Be Careful What You Wish For

Amanda Krauss left a position at Vanderbilt to become a web developer in Austin. She now blogs as Worst Professor Ever.

I got to know Amanda when I approached her about writing a Guest Post on her blog, the post that ended up as “Death of a Soul (on Campus).”  I loved her spirit from the first moment.  I definitely don’t always agree with her, but I always enjoy hearing what she has to say.

And on the post that follows?  I agree with her on this, her ultimate point: “know exactly why you’re doing it” (and for whom).

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I feel a little awkward writing for this audience, because I tend to think of academic “success” as an oxymoron, at least for those who weren’t hired way back in the Era of Achievable, Frequent, and Leisured Tenure.

I’ve already told Dr. Karen that most tenure-trackers I know are medicated, lonely/estranged, and barely holding their overworked lives together. My tenured acquaintances aren’t much better off; a recently-tenured friend suggested that there should be a tenure PSA playing off the “It Gets Better” campaign — except that the point of these ads would be that it doesn’t get better after tenure. Their words, not mine.

My guess is, you don’t want to hear that. If you’re reading this blog, you want to control your destiny and win the game. Well, okay, you can do that.* I’m not denying that persistence and savvy improve your odds.

So, to be very clear, I think Dr. Karen gives excellent advice here. I think she’s cutting through a lot of the BS you’ll get from idealistic (and unrealistic) advisors. Follow her advice, devote yourself single-mindedly to your task, and maybe you’ll get what you want. Only one question: then what?

While I was still a professor, I was doing all the right things. I was authoring articles, networking at conferences, working on the book. And the working was…working. I was “going places,” I guess. But I also had no life whatsoever; nor did any other academics I knew, anywhere — even those with tenure. There one always one more thing to do, one “last” obstacle before everything got super awesome (please see above re: why this is an illusion). I started to wonder how this lifestyle would look from a deathbed. Really not good, I decided, no matter how impressed anyone acted when I dropped the “professor at Vanderbilt” line. Surveying what I saw, I determined that academia systemically didn’t allow, let alone reward, any sort of work/life balance. Quite the opposite: narcissistic assholes thrived because they were most willing to do whatever it took to win.

Even if you’re a perfectly lovely person, it’s no fun to be in an environment that fetishizes external validation. I’ve seen folks so wrapped up in other people’s visions of success, they literally can’t articulate what they, as an individual, want. I’ve seen people get tenure, only to discover that it’s the only thing they have — and that, instead of providing any joy, it continues to interfere with finding meaningful relationships.

I’ve fought the urge to argue with academics who told me they were happy when all evidence pointed to the contrary; in reality, I think they felt they had to be happy at having nabbed a “dream” job. But by whose standards? And I don’t care what your individual situation is, academia is built on letting other people tell you when your career counts as successful – in writing, down to the year or semester or millisecond.

So, all I’d say is, brutal self-honesty is not a bad thing. If you’re going to kill yourself trying because success means just that much to you, great. As long as you know exactly why you’re doing it — in your own words, I mean, and not the ones that come from your Chair, Dean, mom, or neighbor. Or even from me.

* Sort of. I’m with Machiavelli, I think free will gets you slightly less than 50% of the way there.

 

 

About Karen

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.

Comments

Be Careful What You Wish For — 30 Comments

  1. I have followed and admired Amanda Krauss and her blog for awhile. As a recent PhD with no job prospects, I agree the crisis with universities and academia only seems like it will continue to grow. Maybe this is still idealistic of me, but I worry about the research. Getting an academic job seems like the only way to really do meaningful and independent work, that isn’t for somebody else or with the interests already embedded in it. I know that the academic world is not perfect in this regard either, but as I navigate the outside job options, there is really not a lot out there where I could be doing research that also provides me with an income for food and shelter. In my discipline you need a lot of time and money to be able to produce what tenure-stream academics do, at least the good ones.

    • Thanks for following. I think there are plenty of ways to do meaningful work; it’s particularly ironic to me that non-profits (often maligned by fundamentalist capitalists) offer more work/life balance and better pay than most academic jobs out there. And many “soft” industries (communication, tech) work to help people. Finally, I’d say that if you really want to be independent, it’s a good idea to get/have a skill you know people will pay for; the ol’ fiscal liberation can really help you choose meaningful work. But it is true, you may have to give up (or at least reframe) doing research. Best of luck with it!

  2. I was just wondering if anyone has read this article on the trials and tribulations of “Plan B” jobs from the New York Times a few months back? I worry that in seeking (much needed) change in the academy that we romanticize careers outside of it, especially in this horrific economic downturn.

