Death of a Soul (on Campus)

Dr. Karen is on vacation in Italy July 2012.  During that time she is re-posting older blog posts  her regular Tuesday and Thursday posting days.  She’ll recommence new posting some time in August.


~~~~This post is an invited Guest Post on Worst Professor Ever. (originally published July 2011).  Visit Worst Professor Ever for some of the best alt-university commentary on the web! Worst Professor Ever is the brainchild of Amanda N. Krauss. She left a tenure-track position to have a life.~~~~

This past year I left my tenured professor position and administrative role as a department head at a Big Ten Research University. I was making close to six figures and was in my sabbatical year.

Why would I do something like that? Why would anyone? I am obviously out of my mind.

A little background: I got my Bachelor’s in Japanese Literature from the University of Michigan in 1985. I completed a Ph.D. In Cultural Anthropology, specialization on Japan, from the University of Hawai’i in 1996. I was offered a tenure track position at the University of Oregon that same year, received tenure at the UO, and was recruited to a tenured joint position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2003. In 2004 I was made Head of one of my departments. I was Head for the term of 5 years. In 2010 I took sabbatical. During that year my family and I accomplished our long-awaited goal of moving back to Oregon. I submitted my final resignation to the U of I in early 2011.

As a department head of a small foreign language and literature department at a major research institution in the Midwest I made, as I said, an excellent salary. I had graduate students, generous summer research funding, and few obligations beyond the ones for which I was paid: holding faculty meetings, balancing the department budget, running searches, meeting staffing needs, handling tenure cases, filing faculty paperwork, and calculating faculty raises, on the occasions there were any. Don’t get me wrong, this was a great deal of work. I was busy, stressed, and I worked hard. But I was not nearly as busy and stressed as I had been as a new assistant professor. And I had far more to show for it at the end of the day. I enjoyed administration.

So why would I leave?

This is a hard question to answer in a single blog post, because obviously, my reasons were many, and unique. But in the end they revolved around two fundamental problems: 1) I needed to remove my children from a bad custody situation; and 2) my soul was dying at the University of Illinois.

These two problems intertwined over time—the difficulties I faced in caring for my children became so all-consuming that they forced a major life decision: focus all my non-work energies on my children, and give up research, or continue doing research, and put my children’s well being at possible risk. I made the decision without a second thought, but the outcome of making my children my first priority, while remaining in an administrative position, was an end to my writing and research. When the time came to address my second problem — my unhappiness at the University of Illinois – I did not have a publication record that would allow me to move to another faculty position.

And so, my partner and I made a joint decision. If she found a job back in our beloved Pacific Northwest good enough to support the family, I would leave behind academic work entirely.

This was not a completely wrenching decision for me to make. I was ready to leave academia. I had created a jewelry business and was enjoying building that. And I was desperately unhappy at the University. I had reached the unfortunate point where just being on the UIUC campus reduced me to tears.

And this brings me to the crux of the issue: the whole dying soul thing. Why was my soul dying in Illinois? Why was I so miserable? Why was it so bad that I was willing to chuck a highly successful twenty year career to get away?

People instantly assume it is because Illinois is “conservative” or “homophobic.” It is neither. It is a blue state. It is Obama’s state. It is politically moderate to slightly left of center in much of its northern half. The college town I lived in was of course an even more liberal-ish sort of place, with more than its share of progressives and the occasional radical.

And as far as homophobia goes—-that was a non-starter. From the university to our neighborhood to the kids’ teachers to the plumber who came to fix the toilet—people pretty much took us in stride. Even the court system, when custody was at its most contested, categorically refused to countenance any hint of a homophobia, or to consider us as in any way less than or different from a heterosexual family. I won custody. It was heartening.

No, life in Illinois was bad mostly because of the University itself. It was a dreadful place.

