Thursday, December 1, 2011

Reason I'm Leaving #9 - I'm Tired of the Pointless Encouragement

Remember how I said a few weeks back that I would probably only post new ranty anti-academic posts when something specific happened that frustrated me? Yeah.....this is one of those times.

This week, I contacted Grad Department for a minor clerical reason ... basically, I needed our graduate program director to sign off on something for me.

The (very kind) director, who I don't work with and don't know very well, responded by asking me some questions about what I was doing now, when I'd be defending, etc. They were all reasonable questions; no problem. It's natural for people in my department to be curious.

To answer the first question, I just said I had gotten a nonacademic job that I liked very much and left it at that, with no details. I deflected the second question by asking what the procedure would be for defending if I was out of residence next year (just in case I do eventually defend - that's not the plan right now, although I don't want anyone in my department to know this).

Grad director wrote back telling me that it was "such a shame" I was leaving, since "my research was so interesting" and "my teaching evaluations were excellent." And how there were still a few jobs being posted this year, and what was the harm in putting some packets together just in case? Because I had so much to offer, and academia would be so sorry to see me go!

Oh, come on now...

I struck out on the market last year. No one has seen me on campus since February. I haven't spoken to my advisor since the winter. I haven't published a paper or taught a class or showed up at a seminar since the fall of last year. I skipped the last national conference for the first time in five years. I couldn't be more removed from academia at this point, and I haven't produced one single bit of academic work - either in teaching or research - in more than a year.

But "academia would be sorry to see me go????" Really???

I've got news for you, Director ... I'm already gone. And no one seems to miss me.

And that's fine. I'm okay with that ... I've moved on. But this interaction reminded me of another thing that drives me up the freaking wall about academia - another reason I'm leaving.

I am so, so, so, so, sooooooo sick of the pointless empty praise and encouragement to "keep on keeping on" we get from other academics ... who often barely even know us. Unless you're flat-out plagiarizing your dissertation or on your deathbed, any suggestion that you might want to leave your program or academia in general is always, always met with these kind of responses:

 - "Our program always lands its graduates at good places. You'll land a great job. Just keep working!"
 - "Even if you only get a temporary position, that will just help your CV look better in the future!"
 - "It's normal to be overworked and stressed out! That's how we all feel, and it just means you're doing good work! Keep on going, it'll get better!"
 - "The market is always rough - this year is no different."

I'm fucking tired of all of this nonsense. 

First? It's useless, since (1) these people barely know me and (2) kind words from a virtual stranger aren't going to help me land an academic job I'd actually want in this market.

But more important than these platitudes being pointless? They're harmful. As long as Bigwig Professor X is standing there telling every grad student that their work is "groundbreaking" and that their teaching is "excellent," they can cling to hope that their hard work will pay off and they'll land a dream tenure-track job in a wonderful city and live happily ever after.

Let's look into a grad student's brain for a minute:
Professor X is praising me, so I must be fantastic!! I will overcome the terrible job market and the randomness of the whole thing and succeed!! I will!!! Because Dr. X told me that our graduates always get jobs!!

I mean, sure, I want to live in a big city and can't stand the idea of being more than a couple of hours from my family, and I really don't want to have to teach more than two classes a semester and I definitely want a tenure-track post, and when I look at the job postings this year it seems like finding all of these things in one place is going to be really really difficult and that there are more and more temporary positions than ever and that most of them are in rural areas....

But nevermind that. Professor X says everyone gets good jobs, so I'll get a good job. I just need to stay positive and quit being cynical!! Time to go work on my dissertation!! [skips away]
Any possibility that student has of thinking about other job options is out the door, on a wave of positive nonsense from a bunch of faculty who haven't been on the job market in decades.

What grad students need isn't endless platitudes about our important research and stellar teaching and how we'll "make it if we just keep working!" What we need is a realistic view of the academic job market and some information about how to seek a job outside of academia if we wind up wanting or needing one.

In short, we need concrete help ... not meaningless encouragement. Faculty need to get their heads out of the clouds and realize that this system is not a meritocracy, and that for quite a few of us, everything is not going to work out fine ... even if we "do everything just right."

And that's yet another reason I'm leaving. I'm tired of the head-patting we grad students get from faculty who really should learn to be more realistic. It feels childish and silly to have an adult ignoring the nasty realities of the job market to tell us that "everything will just work out if you just work hard enough!!"

