On Leaving the Cult (A Letter From a Client)

I get a pretty regular stream of fan mail from clients and readers, and I read all of it, respond to all of it, and deeply appreciate all of it.  When I get a letter from someone telling me how the reading the blog and/or working with me changed their life in some important way, I sit with it for a moment, and take it in, and feel humbled and grateful that I can do this important work, and I ponder ways I can do it better.  What I love about the fan mail that I get is that you, my readers, are such beautiful writers (being all writers as you are)–so articulate and eloquent, so darkly funny, so self-deprecating and wry, so fiercely critical of the academic-industrial complex, so ironic and yet so sincere.

I led the Surviving Your First Year on the Tenure Track webinar last week, and in an unplanned prefatory remark (which you’ll hear on the new recorded version now for sale) I said, “my favorite parts of the business are helping people get tenure track jobs, and helping people make the decision to leave the academy.”

I realized as I was saying it how weirdly schizo that is, but it’s true.   Both are huge achievements, the end-product of years of struggle and anguish.  Both are intensely meaningful.

I got this email last week, from a client who has left the academy, and it stands out as one of the most affecting ones I’ve ever received.  I got teary-eyed when I read it, and then I read it to my partner and my mother-in-law and they got teary-eyed too.

I don’t actually know if I’m the first person to say that academia is a cult, but I know that saying it is one of the foundational interventions I hope to make with The Professor Is In.  I believe that meaningful change is possible at individual and institutional levels only when academics deprogram themselves from the cult, and start understanding academic work as a form of labor.  You don’t have to leave academia, or become post-academic, to do this.  You just have to stop mystifying and fetishizing the nature of academic work.

Anyway, testimonials like the one in this email are critical to understanding the ways that the cult works, and the ways that it’s possible to leave it.

Thank you so much, client, for writing and sharing.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Dear Karen,

I am a reader and client (I purchased your interview webinar recording in January 2013), and I am writing to tell you about the job I landed as a result of your help and the way in which your blog has transformed my life.

I finished a PhD in [Humanities] from [Ivy League University] in 2012. I was in a terrible state after the defense and deposit. People often talk about writing a dissertation in terms of birth metaphors–the genesis of an idea, the gestation process, the diss as baby, etc. Well, I truly felt as though I had given birth to a stillborn. I knew that I would never turn the diss into a book because I knew that I had no interest in an academic career, no desire to go on the job market, no interest in moving to a remote location, kissing more professor ass, continuing my serf-like status, etc etc. But knowing this with certainty didn’t help or make me feel good in any way, because a) I didn’t know what I would do instead and b) I felt like a total failure and loser.

It was about two months before I turned in the dissertation that I discovered your blog, and I spent all night reading it. I found myself laughing repeatedly as I read your posts, not hee hee laughs but rather deep belly laughs –at recognizing myself in all you wrote about grad students, and at the irony of discovering your blog just as I was in the final months of a near-decade grad school experience, i.e. too late for me to start from the beginning and do everything ‘right’.

As I moved into the summer and fall of my post-grad school life (unemployed and miserable), I read your blog fervently and felt it was the only form of true advice I had as I tried to figure out what to do next. But it wasn’t the advice on how to secure the TT job or succeed as an academic that I gravitated to–it was the information on how to deprogram myself and recover my own sense of value as a person and professional.

In retrospect, I know the specific paragraphs you wrote that ‘cured me’–in a post you wrote called “Ageism and the Academy”:

Here is the one thing I do know, with a great deal of certainty: academia is a kind of cult, or cult-like environment. It is a closed and insular system with massive barriers to entry. The Ph.D. process is the indoctrination process that over many years inculcates practitioners into the correct values and norms of the closed group. The end product is successful to the extent that they have thoroughly accepted these values and norms, and made them into their own operating principles.

What I have observed in my work with clients is that older students are more resistant to the indoctrination process than younger students. Their identities are more fully formed, and they have more years of previous values and habits that have to be displaced to make room for the new ones. The process of indoctrination of older students is more likely to be incomplete and tentative. And that has serious consequences for the older Ph.D. as end product of the system.

—–

So you understand: I am not an older student. I started graduate school at age 25. But what I took from the post was the specific phrase “resistant to the indoctrination process” and an idea (not one that you intended in this specific context, but still), that maybe the fact that I wasn’t sold on the academic life was a strength and not a weakness. I was no longer a failure–I was RESISTANT TO INDOCTRINATION!!!! And what academic type would not consider that a virtue? I had gone through eight years of brainwashing and had emerged with some remnants of my identity intact! I had been told by people with substantial power over me for almost a decade what to value and what to despise, and at the end of it I still didn’t completely believe them! I’d been shuttered away in an academic cloister for most of my adult years and yet still retained minimal contact with the outside world, where intelligent people I knew had functional relationships and interesting jobs that paid good salaries and actually lived sovereign lives! Considered in this heroic light—and I write this in jest but mean it in earnest—I began to feel almost a little proud of myself, for the first time in years.

