Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Why Chronicle Readers Love their Academic Jobs

I found myself on the Chronicle of Higher Ed's "Leaving Academe" forums a few weeks ago, after following some links from their food stamps article. I've been writing and editing this post ever since, trying to streamline and shorten it up ... but somehow it keeps just getting longer. So that's it - I'm just going to post it as-is. You all are used to me being wordy, right??? :)

The thread in question I'd like to link you to is this thread, in which current faculty were asked by a potential academic leaver to describe what they love about their jobs.

Some of the posts really resonated with me - people described those terrific moments in the classroom (rare as they may be) where students really seem to "get it." How much they loved the long summers off or being able to take sabbaticals. Being around young people. That stuff really can be pretty great.

But at the same time, I wanted to highlight some comments over there that compare academia to the "real world," which I think you can take with a HUGE grain of salt.

I'm not trying to be a huge Negative Nelly here, or to encourage everyone to cut and run from academia. But as as all of us postacademic bloggers have written a million times ... current faculty need to stop encouraging grad students and fellow Ph.D.s to stay tethered to academia for the wishy-washy reason that "it's the best job in the world!" There aren't enough tenure-track jobs for all graduating Ph.D.s anymore. A thousand comments about how totally awesome academia is (like you find in that thread) aren't going to magically open up ten thousand tenure-track jobs. So academics need to quit denigrating nonacademic work and start encouraging grad students to explore other options.

So while I read that thread with interest, it gradually started to bother me. I could picture miserable adjuncts who want to leave academia reading that thread, thinking "...I want to leave, but nonacademic jobs are all so awful!! Academia is the only good job out there!!!" As we've discussed before ... that's not true. But that's not something you're going to hear in that thread.

But you'll hear it from me, again and again. Academia is not the only good workplace in the world. Every nonacademic job is not awful. And many of the things you like about academia can also be found in the nonacademic world.

Let's talk about what we find in that thread that needs a little elaboration...


First, regarding the "I love teaching and mentoring and writing!!" type of comments ... I'm sympathetic to them. Really, I am. But I'll just note that academia is not the only place you can work with kids or teach or write. There are many jobs and non-paying activities that will allow you to work with young people or to teach/mentor in some capacity. And writing and research opportunities are certainly not limited to those who have a university office or a Ph.D. behind their name. Sure, you may have a harder time getting published in academic journals if you aren't affiliated with a university ... but nothing is stopping you from producing written work!

(And possibly even better ... you can write and read without worrying about what topics you "should" study in order to get a good job or tenure! You could even revisit that topic that you were really interested early in grad school! How fun would that be??)

And of course ... in the end, no matter how awesome the teaching and research and whatnot might be ... you won't be able to keep doing it if you can't get a tenure-track job. And how's the good old academic job market looking these days, anyway????
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Moving on ...

Some commenters in that thread write about how academia lets them work with "great people."

Just a quick note about that ... I think that whether you "work with great people" has a lot more to do with the specific workplace you're in than it does with an industry in general. We all know that there are incredibly toxic academic departments out there ... and believe me, there are offices or factories where everyone is bright and friendly and gets along wonderfully. I work in one right now. Sure, every coworker isn't a Nobel Prize winner ... but the people I work with are quick learners and want to do a good job, and are friendly and funny and supportive. I genuinely like every single person who works with me right now. How many of you can say that about your work environment right now?

Life just isn't simple enough to say that staying in one industry will ensure that you always work with "great people." There are great and awful people everywhere, in every industry. And working with "great people" might be a good reason to not leave a specific job, but it's not really a great reason to never leave a whole industry.

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Another poster writes that zie loves academia because zie doesn't "have to wear uncomfortable tight office clothes."

Well ... neither do a lot of nonacademic workers. My office - in the consulting industry, in a firm that handles millions of dollars of client accounts per year - has a totally casual office dress code. The rule is basically "be clean and don't smell." I'm wearing jeans and a t-shirt right now. If we have a client coming in, we are told to dress nicer. It's really no different than everyday academic wear for a day spent working in your office versus the outfit you wear to present at a conference.

And it's also worth noting that there are a LOT of non-office working environments where "office clothes" would be totally impractical. If you're going to be working closely with young kids, a nice dress suit probably won't work. If you want to work in a restaurant or in a medical office with patients, formal constricting clothes aren't going to be the norm.

