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).
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.