Monday, June 25, 2012

Ask a Postacademic - Question 3

Today's question comes to us from a commenter who asks:
What I'm wondering is, how are the people on the "outside" in professional jobs?
The commenter then goes on to say that zie "must sound like a sheltered silver spoon academic."

Heh. Don't worry about it ... I've been there. And it's totally normal. Academia is very isolating, so it's very easy to go months and months without interacting meaningfully with many people outside of academia (no, the cashier at your local drugstore doesn't count). In the meantime, you're told by a lot of people in academia that "the outside world" is boring and meaningless and full of cubicle-dwelling, catty idiots. And if you hear something enough, you'll start believing it.

So I get it. I don't think that you're being a snob. And anyone who's reading here and thinking "what a snob!" should spend a few years in academia, and see how it shifts your view of the outside world. Because it will ... almost before you realize it.

Anyway, onto the question...
Are they all mean girls or are they OK to work with?
As I said last week ... it's impossible to lump all nonacademic jobs together into one. Similarly, it's impossible to lump all nonacademic coworkers into one.

So I guess the answer to this question is "No, people in the outside world are not all mean girls ... and a lot of them are okay to work with. Not all of them, but most of them."

But this is no different than in academia. Think about your department and the grad students and faculty from different places that you've met. I bet you can think of one or two who fit the "mean girl" or "bully" stereotype. I bet you can think of a few who are assholes. I bet you can think of a few who you consider to be sort of stupid or ignorant or uninformed. And I bet you can think of quite a few who you think are pretty nice and enjoyable to be around and work with.

Well? This is how the outside world is, too. Some jerks, some idiots, and a lot of decent people.

Think about the people you know socially outside of academia. Think of your partner's friends, your academic friends' partners. Your relatives. Admin folks at your university. Friends from your hometown that you've stayed in touch with. The bartender at the local bar where you and your colleagues go on Friday for happy hour. Your trainer at the gym. The nonacademics you meet at your church or at your kids' school.

Let me guess - some people you like and some you don't? Some interesting people and some boring people? Some people who ask questions about your academic work and some who don't even understand what a dissertation is? Some people whose belief systems you love and some you find despicable? Probably.

Well, the people you are meeting now in the outside world now are the people you'll be working with. Some will be great human beings; some not so much. But you will probably find examples of both in any job you take. And if you wind up at a job where the majority of your fellow employees are mean girls, it's time to look for a new job. Because that's not typical. Trust me.

Same basic idea for this question:
Do they really get things done and does that give you satisfaction? 
Some workplaces will be made up of people who work hard and are dedicated to their jobs and the company. Some will not. Most will be a mixed bag. It's hard to pick out ahead of time which workplaces will be which, but work environments where almost everyone works hard and is dedicated do exist out there. I promise. I work at one now.

Does it give me satisfaction? Yes. I like having a pile of work to accomplish, and seeing at the end of the day that I've finished that pile. Since I'm now in charge of my whole office's work, I feel accomplished when I go through our weekly reports and see that my coworkers are doing their jobs efficiently. It does make me feel accomplished and give me satisfaction.

Whether or not that kind of thing will give you satisfaction will depend on your personality. But keep in mind that my job is just one out of millions of industries and workplaces out there.

It's impossible to pick out ahead of time what workplaces will have employees who work hard and will get along and which ones will not, of course. There are some things that I think you can watch for while you're applying/interviewing (which I'll try to remember to write about in a future post) ... but in general, you just won't know until you arrive on the job. But that's really no different than in an academic department, is it? Everyone knows someone who's loved everyone they met while on an academic interview ... only to arrive on campus and find a toxic, miserable cesspool. That's just life. The difference is that switching jobs is usually easier outside academia than within it.
Are your colleagues reasonably smart?
Most of mine are! But you probably won't come work with me, so ... what about everyone else?

Well obviously, in the outside world everyone will not have a Ph.D., or an M.A., or even a bachelor's degree. On average, they're not going to have the level of learned knowledge that you received in grad school.

But think about your favorite uncle who never went to college but is super-smart, and the smartest and most engaged students you taught who went on to get jobs in the real world instead of going to grad school. Think of your nonacademic partner, who you probably think is pretty fantastic. Think of your friends and siblings and parents who don't work in academia. Chances are, you find at least some of them to be pretty smart and fun to be around, right?

Well, all of those people are working out in the outside world, aren't they?

So don't worry. You'll find smart people on the outside. I promise. Will they be able to talk academic theory with you and will they be super-informed on every book you've read for your dissertation or every world event going on in the country whose political system you studied in grad school? Probably not. But will you find some people in the outside world who are interested in books and world events and who would be interested in your academic work if you start explaining it to them? I absolutely guarantee it.