I could go on and on, but I'll just note that "nonacademic job" does not equal "must purchase 15 tailored business suits." Not necessarily.

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The same commenter also writes: "If dashing off e-mails to snowflaky students is the most annoying part of the job, I'm gold. Considering jobs in the real world, [emphasis added by me] I'd much prefer dashing off the occasional e-mail to snowflaky students."

**Deep breath.**

I'd really like to ask hir what "jobs in the real world" zie is referring to. And what pile of annoying tasks zie thinks every single person in the "real world" is being saddled with. Guess what, dude? Nonacademic jobs vary. Widely.

Fuck the idea that you can dismiss "jobs in the real world" in one dependent clause as if you know everything there is to know about the entire world of work outside of your office. Fuuuuck that.

And from another commenter on the same thread: "I sure as heck don't have to check my phone for messages on Thanksgiving or Christmas."

Well, I don't know a lot of nonacademic workers who have to check their phones on Thanksgiving or Christmas either. Unless you're an ER doctor or a lawyer with a client on Death Row, chances are good that you're not going to hear from any workplace on Thanksgiving or Christmas. The working world is not the plot of a sitcom, where your cranky boss forces you to work over the holidays despite your protests. Guess what? Most nonacademic bosses like their evenings and weekends and holidays just as much as you do. 

In fact, I'd actually argue that people in the "real world" are less likely than people in a university setting to bother each other with work tasks during an evening, weekend, or holiday. Since the academic work schedule is so flexible, I'd say that the chance that an academic is working at 11pm on a Friday night (and might email you) is much higher than a worker in another industry. In the real world, at 11pm on a Friday? Your nonacademic boss is probably having a beer or watching a ballgame or relaxing with their spouse after putting the kids to bed. Their work week is over.

I'm sorry if I sound crabby, but I am SO tired of non-academic jobs being portrayed as these universally soul-sucking corporate positions working for power-hungry tyrant bosses who bother you at all hours of the night ... while academics are these free-spirited people whose entire work schedule involves laying on a blanket in the park, writing and grading papers whenever the mood happens to strike them.

It's a crock of shit, and I'm tired of seeing it get disseminated around in academic circles, scaring exploited adjuncts and grad students from leaving.

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Another commenter writes: "I like being around smart people and finding out what they are up to."

Just like with the previous comment about the "great people" in academia ... I really wish the idea that "all of the smart people work in academia" would die in a fire. That's how much I hate it. I've written about this before, so I don't think I need to go overboard in rehashing it.

Let me just say this: I've discussed world events with people who work at a restaurant. I've talked politics at length (in an intelligent way) with an IT person at my work. I've talked about books and current events and history and a million other things with people who aren't academics.

 And I've had a lot of dumb, vacant, pointless conversations with academics who didn't seem to understand a word that was being said to them, and who had no idea of what was going on in the world around them.

It's true that there are smart people in academia ... perhaps smarter than in the average nonacademic workplace. But I call bullshit on the idea that "being around smart people" is a reason to stay in academia if you're thinking about leaving. Because there are smart people everywhere.

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A few more comments from that thread:

"I can watch terrible movies and listen to worse music and call it 'research.'"

Yes, that's great. In the real world, we call that "Wednesday night." And we don't have to worry about labeling pop culture consumption as "work." We can just ... consume it.

"Publishers send me books for free - books I want to read!"

I admit that this is a nice perk of the job. But I will also note that in the real world, there are libraries. And used book stores. And the Amazon Marketplace. It's not like you'll have to pay full price for every book you ever want to read if you leave academia.

"My colleagues are just as weird as I am ... Nor do they think it odd I like to travel."

I was unaware that people in the real world didn't like to travel. Who knew??? All of those overbooked vacation spots and scenic towns and foreign countries that talk about the millions of dollars they get from tourists ... it's all from academics! Wow!!

Puh-leeze. This is academic snobbery at its finest. If you're not in academia, you must be a drooling moron who only watches The Bachelor and only travels to Disney World. Gag me.

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Look ... a lot of people over there write about how boring they found their office/corporate jobs before academia. And they're probably telling the truth. They probably were bored and unsatisfied. And there are undoubtedly a lot of jobs out there that they (or you or I) would find very boring.

