Friday, April 12, 2013

Faculty Indifference

Something I've been confused about is the reaction I get from tenured faculty when I tell them about my struggles finding a job. There seem to be a few different reactions I get. 1) Saccharine reassurances that everything will work out fine. 2) Glib advice about my job search that is usually completely outdated and pertaining to a market situation that no longer exists. 3) Stories of other students who were unemployed or underemployed for years before landing their supposed dream job. 4) Silence.

The silence is the one that really intrigues me. When I talk to faculty about my job search struggles, I expect some offers of tangible help. After all, I've made immense contributions to the department as a grad student. I've taught a ton, done service, you name it for nearly a decade. And yet the indifference of the faculty to my struggle (measured in terms of tangible help received, not saccharine reassurances, etc.) is startling. Its like they knew from the beginning that this would happen, that people would get out and not be able to get jobs. And now that they are faced with me coming to terms with my situation, its only really a surprise for me, not them.

New Year's Answers #2

I've been away for a bit, dealing with the job market and my current job. It looks like another year has gone by without a permanent gig. Not only this, but the funding for my current job is in question. I'm facing unemployment in the fall, and honestly that is mixed with a lot of sadness, anger, and fear, but also a huge chunk of relief to finally be out of academia and ready to get the hell on with whatever happens next. I was going to renew the postdoc if I could, which would have let me lay low a bit longer, but I guess the Universe has bigger plans for me than hiding out in a job I don't really like anyway. In the coming months I'll start looking at post-academic employment in Southern City and Hometown. I'll need to buy a car too, as I live in one of the few places in the country where you don't need one. How this all goes is going to depend on my attitude. I can make it into BIG SCARY OHMYLIFEISFALLINGAPART, or I can make it into an adventure in coming out of a long difficult journey through grad school into a new better life that I can hardly even comprehend yet. I love reading JC's blog on leaving academia because ze is both very angry at the academic racket (yes, I think it is a racket, see below) and very glad to be out of it and in something that makes hir happy.

So in the spirit of new living, I'll get back to my New Year's questions:

2. Are all professional environments soul-sucking, not just academia?

I'm going to have to go with a big fat NO on this one. Academia is soul sucking in a very particular way, especially in a down market.

When we compare the actual things we're doing in academia versus other jobs, of course this varies a lot. One way academics often frighten would-be leavers is with the scary scary world of alienated labor that is out there awaiting them. This assumes that all non-academic jobs are the same, but I'm going to argue that there's a vast difference between, say, working an assembly line maintaining some hand-mangling machine and working for a non-profit on energy policy. The other thing wrong with notions like this is that they disregard the fact that academia IS alienated labor. But more on that in a minute. Aside from questions about what the work entails, the real soul-suck in academia is not about what we're doing, but the ways we're rewarded for it (or not).

If we think about grad school and academia in general as just a job, then a lot of that comes clear. Its when we start thinking of it as some pseudo-mystical calling, some priesthood into which we're being initiated, that things get rough and we get sucked in, only to come out disillusioned, bitter, and possibly unemployed. But say you were offered a job where the boss told you that you would be working all hours for hyper-critical supervisors, under constant pressure and stress and that you would not even be paid a living wage for doing this and then after five or so years you'd be fired, with no definite prospects of being able to get another job in the field you've been in all that time? Oh and don't forget that you have to relocate across the country for this job, leaving behind family and friends for the isolation of a workplace where everyone is your competitor and you can't really ever let your guard down completely. Would anyone in their right mind accept such a job?

The problem is all the pseudo-religious trappings that go with academia and the "life of the mind" that confuse us into thinking its something more than what it is: a really crappy job. There's even Harry Potter robes and funny ceremonies and fake Gothic architecture to help us stay confused about this.

But what is academia really? A very very underpaid, overworked career with crappy job security and awful narcissistic exploitative bosses. And grad students are the cogs in the machine, the canon fodder that faculty hire year after year, knowing that after five years of often soul-crushing work they're going to then struggle to find jobs. But faculty keep bringing them in as the cheap and docile labor force that they are, to work on the front lines teaching the classes which pay the faculty's inflated salaries while said faculty are freed up to write their books so they can get paid even more and hire even more grad students to do their teaching for them. This may have been somewhat okay ethically speaking back when people were more likely to get jobs at the end of it all, having paid their dues in grad school. But now its just exploitation, plain and simple, to give someone a grueling apprenticeship without a job at the end, just to handle the day-to-day teaching of the department only to kick them out when its all over with dismal prospects for continued employment. Its absolutely unconscionable and wrong to use young people like this, young people who trust and look up to their elders and hope to be nurtured, not exploited, by them.

Damn. Get out while you still can.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

PTSD (Post-Tenure Stress Disorder)

As I wrote in an earlier post, I keep thinking about the similarities between Stockholm Syndrome and the way academics turn over their lives to a punishing and often baffling system that infantalizes you, leaves you feeling like you're never good enough, takes away many of your options in how you lead your life, and leaves everyone so desperate for more that they rush off the cliff (aka PhD programs) like happy lemmings.

