Friday, November 18, 2011

Postacademic Rant 4 - The Reality of the Academic Career

I'm heading out of town again for the weekend, so I won't be back until early next week. I have a few ideas for new posts, but won't have anything new posted until next week. So, to tide you over for the weekend ... here's another postacademic rant.

Standard disclaimers apply: these were written sometime in April, when I was newly leaving and full of anger. Hopefully they can be cathartic for those of you who haven't left yet ... particularly for those of you who find this place by googling "I hate academia" or "I hate research." :) As we say in the postacademic blogosphere, you're not alone...

Anyway, the standard disclaimer applies ... language is somewhat NSFW. Enjoy, and have a great weekend!

Fuck the lack of information about what “working as an academic” is actually like

I remember coming to graduate school, at the ripe old age of 22, just out of college. I thought that grad school and being a professor was my chance to spend the next few decades reading and writing widely. I was going to learn SO MUCH and read SO MUCH and learn about so many different topics! I was going to get so much smarter, and be so much better off than everyone else who was just stuck doing boring office jobs and following orders.

Well, screw that. It’s a lie.

Sure, at first you can take a variety of classes to learn about a lot of different things and read a lot of different things. (As an aside, this is the part of grad school that most people I knew hated, but that I really enjoyed).  I took classes where I got to write about education, gender, crime, mental illness, and a million other things. I thought it was sooooooo interesting.

And then I moved on, and suddenly I found myself being forced to focus my reading and writing and research more narrowly down … first onto one broad area of study, and then onto one small subset within that broad area, and then finally to one tiny niche topic within that one small subset. Then I was expected to spend the next few decades of my career going into insane levels of depth on that one tiny niche topic. Perhaps, once I got tenure, I could branch out into a second niche area within that broad topic … but suddenly I was facing a loooooong few decades until I’d be able to really start reading and writing about a variety of topics again.

“Well,” I told myself. “If you have to focus down on one tiny topic, at least you can make it one you’re really interested in.” So I decided to focus on one particular type of contemporary social policy that I’m really interested in. Refocused and excited, I brought my topic idea to my advisor.

“That really isn’t what we do in this discipline. We don’t really study social policy. Now, if you’d like to study historical social policy, that would probably be fine … as long as you demonstrate how clearly it relates to the big theories within the discipline. But new policies are too new. We don’t know how they’ll apply to our theories, so you really can’t study them.”

So not only was I being pushed into one little niche area when I was really interested in a wide variety of research … but I was also being denied the chance to study something with current social relevance. Instead, I had to pay my homage to the dead white men who’d theorized in our field. If I strayed from that – if, in fact, I had the wild idea that my research might actually have some important effect on the real world? I was quickly disabused of that notion.

Rather than being able to research and write about “anything,” I not only had to choose one topic to study in insane depth … but I also had to choose a topic that basically conformed to the topics people had been choosing to research for decades and decades already. And instead of coming up with grand new ideas, I’d spend my time parsing out some tiny little angle on the same goddamned idea people had been writing about for decades.

If you like thinking and writing and reading broadly, getting a Ph.D. is a terrible idea. After the first few years, you won’t be able to do that. You have to specialize, specialize, specialize. And if you’re like me, it will drive you batshit crazy. Rather than getting smarter and more educated, you’re learning more than you ever wanted to know (and more than anyone else would ever want to know) about one tiny aspect of something. You’re not getting smarter. You’re becoming an uber-specialist on something that’s so detailed that no one but you is going to care about it.

That’s not important work. That’s pointless mental masturbation.

Now, this isn’t entirely the fault of academia. The job is what it is, and I should have realized what I would eventually have to do.

However, when you ask 22 year old kids to make the decision to go to grad school, you’re likely going to wind up with some who think like me – that they’ll be able to read and write about “anything,” and that grad school will be like college all over again … reading, writing, and learning on a bunch of topics. Yayyy!!!

Fast forward 5 or 6 years, though, and those eager young kids are bored and frustrated because they don’t have time to read a book for fun anymore, or even to do anything other than delve into some other aspect of whatever pointless minutae they are studying. Again – you won’t be getting smarter. You’re just obsessing about one boring topic … for YEARS. And if you’re like me, that will make you miserable.

But the thing is that this shift – from coursework to specialized research – happens so slowly and subtly that you almost won’t realize it’s happening. The socialization (“Your research is soooooo important,” “What theories does your work speak to?” “What is your next project going to be?”) is pretty absolute, and since you’ll be surrounded by all academics you won’t really have the framework with which to evaluate your situation objectively (“I've always loved reading and writing, but now I hate it. What’s wrong with me??? I get to read and write for a living! I should love it!!!!”)