    “Maybe It Is Time for Plan C”

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/14/fashion/maybe-its-time-for-plan-c.html?scp=1&sq=plan%20b%20jobs&st=cse

    • Well, sure, there are a shitty jobs in every field. But my basic premise is that if you’ve got the mettle and intelligence to deal with grad school, you can probably do pretty well in the outside world once you apply yourself. And reading that article just emphasized to me that the smartest kids were the ones who didn’t decide to go to law or grad school at all.

  3. I don’t think it has to be this way at all. I have tenure, a monograph, two edited collections, am co-director of a major digital humanities project, General Editor of a major forthcoming online encyclopedia, another monograph half done, supervise two PhD students and about 10 MA students, and have two little kids and an amazing partner. My biggest problem is when to get my every-other-day jog in.

    Academics often make insanely bad choices. They go with what feels comfortable, even if it’s self-destructive and/or painful. Not always, but way more than they should. I come to work in the morning and work all day. I do some email at night, but not much. I don’t work on weekends. That’s time for my family. Because the “death bed” scene is right: no one ever gets to their deathbed and says, “If only I had published one more article…” So don’t be that person.

    The most miserable people I’ve known have been among the most successful academics. And it’s because they spend all their time working. All of it. For what? Prestige? As Theresa Viola tells Nostromo in Conrad’s novel of the same name: “They are paying you with words.” Do enough and you’ll be fine. No need to overachieve unless the work is fulfilling in itself. Lord knows you won’t get rich doing this work, and that prestige will vanish before you even get comfortable with it.

    Final point: many academics are successful precisely because they are (borderline) clinically obsessive: that’s what makes us good researchers. Fight that or channel it. Do what you are paid to do, publish enough to get tenure and keep your career going, and then concentrate on having a life.

    Easy to say, I know: I have tenure. But I didn’t always, and I see around me all the time the misery people produce for themselves by driving on and on when there’s no brass ring at all. The job is the brass ring: it gives you unmatched freedom to have a life outside of work, and sadly few of us take advantage of it.

    • I 100% agree with Stephen. I am on the TT (go up for tenure next summer). I have a book coming out this winter with a good UP, I co-run a brand new program at my university, I am on several MA thesis committees, several department and university committees, and I am a wife and mother.

      Right now I do work hard. But not nearly as hard as my friends who are lawyers and doctors (you know, the “real kind” of doctors). Yes, I sometimes get angry when I have to work on the weekends or late at night. But this job also allows me to schedule my classes around when my daughter gets out of kindergarten. It means I got to take a whole month off this summer to just be with my family. I feel like I have far more time with my family than most other working mothers I know.

      True, many academics struggle to find a work/life balance. But that isn’t unique to academia. Any career populated with smart, driven, competitive people has the same problems. You just need to draw a line in the sand sometimes and say “this is too much.”

      As Stephen notes–do what you need to do to get tenure, then do what you need to do to fulfill yourself, careerwise.

      I am quite grateful to have this career–one that allows me to write, think, and teach and which also allows me to see my children. I realize that I am lucky–I already have the TT job and my department is very child-friendly. But, this profession can be about so much more than “external validation.”

      • I’m thrilled if both you’ve found fulfillment, but that absolutely doesn’t mean it’s a) the norm or b) possible for anyone else. I stand by my point: the system at large is not designed to reward reasonable individuals or healthy self-esteem (and I base that on literally thousands of comments and much mail from the blog). And as to being able to do your work in the hours allotted, I’ve had this conversation with others, and it depends very much on your field and your own situation (helpful spouses go a long way). There are many fields in which the hours allotted are simply not going to be enough, at least if you’re being judged on the quality of the final product.

        I’d also add that the doctors and lawyers I know laugh out loud when they see how much work academics do for their pitiful pay. At least they’re able to eat out on a regular basis.

      • Apparently, the need for validation these folks have extends to those of us sane enough to leave the academy. What defensive posts, “amanda” and “stephen”!!

  4. Completely agree with Stephen Ross. He sounds like my own spouse who spends lots of time with our kids, has enough time on the week-end to watch a late night movie with me, reads plenty of mystery novels and so on. But he is a super efficient worker while at the office at school. He cranks up those articles, grades papers, meets his “quota of the day” work and voila, he then comes home, ready to do that fun, valuable-on-the-death-bed family stuff.

  5. P.S. I agree wholeheartedly with the spirit of Amanda Krauss post. This line was apt: “I’ve seen folks so wrapped up in other people’s visions of success, they literally can’t articulate what they, as an individual, want.” Exactly.