When I was at the University of Oregon, even as a harassed assistant professor, it was kind of fun. The students were curious. My colleagues were funny and irreverent. The staff was capable and opinionated. The administrators were down to earth. Nobody took themselves too seriously. We weren’t paid for shit. It was actually humiliating how badly paid we were—from administration on down. But people had their unassuming little houses and sweet gardens, and spent their weekends rafting or hiking or biking or driving about visiting wineries. Nearly everyone had a vibrant life outside of work. Dinner invitations flew back and forth, and when someone was facing a life crisis, people pitched in. We organized dinner brigades for new parents, helped out with yardwork for ailing friends. When I had my kids, delicious home-cooked dinners were delivered to our door every night for three weeks.

I assumed that that’s how campuses are. I thought they were communities. In fact, being young, and ambitious, I spent much more time focusing on what I didn’t have at the UO—-a decent salary, adequate research funding, status.

So, when the offer came from the University of Illinois, I jumped at it. I was sure I had made the right decision. Money, status, research funding… all these things beckoned.

And then I found out. Found out what it’s like to be at a place where most everyone is convinced, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that they are very, very important people. Where most everyone is convinced, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that they are doing very, very important work. Where most everyone is convinced, beyond the shadow of a doubt, they are very, very smart. That they are, indeed, the smartest boys and girls in the whole world.

I discovered the unbridgeable, heartbreaking chasm between a place where noone takes themselves very seriously, and a place where pretty much everyone takes themselves very (very) seriously.

A few encounters set the tone quickly: In the first week when I had my music playing as I unpacked boxes in my office, a colleague came by within minutes to say, “please turn that off; it’s very distracting.” In the first month or so, when one colleague and I drove out into the country for a secretary’s housewarming party, and discovered, awkwardly, that we were the only 2 of the 20 or so faculty members invited, who actually had bothered to show up. In the first semester, when, while teaching a seminar in the department seminar room, the Head burst in to berate me in front of the students for not getting his authorization first. In the first year, when I entertained colleagues at dinner parties only to have them act as if they had never met me when next I saw them. When, with painful regularity, the averted eyes and contact avoidance in the hallways made me wonder if Aspergers Syndrome was epidemic on the campus.

Human connection was virtually impossible.  Early in my first summer I asked a colleague in English if she’d be free for lunch one day. “I’m sorry, I’m on a strict writing schedule. I only have the nanny from 8 to 5 four days a week over the summer, so those days are out. I could schedule you in one of my off days I suppose.”

Of course at first I assumed these encounters were exceptions, and that soon I would find the fun colleagues, the ones with a sense of humor, the ones willing to take time for a human connection. But as the years passed by, I was forced to admit, there really weren’t any. At least among the regular humanities and social science faculty members with whom I mostly interacted. I found a few friends in the professional schools, and heard rumors of dinners and parties among colleagues in the sciences “North of Green.” And I found one good friend who was non-tenure line. Even the Jews and the queers, far from being the people with the loudest laughs and the raunchiest jokes, were, with but a couple of exceptions, stiff and self-important. Self-important queers? I couldn’t even wrap my mind around that one.

The only thing that people “did,” outside of work, was leave town. Leave town, that is, to work. I said we invited people for dinner, but really we didn’t often succeed in that, because most invitations were met with, “Sorry, I’m at a conference that weekend.”

In desperation we started attending a church. It was better. Mostly because no university people were there. But of course, that felt odd too. My family is half-Jewish. And we were, after all, university “types.” I like that whole academic schtick, with the sarcasm and the irony and the obscure references. The people at church were mostly lovely, but it never really stuck.

The few times I met others on campus also sadly trolling for human connection, they were on their way out. Nobody who cared about community stayed long at the UI, at least that I could see. I certainly would have exited within a year or two at the most, had I not been tied down by truly inextricable personal circumstances.

As it was, I stayed and kept trying to make it my home, for far, far longer than I expected. But in the end, I failed. Ultimately I too gave up and stopped trying, and became exactly like the others—insular and unavailable.

I, who have lived and thrived in countless parts of the globe, could not thrive in East Central Illinois. Sure the weather sucked. But truth be told, I didn’t care that much. Sure it was flat and ugly. But in reality, I could live with that.

