Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Transitions, Part 1: Academia to Let Me OUT

Every so often, I hear a sweet young thing say something like this:
I just love [French/Psychiatry/Science/Research]! I really want to go to grad school, because it will be wonderful to learn all about [thing] in that atmosphere of pure scholarship. And then I can be a professor!

And then I either roll around on the floor hysterically laughing, or am overcome by a strong desire to slap them.

Here's the thing about grad school: it does not exist for you, the student. It exists to extract usefulness from you, the student, and in return, you may receive some educational experiences. It is not a charity. It is only marginally a non-profit. Altrusim does not, generally, enter into the equation. (I know, I know, shocking.) For this reason and many others, grad school often cures one's abiding love of [thing].

If you are reading this and are thinking of leaving academia, be assured, there is nothing wrong with you. You need not feel guilty for "not loving it enough". If grad school were a relationship, it would usually be an abusive one.

A lot of people, including me, go to grad school from college because they have romantic visions of becoming professors. The rough facts are that in general, this will not happen. Overall odds for entering students in any discipline (including the sciences) are one in three for obtaining a tenure-track faculty job.* But this isn't about the odds. This is about how much it hurts to give up the dream.

When I started, I thought I loved science enough to overcome any obstacle. What I learned was that I didn't. Some of the nonsense would occur any profession; some was specific to academia; a great deal was a product of Snooty U's poisonous atmosphere, incompetent administration, and vague-to-nonexistent policies, also known as "The rules are what we say they are."

Like most grad students who leave academia, I thought there was something wrong with me. If only I worked hard enough, did enough, cared enough, surely I could make my dreams come true. And if I didn't want the dream any more, I must be lazy, incompetent, and an apathetic failure.

Next: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb.


[I am leaving for Virginia tomorrow morning to visit: my mother, my father, my sister, the dog, my friend C, C's two daughters, my friend A, A's daughter, and anyone else who crosses my path. So, I shall have to leave you in suspense. See you the 12th!]


*This is probably a little skewed in the sciences/math/engineering/etc because the job prospects outside academia are often quite appealing. So maybe a lot of scientists aren't looking for t-t jobs.


  1. Man, it's posts like these that make me realize how dumb I really am for starting grad school in a few months.

    Oh well. If I learn anything from these posts, it'll be the fact that even though I do love the science and do really want to be a prof, there's no shame in saying "I don't want to deal with these stupid, bullshit hoops." That in fact, many people do that. And that's ok.

    Enjoy your advice series, btw.

  2. I wanted to chip in here as I had a very different experience than you did grad school wise. I generally enjoyed my phd program, did not feel exploited, and ended up with a tenure track job immediately upon graduation. 10 of the 12 students I started grad school with also had tenure track positions within 1 year of graduation. Perhaps this is field/school specific? I am in economics/business, not sciences. In my case, grad school did not exist exclusively to extract usefulness from me. My supervisor genuinely cared about my well being and continues to be a mentor to me now 7 years later. Our program was designed to create an environment where students flourished.

    So perhaps I would add a caveat to your statement - that students should be very careful in choosing a grad school as programs like yours certainly exist. But so do programs like the one I graduated from.

    I in no way mean to discount your experiences. Too often, grad school pans out like you describe. Students need to be very carful to consider what their realistic job options are BEFORE they start, and to have a good grasp of what will be expected of them during their program, etc.

  3. @Jen-it is definitely field specific, even subfield specific in sciences. Unless one goes the teaching route, you're doing really well to get an academic position as a professor after 3+ years of postdoc. Some are now extending to 7+ yrs.

    Regarding the post: Looking back, I had a good experience in grad school (sciences). But after the first year of my postdoc, I completely understand (and have felt) many of the sentiments expressed. It's great that someone is willing to share her experiences, given the tremendous pressure and negative reactions in academia toward leaving the ivory towers.

  4. "For this reason and many others, grad school often cures one's abiding love of [thing]."

    I couldn't agree more...

  5. I went to the same graduate school as Jenny, but in humanities instead of sciences. On the whole, I had a great experience. I did a lot of poorly remunerated work for the university, but in return, I got free tuition and access to amazing libraries, archives, and communities of professors and peers. I was lucky; I chanced to be in a department that was running smoothly all the time I was there and that was big enough that Ph.D. students could generally switch advisors if they needed to. I think departmental politics and policies often matter more than institutional politics and policies in determining the quality of a graduate student's experience.

    One thing I would say to entering Ph.D. students-- which echoes Jenny's remarks-- is that a Ph.D. program is much more of a job than a structured educational experience, especially after the first year or two. You have some tasks you have to do. How you do them, how quickly you do them, and how well you do them are largely up to you. More often than not, the people who are supervising you (and the people who are offering you fussy critiques at conferences) do not know how to do the tasks themselves. Some like speed. Some like quality. Some don't pay much attention to anything other than the latest issue of The Journal of Symbolic Transnational Hemispheres. This is not so bad if you're self-directed AND good at self-critique, but it does mean that you're on your own a lot of the time.

