Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Life in the Real World...

(Disclaimer: Looooong, somewhat disjointed post here. This one has been in the works for a couple of weeks now, and while I can't get it into the edited shape I want, I don't want to abandon these thoughts either. So, here you go. :)

There have been a few recent comments over at the 100 Reasons blog that have been getting my hackles up a bit. Primarily, there seem to be a few people who enjoy going over there and alleging repeatedly that the "real world" is just as bad, if not worse, than the academic world.

Now, I know that there are jobs that are far worse than academic jobs out there. Absolutely. I also know that there are some people who are perfectly suited to academic jobs, who'd be miserable doing anything else. This is undoubtedly true.

But what those comments ignore is that just as there are people who can't imagine doing anything other than working in academia, there are also quite a few people out there who are miserable in academia (check out the "You're Not Alone" series on this blog for evidence!). That for all of the negative things one observes about the Big Bad Outside World, some aspects of the Vaunted Academic Lifestyle are truly unbearable for others. In short, we're all different people with different ideas about what makes a good or bad working environment, physically and mentally. And it's okay to want something different than your friends.

So a few days ago over at 100 Reasons, a commenter noted that people in grad school who think they might want (or need) a nonacademic job after graduation should work on establishing network contacts and work experience outside of academia while in grad school. I generally agree with this advice, however ... I commented in return that any grad student who plans to work, volunteer or network outside of academia while in grad school also needs to realize that they will likely be stigmatized as "not serious about academia" as a result ... thus harming their reputation if it turned out that they did want to get an academic job (or simply land a departmental fellowship or cushy departmental appointment while in grad school).

Another commenter responded to my cautions by saying that "well, moonlighting is frowned upon in any job." The underlying subtext of this dismissive comment, of course, was that I was overplaying the downsides of academia - that the outside world is just as bad.

I disagree, particularly in terms of the control that various professions hold over what you do in your private time. Academia, I firmly believe, is one of the worst offenders in terms of discouraging you from doing anything other than pursuing the very narrow set of tasks common to academics - research, grant writing, a little bit of teaching and committee work, and networking primarily within academia. Some outside interests and hobbies are okay, of course ... but nothing that will take up too much of your time or energy! If so, you'll be labeled as "not a serious academic," and your chances of having important professors vouch or pull strings for you will decline.

Trust me when I say that at my current job, no one cares about what I'm doing outside of work hours or who my outside friends are ... or, for that matter, what kind of career I'm ultimately working toward (as long as I give them adequate notice before I leave this job). And when I or any of my coworkers take a day or two off to go on a quick weekend vacation, the rest of the office is quick to ask about the trip when you get back ... not to snark passive-aggressively at you about how you "managed to take a whole weekend off" or some such thing that you'll often hear in academia.

Is my office typical of all offices? No. But it's naive to think that my office is some extreme outlier. The fact is that in most jobs in the world, the fact that you will have an outside life that does not involve work is taken as a given.

This is not the case in academia. Do not mistake what I am saying - any visible suggestion that you have taken time off from academic work will be met with passive aggressive comments ("It sure must be nice to have so much free time that you can take a vacation and actually relax and get a tan...I can't even think of the last time I had that much spare time. I always wind up grading papers in the hotel...").

Similarly, any outside employment will be taken as a clear sign that you are "not serious about academia," since everyone else makes due only on a stipend. Of course, this ignores the reality that most of your grad student colleagues are not actually making due on their stipends either - many of them are either taking out massive quantities of student loans or (perhaps more commonly) earning allowances from their parents in order to pay their bills and finance their trips to conferences in Europe. I had no idea how common this was until I came to grad school. But it is widespread. Do not let others fool you: academia is a site of immense privilege.

But this will never be acknowledged ... so there's no point in even bringing it up. Just realize that the Adult Allowance is viewed as completely acceptable, but tending bar on the weekends to make ends meet is taken as a sign that you are undedicated to academia, and may very well harm your career.

If you don't come from a background of privilege, this will drive you absolutely nuts. You will either (1) toil away in poverty, taking out student loans just to buy yourself a new coat for the winter, or (2) work an outside job and listen to the murmurs about how undedicated you are while you simply try to stay afloat financially. Murmurs, of course, that come from students whose parents pay their rent. It will drive you nuts.