    • Well, thanks, I guess — though, again, I’d point out that individual’s successes don’t concern me much; I’m concerned about the big picture questions of what’s really being asked of people. Though I am glad that you’re all doing well.

  6. I think Amanda’s main point about the broader culture of academia is 100% true. I used to think that, at some point, I would be able to stop competing so hard, and asking for recommendations, and being judged. But it never does stop: peer review, grant evaluations, endless applications for leave or money — the system itself is built around perpetual judgement. While I believe things like peer review are good norms, on the other hand the systemic submission to judgement in this way does encourage a strange set of pathologies — a lingering sense of infantilization, on the one hand, and a kind of narcissism if you succeed at the game for a while.
    However, I also have to agree with the commenters who have pointed out that, after tenure, agreeing to abide by these norms is a choice. If you want life-work balance, then work less and choose to make time for family, community, or creativity. You will be giving something up: you may not be the hottest person in your field, but you likely will be happier. I’ve consciously gone through periods — years at a time — where I chose to slow down my publishing drastically, in order to have time to play, relate to friends, travel for fun etc. Recently, I’ve been working with greater dedication on a book, but I waited until the research called me, rather than forcing myself to grind it out on the fastest possible schedule. Not only have I felt more personally balanced adopting this approach, I strongly suspect the book will be better too.

    • I can see your points — and yes, I’ll grant that post-tenure, the notion of actual choice is much more realistic. But as yourself point out, pre-tenure existence (which, let’s face it, easily adds up to fifteen years between grad school, VAPs etc., then TT) is infantilizing. So, because of my training and my personal observation, I bristle a bit when I hear the word “personal choice” used regarding individuals in an oppressive system; I just don’t think it’s as easy as choosing to choose (as it were) after so many years of not being able to.

      But thanks for the balanced comment; I’m certainly not trying to argue that no one can make it, I’m just trying to point out that the odds aren’t great, nor does the current way of doing things retain the best folks for the job, in many senses.

  7. Very nice post. And I can see why you feel awkward writing for this blog, because you ultimately promote a very different vision. I fully agree with Karen’s emphasis on clear writing and more attentive advisors. But all the advice on networking, strategizing, working the conferences, plotting for the job market is precisely the kind of stuff that makes academia so miserable–the kind of stuff that generates anxiety, overwork, careerism and the constant need for external validation. Had I worried about this kind of thing, I would have been so frustrated and anxious that I would never have finished my PhD (which, I admit, may have been for the best). I now work in a large history department where the majority of PhD graduates get tenure-track jobs. And I see no difference in the success rates of those who are mired in job-anxiety from year one and make most of their intellectual choices with job concerns and CV-building in mind; and those who stubbornly insist on doing work that is meaningful to them, writing a good dissertation and not worrying about the job market until the time comes to write those applications. . . . (Am I promoting the “BS of idealistic advisors”?)

    • LOL, Dr. Karen. And agreed: if you think that just doing going good work and not worrying about the market will get you a job, you are indeed being overly idealistic. Nor do I think the strategizing itself is to blame — that’s merely a rational response to the empirical observation that this shizzle is off-the-hook competitive. So once again, I will harp on the big picture and say that there’s only way that “letting the research come to you” will work, and that’s if universities, at large, stop prizing — nay *requiring* — various quantities of research. Otherwise, yup, it’s gonna be externally motivated, cranked out, and probably pretty dreadful for everyone involved.

      • Hmmm, I’m starting to fear that it actually We-the-Dissatisfied–not some amorphous institutionalized ‘them’–who make academia so unpleasant for each other. Perhaps we ought to start paying more attention to the Well-Adjusted and how they have avoided that slope of resentment? (although distinguishing the Well-Adjusted from those only Pretending-to-be-So is admittedly tough). . . . . Because the proper response to disappointed idealism surely isn’t to squelch further idealism?

        • “Because the proper response to disappointed idealism surely isn’t to squelch further idealism”—-I completely agree with that, Historicist! It IS possible to have a reasonably fulfilling life in academia—I know a bunch of tenure-line folks at the UO right now who are genuinely contented with their lot. it’s just that it’s the exception, and must be consciously fought for, and involves a certain degree of luck in terms of institutional home. But as with all things, the negative viewpoint is easier and less work than the positive one.

        • And I say again, Historicist: the well-adjusted are rarely welcome in a system run by the ill-adjusted. If you’re going to tell people to protect their time and indulge their well-adjusted nature, you must also warn them that in reality, this can and will be held against them if they are not lucky enough to be at a no-asshole school.

          IMHO, idealism prevents change because it distorts people’s ability to see what’s really happening. Call realism “negativity” if you like, but personally I think it’s a more difficult (and more useful) approach to find constructive solutions based on an accurate (if discouraging) assessment of the situation.