Now, onto the question I'm happiest to answer.
Do business people actually care about other's feelings?
I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that, in my opinion, the people I've met outside of academia are just as - and possibly more - kind and considerate toward each other than those inside of academia.

You don't have to be a regular reader in the postac blogosphere to have heard horror stories about how people are treated in academia. I've mentioned that I haven't heard from my own advisor since December 2010, and that it took my department in general 17 months to notice I hadn't been around much recently. 100 Reasons has covered the horrid politics in academia. Commenters in my last Q&A post (and Currer's) have talked about how unsupportive academics can be toward new parents or people who want to spend more time with their families. Criticism and condescension and outright rude behavior is rampant in academia at every level.

I'm not pointing these examples out to paint academia as some horrid cesspool with universally awful people in it. I'm pointing them out to say, basically, that academia is not exactly a bastion of kindness and empathy and understanding toward your fellow colleagues. It's not universally "better than" the outside world ... no matter how much academics like to pretend it is.

For one thing ... in the outside world, you aren't in direct, constant competition with your colleagues like you are in academia, for jobs, fellowships, attention from your boss, etc. You just work alongside each other most of the time. This tends to minimize hostility and backstabbing*, since you don't typically directly benefit from someone else doing worse at their job.

Also ... in the outside world, many people have partners who live in the same city, and most people have kids. And you and your coworkers will likely all work the same 40ish hour work week every single week ... and therefore will all have the exact same issues in terms of scheduling doctor's appointments, picking up a sick child from school, having to take a vacation day to get out of town for a long weekend, and other things like that. So most of the people you will work with understand that sometimes things come up that take you out of the office ... but that that doesn't mean that you're a huge slacker. I've found the exact opposite to be true of academia:
"It must be so nice to be able to find time to take a vacation...maybe I'll be able to take a day off once I finish these 43 grant applications." 
"Did you hear that so-and-so is having a baby? Must be nice to have all of that time off for 'family leave'..." (spoken with an exaggerated eye roll)
"Where's so-and-so today? This is the second day this week that they haven't been in their office..." 
I could go on. To sum up: while toxic workplaces most definitely exist out there, I've found that, yes ... in general, most people outside of academia are kind and caring. While you and your coworkers may not all love and care for each other like siblings, nonacademic coworkers are (in my experience) far more understanding of the fact that your life is about more than work.

And that's more than enough for me to be happy. I don't need to be best friends with everyone at work, but I do need to be respected as an adult with a life and obligations outside of work. I've found that to be much more common outside of academia than inside it.

*Note: I said "minimize." This doesn't mean hostility and backstabbing doesn't happen in the outside world, because it does. But in the outside world, such things indicate that you're in a shitty workplace. They're not indicative of the entire working world.


  1. Thank you for this post. Yes, I agree with this statement of yours:

    "I don't need to be best friends with everyone at work, but I do need to be respected as an adult with a life and obligations outside of work. I've found that to be much more common outside of academia than inside it."

  2. The 2-Year Life of the MindJune 26, 2012 at 6:46 AM

    Another useful, well-written, straight to the point blog post. You answered some great questions there, J.C. I must admit that I've had those same questions as I get ready for my shift away from the academic womb. I also must admit that I feel kind of silly asking them, but I guess we always fear what we don't understand.

    And yet, from the talk around my college, I see these very ideas you addressed being dressed up and paraded around as scary monsters which become the ties that bind. Thank you for slaying my monsters (again)! Keep up the good work!

  3. My workplace has proven to be pretty good so far I have to say. Hard-working and pretty friendly colleagues; great supervisor; very switched on team leader; flexibility to come and go (within reason); lots of social functions (too much to my taste, but hey, I am used to being more introverted after all those years in academia); and quite often free food. Downsides are lower pay; some quite menial tasks; content that isn't necesarily that stimulating; and sometimes working in an open-plan office (aircon, phones ringing, other people talking). Other times working in an open-plan office is good though - random chats; discussing outfits; knowing what's happening in the organisation; someone to say hello to every day.

    Compared to working in academia: colleagues who are often patronising, rude, competitive, lazy and whiny; a culture of working from home so you never see anyone anyway; workloads that are impossible to manage; a culture of secrecy that leaves everyone thinking that they're about to loose their jobs; endless marking; overwhelming teaching demands that are outside the scope of your research or interest; endless conferences that involve being away from your family and friends to listening to more whining and bitching; little opportunity for collaboration and colleagial development.

    So, take this with a grain of salt - after all, maybe I have my rose coloured glasses on right now about my new(ish) job and am just down on academia right now for reasons of my own, but I have to say, working outside academic is actually a lot better than I ever thought it would be.