No, it was the people. The people on campus. I couldn’t make it at the UI because of the culture of the UI. It was a culture organized around ego, self-importance, defensiveness, and pretension. Nobody trusted each other. There were no alliances.

At Oregon, the battles around the recruitment and representation of Native American students and faculty had been intense. I had been called on the carpet by Native American students in my classes, and had learned, through hard, earnest dialogue, to be a better, more aware, far less race-blind teacher.

At the UI, such dialogue was impossible. One of my departments fractured the year I arrived when the Latina/o students and faculty finally lost patience with the institutionalized racism and exclusion of the campus. Supported by the wonderful then-Chancellor Nancy Cantor (who was hounded out shortly after by the Good Ol’ Boys and went to Syracuse), they spoke out. But they were not heard. There was no way to hear them. There was no trust or good will. The black students, the Asian students, the white students, the faculty as an appallingly defensive collective—the department splintered into racialized factions, and never recovered, as far as I could see.

Not all faculty members were politically passive during my years there. Some worked to confront the racist Chief Illiniwek mascot, just as some worked to unionize. As I said, it is not a conservative place. No, in the end, it was something worse, for me. It was a cold place. It was an empty place. It was a place where nothing, not any damn thing, was more important than the next publication, the next grant, the next conference.

And I couldn’t do it. I could not make it work. Ashamed of myself, lonely beyond belief, alienated in ways I had never imagined possible for someone as energetic and passionate as I am, I stepped away. Faced with the choice between money and status there, and no money and no status in the place I’d known before and loved, I chose the latter. And I have not looked back.

I’m not bitter. I don’t hate academia. I know what it means to enjoy an academic job, and I hope that a few lucky individuals still have the opportunity to do that. To that end, I’ve created this business, The Professor Is In , offering my institutional and practical knowledge to graduate students and junior faculty who need it.

For myself, I feel spectacularly lucky to be back in Oregon, raising my kids, building a business, hiking the trails, and working half-time at the University, this time as an advisor in the McNair Scholars program, which prepares exceptional first generation, low income, and underrepresented undergraduate students to apply to and succeed in Ph.D. Programs.** I am in the right place. I made the right choice, and I’m happy.

**Update 7/2012:  I have left the McNair Scholars position at the UO to go full time as The Professor Is In.  The business has succeeded beyond my wildest dreams, and I am thrilled to be able to devote all my energies to the business of helping junior academics confront and overcome the dilemmas of an academic career (including the dilemma of deciding to leave it).

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Death of a Soul (on Campus) — 45 Comments

  1. fabulously written piece which is reminiscent of (sadly) many educational institutions worldwide. You did the right thing, but don’t be too disheartened – there ARE workplaces in academia which are thriving, fun, inspirational places to work, where creativity can thrive. Difficult to find though…

    • thanks for writing, Mary! I’m glad to hear you say that. I notice from your email adddress that you might be from the uk? Are the thriving, fun workplaces you speak of all there? Because, that would be saying something significant, about both the U.K. and the U.S.

  2. Dear Karen –

    A wonderfully written piece and obviously you made the right decision. It’s so hard to find a good sense of community in academia. And after a while, after seeing close friends not get tenure or move away, I think your soul tends to harden against making new connections, which is a sad thing.

    I’m referring my grad students to your site as I’m undoubtedly one of the worst advisers ever (ventriloquating Amanda Krauss).

    Karen Nakamura

    • thanks for reading and commenting, Karen! The comment stream on the original WorstProfEver site is also incredibly illuminating, if you’re interested. You cannot be a worst advisor ever if you think you might be a worst advisor ever. Because it’s the clueless sanctioned ignorance and overweening self-regard that are the core characteristics of the worst advisors.

  3. So nice to see that there are like-minded people out there in academia. Unfortunately, my graduate program became so hostile and threatening to dissenting opinions that I am leaving after this quarter. I’m sorry that you also had to leave, because we need more good people teaching at universities!