I make a point to read blogs and articles, looking for anyone saying how much they love being an academic, how great it is to have tenure, how amazing their life is, and so on and so forth. And yet what I keep finding is how disillusioned everyone seems to be. How the things they thought would make them happy (a tenure-track gig, tenure, promotion, etc.) do not actually make them happy, and quite often make them depressed.

Before the PhD, I kept telling myself, "if I can only get a tenure-track job I'll be set," and then after getting that job I'm sure I'll be telling myself, "if I can only get tenure I'll be set." Turns out that the crisis of faith I'm having after this major milestone (getting my PhD) sounds pretty similar to the crisis of faith that is de rigeur for academics who have just gotten tenure. They stop their frantic publishing and conference presenting, look up, notice the sky, the trees, the spring buds about to burst, and feel like they've been missing something really important. They stop running in the hamster wheel of their chosen profession and realize they are exactly where they were when they started.

I've come across several articles recently that document post-tenure depression of various sorts. A quick search of the keywords "tenure" and "depression" turns up the following on the Chronicle, among others:

And that's just on the first page of search results. So you mean to tell me that even if I could somehow magically skip the whole process of the job search, landing a tenure-track job, publishing, teaching, and working my ass off for the next five years and have tenure right now, that I would have to face (another) crushing depression, identity crisis, and sense of let-down? No thanks.

The one upside to it all, the silver lining that all of the professors tout is that they now have virtually total job security and lots of vacation time. I certainly hope to be able to say better things about the peak of my career than job security or how much time off I'm getting. 

I suppose if I were into challenge for challenge sake I could just take one of those jobs, get tenure, and then leave academia to go do something else challenging rather than sit on my laurels for the rest of my life. And apparently there are a good number of academics who do exactly that.

Yes, Sir Edmund Hillary may have climbed Mount Everest "because it was there," but I think I'd rather just hang out at the ski lodge, play cards with my friends, and not get frostbite.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

New Year's Answers #1

I've really got to remember to keep this blog going, because its one of the things that may preserve my sanity in this time of transition and career-related anxieties. Time to try to answer some of my New Year's questions.
1. Was my experience about being in a particularly toxic department in a toxic school, or was it a more universal experience of the culture of higher education? (I.e., if I got a job somewhere else, could I be happy?)
Good question. I'm not sure about this one. I do think, for the record, that my department was particularly toxic as far as departments go. Only thing is, I think that toxic departments are fairly common, maybe not the rule necessarily, but not as infrequent as one might guess. I can't say how many times I've listened to grad students and professors complain about the politics of their respective departments. I think this may be partly because of the way academic jobs work, that you get tenure at a place and then stay there FOREVER and it is virtually impossible to move to another institution. This means that people stay in departments where they are miserable, their souls shrivel up and become hard lumps of hate, and they take their frustration out on the other faculty and their students. I don't think this is that uncommon of a situation. Am I wrong? I think this is what happens when you have basically no mobility in your professional life.

I do think there are different types of schools where I could probably be happier, places where the focus is more on teaching, for example, and the faculty do not see working with students as a burden to be foisted off on someone else so they can focus on their next book. But I do think that there are structural things about a career in higher education that may still be deal-breakers for me. As a single gay man who has aspirations of domestic bliss and perhaps even a family, I'm just not too keen on moving to Lower Mongolia for my career. I've been reading a bit about academics who move into secondary education, and this definitely seems to address a number of my problems, such as the pressures of research, the discounting of teaching, and the geographic mobility. Here's a great article about somehow who made just the switch I'm talking about. He even is doing what I've always dreamed of doing since I was a little boy: writing novels.

Good for him.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

New Year's doubts and questions

I took a bit of a hiatus for the holidays but now I'm back. The academic job season is still underway and I've had another nibble from a liberal arts college. I'm finding myself feeling a combination of hope and dread again, and I think its strange how my sense of clarity about making a change in my life gets blurred when I hear from a school. Suddenly I feel like I want that again. Its one of the strangest experiences I've ever had. I'm sure a big part of it is driven by fear. I've invested so much time and energy and money in this degree and now taking a teaching job just seems like a natural progression, without all the troublesome questions and reassessments and soul-searching that go along with making a career change. All the rage, cynicism, betrayal, and contempt I feel for my old department, and the world of higher education in general, are all there right beneath the surface. But I forget very quickly. It really does feel like that rush of adrenaline you get when your ex's name pops up on your phone. The reasons you left are all still there and still valid, but at a gut level you're still glad to hear from them. But you also know that you can't really trust that emotion.

I do have some valid questions, however, about what is seeming more and more like a choice to leave academia.

1. Was my experience about being in a particularly toxic department in a toxic school, or was it a more universal experience of the culture of higher education? (I.e., if I got a job somewhere else, could I be happy?)

2. Are all professional environments potentially soul-sucking, petty, and full of BS, not just academia?

3. Is one of my biggest objections to the academic life, geographic choice, really that important?

Over the coming days I'll attempt to answer these questions.