Academics, External Validation, and Entrepeneurialism: Some Autobiographical Reflections

Last weekend I went skiing with my kids at Mt. Bachelor. It was a glorious crystal clear spring weekend, and there was even fresh snow! You can ski late in Oregon. Bachelor will stay open until May 28, and Timberline stays open all summer.

Let me be perfectly clear. When I was a professor I did not ski. I didn’t have (make) the time. And more importantly, I didn’t have (make) the money. This new business, The Professor Is In, has completely transformed the financial status of my household. In its first year it will likely bring in an income equivalent to the salary of a Full Professor at Notre Dame or University of Michigan, according to the salary table in the Chronicle’s article, “What Professors Make.”

I share this, at the risk of appearing to brag, because I want readers to understand that by leaving academia and launching my own business—even as a former humanities professor (not from business or engineering or the like)–i have drastically improved not simply my earning potential, but also my mental health and work-life balance. I make excellent money doing something I believe in fiercely, and I spend that money on actual weekend activities, like skiing with my children. Sometimes, as a former academic, I look up and think, “I had no idea life could be this good.”

On the chair lift, I ended up sitting next to, believe it or not, another former professor turned entrepeneur. The lift was long, and I got to hear his story. His Ph.D. was in finance, and while he worked as a professor he also began to invest in some local real estate in his college town. After some years, he sold a couple of buildings, he said, for 20 million dollars. “Now I spend my time skiing, hunting, fishing, and traveling around the world with my wife. We’ve been to 70 countries.”

I bring up this story to raise, in a preliminary fashion, the idea of leaving the academy. Here are two examples, at least, of people who took their academic experiences and expertise, and turned them into successful businesses, one on a massive scale, and one far more modestly.

While I can’t speak for my Finance friend, I know that for myself, I made the leap because I needed to do work that was meaningful to me, and being a university professor no longer was.

I write above that as The Professor I’m doing something I believe in fiercely. All the years that I was a professor, I was profoundly interested in and dedicated to the question of professionalizing graduate students, my own and all the rest. I agitated to create professionalization seminars for my departments, and eventually, when I became Head, got the opportunity to use a donor gift to create a day-long professionalization retreat for all new graduate students in the department. I felt then, as I feel now, that this is a fundamental ethical obligation to graduate students in all graduate programs.

It was gratifying. But it was also necessarily a very minor side-project. Dedication to grad students gets you a sum total of nothing in terms of professional advancement. It didn’t count on my CV, didn’t bring me any merit points for raises, and didn’t play at all on the mid-career academic job market. As a former colleague of mine—a truly genius Ph.D. advisor back when I worked with him— told me a few months ago, “I don’t even accept new graduate students now. What’s the point? I am a damned good advisor. But it’s a LOT of work, with nothing to show for it in the end.”

The things that count, of course, the things that you have to “show” in the end, are evidence of competitive scholarly productivity— publications, major grants, high profile conferences, etc.

One of the most important impetuses for me leaving academia is that I no longer believed in the value of the work, when that work was exclusively defined as this kind of competitive scholarly output.

There were other reasons I left of course, all explained in my column, Death of a Soul on Campus. And I had two terrific long-term research projects prepared and ready to act on—on the postwar Japanese back to the land counterculture, and on Japanese lesbian and transgendered communities in Tokyo—that had already generated wide interest and would yield the competitive scholarly output I needed to stay, well, competitive.

I did believe those were valuable projects. But not valuable enough, in the end, to justify the single-minded focus, and sacrifice of other interests and commitments, required to bring them to fruition.

I just no longer believed that producing academic publications about Japan was work that made sufficient difference to the world at large. I could not get behind it as a significant societal contribution. I also was no longer motivated by the value/reward structure of the academy itself, in which we are required to “prove” our value by producing quantities of work within a microscopically narrow scholarly niche that is then evaluated by our “superiors” in an intense status hierarchy, with the ultimate reward being acceptance into the top rank of the hierarchy (ie, full professor) ourselves.

Lo and behold, I was no longer a company woman.

Nobody was more startled to discover this than me. I had been a thoroughly assimilated zealot for the cause for a lot of years. When I was an assistant professor my friends used to refer to me as “Dean Kelsky,” because I was so dedicated to my work and to the whole academic enterprise writ large. [That period I describe a bit in this blog post,  “Thoughts on the TT-NTT Divide.”]

And then suddenly, I wasn’t. Suddenly, I could not care less what the full profs in the department thought of my “productivity,” and whether or not the college level merit committee thought I was doing “enough” for a raise. At some point, and I don’t know when it happened, I stopped being willing to accept the basic premise of academic worth and value. And I stopped being willing to put my financial “valuation” in the hands of someone else.

