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

Monday, April 9, 2012

More on Having a Back-Up Plan

In my post to prospective graduate students the other day, I wrote about having a back-up plan if you go to graduate school rather than assuming you will get a tenure-track job. I want to emphasize how this isn't about success or failure but just plain common sense.

A while ago, I wrote about how I don't think comparing careers in academe to careers in the arts is particularly useful (look it up -- I'm too lazy to link). In one way, however, the comparison is useful, and that is in the wisdom of having a back-up plan. An elder cousin of mine had a long and very fine career as a symphony musician but had also earned an engineering degree. Even though he got the symphony job right out of college, he always said he was glad he had the engineering degree because what if something happened to his hands? What if he sliced a finger while cooking? What if he got really bad arthritis? What if he had a volleyball accident? None of those things happened, but if they had, he wouldn't have been able to play at the level required by his job and he always felt reassured by having that back-up plan.

My point is that shit happens and if you are in the kind of field where there are just so many factors that have to line up just right, you need a contingency plan in case one or more of those factors falls out of place. Even if you get a tenure-track job, for example, what would you do if, down the line, your partner gets a dream job on the other side of the country? You could live apart but you might not want to do that, and it isn't as if you'd just be able to walk into another professor job if you moved. Or, what if you need to take care of aging parents 1000 miles away? What if you get a tenure-track job but don't get tenure due to no fault of your own?

Like I said, shit happens.

Sometimes, academe seems more like this: When I was growing up, another musician kid I knew seemed to have everything going for her. I remember feeling a bit envious around the age of 18 because she was already well on her way to a musical career, without ever going to a college or conservatory, while I was still in school toiling away on a double major in English and music (boy, was I dumb for thinking English could be my back-up!). But there was an accident. Her violin got caught in the doors of a train. She tried to pull it out and became entangled in the strap on the case. The train dragged her for some 50 yards before passengers noticed, pulled the emergency alarm, and got the train to stop. She survived, but her legs were completely mangled and only after years and many painful surgeries was she able to walk again -- and only in a limited capacity. The good news, for her, was that her hands were OK and she could still play. And she has gone on to have a career as a concert violinist. But what if it had been her hands that were destroyed?

How many damaged people in academe do you know? How many people do you know who cling to their studies as if scholarship were the instrument of their soul?


  1. Oh holy crap! That's why I never gave up school - what if whatever non-academic thing I wanted to commit to at whatever age I was never paid off? Amazing how I was easily able to avoid the risk of not being an singer/Olympic athlete/fighter pilot/surgeon/novelist etc but failed to identify the same issue in my academic career... Perhaps that's because being an academic was way too easy (for me) - just read a lot, use lots of big words in conversation and learn how to juggle a wine glass and a plate of food while standing. Too easy.

  2. They always tell you "go to graduate school only if you can't imagine yourself doing anything else," and then you DON'T imagine yourself doing anything else so you're unprepared for what awaits you. Better advice would be "go to graduate school only if you can't imagine yourself doing anything else but then imagine yourself doing something else anyway and prepare for it, because, probably, you will be."

    Being an academic is easy enough until you have to find a decent job ...