I’m back.

Basically, the past month was a roller coaster for me. I was sucked into the academic job market, pulled myself out of it, and now I’m pretty much that dude from the Mad Men intro sequence. Leaving academia sucks. I’ll write more about that later, but meanwhile I think Mama Nervosa’s post gets to the center of it. Leaving academia sucks (yes, I wrote the same sentence twice).

If you are thinking “nobody get’s sucked into the academic job market. There are hundreds of new jobless PhDs every year to prove there is no suction going on” you are right. The academic job market is welcoming only to the smallest possible group. It’s also possible this is all in my head and this “suction” I feel is really just me, simultaneously struggling with the decision to leave academia and in denial about struggling with this decision. My point is that I am nostalgic about the calm feeling I had when I had already made up my mind about leaving but I was still just an ABD about to start the last year of grad school. Now that I’m actually leaving, the world is a dark and confusing place. On the bright side, I have a lot of writing material now. I’ll organize it into posts over the coming weeks.

The Job Market

I’m in it, and this week I am panicked. I feel a strong pull toward the academic market, even though I continue to dislike the idea of becoming a professor. But for an academic job search, I know what to do because it is the only job search they talk about in graduate school. We have model “teaching philosophy” documents, and model “letters of interest”. The department is very invested in helping us assemble the perfect dossiers to make us shiny, attractive candidates.

For the non-academic job market, I have nothing: no support or feedback, no adviser, no idea of what makes a good dossier.  They want “skills” and “accomplishments”, not “Grants” and “Sample Syllabus”. An application asked two “long answer” questions (500 words). My writing samples are 10,000 words. How can you answer a question in 500 words? There is no room for a lit review!

This week, academia was attractive to me. It felt like the safe way to go. I want to resist the inertia, but feel like I’m walking into one of those ugly, foggy, dark forests in movies where we all know the main character is about to get in trouble.

To end on a positive note, I would like to recommend “So what are you going to do with that?”, a book by Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius. This book has great and very practical advice about leaving academe. It helped me stop wallowing in my “I hate academia” sorrows and start taking action about my future and my professional happiness.

 

Are you smart enough to stay in grad school?

There is a widespread belief in academia that people who leave graduate school are dropouts who couldn’t hack it in the program. I take issue with this belief. I don’t like the choice of words.  There are high-school dropouts and college dropouts; kids who leave school before completing the essential programs to become productive members of society. This is why there is a negative stigma around the term “dropout”. Graduate school is not such a program. I would even say that many graduate programs actually make people less productive members of society. I have this idea of a time when PhDs were all called “Doctors” everywhere, and they were polymaths: informed, knowledgeable in many subjects, very smart. PhDs today are about the opposite: they are about specializing, about narrowing down your focus to a single thing. I could talk about my subfield comfortably, but when I hear talks from other fields I feel completely lost! How did I get here? How is it that after so many years of studying I actually feel like I know less?

Anyway, people who change their minds about getting a PhD are not dropouts. They are courageous people who have a clear idea of what they want in life, and no, they don’t lose IQ when they exit the ivory tower, and no, the postacademic cooties are not contagious, and finally no, you don’t lose academic purity by remaining friends with them. In a previous post I mentioned the encouragement I received from my professors and my family. What nobody mentioned was that if you are smart enough for grad school, you are smart enough for a whole bunch of other things too. In addition to that, the first weeks of graduate school are daunting. There is a lot of work, but there is also a lot of talk about how lucky you are to be in this program. TNRU is such a prestigious department, the professors are so well recognized in their fields, and everybody is so smart (while everybody outside of campus is banal and obtuse). Academia is the winner’s circle, everybody outside of it is a loser [ by the way, isn’t it funny how in academia the post-acs are the losers, but in the post-ac world it’s “those who can, do, those who can’t, teach”? ]. I didn’t want to be the loser. I knew academe  isn’t for me a few months into the program, but I felt like I needed to prove to myself that it isn’t for me because I don’t like it, not because I can’t do it. So I stayed.