With this reframing of perspective, I was able to let go of my feelings of failure and less-than-ism. In my specific case, that meant leaving research behind and refocusing on teaching as a profession. Teaching has always been my true professional interest—I taught before going to graduate school and found the most satisfaction during the Ph.D. process in the classroom as a TA. So I started looking for high school jobs late last fall. Not many schools offer my subject, which made the options slim, but this past spring I was offered a position as a high school teacher at a private school in New England. It is a prep school with great teaching resources, nice facilities which I am actually entitled to use, small class sizes, sabbatical options, full benefits, retirement plan, over 4 months total of (real) vacation, and a starting salary in the high 50s. I feel a little indiscreet about giving you these specifics, but I think you and your readership would be interested in the concrete details of this particular career path for ex-academics. I really think unhappy grad students and professors who like teaching should think more about high school careers. I can’t speak to the public school system, and I know it can be a world of difference, but the school I will be joining resembles a SLAC in many ways, and there seems to be a lot of genuine learning going on there.

I start the job in the fall, so I obviously can’t say how it will all turn out, but I can thank you now for helping me rid my mind of all the psychological junk that has been clogging it for the past decade. This was the crucial piece that enabled me to say goodbye to one chapter of my life and begin a new one sans PhD/grad student/academic complexes. On a more concrete level, I also used your posts to completely rewrite my cover letter and prepare for my interview. I know your advice helped me in getting the job–my cover letter was generic, wishy-washy, and dripping in emotional ‘teaching is my passion’ speak before I fixed it according to your guidelines.

I am sorry for writing a tome, but you asked today on your Facebook page for readers who got jobs as a result of your blog to email you, so I figured it was finally time to reach out and thank you. I have thought many times in the last months about writing you and telling you all this, but I wanted the email to be perfect and so kept putting it off (ok, that is an academic habit I still have to rid myself of!). So I am not over-analyzing or obsessing over this email; I am just sending it to you with one last THANK YOU for helping me so much.


Comments

On Leaving the Cult (A Letter From a Client) — 16 Comments

  1. I had to make sure I didn’t accidentally write and send that email to you, Karen. The only difference between myself and your emailer is that I’m not teaching high school. I felt the exact same way: not entirely convinced that the TT job was for me. I made the “mistake” of having a life while in graduate school: I traveled, got married, had a kid and worked, so I never got the blinders on about Academia. All I knew was that I wasnt overly clever or smart enough to wow anyone with my brilliance. I’m just a hard worker, and it seemed like madness to bust my ass to get a job where I’d have to work 60 hours a week (because that is the only way I get by, by out-working the problem at hand). It wasn’t something I wanted to do with a family and the whole wide world being as interesting as it is.

    It took a post-doc for the realization to set in. Now I have an amazing “research” job where I don’t kiss anyone’s ass. And my boss is cool as shit.

    I just don’t know what to do with all the advice I got when I left my post doc. Advice like, “You’ve got two years before you’re seen as a perpetual post-doc… you need to be in a TT job by then.”

    I love the job I have now. But I had to admit to myself that I didn’t want the TT job after all.

  2. Wonderful—in general and for me, as this email reflects many of the ways your advice has helped me, too. I’m not quite as far along, but, in the throes of the prelim process with exams quickly approaching, this kind of thing helps me get centered. (The real task is staying centered.)

    One thing, though—I also started grad school at 25, and I would argue that in academia we qualify older students, at least in my experience in the social sciences. There’s a lot that goes on in those early twenties and I find that the kinds of experiences I had between college and grad school (time overseas, random employment, painful unemployment, teaching, romantic relationships, repaying student loans and not even making a dent) leaves a big gap between my mindset and perspective at 25 and that of the average new students in my department coming straight from undergrad. Most of my faculty—brilliant, awesome, and insanely productive—are those people. I admire them in so many ways and want them to be proud of me and value the training I’ve had under them. But I also know that I’ve had more experience with the outside world—particularly employment experience—than most of them, and I’m a little proud of that and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

    Thanks for everything you do!

  3. Thanks to your reader for sending this in, and thanks for printing it! I love hearing people’s transition stories, and this does make me want to investigate private school teaching more. I feel like I’ve been actively “resisting indoctrination” from the start – as an anxious, perfectionist type, ever since high school I’ve tried to remain VERY conscious that my grades and career cannot define me as a person – but that makes the “what next?” seem very open-ended and scary. The academic path has predictability in its favor – at least for those with hindsight and success.

