Tuesday, May 31, 2011

On (Not) Putting up with Sh*t in Academia

I got my first official spam comment today! Does that mean my blog has officially "arrived" on the internet? :)

I will put up a more substantive post later tonight, once I'm at home. However, I did want to note that the angst and worry I've been experiencing these past few weeks has basically disappeared this week. I got a couple of job applications out, and had a relaxing weekend with my partner and some friends. I also talked to my part-time job boss about the benefits that I'll get once I go officially full-time later in the summer, and I'm feeling fairly optimistic that I'm not going to go bankrupt or become homeless while I make this transition, once I lose my connections with the university. It's not a long-term solution, but it's something sustainable for a few months or even a year, until I find something better.

I do have some student loans outstanding (yuck), so I'm going to "enroll" in some Ph.D.-writing credits this fall, just to defer the loans until I find a permanent position. (In other words, I'll be paying the university for absolutely no services). It's not ideal, and at this stage I'd rather be completely free of any connections to the department and Grad U. But at the same time, I have to be practical and do what's best for me in this situation, and deferring my loans for a semester or year is the best decision for me right now.

Along those lines, while you're eagerly waiting with bated breath for my next substantial post (haha), I urge you to go read this post at Anastasia's place. She has good news - she recently landed a full-time teaching gig (with fair pay and benefits!) at a private high school. This fantastic news has been met with some angst by her academic colleagues, who are concerned about what it will mean for her if she cuts all ties with her research and academic life. She has a great outlook on the whole situation that really resonated with me.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Your Tuesday Funny

I've mentioned before that if I'd continued down the academic path, I would wish that my research would have some effect on the public (or at least reach a public audience). However, at the same time I've often noted that research findings that get disseminated to the public aren't always reported clearly.

To that end, I ran across this comic strip today and found it pretty hilarious ... and accurate. If you're someone who's ever compared research findings to the way they're reported in the media, you may also enjoy it.


Ah, the divide between academic research and real-world understandings of said research. Will we ever breach it? :)

We're Gonna Be Just Fine

I was getting tired of seeing my last, depressing post up at the top, so I wanted to add a quick, more positive note to what I most recently wrote.

Look, this process is really difficult. It's mentally exhausting, and it's easy to sink into self-doubt surrounding how long you've been in graduate school (or academia in general), or based on the job/house/family/etc you gave up to pursue your academic dream.

But, look. You are not the first person to ever make a career change, or to have life throw you an unexpected curveball that sets you back a few years or a few dollars. (Nor am I - haha. :)

Think about people across history who spent years as prisoners in war camps. Think about people who fall seriously (but temporarily) ill or have a catastrophic injury, for which they have to quit working for a few months or years. Think of people you know who floundered a bit in their teenage or undergrad years and took a long time to get started with their career. Think of people who are victims of natural disasters, or who lose their jobs unexpectedly.

Most of those people will be just fine in the end, and ultimately have fulfilling work and family lives despite a few years' of setbacks.

The truth is that life is full of lots of hiccups and lots of unexpected pauses, slips, and time-outs. But most people recover from those periods just fine. Plenty of people returned from war camps to have successful careers and families. Plenty of people who floundered or even got into trouble in their late teens and early twenties find their way to decent careers and fulfilling family lives later on. Plenty of people who miss a couple of years of productivity due to illness recover and resume their lives. And this week, looking at the devastation in Joplin, MO? As bad as things are for them, those citizens will get back on their feet, rebuild, and move on ... even though it will undoubtedly take some time.

People have faced bigger setbacks and have come back from them. You (and I) will get through this decision to leave academia for something else, just fine. A few years' lost productivity is a million times better than a lifetime in a career that you hate. Even if it takes a little bit of time, you are going to be just fine. You are (most likely) not being forced into this situation - you are choosing it. And if people can recover from unexpected cateastrophes that are thrown at them (and have done so countless times throughout history), you can recover from a career move that might set you back a few years, but that you're fully in charge of.

And in the end, you will be happier.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Change is Hard

You know, I've tried to keep this blog pretty light-hearted and positive, to encourage people nervous about making the leap out of academia that it's doable and is a positive move.

But today's been a rough day, and it occurred to me that I should clarify that this process has not been easy. It's stressful, and anxiety-provoking, and I've had moments of self-doubt and guilt over leaving. There have been tears, and anger, and frustration. If you leave, you'll experience all of these things.

