Monday, September 21, 2015

95. Academics are unhappy.

You know that today's graduate students are unhappy when the Wall Street Journal can refer (and not entirely facetiously) to the world's best-positioned graduate students as Harvard's Les Miserables. If the discontent experienced in graduate school were only a temporary condition to be endured on a path to a better life, then it might not be so bad. Unfortunately, there is a great deal of unhappiness among those who make it all the way through graduate school, and not just among the thousands of PhDs living on welfare (see Reason 83), or the thousands burdened by crushing debt, or the thousands working as barely paid adjuncts (see Reason 14). (The plight of adjuncts has turned so tragically absurd that it's now fodder for the Sunday comics.) There are also, of course, those who have suffered through the devastating humiliation of being denied tenure.

And then there are those for whom everything worked out. Yes, a great many academics who not only found tenure-track jobs (see Reason 8) but managed to survive the long road to tenure (see Reason 71) are surprisingly miserable. For some, their unhappiness began as soon as they were tenured; the Chronicle of Higher Education has covered the phenomenon of post-tenure depression on more than one occasion. For others, an unshakable sadness took hold much earlier in their careers. The culture of fear (see Reason 76) that pervades academe ensures that the deep unhappiness felt by so many academics is rarely discussed openly. More often than not, it takes an observer working outside of academe to bring the subject to light.

The miseries of academic life are on full display, however, in fictional depictions of the university. Over the decades, those depictions have grown darker. Edward Albee's 1962 play "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" put academic torments on the stage. Countless novels put those torments on the page. As most academic fiction is written by academics, it is worth considering the source. In fiction, academics have found a way to describe their professional environment without jeopardizing their jobs. In Faculty Towers, Elaine Showalter notes that since the 1970s professors portrayed in academic novels have "become more and more grotesque figures, full of self-doubt and self-hatred." Why is this so? In his review of Showalter's book, Joseph Epstein offers an answer that outlines the trajectory followed by idealistic graduate students:

When young, the life ahead seems glorious. They imagine themselves inspiring the young, writing important books, living out their days in cultivated leisure. But something, inevitably, goes awry, something disagreeable turns up in the punch bowl. Usually by the time they turn 40, they discover the students aren't sufficiently appreciative; the books don't get written; the teaching begins to feel repetitive; the collegiality is seldom anywhere near what one hoped for it; there isn't any good use for the leisure. Meanwhile, people who got lots of B's in school seem to be driving around in Mercedes, buying million-dollar apartments, enjoying freedom and prosperity in a manner that strikes the former good students, now professors, as not only unseemly but of a kind a just society surely would never permit.

As it is, society permits some academics to live (and die) in genuine poverty, but the ranks of the miserable in academe extend far beyond the financially insecure. Academics are unhappy, and even students are beginning to notice.

Monday, October 27, 2014

94. It warps your expectations.

Graduate students develop unreasonable expectations, but over the course of a long spell in graduate school those expectations swing from one unreasonable extreme to another. They go from expecting far too much to expecting (and accepting) far too little. Not everyone enters graduate school with the intention of becoming a professor, but after a while it becomes clear that an academic career is virtually the only career for which graduate school prepares anyone (see Reason 29). Once that realization sets in, graduate students begin to imagine a future in which they have jobs like those of their advisers and the other professors who surround them every day. They can hold on to this expectation for years. It seems perfectly reasonable, perhaps even modest, but it is actually quite unrealistic. You could argue that it is wildly unrealistic. As Professor Emily Toth (aka Ms. Mentor) patiently explains to a confident graduate student looking for affirmation: "No matter how talented and accomplished you are, you probably will not get a tenure-track academic job. Ever."

Eventually, this ugly reality dawns on even the most optimistic graduate students. They see what happens to others on the academic job market, and then they experience it themselves (see Reason 55). This is the point at which their hopefulness turns to desperation, and their expectations sink to such depths that they––by the tens of thousands––accept jobs for which they will receive ridiculously little compensation. They thus enter the vast and crowded realm of adjuncthood (see Reason 14), where they learn to expect very low wages in return for their labor. Adjuncts are routinely paid less to teach a class than a student pays to take a class. In fact, the income of a part-time adjunct will often amount to less than half of a typical teaching assistant's stipend (see Reason 53). You can see just how meager adjunct earnings are by visiting the Adjunct Project website. Needless to say, this kind of academic employment comes without job security, insurance, or retirement benefits. Why are people, including thousands of people with doctorates, willing to subject themselves to this? Because they don't know what else to do. After years of living in a dream, they are desperate to stay in the academic game (see Reason 83).

Monday, June 23, 2014

93. There is no getting ahead.

Graduate school attracts highly ambitious people, despite the fact that academe is a terrible environment for highly ambitious people. How so? There are precious few moments of forward progress in an academic career. In academe, there is no getting ahead; there is only survival. If you survive your comprehensive exams (see Reason 81), survive your dissertation (see Reason 60), survive the job market (see Reason 8), and survive the tenure track (see Reason 71), then you can hope for exactly one promotion: from associate professor to full professor. That's it. The academic career ladder is very short. Unless you happen to be among the tiny cadre of academic superstars (see Reason 67), there is little hope of moving from one institution to another to improve your lot. If you earn tenure at an institution, you will likely never leave it. The "honor" of serving as department chair is a burden, not a privilege. For traditional academics, even moving "up" into administration has become difficult, as there is now a professional administrative class within higher education.