  4. Wow – I recognise a lot of these sentiments. But it took me 20yrs longer to recognise them – and to stop fighting.

    Academia is a cult. There is a deeply held belief tat it is the only route to true knowledge and enlightenment. That its products – papers published in highly cited journals – are the only products worthy of a great mind. That aspiring to be a Professor at a great, ancient academic institution is the only worthwhile goal in life, if you are s,art enough to achieve that.

    Only becoming a Professor at a world-class University is only about being smart – maybe you don’t EVEN have to be THAT smart. TSL about being indoctrinated and about paying the game and about being an astute political operator.

    It took me 20yrs of trying to progress at Cambridge University,none f the world’s leading academies, to realise that. All along I tried to progress by being smarter as a biochemist – my field – but without ever being indoctrinated. From the beginning I saw the weaknesses and limitations of the cult. I wanted to change them! My identity, even as a 22yrvold grad student was so strong, I actually believed that if I was smart enough I could progress AND change the system.

    20yrs later, I finally gave up and left. I never succeeded even to a tiny degree. Because I didn’t conform the academic system starved me of resource and influence. Being super-smart allowed me to survive, grudgingly, in their ecosystem – but like an invasive weed in the garden I could not be allowed to flourish.

    The respect of leaving was painful. It was the only job d ever wanted, ever known. My dear Mum felt that being a senior academic at such a prestigious University was the only job worth having – and leaving was a betrayal, a denial of talent. She died in 2011 before I finally left, never knowing what was coming.

    But after the anguish of the prospect of leaving, actually leaving was easy. It was cathartic. I was free of the yoke of trying to conform enough to survive, of trying in vain to change the landscape around me. I have never been happier. And from outside its easier to see the pointlessness of the cult. It reminds me of the old saying “Those who can, do; those who can’t teach”. In the end academics are too isolated from the real world to be much use to anyone. Only WITHIN their own world do their badges of status mean much at all.

    I’m now happily installed as a Partner at Index Ventures, Eyrooe’s leading Venture Capital firm. Here, my desire to change ecosystems for the better, to deliver innovations that really affect people’s lives, to deliver a true legacy beyond old, out of date papers published in musty volumes of journals like Nature and Science (where I have published), is easily possible, and is valued and encouraged by my peers.

    Being a round peg in a round hole is very much more comfortable I’ve found!

  5. I had my viva examination in December 2011 and I have yet to secure a permanent lectureship; in the meanwhile I have taught graduate and postgraduate courses, published 6 articles and 3 chapters, worked on my monograph and worked full time as an admin assistant (bills don’t pay themselves); and I have been on the academic job market. I don’t believe academia does not understand/is part of, the ‘real world’, whatever that is. Each community has its rituals and its system of belief. Academia just happens to be also the place where rituals and systems of beliefs are in themselves the object of study, so it is maybe particularly aware of its own status. And yes, many people seem to belong in a way that eludes those of us who are ambivalent about belonging. There are the cult leaders and the followers, the priests and the monks and the students. One has to learn the language and its conventions, and follow the rules. It is no different anywhere else, a part from the fact that almost everybody is clever, and that is tiring in the long run.
    And, its current problems are very much ‘real world’ problems, the precarisation of work (is that a word?), loss of status of intellectual pursuits, economic restructuring, loss of benefits and pension security, marketisation of students’ ‘experience’ (what the hell is that? I thought it was called an education), etc.
    Both the insiders, cult leaders and followers, and the critical outsiders who obviously feel an intellectual connection to academia and have a stake in its evolution, should consider themselves involved in what happens to it. For many of us, even those who spent time in the mythical real world, academia is what we know best, it is our country and our home. What scares me the most is that, when (if) I get the lectureship I want, I am going to forget this critical impetus and be swamped with teaching, marking, writing, and on and on. It scares me almost more than not getting the lectureship I want.

  6. I agree. I have been reading this blog for some days now and I wonder where I have been all this time. I have been lost and now I know I can be helped

  7. Actually the more I think about it, the more I think the appropriate metaphor, or narrative is that of a love story; at the beginning there is the attraction, and the discovery, and the excitement of novelty; this is often mutual, new phd students are often praised, and listened to, and invited to participate to conferences, and seminars, and social events. But even when it is not so mutual, the student is usually in love, and fails to spot the warning signs of unrequited love or, worse, the beginning of an abusive relationship.

    The love story can go on for years, and the painful acknowledgment of its true nature can be gradual or sudden. It comes with all the signs of the end of a real love story: you have to leave your lover/your office, and give back the keys, and wonder if they will ever call back or want you again. And you hope to impress them with your new lovers/departments, and that they will always find you/your publications attractive and think of lost opportunities when they see you, not of a lucky escape.