Today, I'm feeling unsure about whether I can correctly choose a new job I'll like (after all, I thought I'd like being an academic), whether I will be able to make enough money at a new job (nevermind that grad school salaries are insanely low), or whether anyone will even hire me for a job outside academia (which is, of course, something that will definitely come true if I don't keep applying for things). It's not been my best day. I'm frustrated, kind of sad and nervous, and feeling semi-paralyzed by doubt.

But I still don't regret deciding to leave. Every single time I contemplate what it would feel like to be still working on my research or prepping a new class or scrambling around looking for funding, I am more and more convinced that I'm making the right decision. I have a "good enough for now" job, and the next step is to find my next "good enough for now" job.

But the important thing is that I'm leaving a job that I hate. Changing jobs and trying something new - or putting yourself out there for others' evaluation - is always scary and difficult. But trying to do something else is always better than continuing along with something that makes you utterly miserable.

That's what I have to keep in mind. And if you're going through this type of situation, this is something you should keep in mind as well. Change is never easy. But sometimes it's necessary.

You're Not Alone - Part 2

More search terms leading people to my blog, from the last week alone:

"I hate academia" (this one is very popular).
how to work in academia without the guilt killing you
"quit graduate school"
"how to get a job outside academia"
"make you leave" academia
grad school guilt
"10 good reasons to leave academia"

I'll keep posting these from time to time, as a reminder of the fact that you are not alone.

Just because no one publicly talks about these doubts or about the negative aspects of academia doesn't mean that you're the only one who notices or feels them.

Your Chances on the Job Market - Myth/Reality #5

I haven't done one of these myth/reality posts in awhile, but came across something today that reminded me of one I've been meaning to briefly discuss.

Myth: As long as you don't shoot too high (for example, trying to get a job at Harvard when your Ph.D. is from a low-ranked regional university), you have a decent shot at getting any job you apply for.
Reality: A not-insignificant number of academic jobs posted on job banks will either not be filled, or are reserved for a designated candidate.

I've mentioned earlier that some institutions will post faculty jobs, only to ultimately cancel their searches. So you'll spend hours or even days carefully crafting an application packet for a particular job listing, only to ultimately learn that the search was cancelled and the search committees never so much as brought people out for interviews. Indeed, it's not clear whether anyone at those institutions even looks at the application packets they receive.

Don't believe me? Go look at some of the job market rumor mill blogs out there for the past few years, or the job market forums at the Chronicle of Higher Education. It happens all the time.

Along with the cancelled search, though, a certain percentage of the jobs that you will carefully construct applications for will be listed only because universities are often required by law to post public job listings for positions that are not really available to the public.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Reason I'm Leaving #5: I'm Tired of Begging

One thing that I didn't realize when I was applying to graduate school was that I was signing myself up for a once- or twice-a-year battle in which I would be begging multiple faculty, departments, and funding agencies to allow me to continue doing my job for another semester or year.

When I was accepted into graduate school, I (like most others in my department) was told that we had guaranteed funding for X years. This was an unusually generous funding offer for sure (guaranteed funding for multiple years is definitely NOT the norm in many grad programs), and I immediately settled into the program.

Within a few months, two things became obvious from observing others in my department: (1) competitive fellowships were seen as far superior to regular departmental assistantships, since you didn't have to do as much work for other people, and (2) as long as you were willing to teach, the department would fund you for longer than X years to compensate you for your labor.

I was thrilled about this. See, I first and foremost wanted to be a college teacher. So from observing older graduate students in my department, I deduced that once I finished with coursework and started my dissertation, I would be able to teach and teach to my heart's content until I finished my dissertation. In other words, from watching other graduate students, it seemed obvious that the department would "hire" me to teach when I was ABD, and that I could continue that for several years if need be. I very distinctly remember one of my grad student colleagues teaching two courses per semester during her last year. "Well, obviously there are plenty of classes available and I'll always be able to teach," I thought.

Well, not exactly. Not by the time I advanced in the program 4-5 years later.

I applied to a fellowship in my second year and won it, but to my surprise found that my X years of departmental funding was reduced by the number of years I was on the fellowship, rather than being added on at the end (so that my funding period was X+2 years). At the same time, the department began admitting more graduate students and reducing the number of classes that were offered to undergrads, which meant that more students were competing for fewer teaching slots. Thus, the #2 condition mentioned above was no longer available - I couldn't teach the same class year after year to pay my way through school anymore.

So rather than making a low but livable wage teaching in my department while I finished writing, I spent the last several years of my program begging - literally begging - for a teaching assignment. I was an excellent teacher with excellent evaluations who regularly taught overenrolled class. But the department had apparently decided that while my older advanced colleagues had been dedicated and skilled teachers who were an asset to the department by teaching full classes to enthusiastic evaluations, me being in the same situation 3 years later meant I was a lazy freeloader who was unworthy of a teaching assignment.

