I had gone to Fancy Pants U! Then I wouldn't be stuck adjuncting. Everyone knows it's not the quality of your scholarship but where you did your degree and who your adviser was that committees look at first. If only I had a better pedigree, if only I'd gone to Fancy Pants U! After all, I applied for that same VAP position. I have 5 full-length, peer-reviewed articles and a publisher is currently reviewing my monograph, and I didn't even get an interview. Sigh. Maybe next year. Success Story is an inspiration to us all. After all, you can never hope to get anywhere in this profession unless you try and try again.
 Here's how cynical post-academics might see Success Story:
Are you kidding me? You'd have to pay me a lot more than $37K a year to take a 3-year VAP in Rural Subtropical Wasteland teaching 4/4 to a bunch of brats who shouldn't have passed the 9th grade. Oh sure, it does have a decent honors program. But do you think, as a VAP, you're going to get to teach the honors kids? Hell no! Success Story is mostly teaching comp, not poetry, and that's hardly good for building hir CV. Moreover, I don't know whether Success Story is single or has a partner, but I certainly would not drag a partner to Rural Subtropical Wasteland. There's nothing there but the university and Walmart. Ze would be unemployed and we'd both have to get by on my $37K. Even if the cost of living is lower, what happens after 3 years when the VAP ends? If Success Story doesn't get another gig, tenure-track or otherwise, ze certainly wouldn't be able to afford to move back to Fancy Pants U City, not unless ze has rich parents. Maybe the book of poetry will bring royalties? Ha, good luck with THAT! And why hasn't ze published any scholarship anyway? It's not as if ze can get by on just having a degree from Fancy Pants U forever. Then again, maybe I'm wrong. Yet another awesome reason to leave academe!! Good luck to you, Success Story! You are academe's future, so make the most of it!
Good God, you get the nerdiest fucking people when you do a Google image search for "visiting assistant professor" and why-the-fuck are people who got their PhDs more than 10 FUCKING years ago at places like Emory, UNC Chapel Hill, and the London School of Economics still Visiting Assistant Professors (just click on the link)?


  1. Honestly, more and more I am convinced that I Went to grad school in an alternative universe, and that I was very lucky that the grad school I went to was neither Fancy Ivy League nor Fancy state university (Virginia, Michigan, etc). Just middle of the road flagship state university. I didn't end up there as a conscious choice, but more because I had no idea how the US academia worked when I applied. Though I was admitted in other programs, they were the ones who demonstrated the most interest, so I went there.

    My experience was good, I am still in contact with my professors, but it was very clear from the beginning that a "success" story in the department counted as a TT position anywhere. You also knew your chances were regional state universities, non-elite SLAC, and similar institutions. Maybe it is because of the field, but I would say 80% of the students who got their PhD at my university in the past 10 years got a TT position. Some were in desirable locations, some in less desirable locations (for me at least, I had a classmate who wanted to go back to small town Colorado where she grew up, and got a job 50 miles away from that town). We were encouraged to publish as grad students, and the professors were very willing to help polishing your manuscript. It was also very clear that none of us would even be considered at Princeton (or University of Colorado, for that matter), and that a 3-3 teaching load was the best we could aspire to (some got 3-2 teaching loads, but they are the minority).

    Some people got positions I would consider better than mine, some got positions that would horrify me. But I don't think any of us was deluded into what we could aspire to. And for that I am thankful.

  2. I should clarify "80 % of the students who got their PhD in Spanish in the past 10 years got a TT position". French and German are different, and so is English.

  3. I hope you didn't think this was about you! Success Story is a real person. I had a conversation about hir with someone who, though not an academic, still has a bit of the Koo-Aid in hir system. Hir perception seemed to be that having gone to Fancy Pants U, Success Story could do no wrong, but my feeling is that Success Story is going to have to publish some scholarship soon if ze wants a job when hir VAP ends. Don't get me wrong -- I think publishing poetry is great and SHOULD count more than it does. But, for those of us in English, even a degree from a place like Fancy Pants U only goes so far.

    Also, Rural Subtropical Wasteland U is not someplace I would EVER go for a VAP. For a tenure-track position, maybe, but it's too much of a dead-end in terms of location and salary when there's no guarantee you'll be able to get another faculty position when the VAP term ends. It would be difficult to move back to a more metropolitan area without resources or connections.

