Monday, March 4, 2013

A Comment on Being #PostAc

If you haven't already seen it, everyone should go over to our new How To Leave Academia site and read the latest post that Lauren and Currer wrote, about the differences between the "alt-ac" and "post-ac" movements. It's a really interesting read, and it helps clarify the differences between the different groups of us who are out here, trying to identify problems in higher ed and to help people who want to leave academia.

Unsurprisingly, I call myself a post-ac. I have been and will continue to be immensely critical of the overall system of academia, which values obscure specialized knowledge over all else and which tells its grad students and faculty that the only job worth having is an academic one, even if it leaves you impoverished and miserable. I've found a job outside of academia, in a for-profit consulting company. I feel no qualms about this whatsoever. I no longer believe that academia (as an institution) is a benevolent entity working toward abstract goals like "providing education" or "advancing knowledge." They are working to minimize costs and maximize revenues, just like many nonacademic companies.

But at least here in the outside world, organizations are honest about it. I'd rather work for a company that is making money and being honest about it than one that tells me with a straight face that I should feel honored to work 60 hours per week for a salary in the teens because I'm contributing to the "life of the mind" ... while they jack up tuition rates on students by double-digits, cut classes and raise class sizes, build a multimillion-dollar athletic facility, and hire two new Vice Presidents of Something at salaries in the mid-six-figures.

I'm tired of the hypocrisy. I'm tired of watching people get hurt by the "bait-and-switch" of academia, and to then turn their disappointment inward, so that they blame themselves for not working hard enough or for not being smart enough. I'm tired of them believing that they should sacrifice because they're contributing to some benevolent institution or some "greater good."

The institution doesn't care about you. And there are ways to contribute to the "greater good" of society without impoverishing yourself or driving yourself crazy with anxiety and overwork.

So I'm a post-ac. Unequivocally.


I want Ph.D. students and faculty to be selfish. I want them to leave if they want to, and I don't care if they finish their dissertations or if they go work for a corporation or a nonprofit, as long as they are happy and can pay their bills. I want them to think of their needs - both tangible (money, geography) and abstract (sanity, work/life balance). And with the massive shift toward contract and part-time faculty, I really really want more people to decide to leave academia (maybe before they even start), before academia's "become an academic professor, or else you are a useless moron" culture kicks in and narrows their worldview of what they can do with their lives.

So hell yeah, I'm post-ac. I want to see fewer people going into graduate programs, and I have and will continue making strong critiques of academia and the higher education system more generally. To borrow Lauren and Currer's words, I no longer mythologize the academy. I am, in fact, almost relentlessly negative about it.

And I'm sure that some alt-acs look at blogs like mine and think that I'm too negative. Too harsh.

But I, personally, think that alt-ac doesn't go far enough. Like Lauren and Currer, I'm thrilled that alt-acers are also encouraging people to think outside the box when it comes to getting a job after leaving academia. I just wish that their version of "outside the box" extended past the university walls. I think that when you have grad students who feel stifled by academic culture and the system of higher education, you have to encourage them to look outside of university settings altogether for employment. And if you have former academics who desperately miss working in higher ed (Type 2 leavers, in other words), it might be an unhealthy environment for them to continue working in positions that are almost academic jobs, but not quite.

So while I think what alt-acs are doing is admirable, I don't think they go far enough.

So I wanted to add something to the post-ac manifesto, which Lauren and Currer hint at but don't quite say.

Despite my status as a post-ac, I fully support the range of reforms that alt-acs would like to implement for grad programs. I just want them to go a little further.

So I, too,would like to see the barriers between academic jobs and other types of jobs to be broken down. I want graduate students to be encouraged to look at jobs other than traditional academic jobs ... and if some of those jobs exist in universities (advisors, research center employees, etc.), then that's great!

But at the same time, I want there to be fewer people who are funneled down the path of thinking that a university is the only good place to work. There still aren't enough jobs within university research centers or administrative offices for all of our grad students ... and even those alt-ac jobs might not make everyone happy. So while I agree with post-acs that we need to expand our definition of what's an acceptable "academic" job ... I also argue that we need to encourage people to look for jobs outside of higher ed altogether.

Reform from within higher ed is fantastic. But we also need to encourage people to leave higher ed altogether if that's what they need to do.

I also want to see improved adjunct salaries and working conditions -just like post-acs. It is absolutely inexcusable that universities with multimillion-dollar endowments are paying their adjuncts who teach full course loads less than $20k per year. Universities need to do better.

But at the same time, I want adjuncts to quit if they are miserable. I want them to stop feeling like they "owe something" to higher ed or to their students, or like they should hang on a little longer just in case that tenure-track job comes along.

Adjuncting might be fine for some people - if they have wealthy spouses or can make ends meet with just a bump in salary or easily available benefits (which alt-acs rightfully advocate for).

But if they can't make it work, they need to be encouraged to quit. And even if it means that adjuncts are quitting en masse, so be it. Higher education needs to be shaken up, and a mass exodus of its adjuncts might be just the way to do it.

And for those who win the lottery and get an academic job, I (like alt-acs) want them to understand and communicate with each other and with the outside world. I want faculty to understand that there are people other than professors doing good work out there. I want them to disseminate their research more widely to the larger society, so that outside organizations and people can access it and use it.