But here's where I want to push back at their assertions, when it comes to advising someone whether or not they should leave academia. To summarize: everyone else is not you.

So what makes you miserable might be someone else's dream job. When academics talk about how awful it would be to "sit in a cubicle making money for someone else?" Well, sure ... that might be awful to them. But for someone else? It could be the perfect job, since it pays them a living wage and gives them the free time to enjoy their hobbies or spend time with their families.

No one job is perfect for everyone. But what most academics miss is that that is also true for academia. So along those lines, if someone is miserable in academia, they shouldn't be guilt-tripped if they want to leave. If the grad student who shares your office is crying into their dissertation notes every day and is miserable and depressed, it shouldn't matter whether you, Miss Professor Lady, would like some mythical "other job." What matters is that they are unhappy and need something else. And they should not be guilted into continuing to work at a job that makes them miserable, even if you think every nonacademic job is awful. It's not about you.

And for the record, every nonacademic job is not awful. Think about it: academics get upset if you talk about R-1 jobs and SLAC jobs as if they are the same type of position. And yet they're happy to lump every nonacademic job across hundreds of industries together as one big soul-sucking, demanding corporate job??

Not so. There are a million different jobs in a million industries out there. Surely, you can find one that suits you.

And certainly, you shouldn't take your advice from a bunch of cloistered Ivory Tower folks who haven't set foot off of a university campus in decades.

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I will, however, commend the one commenter who gets it right:
if your question is whether there's a version of academic life that one can love, then yes. If you're asking whether even the best version of academic life contains irritations (for example, the occasional entitled student, endless bureaucracy), then again the answer's yes. And if the question is whether there are versions of the academic life in which the negatives, however any one person defines the negative (we don't all love the same things) outweigh the positives, then the answer is also yes.
In other words ... academia can be great for some people, and it can be awful for others. In the end, it's just a job like any other. And if you can't be happy in academia with the positions and opportunities available to you, then it's okay to leave.

Even if other academics tell you that you're making a mistake. Fuck 'em. Only you know what makes you happy. And life's too short to ignore what you actually want.

11 comments:

  1. This is a great post. I currently work at a college, though in a staff rather than faculty position, but I have also worked in a variety of jobs in the for-profit and non-profit sectors. And let me promise you, there are wonderful, interesting people and clueless jackasses in all workplaces.

    If anything, I am continually surprised by the out-and-out rudeness that many professors display towards each other, as well as students and staff. That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of kind, well-mannered professors out there, but in general, academia is a field that values intelligence and tenacity over empathy and people skills. Being a jerk is less of a barrier to success than it is in many other fields. The structure of academia often allows petty vendettas to grow deeper and more poisonous over time. In the program where I got my MA, there two professors in the same department who had refused to speak to each other for years. I have worked in no other place where that nonsense would have been allowed to stand.

    And as for my co-workers, sure, I’ve worked with some real ding-dongs. But most of us have full, vibrant, interesting lives. In their free time, my co-workers and I are actors, birders, writers, hikers, competitive ballroom dancers, volunteers, travelers, athletes, musicians, amateur mycologists, travelers, artists, and gardeners—just to name a few of the hobbies of the non-academics I know.

    Academia can be great, if it’s the right fit for you. But please don’t think the rest of us are leading lives of quiet desperation.

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  2. Hi JC. Yes, this seems to be a common retort for academics whose claims to their profession relate to how special it is with every other alternative a complete 'bore' that just wouldn't match up. What I find most uncomfortable about all of this is that what this attitude does is set people like us up for major anxiety when we realise that our livelihoods depend on searching elsewhere. Looking back, I see that I've had some nice work experiences outside of academia where I worked with smart people and made a positive contribution. It hasn't always been this way - the world is not a perfect place, and now that I've worked in academia I can see the realities of working with unpleasant academics whose supposed intelligence has not done much for their capacities to work well with others! I've had enough now, and after reading this post I feel more prepared to challenge academics who start spouting out this nonsense. Also Higher education is as much driven by instrumental monetary function as any other business now so they don't even have the 'love of education' for itself to fall back on now as a reason why academic is a 'special' place.

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  3. Yay!! Nice rant. :) I wholeheartedly agree with everything you've said. Although I would also mention one further detail- free books have to move house too, so the local library is a better option (I reckon)

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  4. The 2-Year Life of the MindJune 15, 2012 at 7:41 AM

    "It could be the perfect job, since it pays them a living wage and gives them the free time to enjoy their hobbies or spend time with their families."

