Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Odds and Ends ... and You're Still Not Alone

A few random thoughts for today......

First, let's take a look at the google searches that have been bringing folks to this place over the past couple of weeks. I'll be honest - this group of them have been more striking than usual. I was expecting the people showing up here over the summer to be less stressed out and negative about academia, and more relaxed. After all, it's the summer! That doesn't seem to be the case, unfortunately:

-i am miserable in grad school
-i want to drop out of grad school
-academia overwhelmed workload
-feeling angry for no reason grad school
-i hate being a researcher
-what to do if you hate your grad school program
-am i weak for quitting phd
-academic job market stinks
-my phd research is worthless
-i feel like my research is shit phd

It's also worth noting that the two posts at this blog that have gotten the most pageviews since I started - and continue to get fresh new pages views every single day - are the ones in which I wrote about how I hated my research and about how grad school messes with your mental health. And when I say that they get more page views, I mean that they each have more than five times as many page views as any other post on this blog.

That's right. A post about how much I hated my academic work and a post about how I think academia gives people mental health issues are, by far, the most highly-trafficked pages on this blog. For every view that another post on this blog gets, each of those get five or more. 

Think about that for a minute. There are a lot of secretly unhappy academics out there if an average of 5-10 people per day are reading a post on a random blog about how much some stranger hates their research or how crazy academia makes them feel. I've never really talked about how much traffic this blog gets before, but ... yeah.  On top of people reading whatever new stuff I post, the blog gets at least 5-10 pageviews on those two old posts, every single day. Chew on that statistic for a few minutes.

Now of course, I'm not telling you this to brag about how much traffic my blog gets. I'm telling you this so that you will understand that if you're unhappy in academia, you are not alone. No matter how content and fulfilled everyone around you claims to be, there are other people out there who think like you. People who sit in their offices and run the google searches above, who are miserable and stressed and are looking for a way to deal with all of it. They're all out there with you in the academic world. You may not know who they are, but you are not the only one who feels that way.

And if you want to leave, you can do it. We all did it, and all of the people at VersatilePh.D. did it. And you are not crazy or stupid or a loser for wanting to leave. I promise.


In other news, I had dinner with my professor friend from out of town earlier this week. Zie immediately started in with news about an academic job posting that zie saw that zie thought I might be interested in, and about a project that hir colleague was working on that I should see if I could get involved with.

I've explained to this friend three different times that I'm done with academia and that I am happy and content in my new job. And that I don't feel any desire to go back. I don't know how many more times I need to say it before zie believes me. So this time I sort of cut hir off and said, abruptly, "...I'm done. Really, I am. I'm happy and I don't miss it and I'm just honestly done with academia." Then just sat there, staring at hir. I felt like kind of an asshole for being so blunt, but my partner had convinced me that apparently I need to be blunt with this friend to Really Get My Point Across. So I was.

Hir response: "okay, okay! I was just checking. Just making sure."

I wonder how much longer I'll have to keep explaining myself to people until they will finally, really and truly, believe that I have left and I am happy. Because it's getting a lot aggravating to keep explaining this, over and over again.


In horrifying news, Dr. Piglet recently wrote about the outcry that popped up in academic circles when the University of Birmingham (in the U.K.) posted an ad for an unpaid graduate or postdoc-level research position.

Unpaid. That's right, folks. After doing unpaid internships in college and then making shit wages in grad school, the University of Birmingham thinks you should then go out and do additional academic work for free ... just to further your career, of course. Just to prove your dedication to academia (because you haven't already proven your worth throughout all of those other years), so that maybe someday they (or some other university) will consider you for a paid academic position.

Or, you know, probably not. But if you're a grad student with no other job prospects and you're looking at this ad ... you might as well give it a shot, right? Take one more shot at that academic career that you've always wanted. Just hang on and do this work for free for one year, and maybe -just maybe - this gig will be the line on your CV that pushes you over the edge to that tenure-track job next year. It could happen, right???

I'll have more to say about this magical thinking later. For now, let's just focus on this "wonderful" job opportunity (which was, thankfully, pulled down after an outcry in social media).

You know what mostly strikes me about the fact that a prestigious research institution though it was totally appropriate to try to "hire" someone to work for free for them? What strikes me is that the only way that they knew they could get away with posting an ad like this is because they know there is a pool of desperate grad students and adjuncts out there who will do anything - anything - to stay close to academia in some way.

Think about it. In any other industry, if you posted a job but noted that you wouldn't be able to pay the person? You'd probably get a few applications ... but they'd all come from people who you probably wouldn't want to hire anyway. They'd either be really unqualified or would be people who were only going to keep your job until something better comes along in a few weeks or months. And that's certainly not someone you'd want to waste time hiring and training. Better to just offer a salary and get some serious applicants, you know?

