Sunday, April 29, 2012

In Which I Become Angry on Behalf of Someone Else

I've recently written that these days, I only find myself angry or bitter about academia when I hear about other people who are struggling or being treated badly. Most of the time, I just work and go home and live my life. But at other times, I find myself furious with academia all over again.

Today is one of those latter times. Let me share the story with you...

I had a drink Friday night with a couple of people from my former grad program - one good friend, and two other grad students who I don't know very well but who I do like, and who have been very supportive (or at least not openly disdainful) of my decision to leave.

One of the acquaintance grad students was a little stressed. Okay, a lot stressed.

(I'm going to refer to this student as Joe, just for the ease of telling this story. You should not assume that Joe is their real name, or that they are male. Although they might be.)

When I arrived at the bar Friday evening, Joe immediately started talking about how stressed out he was - almost before I even had the chance to say hi and ask how he was. As it turns out, he was overwhelmed. He's teaching a class, taking two others, working on a book review, doing data analysis that wasn't going well for a journal article, is ten days away from taking his written comp exam after a year of reading for it, and trying to think of ideas for his dissertation. If you're counting, that's seven distinct things taking up his time and energy this month.

On the day that we met, he had just delivered a presentation to a departmental seminar, which was arranged by his advisor. (Thing #8 for this month!) He was dressed up in his "presentation clothes," and as I sat there sipping my beer in my casual clothes (we don't have to dress up at work), he started talking about how he wished that he could just relax after work like a normal person. And that he was going to have to go home after we left the bar and work some more. And again ... he mentioned how stressed he was.

He then told me, to my surprise, that he had temporarily moved out of the home he shares with his partner and into a room he rented near campus for a couple of months. They aren't having relationship problems, mind you ... he just thought that was the best course of action since he "couldn't get enough work done at home" with the demands of his partner and their pets. He was still stressed, but living alone and working around the clock meant that he could at least keep his head above water with everything he had to do. So to hear him say it, it was good that he was living apart from his partner. Since that meant he was getting more work done.

This already struck me as a little problematic ... but then again, I was an academic for years, so I know that the "sacrifice everything and work constantly" mindset is par for the course. So ... fine, whatever. I really try not to criticize the "work constantly" mindset very often in the real (non-blog) world. Because while that lifestyle was unmanageable for me, if someone else truly loves the work enough to move out of their home in order to work more, who's to say that the sacrifices they have to make aren't worth it for them? I certainly can't. So I generally keep my mouth shut about work/life balance in academia, unless I'm asked directly for my thoughts.

But after another beer, Joe suddenly mentioned that he was also frustrated with his advisor.

His advisor is someone I've worked with in the past, who's known for being very supportive but also for being very demanding. He's also not particularly concerned with academic types having a personal life - he and his spouse (again: make no assumptions about this person's actual gender here) live apart, and he is the type of faculty member who can be found in his office at all hours of the day and night and weekend.

So while he's supportive and encouraging of all of his students, he's not the kind of guy who would think anything was problematic about a grad student being so overworked that he had moved out of his house. He and I clearly have some divergent thoughts on that.

But I digress. Like I was saying - Joe is frustrated with his advisor. Why was he frustrated?

Because when they'd met earlier that week to discuss his upcoming departmental presentation, his advisor had given him a new project - a short article to write that would be published in a brand new (nonprestigious) journal that was being edited by the advisor's friend.

Now, for someone who was new to the publication game, maybe this would be a great opportunity. An easy, low-pressure chance to hone their writing skills and to get their name on a publication.

But for someone like Joe, who's about to start his dissertation and has written for journals before? This project wouldn't do much for him, either on his CV or in terms of writing experience. Joe knew this when it was being pitched to him, and I knew it when he was telling me the story. And I assumed his advisor must have known it as well.

Oh, no. Joe needed to take the project, per his advisor! Sure ... the article wouldn't be in a top journal. And sure ... it wasn't truly peer reviewed, so it wouldn't really count in his publication record. But still ... it was academic work!! Joe should embrace it and add it to his to-do list!

But the deadline for the article is in three weeks. Joe would have to somehow fit it in with the other seven projects he had in the air over the next few weeks, including grading finals and completing his own comps and getting his paper sent off for publication at a peer-reviewed journal.

So Joe politely declined, saying he was overloaded and wouldn't be able to take on any more projects until the summer. But that if the article could wait until June, he'd be happy to write it.

His advisor's response? "Joe, you could really be great at this job and be really successful, if only you would sacrifice more and work a little bit harder."

So Joe felt bad, and agreed to write the short article. In fact, he would be heading home after we finished our beers to get started on the article. Since Advisor had told him he should.


Forgive me while I rant for a minute.

Come the f*ck on.

Sooooo, Mr. Bigshot Advisor, Joe should add even more projects to his already overwhelming workload ...... why, exactly? What groundbreaking, world-changing work is he doing? Is the world going to stop turning or are people going to die if he doesn't write this one article?

Of course not. So why is it so critically important that he give up the last tiny moments of free time he has on a given week to take on yet another project???

I'm pretty sure I know what the advisor would say. "Writing this piece will help him get a job!"

To that I say ... haha. Yeah right.

I know that the process of determining "fit" in an academic job search is pretty mysterious. But I sincerely, sincerely doubt that in a job market where ABD candidates have multiple solo-authored articles in top journals or book contracts with fresh ink on them, Joe is going to stand out for having one short article in an edited volume.