I remember an instance where a person who left my program was talked about with disdain. “Ze is quitting. Ze can’t take it anymore.”, someone said, “this workload isn’t for everyone.” These comments made me so angry, because clearly none of the people understood how difficult it is to decide to leave. When one ponders leaving the program, one is obviously dealing with a lot of internal struggles. We grad students are also not the “quitting” type of people, so we probably have thought this for a while and we’ve been miserable for a while. If one takes one’s eyes off the problem sets/papers/dissertation, one realizes there’s a lot to hate about academe.

The academic/work/vocation dimension is only one side of the problem. There is the issue of graduate life itself. At least for me, this dimension weighed a lot. When we choose the PhD route, we change our lives and sometimes the lives of the people we love (significant others, children…):

  1. You relocate, many times to a different country.
  2. You make a vow of poverty. Even if you have funding from your department, check your funding letter: we are funded for 9 months, even though you are expected to be a graduate student for 12. Many get loans, rely on their families, or decide to spend their life savings on graduate studies. We take on-campus jobs, get teaching gigs, get research assistant gigs. And even then, I have yet to find a graduate student who can say “I live comfortably. I think I only want a raise; I don’t actually need it.”
  3. You get sunk costs that grow each day you stay in grad school: Instead of starting your retirement savings, you will not save a dime. You will postpone the beginning of your career and professional experience by at least four years. Instead of buying a home, you get a room-mate. Instead of having children, you have “revise and resubmit”.
  4. You get out of touch with your friends. If you are foreign, you will miss many of your family and friends’ milestones because you don’t have the time or the money to be there for them.

… and then you get a hunch this isn’t what you expected, or what you want to do for the rest of your life. More directly: I sacrificed/let go of so much to get here (TNRU), and now I think I want to walk away. wow. WOW. I couldn’t leave empty-handed. Not after everything I put my family and my significant other through.

From the point of view of “true academics” you only need to be smart to stay in graduate school. For me it was really cowardice that kept me in. I was afraid of discovering the source of my unhappiness wasn’t academia but something else, something inherently wrong with me. I was afraid there won’t be a place for me outside of academe. I was afraid of disappointing people. I couldn’t deal with all this, I didn’t know how. I know how to study/write a paper/learn, so I did that and kept doing it until there was nothing left but a dissertation and the job market, and I realized I would have to deal with this or else I would start the cycle all over again.

I wish I could have talked to that person who left the program. I would’ve told hir how brave I think ze is for daring to make the jump before it was too late, like me.

 

Are you smart enough to go to graduate school?

One friend’s response to my “I am leaving academia” speech was “Why did you come to grad school at all? Why have you stayed in the program this long?” I kept thinking about this question and came up with what follows.

In a word, I came to graduate school by inertia. There were three sources of inertial energy.

First, my academic environment back then. At some point in the last two years of college (a research university), my professors started saying “You are smart enough to go to graduate school”. I thought their research agendas were fascinating because I am (let’s face it) a nerd. I was flattered to hear that I was smart enough to potentially be like them because I was young and insecure.

Two of them were young assistant professors who had just recently been in graduate school and on the job market.  They were young, passionate about research, and friendly. Their practice was to tell the smartest students in each class that they were good enough to go to graduate school. Don’t worry: we’ve kept in touch and they have changed their views on this over time. They are now very cautious about telling all smart people to get a Ph.D, and even then, they say they recommend getting some real-world experience and researching all programs extensively before making any decisions.

Older professors also thought that Ph.D was the way for me. They paid attention to my honors thesis, invited me to the department seminars, introduced me to professors who gave talks. All this attention because they thought I was smart enough to be like them. The “enough” part made me feel like I had accomplished some kind of mission.

