Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Warning Signs I Should Have Paid Attention To

So I've been reading the wiki and forum for my discipline's job market* quite a bit lately - just out of curiosity, mind you. After going through the market last year, I've been curious to see how this year's market has shaped up and how it looks to me now that I've made my decision to leave. (Hint: not great.)

Anyway, this year's forum and wiki have been full of posts from candidates who talk about their despair over not getting any interviews and about the possibility of having to leave academia ... or about their panic about finding funding for next year. Others report excitedly about getting a phone interview for a one-year VAP post on the other side of the country or a fly-out interview for a 4/4 tenure-track job in Nowheresville, Idaho. To me, these jobs sound horrible, but these people all write about how lucky they feel. How excited they are to be given this fantastic opportunity. How desperate they are to get the job in question.

And over and over, I see the repeated assertion that people there will be happy - no, ecstatic - if they manage to get a job. Any job at all. There's little concern expressed about where the jobs are or what the teaching load is (I'm seeing an unusual amount of people say that they're applying to both R1s and SLACs, even though in my experience, people generally pick one of the two). But the people posting at the forum this year seem to be flailing around, desperate to get a job - any job. 

I mean no disrespect to the people who want academic jobs. I went through the market last year, and it is a crazy, stressful, anxiety-producing time like nothing else I've ever experienced in my life. And with the down economy and the tight market, I'm not at all surprised that people are trying to do whatever they can to try to land themselves a job - any job - that pays better than a grad student stipend or adjunct salary. (Of course, we've talked here about how unlikely it is that anything you can do at this late stage will improve your chances on the market ... but again, I can't blame folks for trying).

Reading these forum posts and thinking back to my own experiences on the job market, though, has made me realize something important about myself as a grad student.

I didn't want an academic job - or an academic life - badly enough. And not just when I was on the market and unwilling to apply anywhere and everywhere for any job that would have me.

I didn't want the life of an academic ... even when I was living it.

Now that I look back at my academic career ... the writing was on the wall that I was a Type 1 person and would want to leave academia. The writing was there, early on. It announced, loud and clear, that I didn't like academia as much as my grad school colleagues and faculty members did. And that I'd never love the academic life enough to put academia first in my life or to make extensive sacrifices for it. Or for that matter, to overlook its flaws (or at least not let them bother me). And that's what you have to do if you're going to stay in academia.

But I couldn't do it. I just couldn't stop seeing the flaws or doing what I wanted, even if it put me out of line with my academic colleagues. In hindsight, it seems pretty obvious that I knew even back then that I couldn't stand the lifestyle or the work anymore. I should have been thinking of other career options. But I didn't know how to do that for myself, and there was certainly no one in my academic world who was showing me the way.

Perhaps some of you reading along can relate to these things I used to do/say/think while in grad school ... and might realize that rather than these things being signs that you're "in a bad mood" or that you don't like "your department," that you might not like academia as a whole and might be better suited to something else.

(People in my department would probably see these things as "signs that JC was uncommitted and not special and perfect enough to be a professor." So be it. I don't entirely disagree ... but rather than seeing that as a negative thing, I see it as a positive. It's saved me from likely being forced to live a long, miserable life with an underemployed partner in a tiny rural college town that we'd both hate.)

Looking back through my grad school career, I was at various times (in no particular order):

Unwilling to fit my research into a publishable niche
I have a couple of publications and have gotten good response to the work I have written and presented.

But my research always fell outside of the scope of "hot topics" in my discipline. And while I could have quite easily molded myself into one of those hot areas in order to position myself better for the job market and for various awards (as many people do), I always resisted doing so. And I would openly tell people that I didn't care about my work being publishable or in line with discipline norms - I just wanted to study what was interesting to me.

That should have clued me in that I wasn't a committed academic. Academics care about getting published. Or at least, they have to pretend to. I wasn't even willing to pretend. 

Unwilling to work 24/7 on academic work
After my first few years in grad school, you'd never catch me at the lab at midnight or sitting in my study frantically chugging coffee and writing through the night. I just wouldn't do it. I always made myself stop and take some time to myself in the evenings, and I'd block off times when I would be "clocked in" to academic work and times when I'd be "clocked out." I simply refused to kill myself by pulling all-nighters or 16-hour work days. Even when I went on the job market, I wouldn't let myself obsess over a cover letter longer than my allotted work time, and while I researched the schools and programs I interviewed with, I didn't kill myself trying to make sure I could answer every single trivia question possible about the program.

Now, did it keep me semi-sane? Yes. Did this mean I'd never get an academic job with that kind of work schedule? Absolutely not. (I had a bunch of interviews last year, after all).

But should this have signaled to me that I didn't actually like the work I was doing? Yes.

The fact that I had to force myself to work and would never put in the long hours unless I was absolutely forced to should have told me that I didn't love the work enough to stay with it. Because while it might make them miserable, the most committed and dedicated academics work (or at least pretend to work) more than I ever did. It's not torture for them, like it was for me. And that should have been a warning sign. 