  4. I mean no disrespect – but may be you did not try hard enough? People do work for pay – becuase they have to support their families, think of IRA and professional growth. That people did not attend an invited dinner – well, hell with them, find someone who would. After all, Universities are not about the social mingling (although this is a very important part of life), but rather about how to profess in teaching students, how to create new and attractive courses, how to give the students an education, not a training.
    But I still like your blog very much!!!

  5. It can be incredibly lonely at some research-focused schools. I have had many parties (usually potlucks, but I cook for 2 days before so there’s LOADS of food)…and very, very few of the people who seem to have a delightful time ever reciprocate. The culture is one of cocooning and compulsive overwork, and heaven help you if you aren’t married w/kids. I conclude that the socializing is simply happening around/without me…and it’s not nearly as bad as you describe…but I do recognize elements of the vibe alright. Good for you for getting out and taking the leap!

  6. I am wondering if it’s a Pacific Northwest thing? I teach at a small liberal arts college where I have coffee with colleagues — just for fun — all the time. One of my friends at a Large Midwestern Research I institution said that I would never survive at his university because I “care too much about the students.” It sounds horrible. I taught at Columbia University for a year before getting my position here, 20 years ago, and I had the same experience of asking a colleague if she’d like to have lunch, and being asked what was on the agenda and could we do it over the phone? Yeesh. I am lucky to have found my match made in heaven here in the northwest.

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  8. This is interesting. I am looking at leaving my current post in the UK to come to the USA for similoar reasons. I think that it is fair that you simply “outgrow” your role in a university – Tenure track or no. It comes to a point that even the job security isn’t enough. A person needs change (to quote the phrase “a change is as good as a rest”). I think you made the move that was right for you and I respect that.
    ~By the way, I am getting a whole load of useful information from your blog. As a senior academic in the UK, I notice that the application system is SOOOOOOO different. Thanks for this work.

    • thank you, Scott! The move has been more fulfilling than I ever could have imagined when I first made the leap.

      It is amazing how different the UK and the US are in academic practices.

  9. I find this website valuable in many respects, and I certainly recommend it to my graduate students. However, it’s important for younger readers to bear in mind that the cynical attitude toward academic culture that we find on this blog represents one person’s experience and perspective, and that of a person who left academe because she was unhappy. That was clearly the right decision for her, and it will be for others as well. But you should know that some people are actually happy in academe, and our perspective will of course be different from Dr. Karen’s. As one of those people, I’d like to offer the following to balance the perspective in this essay.

    The main satisfaction you get from an academic job really has to be the work itself, not the social interaction with colleagues. You should look at the academic workplace as primarily that: a workplace, not a place to find your main social fulfillment. A workplace should meet your professional needs, but it is unlikely to meet all of your personal needs, and you shouldn’t go into a new job with that expectation. It’s true that you may get lucky and make close friends among your colleagues, but that is not the main purpose of academic employment (or any other employment). And in any case, I have learned the hard way that personal friendships with colleagues can be risk, if the person in question is insecure, emotionally volatile, or incapable of keeping confidence. Yes, there are people like this in academe, as there are in the world at large. Developing a personal and social life separate from your work is healthier in all respects than expecting your department to meet these needs.

    It is true that people work very, very hard at research-focused campuses. But many of us find the research deeply rewarding. People who spend their weekends and breaks researching and writing, at least after tenure, are doing it because it’s exactly what they want to do. In my case, not from blind ambition, but from sheer love of the subject. The tone of this blog posts suggests that there is something wrong with that, but there simply isn’t. I realize I am fortunate not to have lost the passion, 10 years out from my Ph.D., but there are others like me, and you may (or may not) be one of them.

    It’s also true that some of the behaviors and attitudes described in Karen’s department at the University of Illinois are just plain rude. But in some cases, I can easily see the other person’s side of the story. The person that was bothered by Karen’s radio had come in to get work done and the radio was interfering with that. The person who didn’t want to go to lunch because it was in the middle of dedicated writing time had paid for child care to have time to write. For some people, it’s hard to get back on track after taking a long social break in the middle of the day (I would have welcomed the break, but people have different needs). She was trying to do something very difficult in raising children and being a productive scholar. If you are burning the candle at both ends, it’s hard to have time to socialize. That doesn’t make you a bad person. Also, remember that academe is full of introverts. They may not become your closest friends, but this does not make them bad people or bad colleagues. If you adjust your expectations to these realities, you’ll be much happier.

