Why Pursuing a Career in Academia is Insane

…and also why it is the only option for me.

This all started when Brian Leiter (Univ. of Chicago) linked to an article by Gregory Pence (Alabama) in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The main point of Pence’s article, I take it, is that a lot of philosophy grad students these days expect to get tenure-track jobs at elite research universities in dynamic cities where their teaching load is easy and where they have a lot of time to just do research. Pence is critical of this attitude, calling it an unwarranted sense of entitlement, and in his article, he recounts the sacrifices he had to go through before he landed his current job. He concludes:

“I now believe that too many graduate students feel entitled to a great job. That attitude sets them up to fail. Some of the graduate students I knew at NYU’s philosophy department, then a program of slight stature, eventually forged careers because they endured — they moved, they compromised, they published, they would not give up. They had the right attitude.

Some colleagues from elite Ivy League programs who say they are “stuck here in Alabama” feel as if life has passed them by, that they missed the boat because they never got a job at Yale or Berkeley. Maybe the current economic downturn, which is already affecting universities, will make those young professors more thankful for their tenure-track jobs, no matter how imperfect.

To be happy as a professor, you don’t need to teach in buildings that win architectural awards. You don’t need a two-course-a-semester load to publish (I published during my first years in Birmingham, despite teaching nine or 10 courses a year). You don’t need your university to give you a dedicated blog site or IT personnel to support your home computer. You need a tenure-track job, and then you need to work hard at the three things we are expected to do: teach students who want to learn, publish about things you care about, and be a good academic citizen through service to your institution and field. That’s the deal. If it doesn’t sound good enough, then maybe you should try bartending in San Francisco. And when you do, lots of adjuncts will apply for your job.”

In a follow-up post, Professor Leiter asked readers of his blog what they thought of Professor Pence’s article. The comments are varied and interesting, and reading through them, I started thinking about why exactly I wanted a job in academia? Although these blog posts are only about an academic career in philosophy departments, I believe they can be applied to academic careers in the humanities and liberal arts in general. One particular commenter’s remarks struck me as especially true, regarding just what it takes to pursue a career in academia:

“Let’s say we zip through undergrad and get done with that by the age of 22. Then off to grad school for 5+ years. After those five years are up we’d be counted lucky to emerge with no debt. We’d be the stuff of folklore if we emerged with assets. Then for a great many of us it is off on the 1-year circuit. This involves 7 months on the job market followed by a move to a place we might not like and probably don’t have any roots in. We are paid between $30K and $45K (if we are lucky) and we spend any disposable amount on traveling to conferences, trying to get noticed, and going to APAs (in expensive cities). Then, just as we make good friends we have to go to another town and repeat the process. And then maybe a few years down the road we get a TT-position. Often it is not in a town or even a geographical region of the country that is near good friends or family. And notice that I have not yet mentioned the devoted and loving partners who follow us so that we can achieve. What do they do? They don’t develop their careers. In fact, it looks bad on their resumes to be floating from job to another. So we have to keep in mind those attached to us when we think about these things. Say one takes the job in a rural town, not near one’s family, or without the consolations that a big city offers (i.e., like not having to drive two hours to an airport, or having a coffee shop, …). If, as with most people who get TT-positions, we end up staying there for the rest of our careers, have we then sacrificed enough? (Given that this small town is nothing like what we had wanted.)

Furthermore, let’s consider this fact: all of our non-academia friends from high school had settled down, had kids, and good paying jobs before we even finished getting our Ph.D.s. And so there we are at the age of, say, 31 (Undergrad at 22, Ph.D by 28, 3 1-years, and then TT at 31) and we have no assets, no friends in the place we live, no family other than our forever sacrificing partners, and a town without a coffee shop and two hours from an airport which we still frequent hoping that our academic research will get us a job at a place we’d prefer”

Every single word of this comment rings true: pursuing a career in academia in the liberal arts/humanities is a losing proposition by most accounts, for exactly the same reasons this commenter points out.

Which leads me, to quote T.S. Eliot, to an overwhelming question: so why do it at all?

After all, it is much easier to apply to law school rather than grad programs in the humanities/liberal arts, just to use a popular alternative. The candidates who have the qualification to make it to top Ph. D programs in the humanities should not have problems getting into law school: in fact it is probably easier to get into a top-10 law school program than a top-10 humanities program by virtue of the fact that law schools’ admission pools are larger. And you spend less time in school, thus accumulating less debt, and if you come out of a top-10 law school program, you can be reasonably assured of a job at a prestigious firm that will pay orders of magnitudes higher than the standard post-doc/adjunct rate.

In some ways, my pursuit of an academic career is Quixotic, but the reason (and it is the only reason) I do is that it is the only job that I can see as being fulfilling over the course of my life. There is nothing more I would like to do is to read, write, and discuss political theory, and academia is merely the means (albeit the only means) that I can make a living doing those things.


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