          In short, Historicist, you can be as idealistic as you want, but by passing a rose-tinted view along to others, you set them up for a very unpleasant awakening when the glasses are knocked off.

          • hear hear. it’s why the quote-unquote “nicest” advisors are usually the most destructive advisors. Because they refuse to prepare their students for what’s coming. it’s a brand of professional neglect masquerading as supportiveness.

  8. I typed up a response to Dr. Karen’s guest post on Worst Professor Ever a while back, but never submitted it. Just too angsty and self-centered, but here’s a rehashed version anyway since you’ve once again hit the nail on the head. So I hope I’m not polluting your nice forum, but I can’t tell you how much I wish I’d heard advice like this earlier. Maybe I’d have made the same choices anyway, but it probably would have been without all of the hopeless idealism and subsequent mornings spent staring at the clock, trying to decide whether there’s anything to look forward to in the foreseeable future that would justify getting out of bed for the day. (I’m in tears re-reading that last sentence…)

    I feared much of what you said here might be the case after being voted Most Likely to “Succeed” in high school. I laughed about it then because I never really bought into that career/success-oriented nonsense anyway. I really believed that if I just buried myself in my work and became the best darned fluid dynamicist I could that I’d somehow find what I was looking for. Seems silly now, but I just couldn’t get it out of my head that becoming a professor or at the very least a research scientist would represent the pinnacle of accomplishment. So to make a long story short, I’ve done well in grad school by most objective standards, but after two programs (nope, transferring didn’t fix things) and four years I find myself in the unpleasant position of having to go tell one of those Machiavellian professors, one who mentored me and told me the only thanks required was showing him my PhD, that all I can manage is to write up a Master’s and move on with my life. Any love for the subject has disappeared after reading about [1,2] and witnessing firsthand what a career in it does to the Most Successful people. It’s at the point where I get nauseous just thinking about a job in a technical field. I think I may have already become the Bitterest Person in the World.

    Sorry for the random collection of thoughts here, but even if I’m not out of the woods yet, please know that both of your posts have helped me focus my energy and start to figure out what life after — or I suppose instead of — academia might look like. Thanks.

    [1] http://www.cs.virginia.edu/~robins/YouAndYourResearch.html
    [2] http://www.amazon.com/Winning-Games-Scientists-Play-Sindermann/dp/0738204250

    • (oops, originally posted as comment not reply)

      Well NaRS, I’m sorry to hear that you’re in this state, but I totally understand. If you makes you feel any better, I was never “most likely succeed.” My parents weren’t insane, thank God, so they never pushed me to be successful on their terms — and yet, even as a slacker who never completely bought into it, I was still sucked into the vortex of “not good enough,” which now seems laughable. I mean, come on, what would it have taken to get the seal of approval? And yes, I too hated my subject, which I had previously thought was the bee’s knees.

      The good news is that, despite any bitterness you might have now, things can get better — outside the tower walls, I mean. I’m happier than I ever thought I’d be. You know why? I moved back to the town I wanted to live in all along. I like the people I work with. I go to the Alamo Drafthouse, where you can drink beer while you watch movies, which frankly makes me happier than teaching or research ever did. And still, there are (non-university) public intellectuals here, doing interesting and creative things. One of my best friends (another ex-prof) lives here and we regularly shake our heads and say, “Wow, if we die tomorrow, at least we’ll have had a year or two of being happy!” We were not saying that two years ago, believe me…so I’d say get the Master’s, get out, and go for something that will make you happy. It may take a while to figure out, but it’s so worth it.

    • Thanks for this thoughtful comment, NotRocket. I want to second what AManda said. See your way clear to breaking the bonds, and the bitterness you have now will evaporate (eventually—granted, this can take years!) and you will never look back! I still can’t quite believe sometimes that I can have day after day where I’m NOT anxious, NOT miserable, NOT dreading my day. Sometimes I wonder, really? Am I really allowed to NOT wake up in the morning dreading my work? To go through my day NOT surrounded by shaming, judging people? To be NOT constantly be looking over my shoulder at what I haven’t accomplished that day, month, year? There is a lot of really fantastic life to live outside the academy–and sometimes you can still engage with the academy (as I am) but on your own terms.

      • Thank you very much for your comments and this blog post. I am at an R1 in my second year of my PhD. studies now about to move to another program — a master’s — that is professional based and should enable me to move beyond the ivory tower. What I’d like to extend is my thanks for this line of comments. I feel a bit bitter, angry, sad, hopeless at times (since I am in my mid-thirtes and feel like an old dog trying new tricks), and like many wished the fantasy could have translated into my reality. But alas I am moving on, and that can be hard to do.