The answer is that nothing is wrong with me. And nothing is wrong with anyone else who hates the academic lifestyle. There is no one job that’s perfect for everyone. Some people love learning about a variety of topics, while others are content learning more and more about a single topic. Academia can be great for the latter category of people, but it's probably going to be at least somewhat frustrating for the former category.

People who realize that academia isn't a good fit and want to leave should be applauded (both for figuring out what’s right for them and for freeing up space in the academy for people who genuinely love the work!). But instead, we get belittled and insulted and made fun of behind our backs.

Well, fuck that. Let's call it how we see it. Your average academic isn't doing groundbreaking, world-changing research. They're studying one little angle of a subset of a niche of Advanced Basketweaving in Uzbekistan. If they truly can't get enough of Uzbeki Basketweaving, then we should applaud them for finding their life's work.

But if they'd rather find some other line of work that would free them up in their spare time to read and write about basketweaving in other countries? They should be applauded and supported, not belittled and made fun of.

I don’t think academia owes anything to students who, like me, wind up unhappy later on. Chances are that if I’d been told how things were going to go, I would have still gone to graduate school at 22. I wouldn’t have realized the limitations that would have been placed on my research at the dissertation stage. I still would’ve thought I knew more than my advisors and that I would love grad school no matter what they said. And I would have gone. And the first few years, when it was good, would have convinced me I was making the right decision, and I’d still wind up where I am today.

But damn, do faculty and grad programs need to be better at explaining to prospective students what the job of an academic actually entails, and how it’s different than undergrad. I’m not the only one who didn’t realize that. And I won’t be the last. And until there is better communication with prospective students, people will continue to be disappointed and demoralized.


  1. Great post, JC.

    "However, when you ask 22 year old kids to make the decision to go to grad school, you’re likely going to wind up with some who think like me – that they’ll be able to read and write about “anything,” and that grad school will be like college all over again … reading, writing, and learning on a bunch of topics. Yayyy!!!"

    I don't think it's just a function of age. I went in my 30s, as did my best grad school buddy, and we were both clueless. I know a few smart cookies who really knew what they were getting into, but for the most part the folks I know had many nasty surprises once they enrolled. It's a big boo.

    Type 1 Academic Leaver

  2. Yes, I agree ... it's definitely not just a function of age - it's a function of an academic system that does not inform its undergrads about what grad school and an academic career actually looks like. All the undergrads see (whether they're 22 or 32 or 42) is a professor standing at the front of the classroom lecturing, or sitting at their computer in their office. They hear "writing papers" and "doing research" and assume that it's the same kind of "papers" they do as undergrads. And this assumption isn't challenged by faculty who encourage smart undergrads to go onto grad school.

    And they only realize the truth once they're so enmeshed in academic culture that they come away thinking there is something wrong with them and that they're failures if they want to leave. It's just sad.

  3. Fantastic post. I'm in the 5th year of my PhD and this really spoke to me.

    The main issue, in my experience at least, is that an undergrad degree and the early years of graduate course work teach a student to thrive under the pressure of deadlines and to crave the reinforcement of good grades. Once these years give way to thesis writing, academia then asks isolated students to somehow maintain a belief in themselves without the very catalysts that they've been socialized to believe in. Thesis writers don't need their "hands held" by supervisors but I certainly don't fault them when they complain that the seeming sequential order of a graduate career follows no order at all. Anyway, these are late night ramblings. Keep the posts coming!

  4. The thing that people want to be grads need to do is to take a look at the CVs and publication lists of the different people in their department, and other departments, and read samples of the articles, not just the books. They then need to look at how often these people have published. It's not untypical to see someone publish 3 or even 4 articles in peer-reviewed journals a year. It seems to take 3-6 months to research and write one article, or one book chapter. Telling prospective grads this is crucial.

  5. In my own research I found an article that describes the disconnect between published works and people that can actually use the results. Unfortunately I can't find it in my stack of a few hundred articles and it's late so I'm not going to sort through all of them. As for "publish or perish," Steven Novella has a pretty decent podcast (he's also a neuroscientist at Princeton or Yale, I believe) where he makes that point that publish or perish actually encourages bad research because quantity apparently matters over quality when it comes to publications.

    Like most prospective grads I went into grad school thinking I'd learn a lot and I did for about a year and now the sight of my dissertation pisses me off so much that I have trouble even editing paragraphs. I'm learning so much about so little and it's to the point that I find the whole thing utterly useless. Future Type 1 leaver here.

    This blog is helping me maintain my sanity right now. JC, you should applaud yourself because you are helping people more than you could even know. Kudos.