Sure, your advisors may honestly believe what they're saying, and may very well have your best interests at heart and genuinely think that you will get a good job. After all, they like you, and they probably do think you're doing good work (no matter how sure you are that they secretly think you're an idiot). I doubt that there is an advisor in the world who actively hopes that their students wind up unemployed or underemployed.

But what they don't realize is that there is a larger structure out there that has rendered their platitudes and reassurances meaningless. This larger structure is called the system of higher education. And despite how much these faculty want to pretend that higher education is still about good research and high-quality teaching? It's just like everything else in society these days - more profit for lower costs.

If schools really cared about the "life of the mind" like your faculty pretend, they'd be cranking out tenure-track job ads like wildfire, since the number of people going to college is skyrocketing, as are tuition and fees.

But they're not. Instead, we're seeing adjunct and VAP job ads outpacing tenure-track ads, to the point where temporary and contract faculty now teach 75% of all courses in the United States.

So despite what your faculty advisors tell you, most universities don't care about your stellar research or your awesome teaching. They care about staffing their classes for the lowest price ... and if you're not willing to take that crappy $30k/year VAP post? Someone else will. Someone whose record probably looks pretty much identical to yours, in fact. They, too, probably have stellar research and an awesome teaching record. It just doesn't matter anymore.

So rather than echoing the same pointless nonsense ("Work hard and it'll all work out!" "Your work is fantastic; you'll definitely get an amazing academic job!!") faculty should be paying attention to how the market is working now, and giving their students realistic ideas about what to expect ... and information about how to market themselves for other jobs or to gain transferable skills and experience if the market doesn't work out for them (or if they choose to go another route).

They should do this, but they won't. And that's reason #9 why I'm leaving.

I'm done subjecting myself to the culture of grad school, where "things will always work out if you just work hard enough!" ... and any failures are your fault.

I'll leave, and happily let Grad U Program Director and all of zir colleagues reminisce about the good old days when grad students worked so much harder than the slackers today ... after all, that must be why so few of them land good tenure-track jobs these days, right?? It couldn't be that the system is broken or that some people want different things.

Grad Director is right. My research is great, and I'm a good teacher, and I'd be a good professor. Unfortunately, the broken system isn't going to allow that to happen in a situation that a Type 1 leaver like me would find palatable. So ... I'm leaving. Because the silly platitudes just aren't enough for me anymore.


  1. Have you thought that perhaps he's talking about himself and his own opinions...rather than the group called "academia"? Maybe he's indirectly telling you that he's wishing that he wishes that the system wasn't broken. Remember it's easier for you to leave the system and start again than it is for him. He's already invested a great deal of his haven't. I say this since I think that it's important to remember that the academic world is actually only a microcosm of the larger world that we all live in. I sometimes think that while we talk about it's horrors that we also forget this fact.

  2. I could see that being the case for some academics, but I actually do think that our director is a happy academic who generally thinks everything will work out and that anyone who really wants a job can get one.

    To clarify: I wasn't really mad at GPD for hir comments to me specifically. As I said, GPD is a kind person who I genuinely think meant well with the comments.

    But in general - when you see these kind of platitudes and reassurances about academia being doled out across the spectrum while jobs are disappearing? I think it's a problem. Faculty should try to speak rationally and practically to their students about the realities of the market.

    It doesn't matter how warm and fuzzy tenured academics feel about academia - the system isn't the same for us who are just starting out, and all of the reassurances and encouragement in the world isn't going to change that. Students need to be informed about reality.

  3. "But in general - when you see these kind of platitudes and reassurances about academia being doled out across the spectrum while jobs are disappearing? I think it's a problem. Faculty should try to speak rationally and practically to their students about the realities of the market.

    It doesn't matter how warm and fuzzy tenured academics feel about academia - the system isn't the same for us who are just starting out, and all of the reassurances and encouragement in the world isn't going to change that. Students need to be informed about reality."


    I think the worst thing about being an (almost, perhaps soon-to-be ex-) sociologist is that the profs and grad students evince the same kinds of meritocratic attitudes toward the job market and success in the profession that they mock when exhibited by undergrads in Soc 1. Accompanied by shaking of head: "They just don't get it. My undergrads just can't seem to see that social forces greater than themselves shape the opportunities available to them. They really still believe that they can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Tsk tsk."