But I want them to do more than that - I want them to use their newfound knowledge of the world outside of their offices to encourage their students to look outside of the ivory tower for jobs. Faculty simply have to start to read the tea leaves, and to realize that the job opportunities that they were given are dwindling in quantity and quality. They need to start opening their office doors, and not just to get their own research out there. They need to start bringing information in about the job market and the work being done by outside organizations, and need to start using this new information to advise their students on career paths.

I don't care if grad students become postacs or altacs or straight-up academics. I just want them to be happy, and I want grad programs and faculty to support all three paths for their students, rather than just the last one (or in the case of alt-ac, the last two).

And to that end, I think that the reform goals of alt-ac get us significantly down that path. I totally support each of them. I just want to see us take each of them a little bit further.

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The take-home point from all of this rambling:

In terms of our attitudes about academia and the reforms we'd like to see, I see post-ac and alt-ac not as competing factions of folks ... but as complementary groups. Both would like to see similar types of reforms, but the post-ac set of reforms goes a bit further than the alt-ac one.

But since both of us have shared goals (the reform of higher education to better serve grad students and contract faculty), we need to work together. Even if we're talking past each other in our critiques of higher education and academia, we're very close together in what we want to see happen to academia and higher ed.

And if we can work together on reforms (even if we're disagreeing on critiques), then I think we stand a chance of maybe, possibly, reforming graduate education into a system that helps everyone - those who want academic jobs, those who want jobs in higher ed but not as professors, and those who want to leave altogether. I think we're at a critical point in history where people are realizing that the "Ph.D. to professorship" career path is not guaranteed. I think we're at a point where some faculty are willing to listen to what we have to say and to make some changes.

So, while I agree that we post-acs and alt-acs are distinctly different groups, I think it's critically important to identify the ways in which we're similar ... and where we should join forces to try to effect the structural changes in higher education that we all agree desperately need to happen.

So what do we say, post-acs and alt-acs? Can we work together? I promise to not roll my eyes when you talk about the importance of academic research if you promise not to tell me that I "sold out" by taking a job at a for-profit company. :) (Kidding ... I'm kidding).

But in all seriousness ... I think that today's undergraduate students (many of whom are eagerly eyeing GRE test dates and scoping out Ph.D. programs in English and History and Sociology) desperately need us to work together. They may not realize it now, but they will.

9 comments:

  1. Although my comment is not directly related to the content of this post, I wanted to personally thank the author of this blog. I have been reading this blog for about a year now; six weeks ago after lining up a job (in the corporate world) I finally dropped out of my PhD.

    I currently have absolutely no regrets - and I don't even particularly like the job I took.

    So thank you for the inspiration and the insight. It made a difference.

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  2. "But at the same time, I want there to be fewer people who are funneled down the path of thinking that a university is the only good place to work. There still aren't enough jobs within university research centers or administrative offices for all of our grad students ... and even those alt-ac jobs might not make everyone happy. So while I agree with post-acs that we need to expand our definition of what's an acceptable "academic" job ... I also argue that we need to encourage people to look for jobs outside of higher ed altogether."

    ^^This. Yes.

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  3. Theres is one paragraph in this that hits the nail on the head (see below) and you have verbalized it way better than i ever could. (The only way it could be more emotive is if Samuel L Jackson was narrating it ! :)

    "I'm tired of the hypocrisy. I'm tired of watching people get hurt by the "bait-and-switch" of academia, and to then turn their disappointment inward, so that they blame themselves for not working hard enough or for not being smart enough. I'm tired of them believing that they should sacrifice because they're contributing to some benevolent institution or some "greater good."

    "The institution doesn't care about you. And there are ways to contribute to the "greater good" of society without impoverishing yourself or driving yourself crazy with anxiety and overwork".

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  4. i agree with anonymous. I've been away from the university for 6 years, but reading that paragraph still articulates how i feel about it. I feel exhausted just thinking/reading about how nothing's changed (or about how it's gotten worse). It is truly a poisonous environment. so happy to be out of it. well said.

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  5. Because of finding this blog, I was actually able to get out of bed this morning. Thanks for showing there are other ways and other worlds. Words can't express my gratitude, and I am joining you as a post-ac.

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  6. I wanted to stop and thank you for writing this blog. I am currently in the midst of, arguably, one of the worst parts of graduate school: the job market. Things are not looking up. Professors are telling me that the reason for my poor prospects on the market are because I never landed that solo authored publication in a top three journal. Feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness have set it and reading this blog has been one of the very few things that have helped me through the more difficult days. Thanks again.

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  7. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  8. Thank you very much for writing this blog. I'm currently 3 semesters away from finishing my PhD in the social sciences and I have no desire to go into the 'world of academia.' I constantly feel looked down upon in my department for this reason (despite working 80 hours a week, teaching, publishing, etc.). Your blog helps me know that I'm not the only one & that there is hope for life outside academia!

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  9. "while they jack up tuition rates on students by double-digits, cut classes and raise class sizes, build a multimillion-dollar athletic facility, and hire two new Vice Presidents of Something at salaries in the mid-six-figures"

    ^ yes. My university just built a new multi-million dollar mansion for its president. But we hear ".. we just can't afford to fund some of the things we used to (budget cuts)" all the time. As you said, "They are working to minimize costs and maximize revenues, just like many nonacademic companies" but at least nonacademic companies are upfront about it.

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