Unwilling to go into debt to travel to conferences
I didn't come from a wealthy family, and they've been unable to help me out financially other than for short-term loans.

While I took on some debt while I was in school, I was unwilling to do it for what I viewed as unnecessary work stuff. And in my mind, academic conferences became "unnecessary work stuff."

I avoided going to two national conferences earlier in grad school, due to cost. Instead, I went to smaller regional conferences that were considered "beneath" my rank at that time. And when my department expressed disappointment that I'd only gone to the regional conferences, I basically rolled my eyes and complained to my friends about how unrealistic they were about the finances of grad students and about the utility of what I viewed as pointless academic conferences.

But going to academic conferences is part of the game, and you're expected to go regardless of how much it costs. Better yet, you're not supposed to talk about how such trips actually are expensive. (Remember: we academics don't talk about money). But I wouldn't play along with either norm. I called out the unfairness and excessive costs when I saw them, and refused to play along.

I should have realized I wasn't into the academic game anymore when I didn't find a way to go to those conferences, or when I didn't keep my mouth shut about why I wasn't going. Once I didn't want to play the game, I should have realized that I needed to leave.

Along these same financial lines, I was:

Quick to pick up a part-time job to make ends meet
Now, there are certainly other grad students around the country who work part-time jobs. However, this was most definitely not the norm in my department.

And more importantly, it was definitely not the norm for people to (as I did) not care about whether their outside job was within the university (mine wasn't), or to not make sure to schedule their outside work hours around departmental seminars and other such things. Now, don't get me wrong - I'd still make it to any mandatory meetings and to classes and mandatory seminars. I did all of the "necessary" things. But I refused to take off (paid) work hours to go to voluntary departmental or discipline stuff.

Simply put, I wasn't going to sacrifice my paid work to go humor the department by putting face time in at pointless seminars that wouldn't help my career one iota.

Now that I've left, I don't regret that focus. But at the time, I should have realized what this meant. It meant that I wasn't willing to play the academic game by putting in face time with my department at voluntary events - showing how much I "cared" about the work (even if I played on my phone through a seminar like I saw many of my colleagues do).

But that doesn't matter. In academia, face time matters. And when I wasn't willing to put in the face time, I should have realized that I needed to look for something else to do with my life.

Unwilling to commit multiple years to the job search
I refused to consider visiting professor positions during my job search (in fact, I turned down one such offer from a school I interviewed with), and never even considered going on the market a second time once I realized I wasn't going to have academic employment this year.

Now, on the forums, I see people posting about how it's their third or fourth trip on the market, or how they're looking for their third VAP position in four years. That's astounding to me.

But again, I don't mean to pick on those people. It's just astounding to me that I didn't realize sooner that I wanted to leave. If I wasn't willing to go through more than one academic job search or to consider any job that wouldn't (more or less) guarantee me permanent employment, even though I'd switched nonacademic jobs throughout my life and never minded doing so? That should have been a huge warning sign that I didn't really want an academic job.

And finally:

I have always criticized academia, even when I was in it
When other grad students or faculty would talk about various academics' "groundbreaking research" or "fascinating talk," I would almost always find myself subconsciously (or sometimes overtly) rolling my eyes, thinking about how stupid you had to be to think that some paper published in a journal that only ten people would read could be classified as "groundbreaking." Or how the boring blowhard who had just spent two hours reading slides off a powerpoint describing completely mundane or downright confusing findings could have been labeled as "fascinating."

Or that the endless debates at academic conferences amounted to anything more than "look how smart I am!" mental masturbation for the people engaged in those debates.

Many, many times before I left, I'd find myself among friends and colleagues openly criticizing the lack of research diversity within disciplines, the emphasis on "hot topics" at the expense of other interesting research ideas, and about how underpaid and exploited grad students were for the work we did for universities. I'd talk about how stupid departmental politics were and how dumb the idea of "publish or perish" was ... and I've already made my feelings known about academic conferences.

I think that anyone who knew me through the last few years would have said that I was very, very negative about my discipline and my department ... and perhaps they'd even concede that I was pretty negative about academia in general.

And yet, no one (including myself) seemed to think that this was cause for alarm, or that I should consider finding another line of work. I find that ... interesting.

Again, I'm not mad that I went to grad school or pursued an academic career for awhile. But in the end, it's just like any other job. And when you find yourself dreading to go to work every day and criticizing every tiny aspect of your company and your job? It's time to consider other options.

It's just too bad that academia has no mechanism in place for such introspection and consideration of other options. Maybe some day ....

(*It's worth noting that despite the news coverage that suggested this would be a turnaround year for the market in our discipline, there are about exactly as many job postings this year as there have been in the previous few "terrible markets." Rebounding? I don't think so. Perhaps one day people will catch on that the academic job market is never going to rebound.)