But in academia, you can post an ad for a full-time unpaid job and be pretty certain that your applicants (1) will be qualified (because there aren't enough academic jobs out there!), and (2) will stay in the position through the full contract (since there wouldn't be any new academic opportunities until the following academic year). So from the university's perspective, it's a win-win. Don't waste any money paying anyone, but get the work done anyway ... by someone who will do a great job because they're desperate to pad their CV for their next shot at a real academic job.

I am SO glad that the university pulled that ad. Because if that ad had stayed put, and someone had taken that job, it would be just a matter of time before every university followed suit and the "low people on the totem pole" in academia would no longer be adjuncts, but would instead be people with graduate degrees who are working for free.

And I swear to god, it's getting to the point where if I hear one more person talk about how universities are interested in teaching and learning and the "pursuit of knowledge" and other wishy-washy crap like that, I'm going to scream. Universities are trying to take in the most tuition dollars while paying as little as possible out in salary and benefits. Take in more revenue than they put out the door. Just like every other company out there. Every one of them. You don't have to be trying to earn a profit to be trying to cut labor costs and take in more funding. And that's exactly what universities do now.

And as long as there are desperate grad students and adjuncts out there who are being fed the myths about the academic market and the "horrors" of outside jobs, universities will continue to get away with it.

I'm realizing, more and more, that the only way to potentially stop this cycle is for those of us who have left to continue speaking out about our (normal, enjoyable) experiences in the outside world ... and for those who are being exploited (like the folks at the Adjunct Project and Homeless Adjunct) to keep speaking out about their working conditions and the hopelessness of adjuncthood.

Perhaps if we all keep yelling from the rooftops, things will change. Until that happens, though, I have a bad feeling that this might not be the only "Wanted: Someone To Work For Free" type of ad that we will see coming from the hallowed halls of academia.

Because there's no labor cheaper than free labor ... and there's no one in the academic world more desperate for any opportunity than an academic who failed on the market but has no other job prospects.


  1. I've been trying to think of a comparable situation to the weird gravitational force of academia, where, even if you decide you want to jump the hell off the ride, your friends/peers beg you to reconsider. parenting maybe? like when someone will complain about their kid to you for yonks and then convince you that your own life isn't 'full' without one of your own?

    either way, I think the refusal to understand that you want to do your own thing is more a result of trying to validate their own choices.

    and the free labor thing is absolutely horrifying. it seems that its acceptable now for regular internships to be unpaid nowadays.. I hope the outrage continues so that these universities are shamed away from following suit.

    1. Haha - have you seen this post at Postac in NYC's place? She makes the link between leaving academia and not having a baby quite explicit.

      And yes, as someone who wants neither an academic career nor a baby, I completely agree. The "I will convince you to make my life choice!! I will!!!" type of arguments in both situations share some interesting parallels...

  2. I too have had this experience with a good academic friend who recently told me about an academic prospect that I should consider. What surprises me about this is that for the last year/year and a half that I've been malign decisions about getting out of academia, I have made it clear that I have put all the stops on my academic writing that was in progress (that stretched out for a quite a long time) and I turned down several teaching opportunities that came up. It would seem to me and anyone else that when one takes these steps, it is quite difficult to turn around, go back and then try to develop the academic CV again. But somehow our academic friends can't let us go, and I wonder why it's so hard for them. It this because our leaving calls attention to all the problems that they know exist but they've decided to accept? Do they want to create a sense of solidarity - 'We're all in this together, let's stick it out' - It's a mystery to me. I'm not finding this with all my academic friends, but it's clearly happening with a few. On the topic of free academic labour - when I finally decided to put a stop to that to my best ability in my last academic contract work stint (i.e., I worked hard not to 'over-work' my weekly hours), I felt a complete sense of liberation. And when my project manager wanted more work out of me after the official contract finished, he managed to find me some extra departmental money to pay me properly for an extra month's work. When we finally assert ourselves we can see positive results.

    1. "It would seem to me and anyone else that when one takes these steps, it is quite difficult to turn around, go back and then try to develop the academic CV again."

      Yes, exactly! I wrote something like this above, but took it out. But, honestly ... I haven't written a single paragraph in 18 months. I haven't spoken to anyone on my committee since 2010. I haven't taught since the spring of 2010. Even if I were to turn around and decide to jump back into academia ... how in the hell would I beat out currently-working candidates for a job? No way. I have *stopped doing the work.* It is OVER. If I can let it go, why can't they?

