The Professor is Not Quite In
September 17, 2016 2:14 AM   Subscribe

Finishing up a PhD program in the humanities and I still can't figure out if I like academia. In the meantime, I'm supposed to be applying for jobs. Seeking some perspective from people who've been here.

Next spring I'll be finishing up my PhD in a fine arts/humanities-based discipline. I didn't have to do a PhD in this discipline, which I've done fairly well in as an independent artist, but chose to do so thinking it would give me credentials that would help me teach at the university level. Only, now, I don't know if I like academia. And I have to find a job come spring. I don't know whether to go on the academic market this fall and take my ambivalence with me, or wait until my partner gets a job in a given city, move there, and go back to the type of day job I worked before, when I worked in an office and produced my art by night and in my free time.

Many factors complicate this, the first being that my partner and I (who are in the same discipline and met in our PhD program) have decided that location is important to us; we want to live in or near a major city, where tenure-track academic jobs in our discipline are harder to come by. And we want to live together -- this is non-negotiable. I.E. we're not "casting a wide net," job-wise, and we've got that pesky two body problem going on, as well.

He has already decided he's not interested in academia at this point, and plans to go into another field. He's applied to a few very targeted opportunities in several major cities across the U.S. and is waiting to hear back. I used to live and work in a major city and have kept my foot in the door WRT my old occupation, doing freelance work on the side. So, I have complete faith that I can find a fairly stable full-time job wherever we land, but have less faith in my being able to find an academic job (that's not adjuncting) in any of these places.

Add to this the fact that, over the course of this degree, I've discovered I HATE departmental politics, kissing up, the corporatization of universities, trying to sell students on "marketable skills" in the fine and liberal arts and...well...the company of my colleagues and many of my professors. I'm in a very competitive discipline where egos are huge, no one seems to be real with anyone else, and constantly maintaining a veneer of expertise and cheeriness is paramount. People keep an uncomfortable level of secrecy within our department, we constantly seem to be judged in a Big Brother-esque way by those in the department who have the power to choose who gets the awards and perks, and our own advisors don't seem to want to know much about us, our work, or anything besides their own art. We've received next to no counseling regarding going on the academic market; everything I learned about it was from The Professor is In. Worst of all, several friends with tenured jobs have told me that the tenure track is just as stressful as the PhD--the stress of this degree has been so intense that I 1) was laid out for several months with a serious illness that has taken 2+ years to fully recover from, and 2) developed such bad anxiety that I am now on medication and in regular therapy. I don't know if I could work for 30+ years in such an environment. Though I felt out-of-place at my old desk job I at least had friends at work and it felt like we were working toward a common goal. I don't feel that in academia, at least not at the moment.

However, I do have a passion--and a skill, I think--for teaching, which is why I did this PhD, in the first place. Mentoring undergraduate students brings me joy. My students are actually the people I look forward to seeing on campus each week, and the people whose ideas I love to discuss and explore. I feel like they help me develop as an artist, as well. When I think about leaving my creative, inquisitive students behind I get sad. I also worry about the prospect of working a job that may not allow me to make art the way teaching does.

Finally, despite their non-presence in our academic lives, our professors seem to heap huge expectations onto us, career-wise. I was recruited to this program as a highly promising student who would supposedly make it look good when I went out on the market. But it's taken all my willpower to stay in this program, which I've mostly done in order to use the time to create my dissertation work (sort of like an artist's residency with a lot of baggage). Though it doesn't matter what they think of my life choices, I still do feel like I owe the program something, or like, if I don't go into academia, I will have spent the last several years of my life sort of spinning my wheels, taking up what could have been someone else's coveted spot in this program.

So, this is long. I guess what I'm asking is if this sounds like just a normal PhD experience before the much better job, or if this sounds like the complaints of someone who's maybe not meant to be an academic. If you decided not to go into academia after your PhD, why? Or, if you had a similar PhD experience to mine and are now an academic, how do you feel about your choice?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (7 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
If you decided not to go into academia after your PhD, why?

I am hoping to be a pseudo-academic after my phd, skipping the tenure-track and going straight to director or assistant director at a research center, or someone at a think tank, or private sector doing something smart. I am very very lucky to be in a program that is totally fine with that, and in fact, sends us non-academic jobs all the time.

The why is because I'm burnt out on all the things you mentioned (I've been a non-TT instructor with a full slate of teaching responsibilities + service for a long time), and honestly, at this point, I'm burnt out on my students too. Which I hate, and I never thought would happen.

My friend, I feel like I say this in every academic thread, but have you considered that lovely middle ground, the staff job? Somewhere out there, there is an advising center waiting for a director, an internship program that needs running, an art outreach program that needs someone who knows how to talk to the off campus and on campus world, an Americorps program that needs a car herder, etc, and they are waiting for you. :) These positions often come with some teaching responsibilities and a split appointment, and carry the benefits on getting to do some teaching or training without so much of the academic politics (though every position on campus is going to have politics). There's also teaching for continuing ed programs at community colleges, summer art camps, etc. Those are going to be very part time positions, and you'd need something else too, but you'd get to scratch the teaching itch.