That brings me to source number two: myself. I admire the graduate students who, in addition to their  academic genius, have exceptional talents, like running 10k races in less than 45 minutes, playing a musical instrument like a pro, being parents or creative writers. I am not multi-talented. I am not even very outgoing or physically attractive. For a long time, I have felt like I just have  my intelligence and academic achievements. I have always been a good student, and now I was hearing that I was finally good enough. So I, like so many of you, fellow bloggers, saw in graduate school a safe step. By then, I knew how to be a good student and how to show it. I enjoy learning, but back then I also enjoyed “winning” in school. To me graduate school was the ultimate school challenge, the Everest. Plus, I was trying to work in the real world and didn’t know how to make my usual strategies (preparedness, study time, research) compatible with the winning strategies of the corporate world (team work, boldness, confidence, instinct). I honestly didn’t even think about what graduate school meant in terms of a life decision or a career decision. I think I just wanted the safety of the classroom.

Finally, my family. My father went to graduate school; the first person in the family to do so. My mother is a teacher. In my family, academic achievement was equivalent to personal achievement. Successful parenting meant having children who did well in school, and to me this meant that being a good student for the longest possible time was the best way to get my parents’ approval. Unconsciously, of course. I have only younger siblings and younger cousins, so I am programmed to “set an example” for them. If I am smart enough, then they all are too. I will be the first woman PhD on both sides of the family, and I don’t know why yet, but I feel a special kind of pressure because of that. It’s like I am proving that our family is progressing, or something.

I had a specific and very different dream for myself. I wanted a postacademic-world job. I had wanted the same thing since I was 15 years old, and I walked away from it because I didn’t stand up for myself; I didn’t dare to jump or be free. I let inertia take over and landed an offer of admission to Top-Notch Research University (TNRU).

 

I told a few other people

…and their reactions were mixed. Before I describe them in detail, though, I want to reflect on why “telling people” is such a big deal for me. Before this summer, I had only mentioned it once, during First Year. Another First Year asked: “Have you thought about where you want to teach?” I answered “Well, I’m not really sure that I want to be a professor yet.” Another First Year’s response was: “Oh. Then you should start looking at other departments[verbatim ends here] , because TNRU doesn’t train non-academics.” We had a ton of work, so I decided to focus on getting things done: learn things, survive each semester, meet requirements, go home.

The question of where you want to teach can only be asked at the beginning of a PhD, because we all quickly realize that it isn’t about where we want to teach, but rather where a few lucky members of our cohorts will get a chance to teach. We celebrate the older grads’ new jobs in state schools in remote towns, small liberal arts colleges, and post docs nobody had heard of. We become convinced that salaries, locations, and the quality of students don’t matter, because we only care about pursuing our intellectual curiosities and making a mark in the world with our research.  We rise above these petty, materialistic concerns: as we come closer to obtaining a PhD, we realize that academia is so much more than a career, it is an honorable calling.

So of course, for a few seconds (ok, months), I felt like the shallowest academic ever because I cannot imagine living in a small college town, and because I believe that our job as scientists is to use our cutting edge tools and apply the scientific method to answer questions of the social sciences. It is a technical, methodical exercise; divine inspiration and artistry are not involved.

I decided to “come out” to my closest friends in the program because I wanted their support and shoulders to cry on when I told my committee. One of them shared their own qualms about academe and we’ve talked more about our searches. One of them told me I was making a mistake, and throwing away everything I had worked for in the past five years. A third person listened to my story and told me they understood where I was coming from, but once I got an academic offer I would probably change my mind. Finally, one butthead scared the shit out of me by telling me my adviser is not a good person and would react very negatively to this news, so I should tell them in “a public space”.

I am glad they were sincere. True friends should always tell you what they are thinking, not what you want to hear. It is OK to have differences of opinion, and I attribute this one to the fact that we just don’t share the same dream.

I told my committee

… and they said “no” because:

  1. It is impossible to get an academic job if you have a post-ac job, but non-ac jobs are always there.
  2. Being a prof is completely different from being a graduate student.
  3. Everyone feels unprepared and nervous at the beginning of job market season (August and September).
  4. S/He’s been in the industry and hated it.
  5. I will not be intellectually challenged by my job.
  6. I will have more leverage for non-ac jobs if I look for them in a few years, as an assistant professor at Fancy Important University instead of  just a graduate student, like I am now.
  7. Not wanting to live in Paris, KY, Rome, GA, or London, OH is not a good reason to walk away from the profession.
  8. Being a tenured or tenure-track professor does not mean settling down: there are summers, sabbaticals and job market seasons.
  9. I have nothing to lose by going on the job market and looking at other jobs as well.
  10. I should think more about this.

