Monday, September 19, 2011

68. It is stressful.

Graduate school is stressful. Sometimes it is terribly stressful. Stress is virtually unavoidable in any kind of work, but there is a peculiar quality to the stress of graduate school. The worst thing about it is the fact that it is caused by things that really do not matter. No one’s life (not even yours) depends on your meeting thesis deadlines, on your comprehensive exams, or on your finishing a dissertation (see Reason 60). The world will not fall to pieces if you publish an imperfect article, or fail to publish anything. Apart from what it contributes to your progress down a career path, the substance of your work will probably have no significant effect on anyone. But the stress it causes you is very real.

Why is it so stressful? In grad school, the work is not only hard (see Reason 9), but it rests entirely on your shoulders and is constantly subject to the judgment and subjective standards of others. You perform it with little immediate reward and no certainty of any future reward (see Reason 8). And you do so in a competitive environment populated by people who are just as stressed as you are (see Reason 50). You have little money and perhaps a great deal of debt, and even though you are free to walk away, there is a price to pay for leaving (see Reason 11). It takes longer to complete than you expect (see Reason 4), and while you spend so much time on things that really do not matter, your life options dwindle as your investment in the great academic job-market gamble increases (see Reason 29). Rather than giving you an increasing sense of confidence, every passing year of graduate school can be more stressful than the one before it.

Monday, September 5, 2011

67. There is a star system.

Academe is more like professional sports than most academics would like to admit, especially when it comes to money (yes, money). Just as there are premiere franchises like the New York Yankees that can afford to pay players higher salaries than poorer teams, Harvard can afford a much more expensive faculty than its lowly competitors. Furthermore, in any given sport, different people who play the same position (i.e. have the same job) can earn wildly different amounts of money; superstars earn far more than “regular” players. Just as there are superstars in the sports world, there are superstars in academe, and they earn more than their colleagues. Interestingly, salary differences tend to be based on more objective standards in the sports world than they are in the academic one. Home runs, batting averages, and stolen bases are easier to measure than intellectual contributions, particularly in the realm of mumbo-jumbo (see Reason 35).

The academic salary structure seems to be designed to maximize demoralization. On every campus, the faculty members in some disciplines earn more than their colleagues in other disciplines (see Reason 23). But worse are the differences within departments, where young academics considered to be up-and-coming stars can be hired at higher salaries than those earned by their senior colleagues. Universities compete with each other for academic superstars no differently than teams compete for the best players. Considerable resources are expended in the effort to recruit (or retain) these few stars, even as competition among the masses of “regular” academics has left them accepting positions that pay little and offer next to nothing in the way of security (see Reason 14). Of course, discriminating between stars and everyone else begins in graduate school, where funding packages vary from student to student (see Reason 26). If you happen to be one of the stars, academe can be quite rewarding. If you don’t happen to be one, you will likely have the pleasure of working with some.