    That is why it hurts so much when it ends and why outsiders do not understand the dynamics of this relationship, just like most people do not understand why would anyone want to stay in an abusive relationship or waste his/her best year longing after an unrequited love.

  8. Dear Karen,
    I am writing you for advice. I am currently applying for tenure-track professor positions in Canada. I am in engineering/ sciences. After I finished my PhD I went abroad and worked for a couple of years. I had my first child and then we returned to Canada. I started a post-doctoral fellowship 6 months after my son was born and have been focusing on publishing as much as possible. I have applied for several positions and have been asked for interviews which I will attend in the next month or so.

    My husband and I are planning to have a second child. We were planning to start ” trying” soon. My thinking was that it would be better to be pregnant in a post-doc fellowship than during the first year of a tenure track position. It is unlikely that I will be ” showing” during any interview… so my question is: should we proceed with “trying” given that none of these jobs are a guarentee and it could be months before I even find out. In Canada, start dates are often negotiable. My thinking is that if we get pregnant fairly quickly ( we got pregnant on the first try last night) that I could have the baby, task 3-4 months leave and then start the Iposition. Obviously this plan may not work- but I think I am comfortable to go ahead with the plan and just see what happens. The part I am struggling with is that I do not want to deceive any committee but at the same time I do not want to be screened out for wanting a family. If I get offered a position is it at that time that I would disclose that I am pregnant (if I am) or do I wait to sign a contract and then break the news? I am an extremely hard working woman with a supportive husband so I believe I can at try to make it all work with young children. In the end there is no guarentee that I’ll get pregnant quickly and also no guarentee that I will be offered a position- so I feel like I need to go ahead with the plan. Do you have any advice for me if I do get offered a position and I also happen to be pregnant? What is the best way to deal with this type of situation ( both professionally and ethically)? Thank you for your advice.
    I am really enjoying your blog.
    Best,

    H

  9. As an adjunct English instructor for the past 9 years, I had a dream that older women could move up in academia just because their life was free of the obligations of children and family that stymie younger colleagues. Instead, the horrid truth is that adjunct professors are viewed as necessary but scorned appendages. In the nine years I have taught composition and rhetoric at three different universities, not once was I ever observed or reviewed. Every teacher development seminar that invited adjuncts to attend was designed around retention and the underlying theme was how to pander to the student without seeming to do so. While I feel proud for the many triumphs of my students and for joy I received from a job well done, it is very difficult to spend so many hours grading and planning without a shred of recognition from my department. My department head did write a reference for me so I could tutor online, and I was surprised to discover how much he valued me, but that was the only time I ever heard a kind word. In fact, full time faculty members are pleasant to me and now after many years, even let me take part in text book approval sessions, but I am not in the know about department ideas or visions for the future. I have always made it a point to stop by the office of my department head and chat a bit or have a quick chat with senior faculty, but when it came time to cut adjunct’s classes because of Obama care, I was not spared.
    You have opened my eyes to a truth I did not want to see. As an adjunct my position is tenuous and shall remain so as long as adjuncts remain powerless, yet in most universities, 1/4 of the faculty are full time and 3/4 are adjuncts. Just because universities treat adjuncts as if they were disposable, if we were to ever unite, universities would have a formidable force to deal with. I say, let us unite, and brave the time of unemployment (work at Walmart while we wait – they make more money there than we make as adjuncts) and get universities to admit that without adjuncts they could not function.

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  13. Hey everyone,

    As a student who took several years off to start a family and figure out what I really wanted from life (housewife? fiction writer? teacher? a break from washing dishes?), I now find myself a junior racing toward graduation and the possibility of graduate school. I know that I love teaching, having done a lot of tutoring and some unofficial classroom-style “teaching” for several years at a small private school. For awhile, my goal was to be a high-school math teacher, that perennially-needed staple in education.

    But I also love writing and research, and lately, I’ve been consumed with the idea of entering academia. That said, I also cringe away from it. The slim chances of getting hired, the ruthless attention to meeting the right people, saying the right things, the outright politicization involved… none of that is really my bag, although my competitive side kind of wants to take it on and succeed just to prove that I can.

    So, after accidentally finding this blog a few weeks ago, I’ve been poring over various posts, trying to beef up my capabilities before I’m out of the gate. And I’m thrilled with the things that I’ve learned already, things that I was woefully ignorant of (I’m the kind of person who thought being liked was the key to getting ahead, and that that being a little wishy-washy and self-deprecating was the key to being liked).

    This letter, though… wow. It, more than anything else so far, has helped me see more clearly what I’m striving for and what I should also keep in mind. I feel like I can really strike a balance now and take from school what will work for me, not necessarily everything the cult is pushing. I’m so glad this website exists!

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