They are my advisers. My teachers. I owe them some listening. I don’t think they saw this coming, and their job is to find me an academic position. By leaving academe, I am not letting them do their job properly. In this sense, I understand why they would talk me out of leaving: it is their job. Nevertheless, I have to admit I did not expect “no”. In the dozens of times I had played these meetings out in my head, I imagined all kinds of responses: maybe tears, questions about what I wanted to do, maybe some remarks about their disappointment, even a withdrawal from the committee. Instead, it appears I am still in the running.

Here is what I think:

  1. I understand there is no turning back. It is true that I may never be an Associate Professor or an endowed Professor if I leave now. At the same time, I believe: a) This will happen whenever I get a post-academic job: now or in 10 years. Unless I come back with a Nobel Prize, I will be spoiled goods. b) Not having a Professor position does not preclude occasional research or teaching projects. Maybe one day I will publish something related to my job, or give a talk or a seminar.
  2. Will I: organize my year in semesters? Write articles? Be in classrooms several hours each week? Feel like I am always working? Yes? Sounds just like grad school to me.
  3. This is true. Everyone is freaking out because we all know there are a lot more candidates than jobs. Though we are in Top Notch Research University (TNRU), only 60% of last year’s candidates were placed (because adjuncting, post-docs, visiting professorships should not count as placement). In these circumstances, looking for outside options seems perfectly rational to me.
  4. “Then I’m sure you know what it is like to be on the wrong career path.” (S/he ignored this response).
  5. This is a risk I will need to take. Five years ago, I chose to be academically challenged, and what a challenge it has been! But it took so much from me (more on that in a later post). Maybe I’ll be challenged in other ways. Maybe I won’t feel intellectually challenged 100% of the time, but I will feel fulfilled.
  6. Isn’t TNRU prestigious? Something just doesn’t click to me about this argument. I would surmise that my leverage would be maximized if I had job offers from academic employers to show to non-academics. Today: “Hello, I am fantastic. I am so great that World-Famous University wants me to go be awesome on their campus, but I think I’ could be happier with you, if I had a good salary”. Two years from now:  “Hello, I am fantastic. I’ve been awesome at World-Famous University for two years, where I did the same thing I had done for the previous five years. WFU has already found my replacement: a very promising ABD from TNRU…”
  7. Yes it is.
  8. This is conditional on finding an institution that will take you in in your target location. Plus, how many times can you go on the academic job market before tenure?
  9. I lose time for my dissertation. I will lose your support when I take the non-academic job.
  10. I have thought about this for a long, long time. I have been sure of this for a long, long time too.

Never say never: the required first post.

At some point I had vowed never to have a blog, but now I decided to do it. I always thought I didn’t really have anything interesting to say. In fact, I thought I was very original about the “Recovering Academic” concept, but so many people have thought of that before me! It was a similar feeling to believing you have a brilliant new paper idea, and Scholar Google reveals to you that it is actually a sub-sub-subfield of your discipline. I still felt very relieved to know  a) there are so many of us b) we struggle with similar, strong feelings about it.

Why did I change my mind about blogs? Leaving academia is as lonely of an experience as staying in it.  The decision to jump off the “from-here-to-tenure” wagon is as difficult as it is lonely because of the fear of being ostracized in the department and the PhD program.  In my case, it’s hard to explain to my colleagues, and talking to faculty members about it is unthinkable. This feeling of loneliness and hopelessness went away for a little bit when I discovered the blogs of so many people out there who, like me, are leaving/have left the research vocation in search of a different future. I sympathized with their anonymous stories, and felt that my feelings and thoughts about this were validated. I hope this blog can pay it forward one day (or pay it back!).

About me: I am a PhD candidate in a certain social science at a Top Notch Research University (TNRU). After many years apart, I finally moved far away from campus, to live with my significant other who has a “real job”. I hope this is the last year I spend as a student.