I'm sorry ... it just won't matter. If he's going to overwork himself, he should do it for his dissertation or for a top-tier journal article or perhaps a competitive national fellowship competition. You know, things that really look impressive on a CV.

No one should stress themselves out and ruin their marriage over a departmental seminar or a few pages in an edited volume. Because I'll say it. Little departmental events and non-peer-reviewed articles do not matter. They do nothing for your CV, and will not impress a search committee.

Maybe they did thirty years ago, when Bigshot Advisor was on the job market. But not anymore.

So can we stop pretending that any of this endless work has any bearing on whether someone will get a job?

As much as Bigshot Advisor may want to cling to the idea that academia really is a meritocracy, and that the reason all of his students haven't been getting "good" jobs is because they don't work hard enough or take on enough projects? At some point he (and all of the other faculty members who work their students to death) are going to have to acknowledge that their students aren't getting "good" jobs because there just aren't enough academic jobs for everyone. 

And hopefully at that point, rather than chastising their advisees for "not working hard enough," for going out to dinner on a Saturday night rather than writing another review article, and for watching a movie with their spouse rather than analyzing data until the wee hours of the morning ... they will begin to help their students identify transferable skills and gain real-world work experience.

And maybe instead of attacking students for not working hard enough, they will start attacking the system of higher education for shifting to temporary and contract faculty and leaving their students with no job opportunities.

And then maybe we will finally have a system where Ph.D. students are told about the realities of the academic job market, and are encouraged to be realistic about the job search. Where the failures the students experience will be blamed on the system and not on them, and faculty will work with them so that after graduation they can all find fulfilling, stable jobs ... even if some of them work outside of academia.

How awesome would that world be???

But I won't hold my breath. It's way easier to call students slackers when they're killing themselves with work, and to blame them for their lack of success on the market. Changing the system would be too hard and would probably force faculty to have some uncomfortable feelings about the industry they work in. So they keep perpetuating the meritocracy myth.

And, fine. If it helps them sleep at night and work the rest of their careers without having to face up to some uncomfortable truths, then so be it. They can keep deluding themselves. After all, their jobs are safe.

But I just wish that they could keep their delusions to themselves, so that they aren't leaving students like Joe angry and stressed and separated from their families, having absolutely no life outside of work. That makes me so sad and angry that I can barely stand it.


  1. Word to everything in this post. My advisor is similar to Joe's, except that her preferred admonition is, "You don't have to work harder; you just have to work smarter." Very helpful, that.

    Thank you, truly, for creating this blog.

  2. Overworked people do not work efficiently, right? At some point the "creativity" and "quality" of all that writing is going to suffer...

  3. Yes, both creativity and the quality of that writing will suffer. I'm sorry to hear Joe's situation...but it sounds all too familiar. Fortunately my supervisor didn't behave in this manner.

  4. Yes, this is a familiar story, often reflecting the 'successful' academic/advisor's history of their own sacrifices, i.e., not living with their partner, or living half-time with partner and half-time at work which may be in a different city. Often these people do not have family commitments either, so the extended work hours become a major part of their lifestyle and all their friends are workaholic academics too (probably their partners too for that matter). I am reminded of my husband's struggle to finish his PhD while working full-time, when we had our first child and he was around 1 1/2 years old. We had a vacation int he US to visit my family. My husband only came for a short time then went back with the plan to get more work done on his own 'without distractions'. So he had three more weeks on his own at own and reduced hours at work so he could finish full draft of PhD. I came home to a depressed man who did a pretty good job tidying the whole house, painted the whole of the kitchen,put up shelves etc etc. But the PhD was not finished! He was so depressed about the whole thing he found any distraction he could, and because he loves being around people, he just couldn't do it. Being part-time PhD only dragged the whole thing on. He finally got there later, but isolation wasn't the answer. Where is he now? Still in he game, but feeling disillusioned and questioning the amount of sacrifices he's made for this life. I think early career academics can learn a lot from more experienced ones whoa re actually honest about this kind of life and what the costs are.

  5. Yeah hah! Great rant. I wholeheartedly agree. I have experiences like that all the time, and I am frequently left wondering why people put up with it. I certainly never did and my track record is testimony to the fact that it makes no earthly difference whether you go out with your friends on a Friday night or stay home and flog yourself to do one more thing. One of the more tedious experiences of the academic life is having to listen to people whine about how busy they are, when in actual fact, if they put some boundaries around their work time then they would be a whole lot happier. I have even witnessed people spending hours whining about their workload while at work. I mean, seriously people, sit down and get on with it so you can leave at a decent time. I know not everyone is like that, and certainly most people are heavily overloaded, but there are ways of making your academic career less stressful.

  6. Hi -- I just found your blog and I love it! I'm blogging quite a bit about leaving graduate school. I'm adding you to our blogroll!

  7. Hi I just came across your website a few days ago and I was happy to see so many people who feel the same way I do about grad school. I quit a PhD in the humanities and I have since started a new career, got married, started a family and paid off about 2/3 of my student loan debt. It is possible to start over and I'm much happier now. Good luck everyone :)

  8. This is brilliant. I love it! Heck, I even mentioned it in my own "ranting" PhD-related blog. Check it out sometime for similar rant-fests!