Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A Sociologist's View on Whether to Leave - Part 1

So as I've mentioned, I'm currently an advanced graduate student who is planning to leave academia. I'm not sure if I'm going to finish my dissertation or not - it will depend on what kind of job I get, and whether I feel compelled to finish after I'm away from my grad program - but since I'm actively looking for a job outside academia without a completed dissertation, I'm currently classifying myself as someone who is preparing to quit graduate school. I might return later, but for right now, I'm done with it.

So, I ran across this old post on a sociology blog, where sociology faculty offer some very sensible advice for people who are considering leaving graduate school. I thought it would be useful to people reading here to link to and write a bit about this post.

Obviously, this post will be about how I, personally, view and relate to each of their points about when to quit. But I advise everyone reading to think about how you feel about each of these points.

I'm going to address this post in 4 separate posts over here, so that you aren't reading a 40 page blog entry. Here's part 1.

First, what I appreciate about this post is the fact that the author does not cut down or insult graduate students who might be thinking about leaving. He doesn't even allege that such students can't cut it or aren't smart enough. Given the negative reactions that a lot of academic leavers have gotten from established faculty, this needs to be commended.

Anyway, onto the post itself. The author lists the following five factors as the advantages of an academic career:
"You get to be part of a larger scholarly and intellectual community and work on cool ideas." 
"You get to decide the topic of your work."
These points are very true. Academia is one of the few places where you are freely available to work on almost any topic you're interested in. Although, as I've written before, this freedom will be somewhat limited to a narrow range of topics that you are free to explore as deeply as you want, at least until you get tenure. If you focus on 18th century European history, you aren't going to be able to easily turn around and start writing about the post-WWII area. If the bulk of your research is on domestic violence, you aren't going to find it easy to do side projects on adolescent peer groups and another on higher education in Eastern European countries.

So the "cool ideas" bit is true, but if your idea of "cool ideas" involve exploring a wide range of ideas on a wide range of topics, this isn't necessarily available in academia until after tenure.
"You get to work with smart people and young people."
Also very true. Academics are smart, and college students tend to be young. However, as I've written before, don't be mistaken ... academia is not the only place where you can interact and work with smart people.

As for young people - they are found in places other than college. You can volunteer as a Big Brother or Big Sister, or as a coach or youth group leader. If you love college kids, you could always take a nonacademic job in a university, or work as a tutor. Adjunct a class at night in addition to your day job. Go see if you can get involved with student programs at the local college. Kids are pretty cool, but they are found everywhere.
"Professoring is a well regarded position."
Again, this is true. Being a professor is a respected position. But then again ... so is being a doctor, or a lawyer, or a successful business leader, or a member of the clergy ... and a million other occupations that are out there.

Also, what good is being "well regarded" if you hate your job?

If you love academia, stay in it. If you hate it, don't stay just because you want a well-regarded job. You can be respected in a lot of different professions.

"Compared to most industries, the faculty have extremely stable jobs that will support a middle class lifestyle."
This is very true, although with the important caveat that your starting salary will likely be lower inside academia than outside (unless you're a rockstar who lands at a top R-1 program), and it will increase more slowly over time than outside academia, unless you get a counter-offer that you can use for leverage to get yourself a huge raise later on.

Tenure-track positions are stable, and the pay is nothing to sneeze at. But make sure to do some research on the average salaries in your field and at the type of jobs you're considering applying to. I got a rude awakening on salary from one of the schools I interviewed at because I didn't do that type of research. So ... if you're sticking in academia, do your research. (We're good at that, right? :)

Parts 2-4 will come out over the next couple of days. In the meantime, I'd think about how you view each of these positive aspects of academia. Would you be happy with the average faculty salary at the type of school you're applying to? Are there other places you can envision fulfilling your desire to write or to work with young people?

These are all things I wish I'd considered before I got to this phase ... it would have saved me a lot of heartache.


  1. I agree with all you've said! I also liked the link to the article you gave, thanks. I think it all comes down to a) what stage you are at in BOTH your life and career and b) what meaning you give to academic practices. I've been a tenured track professor for nearly 6years and even before I got my doctoral dissertation. I am, I suppose, what you might call a 'successful' example of an early career in academia. But the more I learn about this job, the system it's in, the corruption and cover-ups within, the less I want to be part of it. It makes itself out to be a place of 'autonomy', where you can think and write what you like. But the reality is a very closed system, with relatively closed, conservative minds, where you end up having to be part of a gang. If you really are a bit of free thinker, creative, and need autonomy, you probably won't like it! You also have to love writing. Learning and thinking are so far down the list of priorities. If you love writing and you are relatively smart and want to prove your point to others, then you'll love academia. Otherwise, it's just a job, and as jobs go, it has ups and downs, always and everywhere.

  2. Sorry for my delay in responding - your comment got kicked to the spam folder by accident. :(

    I am always encouraged to hear from tenured faculty who confirm at least part of what I'm thinking about academia. Now, of course, I think it's great that you have a tenure track job and I hope that you are happy - it sounds like you are. But I think that academia in general does a lot of damage to grad students and to the profession in general by publicly ignoring the negative aspects of the discipline (as you mention, the "part of a gang" thing that basically discourages free thinking and a wide range of interests). This can leave people like me thinking that there's something wrong with them if they don't love academia - since it's portrayed as this flawless profession with no downsides. But of course that isn't true.

    And I agree that academia is just a job, with its own ups and downs and positives and negatives. As I've "come out" about this transition I'm making, I've encountered SO many people within academia who have told me what a huge mistake I'm making, because academia is somehow superior. But I view it like you do - it's just a job. Just like my part time job is just a job. They both have their ups and downs. And just like some academic jobs would undoubtedly make me happy, some nonacademic jobs will too. So why leave those jobs out of my search altogether? It seems silly.

    Thanks for reading. :)