  4. I so feel you in this post. I just read a post today posing a question about being offered a one year job in a miserable location in a dysfunctional institution that would entail a cross-country move and living apart from a partner. And the writer wonders if she "can" turn down a job in this market. Holy shit, woman! You can and you should!!

    It's amazing how little space it took for me to see even the successes as pretty questionable in value.

  5. Sorry for the late reply. I was taking a mini-vacation.

    Of course I wasn't thinking it was about me. But I am serious regarding how different I feel my experience in grad school and expectations in grad school were comparing with what I read in other blogs. There are probably lots of variables that influenced it, one of them being the fact that I knew from the beginning that I needed to find a job, wherever it was, to be able to stay in this country (work-sponsored green card). But above all, it was perfectly obvious for all of us what we could aspire to: the last faculty hired while I was there came from Ohio State, but we knew the opposite was almost impossible.

    If I had to define my grad school experience, I would say it was practical. We were encouraged and helped in our research, but we knew very well that if we were lucky enough to get a TT job, 2/3 of our teaching load would be teaching language courses. You'd be surprised how many times I've heard the "I didn't spend 6 years doing a PhD to then teach Spanish 101 most of the time". I think that it is a perfectly valid feeling, but not a very realistic one. I would say that besides the oversupply of PhD, which is certainly a reality, most grad schools do a bad job in painting an accurate picture of what will happen after you graduate. I think I was lucky to avoid that because I didn't go to Fancy Pants university. In fact, as I commented a few times, my department is doing a search this year (for a language that is not Spanish). Though it has not been finish, the finalists come from Ohio State, Wisconsin-Madison, two regional universities with PhD programs, and a religious university with a PhD program in the field (good institution, but it's not Georgetown). The announcement made a lot of emphasis in the teaching part of the job. You'd be surprised the amount of cover letters, coming from very fancy places, that not only did not mention teaching at all, but read like a book proposal to Duke University Press.

    I guess my final thought would be that I am amazed of how many bloggers seemed to derive so much of their self-worth by their research. Writing becomes almost a religious exercise. Obviously, that is not me. Anybody who reads my blog regularly knows that a student comment on how awesome I am will bring me closer to tears than an acceptance at a peer-reviewed journal.

    I don't write about this very often, because it can be touchy for many. I read Anastasia's blog regularly. While I don't usually comment, I feel closer to her in the way she talks about her high school students than to somebody who publishes a book a year (I would never be able to do either: teach high school, nor publish a book a year).

  6. Eh, my emphais on research in the post was on Success Story's lack of it. I am sure that you have published more than ze has!

    Also, I'm not turning up my nose at teaching intensive positions. I just wouldn't be willing to move for one that was temporary -- any more than I'd be willing to move for 2-year research fellowship. And I didn't apply for them, and there are people at Grad U who think I ruined my career by choosing to take a nonacademic job rather than chase VAPs and postdocs with the hope they'd lead to something permament down the line. In a sense, they're quite right, but I could just as easily have ended up like Academic Cog 6 years out from the PhD still taking one temporary job after another. If that was my ticket to staying in this country, I would have done it, but, obviously, I have other choices.

    Grad U was actually pretty good at coaching people on how to write letters for different kinds of instutitions. There were a few teaching intensive positions I applied to I would have been happy to get, including the one I blogged about a few months ago that wouldn't have required me to move. But as I said, even they got 600 applicants.

    As you say, I think things are a little different in English than they are in other languages/literatures in terms of the use of adjuncts and other contingent faculty because of university-wide grduation requirements and the number of classes they have to staff. As one of my committee members put it, more or less, where would the money come from to convert those positions to tenure-track or even full-time non tt teaching intensive ones? The truth is, if Grad U had offered me something close to my current nonacademic salary, which is about $15K less than my department's lowest paid assistant prof, to teach 4/4 mostly composition on a renewable year-long contract, I probably would have stayed for at least a few more years.

    So, I gues, to sum up, the post was about the absurdity of believing that chasing a strong of VAPS and postdocs all around the country will lead to a "career" any more than going to an Ivy will. Of course, there are still jobs out there and good people do still get them, but, in my field at least, I'm not seeing a whole lot of rhyme or reason to it -- because there are even more people who DON'T get jobs who are just as good both on paper and in person.