But okay, I'm getting off track. My point with this post is to say that the real world and academia are not the same, at all. Certainly, there are some sadistic bosses out there who will make your life hell for taking a vacation. And there are certainly careers with insane time demands. But I'm going to venture that there is no other career out there where even the appearance that you spent an evening or weekend even thinking about something other than academic work is taken as a statement on your abilities or work ethic.

Simply put, as recentPh.D. writes here, academics have no idea what outside jobs actually look like. They envision something like the film Office Space, where idiot bosses chase you around forcing you to do mindless work and to come into the office on your days off.

Well, guess what? The real world isn't like a cult film written by a comedy writer. It's really not.

The ideas that academics hold (and regularly express) about the outside working world of which they know nothing motivated me to write a post about what my work in the outside world is like. Certainly, this won't speak to everyone - I'm at a small company with a very reasonable boss. And there are definitely jobs out there where insane work hours and nutso bosses are the reality.

But the thing is that all jobs are not like that.

This isn't the first nonacademic job I've had - in fact, I've had about 10 of them, including 3 full time office jobs in two different states. And I'm here to tell you that all jobs are not terrible, soul-sucking enterprises. For every crazy boss and insane work schedule, there is another job out there that you will love.

Sure, it might take awhile to find the right fit for you, and to get into a job you love. But if you hate the culture of academia (the "work all the time mentality," the assumption that everyone is privileged) like I do, you will never be happy working in it. So do you want to stick with the job that you know makes you miserable? Or do you want to jump ship and look around until you find a decent job outside of academia that does not share its toxic culture??

If you don't believe me when I say that all nonacademic jobs aren't pits of hell, then ask some of your friends and family who work outside academia. If you don't know anyone who has the type of white collar job you're likely to be able to land with your degrees, then try doing some informational interviews with people who work in positions that you might find interesting. Or browse the forums at VersatilePh.D. to find some success stories of people who have left academia. I imagine that most of those people will have had experiences very similar to mine - experience with a few crap jobs and a few decent jobs. And they'll reassure you that the outside world is very different than the imaginary place that academic types will describe to you.

For now, here's how my working experience (in 3 fulltime office jobs across two states, as well as some part-time jobs scattered through college and grad school) compares to what smartypants academic types just "know" about the outside world.

"Isn't it awful to have to punch a time clock at a normal job?"
I don't know. I mean, it's true that I punch in at 9am and punch out at 5pm. I guess you could say I'm now a Tool of the Man, or a Cog in the Wheel of Business.

But ... damn. It's not that bad. Sure, I have to punch a time clock and put in 40 hours. But 40 hours is *all* I have to put in. When I am not at work, no one expects me to respond to work emails or to give any thought to work ... much less do any of it after hours. Any emails that come in after hours include the disclaimer "Do NOT respond to this until after you're back in the office." On the rare occasions (about 3 times in the past year) when I've had to take work home with me, I log my hours and am paid for them on my next paycheck.

And that's the other kicker. If I work 40 or 45 hours per week, I'm paid proportionately for those hours. Sure, some jobs pay better than others and some don't pay extra for overtime ... but still, at most jobs, you're paid for the hours you work and can do other things with your hours outside of work, when you're not getting paid.

No one expects me to work for free or to even think about work in my time off. The first question I get Monday morning from my coworkers is "what did you do this weekend?" Believe me, anyone who said "well, I spent Saturday afternoon planning out my work schedule for this week and spent Sunday reviewing some policies and procedures for that new project we're starting today" would be looked at as if they had three heads. (Trust me - I worked at this office part-time when I was in grad school, and they thought I was NUTS for working on academic work over the weekend).

Others' mileage may vary, but the 9-5 work day works just fine for me, thanks.

"Aren't bosses awful?"
I've had awful bosses. They are certainly out there.

But all bosses are not awful. My current boss is not awful. The boss I had at my nonacademic job before grad school was not awful. Both of them were fair, and flexible, and reasonable.

