Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Can You "Just Quit?" Sure ... If You're Rich!

After a few days/weeks of thinking of nothing other than my current job and my future career plans, a recent post at Postacademic in NYC's place got me thinking, yet again, about privilege in academia. You may recall that I started a series on privilege a few months back, in which I argued that grad school and the immediate post-graduate period is far, far easier to navigate for people who come from lives of privilege, while those of us from more modest backgrounds are often forced to juggle work-intensive assistantships and "side" teaching positions in order to stay in academia while also being able to pay our rent. 

In other words, academia exacerbates privilege. And based on the way it's structured, it places more value on students and faculty who come from privileged backgrounds, who are able to pursue academia as a sort of interesting intellectual exercise with Mom and Dad (or a wealthy spouse) footing the bill when things get financially tight, rather than as an actual career that pays a decent salary in exchange for concrete work like teaching.

Once I got those two posts out of my system, I was feeling a little calmer about the whole privilege thing. Fine. Rich people get ahead in academia, as they do everywhere else. Time to move on.

But as I read PINYC's post the other day, I suddenly got inspired again.

Because in that post, she relayed a story in which her advisor chided her for not applying to an academic job that the advisor had told her about. The implication, of course, was that PINYC was being too picky by not taking a shot at the job, because it was, after all, an exalted academic job. She should at least give it a shot, because it was academia!!!!

And of course - and this was the part that really got to me as a Type 1 leaver - if she didn't like the job, which PINYC thought might be the case? Well, the advisor said, she could always "just quit."

The post set me off a little bit. Not at PINYC, of course - or even her advisor. But it rekindled my anger at the advice a lot of academics give grad students and new faculty. This advice tends to portray academic jobs as these interesting "trial positions" that should be applied for and taken regardless of salary or location ... and that can ultimately be quit at the drop of a hat. 

It's something I've heard many times before, and it's immensely frustrating ... not to mention naive. Why do these faculty members and grad students think that "just quitting" a job is something that most people can afford to do?

And who are these people who think that living in near-poverty* as a grad student or adjunct well into one's thirties or forties, all in pursuit of some academic pipe dream, is a responsible thing to do? Who are these people who think that taking jobs you won't like or that don't pay you a living wage demonstrates your maturity and committment to your career, while taking a nonacademic job that pays you a living wage means that you're "too picky" or "giving up too easily"??

It's not just PINYC's advisor who's made comments like this. I've heard it from my own advisor, other grad students, and a faculty member I'd worked with a bit who I ran into a few months ago. After hearing that I had full-time employment and was planning to call it quits on academia, he was supportive ... but also encouraged me to send my CV to his friend at a school located about an hour away from where I live now. The department was about to post a one-year VAP position, he said, and I should really apply.

"Send your CV tomorrow, and I'll email him, and you'll get the job. I promise! Just take this job, and then if you don't like it, then you can quit and leave academia! But give it one more shot!"

I blew him off, but of course I was pretty annoyed. He seriously expects me to quit my well-paying full-time job to go take a temporary academic job that I don't think I'll even like?? Then after that contract is up and I still don't like academia, I'll just be totally out of a job?? 

Who can afford to do that, either financially or emotionally? Who can live with no stability and no steady income and no certainty of a long-term contract? What kind of adult can survive like that?

The answer, I believe, is that privileged adults can live like that. People like your average faculty member and many of your grad student colleagues, who have a safety net to fall back on - in the form of having rich parents or simply having left grad school with no debt and perhaps a small savings account already underway. Quitting a job or working for minimal pay might be inconvenient or frustrating for them, but it's survivable. And ultimately, not a big deal.

Of course, though, life is not like that for everyone. As PINYC wrote in her post:
“You know that life of precarity and extra financial anxiety that I endured before this? I [don't] think I’d like to go back to that now, thanks.”
Even if your faculty members find it hard to believe, a lot of people in their late twenties and early thirties have to survive solely on their own income. It's not being "too picky" for an adult who has just put themselves through a grueling graduate program and who hasn't even begun to save for retirement or to gain whatever trappings of an adult life they want for themselves (a house, kids, travel, whatever) to opt for some type of permanent employment that they like over a crappy, temporary academic contract. Or an academic job they suspect they won't like.

Because even for people who might be able to get some type of permanent academic job, there is no guarantee that they will actually like that job. And if you're considering a job that you're pretty sure you won't like, it's utterly ridiculous for a faculty member to advise you to take it just in case you like it, and to just turn around and quit it a year or two later if it turns out you were right.

That is amazingly blinkered and, frankly, comically stupid advice. It ignores the reality that most adults can't just up and quit a job when they decide that they don't like it anymore.

Well, that's not true. People who have huge savings accounts or rich parents or spouses can quit their jobs. The rest of us who'd like to keep our houses and our cars and keep our children fed? We don't have that option.

In other words, when academics tell us that we're "giving up too easily?" They're again, demonstrating how privilege rules in academia. Those of us who opt for a steadier salary and job security (not to mention a job we like and don't want to "just quit") outside of academia are viewed as bad, undedicated people who were "too picky." Meanwhile, people who can afford to chase crappy jobs around the country because Mom and Dad are bankrolling them are viewed as serious and dedicated. So yet again, the privileged folks win.

