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.