    • “Developing a personal and social life separate from your work is healthier in all respects than expecting your department to meet these needs”: I would like to see some evidence about this…

  10. Dear Karen,
    I am happy to read that there are people who love their academic positions and do not share your views. Unfortunately, I think that the situation you describe is familiar to many of us. It’s just that most people do not have the courage to express their feelings. There is a taboo about admitting dissatisfaction in a tenure-track or tenured position. It is considered shameful to reveal it; that is probably why so many people get sick, because they somatize a discomfort they feel, but cannot allow themselves to express. I thank you for your courage and for revealing the dark side of research universities, the loneliness that one can feel working in a place in which it is impossible to establish any real connections with colleagues, a place where one does not find any of the values that one considers crucial in education. It is dishartening when the administration creates the conditions that forster competition at the expense of collaboration and social interraction. Human beings are social beings and when the workplace becomes so dehumanized, it might well be the time to leave, especially if your entire family is affected. Working in two departments and disciplines is also an often overlooked factor that adds a lot of stress. I can well imagine why you decided to leave academia. I don’t know whether there are studies about people holding a dual position, but I can tell from experience that it is extremely tough to juggle that load, especially without any support from colleagues. Thank you for your frankness!

  11. IMHO, Rebecca M. makes a bit of a straw man argument or at least misconstrues Karen’s position to a degree. No where does Karen state that academia or any workplace should meet “all of your personal needs,” as Rebecca M. suggests. Rather, Karen champions the importance of collegiality at what is, after all, a “college”—a gathering of colleagues. Interacting with students and colleagues is important to the intellectual stimulation that makes academic work possible. We need to hash through ideas and have our approaches challenged, both formally and informally, to do good research. And that can become very difficult if everyone around you is always rushing away to some conference or completely wrapped up his or her own stuff.

  12. Interesting. I spent five years at UIUC. I always assumed that my feeling exactly as you described was a result of my department (music) and advisors. But maybe it’s endemic to the institution.

    It was this graduate experience that made me choose to leave academe when I finished. I’m lucky that in my field a non-academic career is very feasible, if somewhat more work, and almost a decade later, I am enjoying myself. But my thesis advisor was appalled. Appalled! He is still not speaking to me…..

    Oh, and I am Canadian, so I can tell you unequivocally that winters in East Central Illinois (“Illiana!”) could be worse. Oh yes.

    • funny and telling…. when i first moved back to oregon i would sometimes tear up at the sheer kindness of strangers and friends…an ethos of caring that was the default, not the exception. I was so accustomed to being treated with such indifference…

  13. This is third time I have come back to read this post. Why? Because it is like reading my life. I did survive the horror that was UIUC as a grad student. I did get my PhD (long before you were there Karen) but also because I now find myself (tenured associate prof) at a University that has the same ugly culture as U of I. I was a miserable grad student and now I am a miserable prof. who wanted to leave after a couple of years because of a complex custody issue could not. And now I have to wait until the kid finishes college (on my own with the tuition). I am applying for jobs, but not at research institutions. I have had enough of this soul stealing culture. The dilemma is this, when I have gotten interviews at SLACs ( I love teaching!) faculty are often baffled by my need to leave the R1. One person even said to me during an interview, I wish I was at University of [fill in the blank]. I just smiled and talked about how much I would love working at their college. I am sure I did not get the job because they did not trust me because I was willing to leave the R1 nightmare I presently work in. Any advise on how to deal with this? Anyway, bravo for your decision. I hope I will be in a position to do the same in the next few years if I cannot find another job.