Because the only way that an adult is going to up and quit a job is if they have something to fall back on. Otherwise, they'll just linger on in the "okay" job. Hell - that's what I'm doing right now!

But at least in my case, I'm living someplace that I like living and doing a job I can stand. If I had taken an academic job in Bumblef*ck, Idaho teaching a 4/4 load? I'd be miserable. But I'd still be doing the job, just like I'm doing this job. Because I have a mortgage and a car payment and student loans and need to eat. I wouldn't be able to quit.

In the world where most of us live, then, the advice to just take any old academic job and just quit if you don't like it? It's really not possible. You'd just get even further behind financially. And you may very well be in a new city with new people around you, and therefore more socially isolated and unable to find a new job if you wanted one because you won't know anyone else.

So why should anyone start out at the beginning of their career in a job that they're pretty sure they won't like or that won't pay them a fair wage or offer any security? Why not take a nonacademic job that offers a little bit of stability and a decent income?

Oh, that's right. Because other academics will call you unserious or deride you as "too picky."

Well, too bad. You shouldn't screw yourself over just because your advisors can't envision a world where their adult students need a steady adult income. And you shouldn't take financial and career advice from fellow grad student colleagues whose long-term financial strategy is to call up Mom and Dad when things get tight.

Those students have parents who helped them pay bills. They are the ones who never took out student loans, and who therefore can spend the first few years of their post-graduate life saving money at whatever job they find rather than paying back debt. So if they're in a faculty job and decide they don't like it? They can quit if things get unbearable, and dip into their savings, and maybe ask Mom and Dad to pay their rent or to watch their kids while they job hunt full-time. Or perhaps they'll wind up going into some debt - but it's for the first time in their lives.

The rest of us will spend the first few years as faculty paying down our loans and finally doing those adult things we put off while in grad school making no money - buying a home, having kids, traveling, etc. Then, with new adult responsibilities and expenses and no family to fall back on for help, there's no way we can quit that job.

There's no such thing as being "too picky" when you're talking about putting together an adult life with a job you like. And before you conclude that you can "just quit" a job that you don't like, think very carefully about what quitting would look like in your own life.

For non-privileged people, there comes a time when you have to decide whether to take the job that will offer you some stability over the one that will keep you clinging desperately to a job you hate and an industry you have grown to resent because you need your meager salary so badly. It's not being "too picky" to find a job that you will actually like, that will actually pay you a fair salary. After all of your time spent in school, I'd argue that a decent job with a fair salary is the absolute least you should expect out of a career.

Especially if, like many of us, you don't have the financial luxury to just flit around from job to job while someone else pays the bills for you.

* As we've talked about before, though, a lot of grad students don't actually live in near-poverty. They make a low salary, sure ... but it's supplemented by an allowance from one's parents, or a free house or apartment or car, or free vacations to Europe every summer and financial help whenever it's needed. As most people know, "rich student poor" is a lot different than "poor poor." Academics often act like everyone falls into the first category, when many of us know that's not the case.


  1. You definitely bring up an important point about academia: there is little to no consideration of being compensated fairly for work that is done. Rather, any money we receive for academic work (such as teaching or grants) is seen as a bonus, something we should be grateful for no matter whether that money is enough to live by and is a fair amount for the work being performed. This brings up for me the displeasure of supplying grant agencies with budgets only to get a portion of what I asked for. Where do they think we are getting our money from?

    I think you do provide a good answer to this question, an assumption I hadn't considered too deeply before about how much of academia still runs on the notion that we are all WASPs from upper-middle class or wealthy families. In my experience, it's not just how money and salaries are viewed in academia that is indicative of this myth, but other aspects of academia as well. In my case, my advisors didn't tell me why it was important that I attend events on campus, especially in my department. Instead, it was just "you have to attend or else." And when one of my advisors did explain that these events are a way to network and practice presenting to others, he told me that I should have already figured this out for myself. In my experience, there has been very little discussion about professional development and the assumption that I already know what I need to do to get a job in academia. The students I see who do understand academic professional development tend to be those who are from the WASP upper-middle class background, who already have family members in academia. You'd think with all the discussions on university campuses about increasing diversity, there'd be more effort to acclimate a wide variety of students into academic culture instead of just assuming that they'll figure it out themselves.

  2. yeah, right on! I totally agree that you can't 'just quit' whenever you feel like it if you're going to be adult. Totally different scenario from living off an inheritance or being bankrolled by your spoouse. My supervisor used to say similar things, and so have many of my former colleagues. Best of luck to them, but I am tired of the poverty trap created by academia. And to think that there are people wihtout my education who really are in a poverty trap that isn't an artificial creation and have no way out.

  3. Once again, an excellent post. Keep it coming.

    BTW us non-wealthy people who didn't put off marriage/children in grad school get the same stupid advice. I've been told to move around for one-year post-docs and VAPs despite being married with kids -- like my husband is going to quit his job and move our children to a new city so that at the end of that year we can BOTH be unemployed! Seriously, screw this shit.