And then I knew I had to leave.

And here’s what I began to see vaguely then, and have come more clearly to see in the year since opening The Professor Is In. I went into academia because I believed that it was a land of free-spirits and risk takers. People who were willing to buck the norms of American life in terms of money-grubbing and materialism. A place where people would follow ideas to their conclusions, even if those conclusions were unpalatable to the powers that be. Yes, I was naive.

What I learned in my years in the academy, particularly as an administrator, though, is that the academy is actually far more commonly a land of rule-followers and risk-avoiders.   It is the ultimate hierarchical organization. I mean—grad student->asst prof->assoc prof->full prof->endowed chair->dean-> provost->chancellor-> president—this is a hierarchy as intense as any military or corporate system. Yes, plenty of critical work happens in the university, even some radical work.  But mostly pointed outward, at others, and rarely applied to the academic self.  The critical work is then folded into academic reputation that again, yields primary results not in the world at large, but in increasing status and compensation within the university.

People do follow their ideas and share them with others through their work. And that’s a good thing. But I’ve come to understand that that’s more of an unintended consequence, or perhaps, a side product. Far more energy is dedicated to the imposition of rigid expectations and norms of value and behavior, and imposing them on those lower in the hierarchy, in order to continually reproduce the organization, without challenge, in its current form.

The goal here is not money, it is true.

It is status. Or, as Marc Bousquet says in the recent Chronicle article, From Grad School to Welfare, it is ego, identity status, and prestige.

“We socialize people into accepting the coin of reputation as status capital. Some people are so deeply socialized into the regime of payment by way of status that they are essentially trapped in it for life.”

My efforts in The Professor Is In are devoted to making sure that anyone seeking a career in the academy understands the workings of status and reputation with the greatest clarity possible. One of the ways that privilege is reproduced (and hierarchies remain intact) is that information is withheld in a system of secrecy, in which junior people are never clear or confident about their adequacy in meeting these unspoken expectations.

It is ironic of course, as my detractors often point out, that someone who left the academy is advising people how to succeed in the academy.

Why do I do that?

Well, first off, as I said, it’s not a terrible job if you’re successful. I had a lot of pretty good years in the academy before I began to hit up against its limits. It was a compelling job, with good pay, excellent benefits, the gratification of teaching and doing research (both of which I genuinely loved), social status, and relative freedom of scheduling my time (a huge thing for me then and now). Plenty of people have satisfying careers in the academy, and with a combination of grit, privilege, and luck, you can still do that.

More fundamentally, though, I am aware of the intense “sunk costs” of new Ph.D.s. People with years invested in the Ph.D. really have nowhere to go, for a certain period of time, but forward.  They can’t simply quit en masse to pursue alt-ac jobs. And they shouldn’t. There are still academic jobs available, just far fewer, and characterized by declining conditions of work. But they exist, and someone will get them, and I can help to explain “which someone” that is most likely to be.

But what my own path and my work with clients has revealed to me very starkly is the psychic risk of staying in. Because, to stay in is to acquiesce in an absolute dependency on a system of external validation. You are successful if your committee validates your dissertation, if a grant committee validates your proposal, if journal reviewers validate your mss., if external reviewers validate your tenure case, if the department head validates your activity report…. the cycle of external validation never, ever stops.

And that is problematic for those who do end up needing to leave the academy to find  work. Because to find or create work outside that hierarchical organization, after years of inculcation into dependence on external validation, is extraordinarily difficult.  You have to suddenly begin evaluating your own worth and potential contribution.

I have a friend at the UO, a linguistics Ph.D. who after some years of seeking tenure track work, ultimately gave up and found a position as an academic advisor. She told me last week about how at one point during that process she and another friend from her Ph.D. program thought about creating a consulting firm doing market analysis based on linguistic trends. They were so excited and filled with ideas, she told me, until they came to the point of needing to set prices. “We had no idea how to put a value on our services!” she said. “What were we worth? We couldn’t even begin to imagine.  It just fell apart after that.”

The greatest challenge for academics leaving what I call the academic cult, is to extract their sense of self from the cycle of external validation. I know this. After leaving I spent a whole year on the sofa, devastated, depressed, and filled with self-loathing. To have left the academy I was obviously a failure. What is your worth if you don’t have formal affiliation and status, and reputation, and evidence of competitive success?

Well, eventually I figured it out. That’s a story for another blog post. But for now I close with this: there is hope outside the academy. There is financial and professional and emotional success possible. But you have to learn  your own worth to find it—the worth that comes from following your own values, and not those imposed by an organization.