  1. Wow, JC. If you ever come to SoCal, I owe you a drink or three. At this point I feel like you've saved me hundreds of dollars on therapy. I'm continuing to find this to be the most useful, resonant postacademic blog amonst many fine contenders. In particular, this really floored me:

    "The fact that I had to force myself to work and would never put in the long hours unless I was absolutely forced to should have told me that I didn't love the work enough to stay with it. Because while it might make them miserable, the most committed and dedicated academics work (or at least pretend to work) more than I ever did. It's not torture for them, like it was for me. And that should have been a warning sign."

    How did you crawl inside my head and type exactly what I was thinking? Force is the right word. It's the only thing that inspires me to action. It's torture because I don't want to piss my life away doing irrelevant, immensely painful work. Even my True Believer workaholic friends are finally coming around (Type 2 leavers), so why am I, a Type 1, still here?

    And conferences are a joke. You got that right.

    Last night I made a baked brie, cracked open a bottle of wine, and watched two movies with hubby. It was bliss. I don't want to do anything else with my evenings. Or my days!!

  2. Ha - I will let you know if I ever find myself in SoCal. :)

    It seems so obvious now ... in any other job, dreading walking in the door in the morning or wanting to scream in agony every second that you're interested in the work is a sign that you need to *look for a new job.* I think most people realize this, even if it does take them awhile to find something new (if they ever can).

    But in academia, hating the work is just not acknowledged, and is CERTAINLY not considered a good enough excuse to leave. Apparently, no excuse is good enough to decide that you want your life back and want to find something you'll actually enjoy doing (or at least, won't hate).

    My evenings - complete with wine, movies, and quality time with my partner or friends - are my favorite part of deciding to leave. No job should own your entire life, and I'm done pretending that that kind of life is worth it to me.

    Just start looking for something else to do. You might be refreshed and reassured to see how normal the outside world is...

  3. I just can't tell you how thankful I am to have found your blog and for this post in particular. EVERY SINGLE ONE of these warning signs has dominated my life for the last few years. I am currently overseas doing the research for my dissertation, and even here, I find myself getting so much more excited about my non-research activities: volunteering with a great NGO, speaking to young students about topics unrelated to my work, etc. When I return, I have a year of writing, and then I am taking my PhD and running--frantically--from the ivory tower.

    Also, I am so glad you are saying what needs to be said: the academic job market will likely never rebound--certainly not to the sort of job market previous generations of academics faced. A prospect my adviser dismisses (just like he dismissed my attempt to tell him I have zero interest in entering said market).

    I'm not sure what the future holds for me, but your advice in the above comment is spot-on: even just the act of looking for something else to do is both refreshing and reassuring. Since listening to the warning signs and making my decision to leave, I finally feel hopeful again, like I actually have control over my life.

  4. I've struggled with that second point in particular (and, privately, the last) throughout my PhD. I've never wanted to work evenings or weekends, and I feel slightly threatened by the fact that others do. I've always referred to my PhD as "work". It's not a terrible job, and I'm paid acceptably well. But my heart has never been in it in the way that it needs to be to succeed in acadaemia, and with every passing year my desire to get out increases.

    I have to submit my thesis within 7 months, and I will stick it out - it's too close now not to. But over time, I've gone from wanting to carry on work in my field, to doing work in a related field which I'm not really qualified for, to not really wanting to work in acadaemia at all.

  5. I know this is an old post, but of all the ones I've read through (and I've read through a lot), this is the one that hits closest to home for me. I meet every single one of these criteria. I started my dissertation a few months ago and can hardly bring myself to think about it, let alone work on it. I think I may be leaving and moving back to my beautiful, exciting home city at the end of the summer.

    JC, thanks so much for this blog and for giving me a voice when I thought I didn't have one.

  6. Thank you for writing this. It is 2014 now, but this post was published just a few months after I started my graduate program. At the time, I was already unhappy but took that to be "normal". Everybody was on antidepressants, right? I'm finally getting out and hitting the job market, and don't want anything to do with academia. My committee members urging me to go for "on leave status" instead of a full break left a sour taste in my mouth (I'm clearly "type 1"). I hated the job first, and later realized it wasn't going to do my career much good. I would have stuck with it despite the hatred/sadness but realizing it was useless suffering + blogs like this gave me the impetus to leave. Thank you.

  7. Wow. I just arrived to this post after months of unproductive, soul-crashing post-doc. I share every single feature you describe and I am struggling with very strong sense of guilt because of that. After all, I am one the lucky ones, with a well paid research grant in a beautiful city. And yet, I have rapidly grown completely disinterested not only in my research topic, but in research and academic work in general. And the worst part is that the few fellow academics I share my doubts with look at me like I were crazy, or worse, infective ("ARGH! If this happened to her, it may happen to me!"). Thank you for making your experience public!