I've heard similar stories from multiple people in various departments across disciplines. As states cut higher education budgets departments have been cutting their course offerings accordingly - but for some reason, they do not cut down the size of their incoming graduate cohorts. At the same time, outside funding agencies are cutting back on the amount of money they have available for fellowships and scholarships due to the economic downturn.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Should You Go to Graduate School? Part 2

Somehow I've never run across this essay before, written by Professor Timothy Burke at Swarthmore College.

However, yes to all of it. If you're thinking about going to graduate school, you should know that it's not just "more college." It's not just an innocent opportunity for you to continue your undergraduate education. There is a culture that is hard to describe to people who haven't experienced it. But this essay does a better job than most things I've seen at describing (1) why graduate school isn't for everyone and (2) how hard it will be to leave if you decide to.

Thanks, Professor Burke.

Should You Go to Graduate School?

I mentioned in the last post that recently I've had a number of people ask me for my opinion on whether others should go to graduate school. Two weekends ago, I ran into the younger brother of a former high school friend, who said that my career change had him second-guessing his goal of pursuing a Ph.D. And last weekend, an intern at my partner's company asked me for advice because she is considering going to graduate school to pursue a Ph.D. in the same field I'm in right now. Every now and then, I get emails from people looking for information about our graduate program and asking whether they should go to grad school.


First of all, clearly I'm biased. I've become very disillusioned and disappointed recently, and thus am undoubtedly more cynical about whether someone should go to graduate school than the average person.

On the other hand, though, I think that some cynicism is appropriate. I think that college faculty are far too eager to encourage their undergraduate students to pursue graduate degrees. And the public in general knows so little about the nature of academic jobs and the state of the job market that young people who are considering graduate school get very little useful advice about whether they should go to grad school.

I know that for me, there was never any practical discussion of what the academic job market looked like, or indeed what a career in academia would look like. I was young and naive, and had no idea that working in X field would be different than studying it in college. And my parents unquestioningly encouraged me, saying that "more education is always good."

I'm certainly not blaming any of those people - my parents or my undergraduate advisors - for the position I'm in now. I was an adult, and could have done my own research.

But that's the thing. Rather than encouraging potential grad students to do careful research, we just continue encouraging promising students to apply to graduate school as if future jobs and happiness are guaranteed. And that would be fine, if graduate school were like a normal job.

But it's not. What these kids will experience is (likely) a move to a different part of the country, social isolation from people outside academia, very low pay and few benefits, and very likely a lack of discussion of any career options outside the academy.

So ... do I think people should go to graduate school?

Well ... maybe. I certainly don't think people shouldn't go, if they're excited about it and sure it's what they want.

However, I do think they need to make sure their decision is a well-informed and practical one. So along those lines, I have some advice for anyone considering pursuing graduate education (in any field, but particularly in the humanities and social sciences).

Monday, May 16, 2011

On Explaining Yourself to People Outside the Academy

Over the last few weeks, I've run into a number of friends and acquaintances in the town I live in as well as in my hometown while visiting my family a few weeks ago. As always happens when you run into old friends and acquaintances, the conversation switches quickly into "what I'm doing these days," which leads me to have a couple of conversations that I don't really know how to navigate smoothly at this point. One conversation relates to what I'm doing with this job search, and the other (which I'll post about next time) involves whether I think they or their friends/siblings/partners/children should enter a Ph.D. program.

First, I'll address the "why are you leaving and what are you doing next?" conversation, which is really causing me some mental distress. Basically, I feel a growing sense of self-doubt and shame whenever I have these conversations, and it's driving me nuts. I'm still so happy to be leaving, don't get me wrong. But it's already hard enough to make this transition without having to struggle with how to explain this to people in a way that doesn't make me look like I'm just throwing a temper tantrum over not getting a job ... or like I'm some kind of flake who has no ambition.

(My partner is always telling me that I shouldn't worry about what people think of me - and I agree. Most of the time, I don't. But I pride myself on being smart and level-headed, and talking to people about my career change makes me feel ditzy and flaky. Since this hits at some core things I like about myself, it causes some anguish).

Saturday, May 14, 2011

You're Not Alone

One of my favorite things to look at "behind the scenes" on this blog is the search terms that are bringing people to this blog via Google.

Currently, the top search term is "leaving academia" - not surprising, given the title.

But the next five search terms, in the past month alone?