    I agree with one of the comments on the Chronicle article suggesting that when you're not on the job, you're either thinking about the job or feeling guilty for not doing anything. For a long time, I used to make fun of the people who did "frivolous" things with their time because they were "bored" and "less than intelligent". Things like playing Xbox, going to festivals, or watching silly movies. "They just need mindless entertainment because they aren't as smart as I am" I thought as I pulled my research theory book and a highlighter from my desk. "I have important things to do, like a literature review and papers to grade". Even at a Community College (my current employer) constantly going to school (even though you don't need the PhD) is encouraged and thus the cycle continues.

    I'm starting to see the value of, as you said, watching meaningless pop culture on a Wednesday night. As for the whole contribution to society thing, I think if you work an honest job, put in your 40, go home and then do something great like donate your money or time to a cause you love, well, that's a life worth living.

    As for Mir. Pajama poster, I think hir response is a little immature. Personally, the unstructured schedule is starting to annoy me and sitting around in pajamas until late morning makes me feel lazy and slothful.

    I can't wait to get into the 8-5 world. I have a few ideas for some interesting jobs and have set my targets. More than that, I can't wait to see what it's like to watch a movie on a Saturday, or a Tuesday, or a Wednesday, and not worry AT ALL about something needing to be done. I finish this latest degree program in 6 months and when I leave academia, I'm going to do it completely.

    I wonder what's out there in the world?

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  5. The 2-Year Life of the MindJune 15, 2012 at 7:57 AM

    I would like to add one more thought.

    Higher education, particularly on the public level, has become blatantly for-profit and the commodity is the student while the drone is the faculty. What's the difference between that and a corporation? At least a corporation is honest about why they exist. As far as I'm concerned, if a company admits they are in it to make money and then delivers a product worthy of that money, that's far more honorable than jacking up tuition at 3.5% every year so the college/university can hire more six figure administrators. Corporate life actually looks like a better deal to me because the price for my services is clear and stated.

    You can find value in anything, as long as you do it honestly.

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    1. This is modern academia as I see it, and I no longer want anything to do with it. Coincidentally, what you stated is exactly what I ranted to my therapist about in our last session.. yes, I've been going to therapy because I've been on the fence whether or not to be among one of JC's aforementioned "leavers" because the stress of it is really taking its toll on me.

      At least corporations are up front about that fact that they are about bottom lines; you won't find that written in any mission statement on a university campus which is a bit disingenuous if you ask me

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  6. THANK YOU. I really think we NEED more "negative nellying" to burst these insane ideas about the "real world" that circulate like currency in academia. I have some negative nellying coming up at Mama Nervosa, because I really think that the way academics talk to mentees/smart college students about academic life vs the real world is a PROBLEM.

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  7. Thanks for this post. I was just reading that Chronicle forum earlier this week and the trashy tv show comment definitely didn't sit well with me, but I couldn't pinpoint why. Thanks for articulating why it's the kind of distorted thinking that only an academic could have.

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  8. Dear JC,

    I really enjoyed reading your article. I am a TT assistant professor.

    I had been indoctrinated to think that the life of a professor is great and to commit many years of my life (I am in my mid thirties now) to something that is poisonous to me. I must admit that this might be for some lucky and talented individuals.

    I am in an R1 institution but my job consists in teaching and in working in isolation. I am a paper machine, a grant writer and a teacher (I teach students how to do research and I teach undergrad classes). Working in isolation with no exchange with anyone except one collaborator abroad is just too hard for me.

    I should spend a few words about academic freedom; I think it is a lie, my boss (dept. Chair) told me I should do research by myself and I should not work on certain topics (basically I had to stop various collaborations). He also got me started on a topic of his choosing (something that is going to be banned even in china soon) and he asked me to advise a clueless/not so talented student on this. Funny thing is that the student thought he was working for me when both he and I were working for the boss. On top of that I attend many useless meetings on how to craft the curriculum, how to make brochures for the department, the indoctrination about outcome based learning (i.e., I cannot give any grade below C) etc. And I cannot get any decent grad student.

    For me, and I stress that I am writing strictly about my experience, academic life is a joke.

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