    Yeah, well shame on you, bozos. How they can welcome the new cohort with a straight face is beyond me.

  4. I just came across your blog, and I'm looking forward to reading more. I, too, have left academia after finishing my PhD and wavering in instructorland for a few years. I wrote a blog entry about my decision here:
    I plan to write more about the experience as I continue to process this big life change.

  5. Thanks for reading! I just read your post, and I completely understand where you're coming from. I didn't come from a poor family, but I also definitely didn't come from an affluent one either. Arriving at grad school to find that many of the other grad students had their parents paying their rent and sending them on European vacations was eye-opening. For the first time, I realized that most of them didn't have to worry about money ... so there was no *real* discussion of how stupid it was to take out student loans or about what the chances of getting a well-paying academic job really were.

    And now that I'm gone? Not a soul has contacted me to see how/what I'm doing, other than to ask me if I wanted to teach again. We're given this "warm and fuzzy" picture of academia, where the faculty care about us and we're told we're special. In reality, it's an industry that's just as harsh as any other.

    Good luck to you ... I hope you can find something useful or comforting on this blog!

  6. JC, love your comment above. Re: the first part, one of the success-bound folks in my program is a fast-tracker largely in part because of hir affluent background. Never sees hir own bills, cell phone rings and shows Dad's name. Ze's also a hard worker, but that's far from the whole story--influential Advisor X is attracted to well-heeled advisees and probably wouldn't have taken notice without the undergrad pedigree to begin with! This, of course, goes largely unacknowledged.

    Re: faculty contact: had a big surgery this year. It's not like I expected a fruit basket, or even a card, but no email from Advisor Y--nothin'. I coulda died under the knife and Ze'd be none-the-wiser!

  7. For several months now, I've been planning to write up a big post about privilege in academia. It's one I've started and stopped a few times ... but it's been hard to write without coming off like I'm whiny or jealous or something like that. It'll come together one of these days ... because I really feel like it needs to be talked about. It's impossible to have anything approaching a meritocracy when one student has their parents paying their rent and can survive on a minimal partial-year fellowship while another person has to teach two classes per semester to make ends meet and can't afford to go to the best conferences.

    As of this month, it's been a year since I've heard from my advisor. The last ze knew, I had interviews lined up. Ze was always pretty hands off, so after I decided to leave I just decided to wait until ze emailed me to explain my decision. It's now been a year.

    I mean, really? I'm not mad or anything - frankly, if ze'd been up my ass about work I'd probably still be plugging away at it, so I'm actually grateful - but, really?? A year???

    It just shows you what my program really thought of me. And I'm okay with that, because now I work somewhere where I'm appreciated. But still. It's crazy, when you stop and think about it.

  8. "I mean, really? I'm not mad or anything - frankly, if ze'd been up my ass about work I'd probably still be plugging away at it, so I'm actually grateful - but, really?? A year???"

    I think about this all the time. Would it have been better to have a taskmaster who nudged me through. I haven't seen my adviser in a year--hasn't initiated any communication, nor have my other committee members. Really clarifies our relationship. Not sure whether it's just me, or grad students in general, but I/'we're just extra work for them that they don't need heaped on to their other tasks. It's a relief when I'm not in touch. One last thing to do.

  9. Totally feel your frustration. You got my support for leaving. Grad students, like you say, need more concrete reasons to continue investing in academia than a few kind words.

    Hope all the best for you.

    James from a career guide for lost humanities grads.

  10. "For several months now, I've been planning to write up a big post about privilege in academia."

    Please, PLEASE write this post. What you are saying needs to be said.

  11. I will. Probably over the holidays, as I'll be off work for a week and will likely have some time to sit and actually think through the post. I really don't want to get it wrong.

  12. Wondering though is faculty really are that naive or just playing the role, hoping the soft manipulation works out.

    In any case, I got some hard manipulation recently- unfounded threats of financial penalty and projected doubts that I can find another position if I leave. This is from people who have given me excellent feedback on my work, but who see their post-grad students quitting one after the other because of under-funding- speaking of privilege and how the system subtly (or not so subtly) promotes it. Worth writing about indeed I think. Anyway, I just wanted to make a note that faculty can shift from platitudes to a pretty nasty place, in desperation. (This is the UK, btw, though I'd imagine it happen elsewhere as well).