Of course, academe is supremely effective at frustrating your ambitions long before you find yourself (if you're very lucky) in a quasi-permanent academic job. In a recent poignant essay describing his frustration with the process of trying to secure a tenure-track appointment, Patrick Iber remarked: "Of all the machines that humanity has created, few seem more precisely calibrated to the destruction of hope than the academic job market." At the time he wrote those words, Dr. Iber had a PhD from the University of Chicago, a book contract with Harvard University Press, and a visiting lectureship at UC Berkeley; he was in a far better position than most academic job candidates. That does not make his painful experience any less real. On the contrary, it highlights the profound professional disappointment experienced by highly accomplished people throughout academe. There are now nearly 3.5 million Americans with doctorates (see Reason 55) but only 1.3 million post-secondary teaching jobs (see Reason 29), and the oversupply of PhDs is becoming a crisis in the rest of the world as well. A Norwegian newspaper has called it the academic epidemic. Legions of graduate students spend years of their lives preparing to compete for jobs that are few in number and promise little opportunity for advancement. The academic world is one in which ambition is rewarded with disappointment millions of times over.

Monday, January 13, 2014

92. There is a social cost.

As you grow older, you begin to appreciate the value and rarity of genuine friendships. Graduate school is hard on friendships, and so is the academic life that follows it (see Reasons 14 and 29). In many ways, graduate school is inherently alienating (see Reason 30), leaving you out-of-step with friends who follow traditional paths into adulthood (see Reason 12). It places tight constraints on your financial independence, as well as on your time (see Reason 62), and it often requires you to move far away from friends and family. On a more fundamental level, it requires you to devote yourself to things of no interest to anyone around you (see Reason 90), let alone to anyone in your wider social circles. The concerns that cause you tremendous stress in graduate school can appear hopelessly petty to those on the outside. Meanwhile, as you move deeper into a world very different from that of your friends, you will find it increasingly difficult to understand and relate to their experiences (see Reason 63). In addition to all of its other costs, graduate school can cost you your friends, and that is a higher price than you might think.

To make matters worse, academe does not provide an environment conducive to forming new friendships. Not only does it attract difficult personalities (see Reason 77) and pit them against each other (see Reason 2), but the academic job market routinely moves people to places where they have absolutely no personal connections to anyone (see Reason 16). Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, one professor noted that in 20 years he had never heard a colleague introduce another professor as "my friend." After describing two friends who broke down in tears "just about every single week of their graduate school careers," a different professor wrote of a colleague "who claims that he hasn’t made a new 'friend' in the academy since 1997." As difficult as it can be for academics to develop personal relationships on campus, they often have surprisingly little opportunity to form friendships outside of their college or university. The Chronicle has covered the fear of "social death" experienced by faculty members contemplating retirement: "One still highly productive faculty member well north of 70 summed up the struggle well when he said, 'It’s not about the money. I just don’t know what I’d do in the morning. I don’t have any hobbies and I don’t have any friends who aren’t here. This is really all I have. Does that make me pitiful?'"

Monday, September 9, 2013

91. Downward mobility is the norm.

The term "downward mobility" describes the phenomenon of falling into a social class lower than the one into which you were born. If you go to graduate school, it is quite possible that you will experience this kind of economic downward mobility (see Reason 85). But there is another kind of downward mobility that you will almost certainly experience if you survive graduate school and land a teaching position: academic downward mobility. As a general rule, when you complete a PhD, you can only expect to be hired by institutions that are less prestigious than the university at which you earned your doctorate. The authors of one of four recent studies on doctoral prestige and academic career prospects reported: "Across disciplines, we find that faculty hiring follows a common and steeply hierarchical structure that reflects profound social inequality." That is why the prestige of your graduate program is so important. In academe, prestige is the coin of the realm. The more prestigious your degree, the more options you have on the academic job market (see Reason 3 and Point 2).

While you are suffering through the poverty, loneliness, and indignity of graduate school, it can be hard to imagine an academic environment worse than the one in which you already find yourself (see Reason 50). If you have the good fortune of being hired for a full-time faculty position, you might have a better paycheck than you had in grad school, but it's just as likely that your new institution (where you may spend the rest of your career) will have lower standards, a greater number of ill-prepared students, fewer resources, and less name recognition than the university at which you completed your graduate work. That last item (name recognitionmay sound trivial, but in a business in which prestige is so important, the status of your institution can strongly influence both your sense of self-worth (see Reason 25) and your quality of life. Moreover, your professional identity becomes closely associated with the institution at which you work. For almost every graduate student contemplating an academic career, there is a real sense in which the view forward is a view downward. There are people with Harvard PhDs teaching in Lubbock, Bakersfield, and Tuscaloosa (see Reason 16). Where might a PhD take you?

