The first in my new series of postacademic rants, which are described in the last post.
As I wrote yesterday, these were all written in the spring and early summer, when my wounds from leaving were still fresh. I'm reprinting them here for others to read, but please note that these thoughts and emotions are not things I just came up with this week. In fact, now that I'm seven months removed from my decision to leave, I'm far less angry and more content with my life. I'm incredibly glad I've made this decision.
But at the same time, I know many of you are still feeling the fresh wounds and emotions. Hopefully, reading these rants will help you remember that you aren't alone in how you're feeling, and that I was there too (and am now happily gone from academia).
The first rant is entitled "F___ the meritocracy myth." We'll start with this one, since it's similar to some of the stuff I've been writing most recently. Language is NSFW, clearly.
Fuck the meritocracy myth
You know what else I am really fucking sick of? The idea that academia is a meritocracy.
The smartest people don’t get the most rewards and accomplishments and the best jobs and fellowships in academia. There are three ways it really happens:
First, you may have an advisor who either does all your work for you or pulls strings behind the scenes to make sure you get certain things. This happens with one particular faculty member in our department. His students always win the fellowships, and the cushy departmental jobs that involve lots of pay for no real work, and have secret, behind-the-scenes interviews at academic conferences for jobs.
And that’s fine. That’s how people get jobs and opportunities in the “real world.” But what makes it bullshit is that in academia, no one acknowledges that this happens. Everyone holds up the idea that it’s all a meritocracy and that the most successful students really are the best and brightest. People ignore when faculty members are all but writing people’s papers for them or when their students just “happen” to land all the cushy positions, year after year. We’re told it’s because they’re the best. Well, I call bullshit. It’s because they have advisors who do the hard work for them that the rest of us have to do ourselves.
Second, the pedigree of your department matters. I can be the stupidest person in Grad U's Department of Basketweaving, and I will get a job faster than the smartest person in Regional Campus U's Basketweaving Department. It’s just how it works. A tremendous amount of your academic future is dictated by your GRE entrance exam scores and by which department selected you when you were 21 and fresh out of college. What you do after that matters very little. It’s all about your pedigree. Meritocracy be damned.
I got into Grad U because I had recommendation letters from two alumni, and because I am an excellent test-taker. Now, I’m very smart, and I’ve benefited from my education here. But I’m not smarter than everyone who is in programs that are ranked 11 through 100. It was luck of the draw that I got in, and it’s the pedigree that meant that I got attention from schools that I wouldn’t have gotten if I’d graduated from Smaller State School.
And that’s fine. I benefited from it. But I call bullshit on the whole system. Kids don’t realize at age 21 that where they go to school matters. They look at things like how close it is to their home, and at whether there are faculty there who they can work with, or whether the department specializes in their area of interest. They have no idea that ultimately, if they aren’t in a top-15 (really, top-8) program, they stand little to no chance of getting a decent job after graduation.
Honestly, the whole academic system is so shrouded in secrecy that I cannot get over my anger at the entire thing. It is harming people.
Third and even more true than the first two? The whole thing’s a crapshoot. If you’re reviewing fellowship or job applications as an academic employer, VIRTUALLY EVERY ONE you’re looking at is qualified for the position. Almost all of the applicants will have extensive publication records, good teaching reviews, and a string of awards and committee memberships. Honestly, the decision about who to invite for interviews must be like picking three at random out of the pile of “maybes.” Everyone will be qualified, most people are probably okay on a personal level (or at least not any worse than the rest of the socially maladjusted morons in academia).
If no one’s pulling strings for you behind the scenes, it’s a crapshoot. But the one thing it is most definitely NOT is a meritocracy. And to tell students otherwise is doing them a serious misservice. They need to learn to work on their networking and on positioning themselves for A JOB … not the ideal academic job, and not the fellowship they’re counting on for the next academic year. It doesn’t matter how accomplished they are – if they don’t have someone pulling the strings for them or they aren’t in the #1 ranked program, they probably aren’t going to get it. Instead, grad students need practical skills in networking and marketing themselves so that they can have a decent quality of life while looking for the jobs and opportunities they really want. Because it might take awhile to find.
But no … academia just keeps saying that if you want it bad enough and work hard enough, it’ll happen.
I call bullshit on the whole thing.