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About Karen Kelsky

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.


Academics, External Validation, and Entrepeneurialism: Some Autobiographical Reflections — 25 Comments

  1. Thank you for such candor.

    How do you envision Higher Ed in ten, twenty years? Do you think the model is sustainable? We have obviously seen new trends emerge as a result of the economic situation, like the preponderance of adjuncts. Do you think it will ever “bounce back” or are we headed towards a completely new model? I read somewhere that graduate school is to education what the newspaper was to media forty or fifty years ago. That is frightening as someone who is just beginning her PhD work!

  2. Whoa. You look into my heart, or so it seems. I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but having just landed a TT-job my thoughts still turn to whether or not I really want “this”. Whatever it is. But I have to say that doing the 5-year plan (as per your blog post) has given me a real sense of agency and I feel relatively confident about the future. I’m also toying with the idea of exploring voice-over acting since people keep telling me that I seem suited to it. Time is short but I volunteer at a youth-group once a week where I get a real sense of fulfillment and meaning: what counts is not what I have read or what I know, but my past experiences and my willingness to engage with young people and listen to their stories. Onwards!

    • It’s hard to be tt and ambivalent. It’s better when the ambivalence hits after tenure. Just remember: jobs with benefits are good. Very good.

    • I’m in a similar situation. I’m trying to separate the ambivalence about academia that I’ve felt from being insecure in my position and potential for so long (1-2 year positions) from my underlying interest in research and the life of a TT prof. In my field, the biggest cutoff is from postdoc to TT, not TT to tenure. So I appear to have cleared a big hurdle. Now I’m trying to assess how much I want to do this research without worrying whether I’m good enough. The alternatives are also very difficult to imagine: it seems impossible to be an entrepreneur in this country without health coverage from a spouse. And every time I think about being an entrepreneur, I come back to wanting my output to be research and ideas…

  3. Articulate and honest. In my case: I stay in academia because it is the most radical and most positive impact I can have on the world, given my aptitudes, personal skill-set, and priorities. I teach music, history, and critical thinking–and I kind of think that academics are some of the only people still able to serve the role of public intellectual. Critical thinking is mostly gone from the culture; professors are some of its only remaining public exponents (yes, I am tenured). I fight tooth-and-nail for my younger (pre-tenure) colleagues, grad students and undergraduates, and I sleep at night. It’s clean work.

    Systems are inherently corrupt and corrupting. But as Gary Snyder (another creative artist who worked in academia, and even in the CA state government) said, such work can “move the universe a millimeter or two in the right direction.” That’s why I do what I do.

    Thanks for your wisdom.

    • Chris, thanks for writing. I think I give teaching short shrift in this piece. It can be a radical act. I almost never talk about teaching on this blog, and then only dismissively, but in fact I was a passionate and dedicated teacher who always utilized the classroom to push students to engage critically with the world around them, in terms of culture, race, class, gender, sexuality, the environment, labor—the whole nine yards. Professors who can connect to that work are I’m sure among the happiest around.

  4. Karen:

    This post reminded me of some things I read about bullying in academe on David Yamada’s blog. Here is a link to one of the posts:

    There’s also at least one other post in which he discusses the intense conformity academic culture demands; he refers academic degrees as “badges of compliance.”
    As always, I find your posts t to be so thought-provoking!

    • thanks for sharing this. He’s amazing. I’m going to talk about his Eightfold Path of a healthy workplace soon.

  5. Recently, upon seeing my advisor’s CV I said to him: “Wow, I hope my CV looks like that in 10 years.” He replied: “I hope you’re as happy as I am in 10 years.”

    Good point, advisor.

    I’ve wanted to be a professor since I was a little kid. I have overcome too many obstacles in my pursuit of this dream. But I see all the things you write about in the academy… and I think I must be the worst personality fit for this kind of work. It didn’t seem that way when I was growing up- academia seemed the perfect place for an absentminded, eccentric writer/book nerd. But everyone is so obsessed with a certain kind of relentless productivity, and having the “perfect” CV now… it makes me want to give up. I mean, I abandoned the corporate world after a little dabbling for a reason.

    Still, those people have a life outside of work….

    My department has eaten up two young tenure-track women in the three years I’ve been here…. good news for those on the market, because we need to make a total of four new hires at the moment! Sigh.

    (Selfishly, I wish you’d done those projects on Japan though 😉 )

    • I think a ton of us—maybe almost all—went into academia because it “seemed the perfect place for an absentminded, eccentric writer/book nerd.” That makes this current neoliberal corporate logic all the more painful. I believe that the world needs eccentric book nerds, just as it needs monks and mystics and hermits and wild women of the forest. But the world does not agree, just now, and for the time being, we all need to eat.