      I think that both of your thoughts about motivation are on track - either my leaving draws uncomfortable attention to the fact that they could have a different life, or else they are trying to "keep the family together." But either way ... it needs to stop.

  3. I have had several instances of "Get back on this crazy ride!" recently. Freaky!

    And I totally agree: we who have left have a true responsibility as sort of... academic muckrakers, to expose truth and implore people -- IMPLORE them!! -- to stay away.

  4. Regarding the unpaid research position - maybe this is what needs to happen in order to discourage people from entering academia in the first place. It means a further devaluation of the job, degree, etc., but that's what signals people to stay the hell away. Eventually universities will have a labor shortage and will need to start offering up more attractive compensation. I'd like to see more of these terrible unpaid post-docs, and I'd like to see undergraduates hearing more about the crap job market. Bravo to this and the other post-ac blogs for spreading the word.

    Though I would never jump for an unpaid research position (I hated doing it for pay, after all), lots of people who can and would shouldn't be prevented from doing so just because others find it unseemly. Maybe a person lacks research experience, or doesn't have good references - there are countless reasons he/she might need or want to accept this position. A salary is not the only compensation for work - you are also 'paid' in building skills, earning trust, and establishing contacts in your industry. For some people, this is more valuable than money. Unpaid work is not exploitative when it is voluntary a interaction between consenting adults.

  5. *a voluntary interaction

  6. Hey JC, I have another question for you if you don't mind. I contributed to the Q&A post a while ago and you were kind enough to address some of my questions. If you can in any way answer this one, I would be very grateful.

    In this post you talk about the unpaid position and all of the slave labor you provided in your own program, plus the hours of work. "UniversityofLies" recently posted a great entry about a grad prep book that talks about how to make your family "understand" that you "must work for a few hours on Saturday morning" in an already short weekend visit because the doctorate demands you work nights and weekends.

    So here's my question... The idea of a 40 hour, 8-5 workweek (at first glance) seems like it locks you into not having much free time during the day, like to drink coffee and sit at your computer until 11 (my summer "life" but one I've grown very tired of).

    HOWEVER, I always see those "40 hour people" doing all kinds of amazing things after work and on the weekends. They go to parties, festivals, teach Zumba, pack movie theaters, go out to dinner, go to yoga, read "50 Shades of Gray", watch SNL, decorate the Christmas tree and play XBox.

    The first reaction regarding the 40 hour workweek (by those who will stay in academia) would be that its stifling, inflexible, and a form of indentured servitude. However, I'm starting to get the idea that despite my "flexible" schedule, those 8-5ers have more of a life than I do and an easier time living it (with the schedule). Is this accurate? Because I think the "perceived" inflexibility is one of the scare tactics and I feel like my current "flexibility" is actually a pair of handcuffs with the word written on them. Thanks!

    1. I'm not JC, but as an 8-5er, that's one of my favorite things about my job. My evenings and weekends belong to *me*. When I leave on Friday afternoon, I don't check my work email until Monday morning. And I feel no guilt about it. Personally, I really like the clear boundaries between my work life and my private life.

      And while it's true that I can't take a 3-hour lunch with friends during the work day, I do have sick leave which I can use for things like dentist's appointments or being home with a sick kid, and my boss is very flexible and understanding about necessary stuff that can only happen during business hours, like a trip to the DMV.

  7. "Universities are trying to take in the most tuition dollars while paying as little as possible out in salary and benefits. Take in more revenue than they put out the door. Just like every other company out there. Every one of them. You don't have to be trying to earn a profit to be trying to cut labor costs and take in more funding. And that's exactly what universities do now."

    I couldn't agree with this statement more. As I have become more dissatisfied with my career choice, I've been looking around at the continuous commodity of higher education and I see it as a business, just like any other. Except in this "business" I have homework to grade and am in trouble if the widgets (also known as students) don't produce, even though I can't control it.

    So why don't I go work for a company? At least they're honest in admitting they are there to produce a product and make money and aren't hiding behind some grand purpose of "expanding the mind" crap. When I work in business, I won't have to grade papers or manage a classroom and I can be done at 5. And, I can possibly get some raises and be recognized, instead of being asked to toil under the guise of a righteous and noble cause.

    Maybe it was once, but not anymore...

  8. I'm typing a comment here instead of working on my dissertation proposal. The same proposal that ate my peace of mind for the last three weeks, ruining my vacation.