  14. Hi Karen, many thanks for this post. I just recently found your website when decided to search for answers to my question of how to survive a mid career depression. After complaining at my university about the lack of appreciation and my tiredness I was sent to a counselor who has made me realise how the place I am working does not value community but selfishness and research productivity at any cost. I am even considering changing jobs, the issue is now that my wife is expecting babies. The pay is good but there is a lot of politics. “We” want to become one of the best schools in the UK and the price to pay is sacrifice, but at which cost? We are now killing our junior and temporary faculty with more teaching. I am in the middle. I would like to help the juniors and found myself collaborating with a lot of people both in the UK and elsewhere, but this does not seem to be valued. I could still work there, but will definitely lose the last bits of my friendly and helping soul. Your post made me realise that I could jump at another chance if I see it.

  15. Thank you so much for this post. I am currently a graduate student, struggling with wanting to quit academia before I even seek a faculty position. I am getting my PhD at a research university, and am experiencing just what you describe. People who are convinced that their work is all that there is to life. Worse, the undergraduate program is an absolute joke. Challenging undergraduate students and actually trying to make them learn is clearly not a priority here, as instructors who actually try to make things challenging for students face countless official complaints by students. And this isn’t just a problem of “my” institution–it seems to be a problem at research institutions in general. My soul has already died a little bit, and I don’t even have my degree! Hearing about your experiences at University of Oregon, however, made me think that maybe I can find a university that will be a good fit for me. I guess this post stirred up a few different feelings in me. Validation that I’m not the only one feeling/experiencing these things. But also hope that it will be okay =) I’ll either find a better fit, or it’s simply just going to be okay to pursue another career. Thank you for that.

  16. Is there any advice for evaluating schools and departments on the basis of culture and community in order to avoid that sort of atmosphere? I’d be eager to hear it!

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  18. I have the same question as EY (Is there any advice for evaluating schools and departments on the basis of culture and community in order to avoid that sort of atmosphere? I’d be eager to hear it!). I’m entering the job market this year and am desperately seeking a collegial and inviting atmosphere (my grad program is much like your experience at UIUC and I don’t want this environment for my first job). I’d love to hear your thoughts. Great blog!

  19. Karen tells many truths that can be articulated in various ways. Here’s mine: Academia is built around one remarkable feature of living creatures: curiosity & exploration. And thus it’s fun to do research, of course it is, but to say that for the sake of exploration you will sacrifice your own community is rather foolish. We live in times when the educated middle class can ignore its community, its country, where it comes from and where is going to. Initial lavish public funding has created a cadre of selfish over-focused individuals who like junkies are completely absorbed in their pet projects without gazing at the world they live in. They are very much like the caged rats of the rat park experiment that need their daily Soma. For a reason it’s called the rat race.

    Many of those top scientists are gullible enough to enact a corporate culture that has subverted the ethos of scientific inquiry, and not surprisingly are the kind of people who willingly develop drones, Seed Terminator Technology(TM), and biological weapons for a lousy ‘competitive job’, a paper and a patent. Fortunately, a few of them have left us with evidence of their regret.

  20. This post brought me to tears, because I too was heartbroken when I left the PNW for an R1 tenure-track job at a major midwestern university. The town I moved to was hip and progressive (until the Tea Party took over the state a couple years ago, but that’s another story). I made some close friends in the larger community, but I always felt isolated in my department. Finally, after 18 years becoming more successful and more miserable, I moved this year to a smaller, less famous university in a place I absolutely love, with wonderful colleagues and a welcoming community. I applaud your choice. Feeling at home in the world is enormously important.

  21. I too am one of the “quitters.” If you are unhappy where you are, you shouldn’t ignore your depression. Many of the faculty at the place that I left were actually in therapy. I was as well until I decided that I needed to change my environment.

    I had a question for Dr. Karen and the other people who left TT jobs. Have you had to deal with feelings of failure since leaving your position? It’s almost as if it’s better to be unhappy at a prestigious university than it is to be happy at a place that is not as highly ranked. I mostly don’t associate with my former colleagues because I don’t want to talk about what I’m doing or don’t feel the need to justify my choice. Maybe I’m the one with the problem and not them.