There is a lot of middle ground out there, but it's hard to see when you're in a program that's pushing you like yours is.
posted by joycehealy at 4:20 AM on September 17, 2016 [4 favorites]

Associate Professor in Theatre at a state research institution here. If the big-brother micromanaging you aspect of getting your Ph.D is something that you don't want to repeat, please know earning tenure is about ten times as bad. There are plenty of ways to interact with students without becoming a professor including those staff jobs mentioned above.

Here is why I wouldn't do it again:

1. Assigning grades in an artistic field when most of my students just want to enjoy making art for a small portion of their lives is something that I have a really hard time living with. Still.

2. I have not had a substantial raise in over a decade.At my university, we have had two puny cost-of-living increases and no opportunity to earn merit raises. This has been going on since 2007. My raise with promotion and tenure equaled about $180.00 a month. I have no control over my income. Conversely, friends in non-academic fields work hard and earn better paying positions. We are constantly told how lucky we are to be faculty, as if the status paid the bills.

3. I dislike where we live. Being a professor is increasingly not worth it.

Here's what I still love:

1. Introducing the magic of my field to others.

2. Collaborating with colleagues in a wide range of disciplines.

3. Autonomy over projects and schedules.

Right now I am trying to figure out how to do the things I love outside of the university so I can afford to send my kids to college.

Anecdotally, you would have to be very, very lucky to get the perfect job in the perfect city. Life changes and then even that perfect job may become not perfect - but after tenure, you're largely stuck.
posted by songs_about_rainbows at 6:51 AM on September 17, 2016 [6 favorites]

Yes this sounds like a normal PhD experience.
posted by k8t at 8:15 AM on September 17, 2016

I'm a studio art professor and I'm pretty close to a number of our faculty in other arts/humanities, and I think your complaints and preferences sound like maybe academia isn't the best route for you.

You can always keep it as an improbable-but-who-knows secondary option and only selectively apply to places where the size/culture/location appeal to you (I say size/culture because I think a small teaching-focused institution is the best fit for your work preferences as described above) and if something clicks, that's great, but it sounds to me like unless that perfect fit happens it's not suited to you.
posted by vegartanipla at 9:04 AM on September 17, 2016

I still do feel like I owe the program something, or like, if I don't go into academia, I will have spent the last several years of my life sort of spinning my wheels, taking up what could have been someone else's coveted spot in this program.

You don't owe the rest of your life to your Ph.D. program.

You owe them whatever responsibilities you signed up for during the program, like teaching, which it sounds like you fulfilled. It also sounds like you've engaged with the program while you've been in it (teaching, working, etc.), which means you weren't spinning your wheels, either, and not going into academia after earning your Ph.D. is not at all equivalent to stealing someone else's spot in the program. Submitting plagiarized work, accepting the program with the explicit intention of dropping out immediately, refusing to teach -- those sorts of things might be seen as stealing someone else's opportunity. Not going into academia after fully engaging in the program is not on the same spectrum.

Other people have more knowledgeable advice about what you could or should do after you finish your Ph.D., but I wanted to point out that the guilt you're expressing here seems unnecessary. Understandable, but unnecessary. It might be easier to come to a conclusion about what you want to do if you could set it aside.
posted by lazuli at 10:36 AM on September 17, 2016 [6 favorites]

If you decided not to go into academia after your PhD, why?

Here are my reasons:
1. I could not get a job in academia. I could not even get an interview.

That's pretty much the only item on the list. However, I had all the same ambivalence you do about academia -- I hated everything about it except for the teaching. I hated the pressure, the work, the committees, and the stress. I hated the culture, especially the fake ethos of "we're all equals and engaged in an intellectual enterprise" overlaid with a strict hierarchy. I hated being ranked and rated. I hated the way the work never really had an end.

Although I very much wanted to be an academic, I am glad it didn't work out. I work for a private-sector research company. I like my job and my company. None of the things I hated about academia are part of my job. I do miss teaching, but I find that mentoring junior staff scratches that itch for me. I make a very good salary.

I still do feel like I owe the program something, or like, if I don't go into academia, I will have spent the last several years of my life sort of spinning my wheels, taking up what could have been someone else's coveted spot in this program.

I did want to respond to this. I went to a top school in my field. I felt a lot of this kind of pressure. Ultimately, I had a two part revelation that made me feel a lot better: a) the program had no loyalty to me, so I should not have any loyalty to them, and b) I earned my place in that program, and I fulfilled my obligations within it. What I mean by the first point is that they didn't treat me like a child, they treated me like an employee. When funding was tight, they cut my funding. When enrollment in one of my classes was low, they cancelled the class. When my paper was not accepted to a conference, I didn't get travel funds. The way they treated me was appropriate. I decided it would be appropriate for me to have that exact amount of loyalty to them. As for b, I earned everything I got, including my space in the program and my funding. No one gave me anything (see a). Therefore, I had nothing to feel guilty about.