Monday, May 27, 2013

90. Virtually no one cares about what you are doing.

In graduate school, you often feel alone because you often are alone, but also because no one cares about what you're doing. You spend vast amounts of time and effort writing things that no one wants to read (see Reason 89), and no one wants to hear you talk about them either. Your mother isn't interested in your research. Your friends aren't interested. Your fellow graduate students, consumed by their own work, are most definitely not interested. Even your adviser may not be interested in what you're doing (see Reason 45). The people with a seemingly insatiable interest in your progress through graduate school—the people who ask you all those awkward questions—do not care about the projects that devour your thought and energy.

Not surprisingly, graduate students commonly suffer from intense loneliness and isolation, a reality made painfully clear by the search-engine queries that direct readers to 100 Reasons. The ritualized atmosphere of an academic conference (see Reason 74) is one of the few environments in which people pretend, for a few minutes at least, to be mildly interested in each other's research. In the event that people are interested in your work, their interest is likely hostile; that is, your work is similar to theirs, so they view you as a competitor (see Reason 2). Apart from conferences, you can go through life as a graduate student without ever meeting anyone who shows a genuine interest in what you're doing, which, over time, can make you begin to question your own interest in the rhetoric of masculinity in medieval French poetry, in the idiosyncrasies of Portuguese urban planning, or in the application of game theory to the economic behavior of soybean farmers. This helps explain why so many people find dissertations so excruciatingly hard to finish (see Reason 60) and why graduate-school attrition rates are so high (see Reason 46). It's not easy to care about your work when no one else does.

Monday, March 25, 2013

89. Virtually no one reads what you write.

You are not paid for your academic writing (see Reason 88) because no one is willing to pay to read it. In fact, virtually no one is willing to read it at all. After several years of work on a dissertation, you can have some confidence that your adviser will read the finished product, and somewhat less confidence that the other members of your dissertation committee will read it. Beyond that handful of people, it is unlikely that anyone will ever read your dissertation again. As university libraries are increasingly archiving dissertations digitally, you may not even have the satisfaction of seeing your name on a volume in the library. On rare occasions, someone may come along and cherry-pick something from your research that relates to his own, but chances are that no one will ever sit down and read the paragraphs over which you agonized for so long (see Reason 28). 

The same fate awaits the vast majority of published academic writing. Typically, it takes months of research, writing, and revision to produce a journal article that will be seen by fewer people in its author's lifetime than will visit this blog in an hour. Academic presses print as few as 300 copies of the books that their authors have labored over for years. Most journal articles and academic monographs are written because academics need to be published to keep their jobs, not because there is a demand or need for their work (see Reasons 33 and 34). To the extent that academic writing is consulted at all, it tends to be "read" solely for the purpose of furthering someone else's writing. In many cases, editors and peer-reviewers probably read manuscripts more carefully before they are published than anyone will ever read them after they are published. Even someone entrusted to review a book may only skim it. Feeling obliged to stuff their work with citations, scholars sometimes look no further than the titles of what they cite. It will come as a surprise to you the first time that you see your work cited by someone who did not read it. It will be less surprising the second time. A few academic careerists use the fact that virtually no one reads what they write to their advantage, but most academics take great pains to produce good work. If you don't like the idea of spending the next several decades writing for a minuscule audience of readers, then you probably shouldn't go to graduate school.

Monday, January 21, 2013

88. You are not paid for what you write.

You could argue that professors are paid to write, because they’re required to produce publications as a condition of their employment. But that is really only true of people with tenure-track positions, and their annual salaries don’t rise or fall based on the quality or quantity of their writing (though whether they receive tenure is another matter). Adjunct professors and others, writing furiously in the hope of publishing enough to be worthy of a tenure-track job, receive no compensation whatsoever for their labors at the keyboard. Likewise, aside from the lucky few who have fellowships (see Reason 18), graduate students are not paid for the hours, months, and years that they spend writing. The academic journals that weigh down the shelves of university libraries publish a vast quantity of scholarly prose every year, but they don’t pay their authors a penny. Only a tiny fraction of academic writers—including professors guilty of the gauche practice of making their own books required reading—earn any significant income from the sale of academic books (see Reason 34).

It has never been easy to make money by writing, but you might ask yourself if writing for nothing is the best use of your time. Is what you write so important to you (see Reason 35) that you’re willing to produce it for free? The great Samuel Johnson famously said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” In the middle of the eighteenth century, he wrote (among much else) all 42,000 entries in the Dictionary of the English Language. Dr. Johnson knew that writing was work. And while it can be rewarding in its own way, academic writing is an especially arduous kind of work (see Reason 28). It exacts a price. In an essay on his personal experiences under the Guardian headline “Writing is bad for you,” scholar Rick Gekoski observed that “the more I write, the worse I become.” In graduate school, you will likely pay for the privilege of writing a thesis or dissertation (see Reason 59), and it will cost you a hefty chunk of your life as well. If you clear all of the hurdles of graduate school, there is a chance that your academic writing will help you win and keep an academic job, but you are unlikely to earn anything from your writing directly. Incidentally, Samuel Johnson may be the most famous “Dr.” never to have gone to graduate school; his doctorates were honorary, and no one seems to mind.