    In addition to the tasks one has to do (e.g. comps and the dissertation), there are many other tasks one CAN do if one is so inclined but can also get away with not doing, or may not even realize one is supposed to be doing. These include presenting, publishing, reviewing books, committee work, running discussion groups, freelance writing and editing, applying for research fellowships, summer school teaching, judging prizes, and a host of other stuff. And then there's networking, which I didn't realize I was supposed to be doing until after I graduated. Graduate school in the humanities is basically a build-your-own-program proposition. My gut impression is that the optional tasks matter much more than the required tasks when you get to the job market. In 1970, a good dissertation would get you a job. In 2010, a good dissertation gets you a degree.

    If you want to be practical, I'd suggest reading one or two of the "dissertation to tenure" advice books in the first or second year of your program, instead of waiting until you're on the job market, and thinking early on about how to promote yourself and your ideas (when you have ideas, which may not happen in the first year or two). But I'd also say, if you really want to go to graduate school, take the experience without worrying too much about the future. You will acquire-- and get to keep-- scholarly expertise, political and self-promotional skills, and an intimate knowledge of your own work habits, strengths, weaknesses, and intellectual tics whether or not you land in academia.

    I feel that graduate school taught me how to have a career instead of just a job-- in other words, it taught me that I, and not my supervisor, was ultimately in charge of the work I did. That was something that I (an inveterately high-achieving and adult-pleasing youngster) really needed to learn, and I'm glad I learned it in my 20s. I just wish that more people had my relatively enjoyable, if sometimes disconcerting, experience of graduate school.

  6. Couldn't agree with you more about grad school. I thought I loved my field too when I started...but after a few years I realized academia was not for me (for so very many reasons). I was bitter, disillusioned, and just so discouraged. However, I was lucky enough to find a wonderful job and finished writing my thesis on a part-time basis while working. It was such a long and discouraging process! But that job turned into a career that I absolutely love. So I was one of the lucky ones who escaped academia - although I still shudder to think about those times, LOL.

  7. Thanks for writing this. In retrospect I feel like it was idealist and naive of me to think I could be a professor. And the more I saw of the job, it was also somewhat ignorant of me to think I'd want to be one, at least at an R1.

    When I hear people say they love X so much and want to go to grad school, I have a similarly negative, but somewhat more caring, response: "oh honey, you may be sorely misguided. You need to seriously think on that..."

    Furthermore, after almost 2 years away from the ivory tower, I am largely disillusioned. Oddly, while I agree with you (as I so often do) what I feel the strongest about is responding to the either unknowing or lucky commenters who appreciate all the independence they learned in academia and seem to think the problem was in not doing the right kind of work, or not doing it well enough.

    I loved that - the independence. Yeah, unwritten expectations sucked, but I read up on what to expect before I started and knew to start networking early on. What I wasn't prepared for was dusty and ridiculous notions of what should be required to get a PhD.

    I know students hear this a lot, but grad school just prolonged my time in the cocoon of an engaged academic community and made my adjustment to the outside world that much harder. 15 months into my first 9-5 desk job with a strong hierarchy and less intellectual colleagues, I have finally adjusted to the lack of curiosity and drive among my coworkers. I am bored. I've decided to change fields, too, because while I still love the act of studying my chosen X, I've learned that very, very few people are lucky enough to be at the forefront of research and innovation in it. The rest of X workers are expected to do as told by their bosses, and not much more - as far as job duties go I could have done this job out of high school.

  8. Yes, grad school (temporarily) killed my love of my field. Know what brought it back? Teaching high school. I really_really wanted to be a professor because I love teaching. I even TA'd in undergrad and enjoyed it. But I also wanted to do research.

    In hindsight, I would have been much better served by earning an MS in sciences (to have some more research knowledge), going and doing some field/bench work for awhile, and then getting my teaching license to share my excitement with students. That's ultimately how my path ended up, but I had a lot of torture, second guessing, and self-doubt due to attempting the PhD first.

    I'm not doing research right now as a teacher for a variety of reasons, tho mostly due to the location where I'm currently teaching and the learning curve of being an early career teacher. But I definitely think that I could get to a point, as a teacher, where I start doing low-level, low-key research again, especially with my students. I'm particularly eager to someday do some observational field work over a number of years.

    1. I still love science. I love teaching more than I did then (my students are a great deal less whiny and entitled. Plus I can be sarcastic. And the hourly rate is much improved.). I don't miss bench research, because clear liquids all the day long. I do miss my smart colleagues, who will never again be so concentrated.


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