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

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Academics and Post-Academics Need to Talk More

Over at mama nervosa, Lauren sparked a great discussion with her post about academe not solving its problems soon enough to help current grad students. It even caught the attention of MLA president Michael Bérubé who dropped by and chatted with Lauren's regular post-ac readers in the comments.

That dialogue affirmed for me how much I'd like to see more exchanges happen between academics and postacademics, and I'd especially like to see graduate students participate -- or at least listen in -- as the perspective might be eye-opening for them.

Here's the rest of the comment I wrote over there, along with some additional reflections:

When I was in grad school, I had zero contact with people who had left academe, particularly those who had excelled, loved what they did, finished, woke up, got fed up with the sickening realities of the job "market," and left. My department only tracked people who got tenure-track jobs. Both professors and graduate students thus viewed the employment situation through rose-colored lenses because they weren't getting a full perspective that included what happened to all those people (and now I am one of them) who just disappeared, either before or after they finished. And the stronger you were as a student, the more you excelled, the more encouragement you got to "stick with it" -- publish one more article, get one more fellowship, teach one more class, try the job market JUST ONE MORE TIME!

This perspective needs to change. Here's why:

It's misleading. I am guessing that most professors do not intend to mislead their graduate students, especially their best and brightest, but this kind of advice does so anyway. Disguised as encouragement, this advice makes graduates students (and new Ph.D.s) believe that success in the profession rests entirely on their shoulders. Especially if they have already experienced a fair amount of success at things that were mostly up to them (published articles, won awards and fellowships, taught good classes), they believe -- even with just a little encouragement from the senior colleagues they respect -- that the same will be true with the tenure-track job market. And, well, it just isn't. Believing so is what JC refers to as magical thinking.

It's damaging. A lot of  graduate students haven't really grasped that sticking around their departments teaching their way through an interminable dissertation does NOT 1) enhance their chances at getting a tenure-track job later or 2) enhance their nonacademic marketability if the tenure-track thing doesn't work out. The only thing it does do is contribute to the vast supply of underpaid serfs whose silence and acquiescence perpetuates the very system that will ultimately deny them the dignity of a full-time, decently paying position when they earn the credential that supposedly finally qualifies them to do the work they've already been doing for a decade! And please note, I am NOT blaming gradaute students, but they are a link in the chain of magical thinking. And they are the ones most hurt by that kind of thinking. The chain needs to be broken.

It causes graduate students to make poor choices. For the most part, graduate students start down the path of earning a Ph.D. because they're passionate about research, teaching, or both. But that passion shouldn't stop them from taking a hard, pragmatic look at their career prospects. As I've written before, passion sometimes isn't the best life strategy. Graduate students accept "funding" in the form of TAships and adjunct teaching because they mistakenly think it's saving them money. They figure that because, besides the pittance of a salary they earn, their tuition is usually part of the package, they're getting a pretty good deal. But they're not. Many take out loans anyway because the salary isn't enough to live on. And the reality is that, once you finish your coursework, the tuition for your research credits (what you sign up for usuaully as you're dissertating) is insignficant. A Ph.D. in the humanities is not an M.B.A. Look at the numbers for your program. Let me put it to you this way: The salary I was earning at the secretary gig I took upon leaving academe was quite modest by nonacademic standards, but if I substracted from it A) the amount of my gross annual adjunct pay earned during my last year in academe and B) the amount of tuition remitted for dissertation credits, I would still have had almost enough left over TO PAY ANOTHER ADJUNCT TO TEACH MY CLASSES! Why, I ask myself today, did I stick around after my courseowrk ended, when I could have gotten out, gotten an entry level nonacademic gig, and paid for my own research credits if I wanted to finish -- all while making a living wage and creating a nonacademic professional track record?

If the only people you talk to are other academics, you don't readily arrive at this perspective. You convince yourself you need to be immersed night and day in academic pursuits in order to remain "competitive." You convince yourself, every year, that it's just a "bad year" and things will improve, and you have to stay in the game to take advantage of those improvements. And you convince yourself of the either/or fallacy that you're in it for love and not money.

I think it was a turning point for me when I heard that last one from a full prof on my committee who was earning $95K a year. Yes, it's true, no one goes into academe for the money, but I'd bet you a good bottle of scotch no prof earning that kind of salary loves what they do enough to take an $80K pay cut. I'd bet no assistant prof earning $55K would take a $30K pay cut. No, it isn't about the money, but you do need to make enough to live on, and in the DC area at least, $15K a year doesn't cut it.

OK, I've digressed into money, which wasn't really my intention. The point of this rant is that your thinking gets distorted when you only talk to other academics. That goes for graduate students and professors alike, but graduate students are the ones getting the short end of the stick. Professors telling graduate students they should just "reject" academe is a step in the right direction but really doesn't go far enough, especially if those graduate students really are passionate about their academic work and talented at it. Leaving isn't -- or wasn't for me, at least -- about rejecting something I cared about. It was about taking a pragmatic look at the big picture and realizing that my passion and talent for academic work was only a very small part of that picture.

Both graduate students and professors need more contact with those of us who have left, which is why the project Currer Bell, Lauren, and JC are planning is a great idea. Will more contact, information, and honest conversations cause more graduate students to reconsider and walk away from their programs? Possibly, but that's a very good reason that these conversations should happen. If they get a few graduate students to rethink how they're spending their time and preparing for the future during the decade of their adult lives they're "still in school," all the better.


  1. I love this entry soooooooooooo much and hope you will contribute some writing to either project. I agree 100%.

  2. Sure, I'll contribute in some way. They're both great ideas! I didn't reply to anybody off-blog because I'm not really sure at this point exactly what I'd contribute and have a million other things on my plate, but keep me in the loop as things progress: recentphd@gmail.com

  3. The 2 Year Life of the MindDecember 14, 2012 at 8:59 PM

    The idea about passion not being a great life strategy is a good one and an idea I needed to take to heart. There is so much rhetoric floating around about "doing what you love" which fails to recognize that at some point, we need to live and living requires us to do some things that we don't always love. I think it's all about balance. For me, I feel like I've finally got an idea of what a solid, happy, balanced life looks like and it doesn't involve being stark raving impassioned on a daily basis. In fact, I would argue that it's the little things that keep us going. That said, I have started to earnestly look for full time employment outside of academia. I believe YOU were the one who said you wanted a job that "paid a living wage" and didn't "bore" you. That's my goal right now and I think it's a worthy one. I do hope you contribute your knowledge and expertise to this worthy cause.

  4. I'm not sure I care enough to keep talking to academics, honestly.

  5. I am with Anastasia. I have my own life to live and continuing to engage with academia is ... counterproductive.

  6. Heh, I didn't say I wanted to be the one to do the talking!