  6. Pingback: Twitter is (mostly) a meritocracy. Academia (mostly) isn’t. « More or Less Bunk

  7. Thank you for articulating so clearly that need for external validation.

    Institutions do vary – as you yourself saw in comparing Oregon and Illinois. At small schools with a heavy teaching load, the academic culture is a little different; it does seem that individuals can retain some prestige and external validation even without publication and research. This is my environment. There is still just an unbelievable amount of “looking down your nose”; If I recorded conversations with my colleagues; every conversation would be sprinkled with negative comments about someone. (By the way, if someone criticizes someone else in the department/school for something, I immediately try to fix that problem in myself; I suspect many graduate students do the same thing.) In my particular arena, there is an enormous criticism of those people who aren’t “carrying their load” and some, but actually less criticism of individuals who aren’t doing much research. Interestingly, I think this is a sign that my institution is truly in a reputation decline. I must say that those individuals who are the best at “carrying their load” are highly organized, very professional, and super efficient (& I am very jealous of them!).

    Is it OK to work only 40 hours a week in academia? If one lands the tenure job and then slow down . . . what does that really mean? If one works only 40 hours a week (rather than 50 or 60 or more), are they “letting people down” as I perceive of myself? Are they forcing all that undone work on someone else? Are they contributing to unequal work loads? Are those individuals with tenure who have dropped in prestige “stealing” the job from a younger more energetic and more deserving person? These are questions that I worry about in my academic position.

    A question: Is it really better outside academia or does the same level of “looking down your nose” happen everywhere?

  8. Thank you for providing external validation of my need for external validation! I was thinking about what motivates me the other day and feeling like I’m making a significant contribution was near the top of my list. (Not /making/ a significant contribution, but /feeling like/ I’m making one.)

    My “suddenly” moment came when I realized really, deeply, didn’t care to spend any more time looking for funding in a department that was happy to keep me on only if I brought in the funds. When it finally sank in that teaching was a distant second to research funds, I realized I had to looking outside. Within a year (a painful transitional year, but, with hindsight, less painful than another year of not making a change would have been) I found a position in a good organization with a mission I believe in, working with people from around the world on problems that I wanted to work on in academia, but couldn’t fund. What does my new career provide that I was missing in academia? I’m making real contributions to society and it is appreciated by my colleagues = external validation. Plus I have more free time, better life balance, (lots) more money and a boss who keeps telling me to take vacation and make sure not to overwork myself. Residual academic guilt still leaves me a bit disoriented when I hear that.

  9. You write, “I went into academia because I believed that it was a land of free-spirits and risk takers. People who were willing to buck the norms of American life in terms of money-grubbing and materialism. A place where people would follow ideas to their conclusions, even if those conclusions were unpalatable to the powers that be.” — Well, call me naive, but I went into the academic world because ** I loved my field. ** I didn’t give a thought to the structure of the institution or of the profession; I just loved my field (English); I loved teaching; and I loved writing. After 40+ years since my Ph.D., I still love them all. Of course I discovered what a corrupt system the academic world is; I’ve been denied tenure, harrassed, lied to, discriminated against in salary and in every other way……..But I never entered this world with the idea that it had anything to do with ‘free-spirits’ or ‘risk-taking.’
    I think, if you don’t love your academic field — chemistry, math, English, Latin, history, whatever — and if work in your field, teaching and writing, is not what you want, then indeed, you’re in the wrong place. I believe I ‘change’ the corrupt academic system by surviving in it and by being myself in it — honest, direct, quirky, independent, very productive, very smart, a good writer, and a good teacher. I have to say I cringe at the phrases ‘free-spirits’ and ‘risk-takers.’ — My best college professors were simply — smart.

  10. Thanks again for a wonderful post and a much needed shift in perspective.

    I happened to be on a metro train in DC this past weekend and struck up a conversation with a successful and happy individual from one of the nation’s largest consulting firms.

    She was in graduate school in arts and sciences, but went on to do consulting work and says she loves it. She gets the intellectual stimulus she needs, but also gets paid a lot more than she would at the average tenure track job and has stability. She also said the firm’s international status means that she can work in practically any city she wants, something that is not possible in today’s academy.

    She said that Ph.D.’s are seen as huge assets to the company and gave me her card. I will certainly follow up with an email, if only to say that I will keep the firm in mind as I complete my graduate work.