I am not qualified to diagnose anyone with anything, but in my experience, many people with PhD's develop some amount of learned helplessness before leaving grad school. You might think a little bit about that and consider whether that helps you understand why you are feeling this guilt.
posted by OrangeDisk at 7:43 PM on September 17, 2016 [2 favorites]

Hmm... Well, I think most of what I can offer is the anecdata of my personal experience.

I worked in the corporate version of my field, graphic design, for about five years and then embarked on graduate school. My graduate school experience was pretty positive I would say, but in some ways the stress was greater and in some ways lesser than my now tenured position.

I am going to try to separate out some of your issues and offer my thoughts, which again are only based on my experience...

1) You have a partner in the same program and field and want to be in a city...

I was in the same position. My wife and I met in undergrad, but somewhat coincidentally ended up following each other through the same graduate program. She entered and completed, then I entered and completed. We didn't really plan to do it that way, but she ended up talking me into trying graduate school because I was getting burnt out in corporate graphic design. I applied to various schools, but the best situation seemed to be her art/design hybrid graduate program.

Now I am tenured (a decade after finishing grad school), and we plan on staying here. But, for many years, we each looked for opportunities and made an agreement that we would go where one person had the best opportunity, particularly if it was in a city. At an intense point of looking, my wife was a finalist for a great position at a research institution. It wasn't in a city, but the program was quite name brand and would have been great. They cancelled the search because the campus had a catastrophic flood, but I was ready to go back to being a freelance designer. When we got to my current urban research institution, our daughter was born, so my wife transitioned to doing the majority of childcare for the first few years. Now my daughter is in school and my wife works part time at a community arts organization that she really enjoys.

I certainly understand the perspective of two academics in a relationship who both want a tenure-track position, but perhaps since you are having some doubts, this might be the chance to follow your partner for a bit.

We did three years in an ultra rural regional public institution. It was very isolating and very rough. That experience made me doubt whether I could continue as an academic, honestly. Now, I am pretty satisfied being in a more research-oriented and very urban school. There are still always challenges, of course.

2) "I've discovered I HATE departmental politics, kissing up, the corporatization of universities, trying to sell students on "marketable skills" in the fine and liberal arts and...well...the company of my colleagues and many of my professors."

Well... yeah... When you say the "corporatization of universities" that can cover lots of aspects. Numerical student evaluations can be pretty silly, for instance, as can losing budget money to big time sports. Big time sports that give the students brain damage, I might add. Having come from the corporate world, though, I have found that academia still has enough purists, dreamers and non-conformists that there is still often pushback. It may not always succeed, but I find there are people with whom I at least agree about these aspects.

Departmental politics suck, definitely, and I have often gone on anti-tenure rants given that I did often find the corporate world less hierarchical than the academic world. Tenure often amounts to hazing as much as anything. I am actually in a very collegial department, but there seems to always be that one person who delights in manipulating, backstabbing, etc. My attitude is that such people are pathetic and to be avoided where possible. I am not sure what other advice to give other than that I always thought to myself "Is it necessary to say anything here or I am just being drawn into some process/conflict that I don't need to participate in?"

As for "marketable skills"... Well, that may be the reality of higher ed for some time to come. The post-WWII GI college boom may have been a kind of historical aberration in terms of cultural attitudes toward the value of higher education, which allowed for a fairly high-minded perspective on what the college experience should be. I do agree with that perspective, but I think it is going to be challenged for awhile to come. I will say that you would be far from alone in higher ed if you wanted to offer alternative points of view.

3) "egos are huge, no one seems to be real with anyone else, and constantly maintaining a veneer of expertise and cheeriness is paramount"

I found this to be more true of my graduate experience, which was at a well-known R1, than my professional experiences, which have come at a regional public and a research-intensive-but-not-quite-R1 urban university. That kind of culture is part of how these programs become famous and competitive. But it's not entirely the culture of other institutions. I will say, too, that now that I am doing this gig full-time and year-after-year, I can see how you become closed off, particularly to graduate students. It is the kind of job that loves to be all-consuming. As a father now I try to frequently remind myself that my most important job is to be a father, then to be a husband, then to be a teacher and then all the rest. Graduate programs, particularly in the fine arts and humanities, are very often added to a faculty member's workload with no compensation. Teaching an entire graduate course can be part of one's workload, but advising graduate students, which takes lots of time, is essentially something one does on a volunteer basis. I was frustrated, too, by the sometimes distant experience I had with graduate mentors, but I understand it alot better now.

I will say that I have had much better relationships with my colleagues as a professor. You work with these same people for years on end potentially, and so I think there is more of an incentive for faculty to form good bonds with each other. Like I mentioned, save for one or two people, I have found a very collegial department. But also, the whole structure and set of incentives is different between how you might relate to your colleagues and how you might relate to graduate students. It's a shame that so many grad students do get a hands-off experience, but the larger mechanics of the university pretty much encourage that in my experience. In the hard and applied sciences this is probably different, due to the larger presences of grants, which lead to course releases and having a lab staffed by grad students, etc.

I hope my thoughts offer some cogent perspective. You can Email the address in my profile if you'd like.
posted by Slothrop at 10:27 AM on September 18, 2016

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