My current boss allows for flextime - so we can take a few hours off in the morning and make up the time later. He voluntarily gave me a raise when I took on some extra responsibility last year. Any time I've ever had a problem at work, he's been happy to meet with me and discuss whatever is going on.

He's also completely frustrating in other ways, don't get me wrong. He's not a saint. But in general, he's a fair and flexible boss who is perfectly acceptable to work for.

So I don't buy the "bosses are asshole tyrants" claim that some academic types try to make. For all of the horror stories grad students can tell about abusive advisors (or advisors like mine, who are standoffish to the point where it's clear they couldn't care less about me or my work), my boss is downright warm and fuzzy and lovable. At least he treats me like an employee who earns my pay and helps the business run. I'll take that any day over an advisor who treats me like an annoying toddler who does nothing else other than nag him.

"Isn't nonacademic work boring?"
Others may have different thoughts on this, but I don't find my current work any more boring than my academic work. At my job, I have a rotating list of about 5-10 categories of things that need to get done every week. It's somewhat repetitive in that way, but the individual problems and tasks within each category that land on my desk every week are always slightly different. And it's completely up to me to determine how to structure my weeks. It's true that X, Y, and Z tasks need to get done by Friday ... but it's up to me to decide which order to do them in or whether to try to squeeze in a little bit of tasks A and B as well.

Everyone's mileage is going to vary a bit on this one ... but for me? I don't mind at all having a set of tasks to complete during the week, with some freedom to decide what to do when. 

Also, something I truly, genuinely love about my boring nonacademic job is the simple fact that at the end of the week I have a completed pile of tasks behind me to look at and say "see? I did that this week. That is my completed work."

For me personally, not being able to see completed tasks drove me crazy in academia. I felt like I was spending my days endlessly doing nothing. So even if it's kind of boring, my nonacademic job rewards the completist in me. And therefore, it makes me happy. 

"Aren't the people you work with stupid/boring/unserious/whatever?" 
In all of my jobs, I've had crappy coworkers and great coworkers. And it's true that the crappy ones will drive you absolutely bumf*cking nuts. And it's true that some people really are most comfortable in their academic bubble, where everyone thinks the same way and all people talk about is their work and their theories. Those people may feel completely alien among coworkers who talk about TV or vacations or their families or whatever. and that's fine.

But I'm not that way. I like talking about different things, even "lowbrow" things like stupid reality shows or local gossip. Endless discussion of arcane theoretical topics or statistical methods bores me. It always has. This is probably why I never really "fit in" as an academic.

But that also means that I don't find people in the outside world to be boring/stupid/unserious/whatever. They're people, just like academics - some are funny, some are boring, some are mean, some are unfailingly kind. They're diverse. And a diverse bunch of people to interact with is what I need to stay sane.

So I very much appreciate the people I work with, in a way that I never appreciated the bulk of my academic colleagues.


That's just a few things I thought of, off the top of my head. There are quite a few things I like about nonacademic work, even at a job I don't looooove like this one (also prominent among those things: no one questions or judges me because of my chosen work or my outside interests! Imagine that!!!)

1 comment:

  1. Hi JC,

    I'm one of the anon commenters at 100 reasons who is pushing back against the "Grad School is Better Than/The Same As The Real World" folks. Kudos to you for another terrific post.

    I do believe that in many ways grad school/academia is its own animal, and I certainly resent the fact that the same folks (profs and grad students) who mock the undergrads for believing in "the myth of meritocracy" in the real world are the very first to perpetuate the myth of meritocracy in academia. I can't tell if they're devious, delusional, or just plain stupid.

    On the other hand, and I'm not at all saying that YOU are doing this, I tend to draw the disagreement line when folks make it sound as though academia is the ONLY and WORST career in terms of investment vs. likelihood of payoff. As someone who's congenitally drawn to poorly remunerated professions, I know that the arts are really, really tough. I recently read that the chances that one's novel will be published are in the vicinity of 1/20,000. A quick glance at the publication rates of even top academic journals and it's clear who has the shorter end of the writing stick, especially since academics largely lack any talent for producing lively, engaging prose. In fact, one of the chief reasons I'm hanging on (for the moment, probably not much longer) is that as someone who loves to write and publish, I know how much easier it is to publish in academic than in literary venues.