"i hate academia"
"dealing with bad advisor"
"I hate my research"
"academia isn't for me"
"feeling depressed and isolated in grad school"

If you're reading this and the other blogs out here talking about people who have left academia, you're not alone. And there's nothing wrong with wanting to leave a profession/program that makes you miserable!

I've been a little MIA lately, but I'm working on a couple of longer posts and will put a few up this weekend. I will say that I spent the evening having dinner with a friend last night, and woke up early today to go to the farmers' market and to go for a run. Now I'm going through job listings to send out a couple of resumes.

I will say that it has been glorious to have normal weekends again, without the pressure of work hanging over my head. I'm still going to work and running errands and doing the things I have to do around the house and to find a new job ... but the academic guilt is missing. It feels amazing.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Article on the State of the Market and Higher Education

I was out of town for a few days and am immensely tired today, so I don't have much time for insightful commentary or discussion today. However, I did run across this article today, entitled "Faulty Towers: The Crisis in Higher Education," and wanted to post a link to it so you all can read it (Interestingly, it was posted to Facebook by one of my graduate student friends ... perhaps others in my program are considering other options???)

It's a piece from The Nation, discussing at length a number of problems with the system of higher education in the United States today - from the terrible job market across multiple fields, to the growing proportion of classes being taught by adjunct and contingent faculty, to the sluggish response by graduate programs and universities.

I haven't had a chance to read it in much depth or formulate clear thoughts yet, but later this week I plan to read it in more detail and post some thoughts. In the meantime, I thought I'd link to this just in case anyone reading might find it useful, or have any comments or thoughts to add.


In other news - I had a phone interview for the job I mentioned in an earlier post. It seemed to go fairly well, although I'm not entirely sure I would want the position if offered. Still, it was great to get the experience and the small ego boost from being a semifinalist for a position. It helps me think that perhaps this whole "leaving academia" thing was a good move, after all.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

On Fair Compensation in Academia

I was catching up on my RSS feeds tonight after a week or so with sporadic computer access, and came across a comment on Anastasia's blog (an adjunct working in, I believe, religious studies) that I wanted to highlight.

Over at her place, on a post (which everyone should go read now) in which she discussed the poor treatment she received from one of the two schools where she adjuncts, commenter "Inside the Philosophy Factory" notes that
"It's curious, in other business models, the people who bring in the most profit are treated well... in acadamia they're treated like an imposition."
This really struck me, because although I was basically ignorant about adjuncting as a Thing until the past couple of months, I have often made this observation about academia myself during my years teaching as a grad student.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Early Observations On the Real World Job Market

So in the few months since I've made the Big Decision (tm) to leave academia, I really haven't applied for too many jobs. I've spent quite a long time putting together resumes and doing some soul-searching about the type of work I'd like to do, where I'd like to live, etc.

But I have sent resumes out for about 8-10 jobs that sounded particularly good, as well as a few that didn't sound like perfect fits (but for which I figured it couldn't hurt to apply for, just to get into the routine of writing resumes and cover letters).*

Last night, I got an email from one company that I applied for, telling me that they had filled the position I had applied for, but that the hiring manager thought I would be a good fit for another position in their company ... and was I interested in having a phone conversation about that position this week?

Now, obviously, this may turn into absolutely nothing ... and from the way the job was described in the email, I'm not sure it's really something I'd want.


Sunday, May 1, 2011

Reason I'm Leaving #4 - My Mental Health

(Please see the edits and links to additional information at the bottom of this post.)

I've never been someone who was prone to depression or anxiety. In that, I'm very lucky. I've had my ups and downs, of course, and anxiety problems run in my family. But overall, I've never had major problems that a monthly check-up session with a wonderful therapist has left me unable to overcome.

Based on conversations I've had with other grad students, though, I've begun to realize that my experience wasn't typical. For years, I've noticed that it has seemed like every other student in my program was on antidepressants, or was desperately seeking out recommendations for psychotherapists, and in a few cases, even checked themselves into a mental hospital or attempted suicide.

For a long time, I thought that people who applied to graduate school and who kept on going through the Ph.D. were just more prone to depression and anxiety. It is easy to be somewhat isolated in academia, and to work long hours. I used to think that people who suffered from depression or social anxiety disorders (for example) might select into an occupation that allowed them to spend long hours alone at home. I thought academic types were just "odd," and that along with that "oddness" came this tendency toward mental illness.

But the more I've read, the more I think that the causal direction might actually be the opposite. That is, that grad school can make otherwise mentally healthy people depressed and anxious.