  11. Wow, in some ways this post is so unsettling to me. I’ve wanted to be a History Professor since I was 15!! Now that I’ve done the research and teaching, I find that I like the teaching so much more than the research (I like that too, but only in moderation!). Yet here I find that there is little to no value in the academy for good teachers. I’d like to consider a career change, but after spending 15 plus years getting a higher education, I don’t really want to go back to school for marketable skills. Mostly though, I can’t even think what my alternatives are!!

  12. To add to my comment above —
    you write, “One of the most important impetuses for me leaving academia is that I no longer believed in the value of the work, when that work was exclusively defined as this kind of competitive scholarly output.” (Okay, I won’t be “nice” — you mean “my,” not “me” leaving ac. in the sentence quoted. — But that’s not why I’m adding more. You know by now, from my various comments on your blog, that I tend to disagree with much of what you say, and I think the reason is that I *do* believe in the value of what I’m doing and in what many of my colleagues over the past 40 years have been doing, both the scholarship and the teaching. I feel that your advice covers everything except the core of what’s important in the academic world, namely, the material.

    Here’s what I really want to say: ********* without a passion for your subject matter, none of this advice matters at all. You can be calculating /strategic / tactical, wear the right clothes for the interview, meet the right people, have the perfect CV, etc. etc., but if you don’t really love what you’re teaching and writing about, none of the rest matters.

    And of course, you have to be *good* at what you’re doing. Again, without a gift for teaching and writing, you won’t get anywhere following this blog’s advice. Of course there are many different kinds and degrees of academic ‘gifts,’ and many levels of jobs, but you do need to be good at this stuff.

    I agree with you, Karen, that young academics need to realize that the academic world is as corrupt and corporate as the business world; but you are (I believe) overemphasizing the external.

    I have been ignorant, naive, stupid, and innocent at times over my many years in the academic world; I was never savvy. But my passion and my gift (such as it is) kept me competitive.

    • I believe that no student would complete a Ph.D. if they didn’t love their field and research. I believe this actually goes without saying. Therefore, I do not waste my or my readers’ time saying it. It is, though, why I do not work with anyone pre-dissertation.

  13. After 25 successful years as a tenured faculty member at 3 different Universities, I left. I left for many of the same reasons Karen mentions. I was good at my craft, but could not stand the constraints of the institution. Many colleagues feel the same way, but would never leave the academy – so they just get bitter. Couldn’t stand that either! I left a six-figure tenured position at a rank 1 school to start my own company to do the things I have taught and researched all these years. It was the right time for me to abandon the trappings of higher ed and move on. I think young TT professors should go forward and get the experience of being in that pressure cooker, learning multi-tasking and balance, and enjoying the rewards of the validation. But don’t be afraid to have an exit strategy 🙂 Very much enjoy your posts and FB updates, Dr. Karen 🙂

  14. Such an amazing post! Thank you for this! I totally agree.
    Also in my field (physics) there is a majority of risk-avoiders and people bowing to professors, always saying and writing ‘what people want to hear’ instead of their own opinion, to a degree that they do not know anymore their what their own opinion even is. I hate this so much and I am so disappointed by this! I thought the academic world would be the opposite of this. And the dependence on external validation being bad for one’s health is exactly true as well. I have seen so many people crack under a largely imagined ‘pressure’. It is only pressure if one absolutely needs to stay in academia. Which noone does.

  15. Thank you for this alternate view of careers and academia (and, indeed, for all the posts and resources you provide)! As an early-career scientist I really wonder if academia is for me, so perspectives on the institution itself and other options are valuable.

  16. I love this post. I will say however, there are some fields, such as mine, in which academia is pretty much the only way to survive. That is why I am hanging on after 15 years without a breath of opportunity for benefits, let alone tenure.

    I teach painting–not digital imaging, not graphic design–painting with a capital P. Probably the closest cousin to my pursuit is philosophy. With a few exceptions, in my field giving up teaching is giving up their life’s work in altogether

    That said, I have a new job that is entirely unrelated for a company I respect. With a little luck and a lot of hard work, the situation is temporary. However, there is a refreshing sense of relief every day when I literally punch a clock. I’m either there or I’m not. I’m either working or I’m not. I am expected to work hard every moment I am there with not one moment devoted to personal conversations of any kind, but know I will be treated fairly. It is the exact opposite of academia and I can’t say that I mind.

    • I love this post too! I was so glad to hear another artist-professor (Aggint99) mention the financial realities of being an artist. I luckily found this blog because I am currently applying for a full time tenure track job teaching capital “P” Painting, and need tips on protocol. It doesn’t seem as clear-cut as other fields where the research is dominated by writing, not art-making. I confess, I am terrified of wholly entering this academic world precisely because of this hierarchical, soul-smothering world which may rob me of my existing love of teaching and painting. Thank you for your sage advice.

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