    I've just finished coursework for my MPhil in the social sciences and I've realised I'm done with academia. It makes me feel stupid and inadequate because I suck at abstract thinking and playing about with high theory. I had built it up so much in my head, prioritising this kind of thinking over non-academic thinking, and tried to fit into that mode, that I've ended up hurting myself. I've lost my creativity, am pretty sure I struggle against depression, and have lost complete confidence in myself as a thinking being. Everybody seems to be smarter than me.

    If I were stupid, it would be easier to accept that and go along with that. But somehow, I don't think I'm a complete duffer: I've done well academically pretty much all my life. But as a social science researcher I'm frightening myself with my inability to come up with original theses and write reams and reams of words.

    I came across your blog a few days ago (this is the second time I was googling 'dropping out of grad school') and it honestly helped my head quite a bit. I've stopped feeling like a beggar with my thesis and taken ownership of it: it is MY thesis, mine to do what I will with it. Screw thoughts of disappointing my profs, my guide and comparing it with my colleagues' theses. I'm going to have fun with it and next year when I'm done, I'm getting out of here and developing a career outside of it. I'm not converting this into a PhD.

    Good on you for having the courage and spirit to walk out of your phd!


    1. Thanks for reading, and congrats to you on making the decision to make your life and career and project your own and to do what YOU want with it, not what academia tells you that you should do.

      I also struggled with the abstract, theoretical thinking. I won't write a book about it, but ... yeah. I wasn't prepared for what *type* of thinking would be required of me in academia, and I really had a hard time molding myself into that shape.

      I also did well academically and have been successful (complete with praise and promotions and raises) at every other job I've ever had, including the one I have now. If I'm incredibly stupid, then I've got the outside world totally fooled. But I'm not stupid. I *know* I'm very bright. And so are you. The molds that academia provides for us don't fit everyone, and they are NOT the only way that you can prove your intelligence.

      Anyway, good luck to you. Keep reading in the postac blogosphere ... keep your head partially out of the academic world so that you can keep thinking straight. Good luck!

  9. Ok...This a bit late since JC has written some posts by now but I just wanted to make two comments.

    Firstly, I'm really furious about that advert for an unpaid research assistant but the fact that it was even posted by Birmingham University implies that there are (a) academics who think that others should work for free and don't need to paid and (b) there's obviously a category of people who would do research for free for others just for their cv/resume (whatever you call it). So, all I can conclude is that the fact that the ad was even accepted as a legitimate add tells us more about the state of the university sector which is clearly broken and morally questionable. Well, it’s morally abhorrent and it really tells us that the researcher who wanted the unpaid researcher has a questionable moral code. The assistant MUST be paid.

    My second comment is that I think that academics who are still in the academia can’t believe that some of us have left and have seen the light. I think that their behaviour reveals, indicates their own insecurity about themselves in the university world since they have to ‘drag’ others back even when they’ve said pointedly no.

  10. I'm the unpaid PhD. I'm at a university that prises itself on being the best for research. my supervisor promised me money since she wanted me to stay on, I started as a masters, and convert to a PhD. I liked the idea, she told me she was working hard to get me funding. that money hasn't appeared yet. I'm too far gone now to drop out now. I'm poor, more so than your average grad student. I'm depressed. really depressed. I cry every week, and don't tell people I'm upset. they don't know how bad it is. so I'm not surprised the fuckers at that university advertised it. I'm being shat on, everyday. it's not nice. nothing is a consolation. until maybe I might set my supervisors office on fire the last day of my being here. I'm just biding my time until I get to finish, poor, unless I die in this final year.

    1. Hey there ... just letting you know that I saw this comment, and I really feel for you. It's a terrible feeling to know that you're being exploited and to slowly realize that all of these people who are supposed to be watching out for you and taking care of you actually don't care at all.

      But all you need to do is get through this year, and then find something else - anything else. It sounds like any job in the world would be preferable to what you're doing now. Just make it through this year - I know you can! - and then you can move on and never look back. (Or look back and throw up a middle finger at the people who've treated you like this).

      But you can get through it, and you will. Hang in there, and keep reading and commenting in the postac blogosphere. We've all been here and we all understand, and we all know that you can make it out. Good luck...

    2. Thank you so much for responding. I don't think I realised how much some encouraging words mean until I read your reply. I actually came about your blog while googling I hate my PhD supervisor and I'm glad I did find it. I'll be referring back to your blog as a regular now, if anything just to keep sane. again thanks so much for bothering to read my comment, I really appreciated your reply.

  11. Can we dispel the myth that working for free means being "dedicated" to your field?! The people who work for free are the people who have the means to do so (e.g. mom, dad, or some other benefactor covering the bills) and that's it. Sugar coat it however you want, but unpaid work is exploitative, immoral, and a sham.