        Thus, Amanda and Karen, your words are an inspiration, especially with regards to getting over the emotional aspects. It is so sad that there are not many avenues in which we can express our emotions and the aftermath that follows when one exits the life of the mind. It has been a challenging time, but after two years of my own prison, I am finally realizing there is a life outside of the academic world.

        Take care and I am glad it has worked out for you all. Although I am scared of the new road I am journeying on, your lives bring me hope that my life can be what I dreamed of, even if it doesn’t eventually include the title of “PhD.” Cheers.

  9. Well NaRS, I’m sorry to hear that you’re in this state, but I totally understand. If you makes you feel any better, I was never “most likely succeed.” My parents weren’t insane, thank God, so they never pushed me to be successful on their terms — and yet, even as a slacker who never completely bought into it, I was still sucked into the vortex of “not good enough,” which now seems laughable. I mean, come on, what would it have taken to get the seal of approval? And yes, I too hated my subject, which I had previously thought was the bee’s knees.

    The good news is that, despite any bitterness you might have now, things can get better — outside the tower walls, I mean. I’m happier than I ever thought I’d be. You know why? I moved back to the town I wanted to live in all along. I like the people I work with. I go to the Alamo Drafthouse, where you can drink beer while you watch movies, which frankly makes me happier than teaching or research ever did. And still, there are (non-university) public intellectuals here, doing interesting and creative things. One of my best friends (another ex-prof) lives here and we regularly shake our heads and say, “Wow, if we die tomorrow, at least we’ll have had a year or two of being happy!” We were not saying that two years ago, believe me…so I’d say get the Master’s, get out, and go for something that will make you happy. It may take a while to figure out, but it’s so worth it.

  10. Very interesting post and comments. What I find problematic, however, is that the whole idea of having choice or whatever you want to call it after obtaining tenure isn’t being questioned as part of the problem with academia. Sure, once you slave through graduate school, being on the job market, and years as an assistant professor, you can perhaps have all the freedom you’d like, but that is a pretty risky gamble to make.

    • I agree with you 100%, Jean. In fact, I almost wrote this line in the post: “Your odds of making it are about the same as the odds of winning the lottery.” I left it out because I’ve found people really want to argue with me about that one — usually some deep-set commitment to meritocracy makes them want to believe that this system manages to select good people. But since I don’t believe in meritocracy, and I do believe in oversupply, I think you’re exactly right: it’s a gamble, and not a good one. That’s why I tell people to just get out and cut their losses.

  11. I just want to thank you, Karen, and each person who has commented in agreement or disagreement over this post — I never thought I’d see the day my hitherto inarticulated thoughts would find public voices!!

    Last year I made the difficult decision to not push forth with applying for PhD programs immediately after having successfully completed an MA program. My reasons for hesitating settled on what I thought, at the time, might be a misguided precocity; borne out of a low threshold for uncertainty. However, I now recognize that I could not bear to throw myself onto the “hedonic treadmill” of academic careerism that seemed to be my fate — if I applied for those grants and completed those applications expected of me by myself and by my then-advisor — because, as my year off has confirmed, life outside the academy can be tremendously enriching! I have never felt better — physically and psychologically!

    For the first time in my admittedly young life, I understand why not living “the life of the mind” does NOT feel like a trade-off! It does NOT feel empty! Quite to the contrary! I’m a bit incensed that this empirical observation remains so inconsistent with the messages I was receiving in the halls of academe; where advisors and peers will insist, in a patently ideological tenor, that those “out there” live in bad faith! They think the “fools outside” fill their emptiness with cars, nice clothes, tv-watching, etc., because they live in eternal remorse over having not taken their studies more seriously! (But technological advances are increasingly loosening the academy’s grip on relevant new research and idea-making.)

    My point — and this does not follow from the above-ranting preface — is that any work given over to your identity and labored at 110% will leave one feeling the way most of you have described feeling. Any sphere of work that you want to succeed in will feel intensely competitive; it will lead to the sense that “there is always just one more task I can complete to go a bit further . . . in order to get further along with x, and so on . . . I have worked outside of the academy and I have not been able to escape this feeling in myself and others. Burnout is everywhere. The lesson I’ve taken from this is that it is best to stifle this destined-for-burnout personality trait in whichever way works for you. This is all the more possible when economic and physical responsibilities are tenable. It doesn’t help that technology is changing the definition and structure of work as we know it. These are exciting and nauseating times. Leading with the prestige-driven ego won’t help.

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