Saturday, April 30, 2011

A Sociologist's View on Whether to Leave - Part 4

Apologies for the delay in posting the final part of my analysis of the orgtheory post. I've had some computer problems for the last week or so, and blogging's been pretty low on the priority list as a result. Things seem semi-resolved, though, so I wanted to finish the series so I can move onto other topics in the next couple of days.

This final post covers reasons that the author thinks it's valid to decide to leave grad school - and needless to say, I agree with his reasons. But, here they are ... with my own observations about each:

"You truly find the academic mission irrelevant for your personal goals. Academia is all about things like decoding the true meaning of 'Being and Time,' or looking for natural experiments in surveys, or reframing Chaucer. If this sort of intellectual work truly bores you, then maybe you should look for a new career."
I could not agree more with this if I tried.

Look, I really admire the people who LOVE academic research. God knows that I wish I was one of those people - it would make my life far easier.

But I don't. I am interested in social policy, and on real-world problems, and on doing research that gets out in the public eye and has a chance of affecting the real world. I like reading and thinking about abstract ideas to a point ... but I don't like it so much that I want to devote my entire decades-long career to discussing abstract theoretical concepts with a small audience of colleagues.

In short, I want to use my research skills to improve the world, not to improve some theoretical concept that no one outside the narrow confines of my discipline will ever know or care about. And again - that career goal is great for anyone who really loves the abstract theoretical work. But if it makes you miserable, there's no reason you have to continue down that path, just because you started down it.
"The rewards of academia are incompatible with what makes you happy."
With this bullet point, the author mentions three aspects of academia in particular that can be less than rewarding for some people: (1) lower pay than in other careers, (2) a minimal chance of having real-world impact, and (3) little control over where you live.

I've discussed each of these things at length before, so I'll avoid going on and on about them again for too long. Let's just say that I agree with him, and that you will often see things like money and geographic location downplayed by people within academia - as in, "who cares what the pay is or where it's at - you're lucky to get an academic job!"

When I was on the market, one of the things I said to my partner at one point was how insane it was that academics were encouraged - in fact, expected - to take absolutely any academic job offered to them, no matter where it was located or how poor their quality of life would be.

Can you imagine another career path in which you would interview for a job, and leave the interview knowing that the salary was too low and that you'd probably hate the company and your colleagues ... but still feel like you had to take the job? And that it wouldn't just be a job ... but would probably be the only job you'd hold for the rest of your adult life (as with a tenure track job)? Consider that situation for a banker, or an accountant, or anything else. It makes no sense ... but in academia, it's the norm.

If you need more money, or a particular geographic location, or something else ... keep your options open. It's not irresponsible to do that - it's irresponsible to ignore those considerations.
"Ability - once in a while, you get into a situation where you're not up to it, or not at the level that'll get the outcome you want."
Again, I agree with this. I mentioned in the last post that I don't think grad students should consider dropping out because of one bad class or grade.

But at the same time, if you're struggling in everything and genuinely not able to keep up, there's no shame in leaving and trying something you'll be better at.
"Inability to work independently. ... Some people just really need a more structured environment than academia. ... So if the years are passing and you can't concentrate long enough to write a dissertation chapter or two, then maybe you should think about it."
I agree with him, although I sense a small hint of "if you aren't independent and self-directed enough, you'll go find a job with the rest of the office drones so that you don't have to think independently anymore" in this post. Just a small hint of that nasty assumption - that academia is the only career with any autonomy or with smart, self-directed people working in it. And I reject that notion. Maybe I'm reading between the lines too much ... but I wanted to point that subtle commentary out. Because it's crap.

Look, I've worked part-time in office settings for years now. I have a boss. I have colleagues and structured work hours. And you know what else I have? A lot of autonomy and freedom to structure my schedule and the projects and tasks I work on each day. So the idea that any non-academic job resembles the movie Office Space? I disagree strongly.

That being said, I do agree that if you aren't getting any work done without the influence/pressure of a boss or supervisor, then it might be a clue that you won't be great at self-directed research in an academic career. I know that for me, I never got much work done without a self- or advisor-imposed deadline. Now that I am looking at things a little more objectively, I think that an academic career would have been really hard for me to sustain.

I have a little more to say about this particular topic, but I've gone on long enough here, so I'll end this for now and follow up with additional thoughts later. For now, though, I recommend thinking about how you view yourself in the context of this orgtheory post, and to keep a clear head about how you view your work and your career goals.

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