  22. Thank you for sharing your motivations for leaving academia. Your words struck truth in me because I’ve been contemplating leaving now for a year. I’m a new-ish professor at a smaller state school, so it’s not an R1, but the atmosphere you describe is very similar except that, because of our size and “younger step-child” status compared to the bigger schools in the state, there is also an attitude of desperation for the need to prove that we are very, very important – so much more important than the person next to us could possibly be. I don’t participate in this attitude or the behaviors that follow (nasty rumors being spread about colleagues within our own department, out-and-out ignoring a professor as they try to engage in conversation, etc.) and so I am often on the receiving end of those behaviors. I liken the whole thing to a pack of mangy dogs fighting over a scrap of bone. There’s no meat on it, but having it would still be more than the other dogs get.

    All of this is actually why I’m back on the market. Well, this and the general atmosphere of the area of the country where I am – oppressive in weather, politics, social values, etc. I’m hoping and praying for a SLAC in the midwest, where I am hoping I will find community, collegiality, and maybe even a few friends!

  23. This article puts into words the misery I’ve been feeling about my community college teaching job of 20+ years. Add “faculty accountability” and low academic standards to the mix and that’s where I am. I’m trying to figure out what to do next because this place is killing my soul. Your blog is inspiring. Thank you for expressing what many of us are feeling!

  24. First, thank you for ‘theprofessorisin’!

    I left corporate America for academia because I could no longer deal with the soul sucking, back stabbing, workworkwork, more work, travel on your weekends, get thrown under the bus by your boss/colleague/the admin/HR/the security guard, sit through year end performance reviews that make an intelligent being into a homicidal maniac….

    So I enter academia as a road warrior adjunct – I teach business at for-profits, have my PhD from an online for-profit. Karen – here is a whole ‘nother ball of wax your blog has not yet begun to address. There are legions of us ‘for-profiters’ out there and this education market is vastly larger than the whole R1/R2 circus.

    Then I get ‘promoted’ into administration which is in need for somebody with management background/experience and lo and behold! It is just like back in corporate on the inside. Now the argument could be made that for-profits ARE corporate. I get it. Really, I do, I’m a business prof and former middle manager.

    And then I read your blog – I stumbled across it in search for answers about academia and what this education market is comprised of segment wise/customer wise/labor market wise. Hmmm, not so different from corporate, R1 or Fortune 500, it does not seem to matter. So thank you for helping me understand that.

    Idea for future income stream – how to help adjuncts/professors who actually enjoy teaching and care about academic integrity and rigor, emotionally survive the modern paradigm and business focus of all schools these days (for-profit, state, private not for profit) of ‘a$$e$ in cla$$e$’ and the resultant adjunct browbeating to increase enrollment rates, retention rates, and graduation rates. That is where we are getting the grade inflation issue: Here is your B, now shut up and go away and write a positive student review about me please so I get scheduled and get to do this all over again next quarter for minimum wage.

    Mr. Jack and Mr. Daniels are my personal helpers right now but long term I’d like to keep my liver.

  25. You and several people in the comment thread mentioned how difficult it was, after trying for years to make it work, to quit and walk away.

    It sounds to me as if all of you made the right decision. Perhaps whoever said this was right:

    “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then give up. There’s no point in being a damned fool about it.”

  26. Karen, reading your history is heartbreaking for me. I am a nearly-tenured physics professor in a small Canadian university. I feel like I’ve won the lottery. Heck, in this job market I never pretend I didn’t simply win the job lottery. But I love it every day. Sounds like that was you at UO early on. Then you got “recruited” somewhere shiny. I occasionally dream about that happening to me. A cindarella fantasy about being whisked away from the muck of an under-achieving university and going somewhere “serious”. But I’ve often wondered if that is a booby prize for some. Reading about your experiences is so useful and fortifying. I would bet dollars to doughnuts that my academic fantasies are going to change as a result. Thanks for sharing.

  27. Thank you Karen for your clear, forthright and frank narrative. It’s courageous to stand up and say the university emperors have no clothes.
    I’ve been educated at top 100 unis and bottom ranked (but not bottom feeding for-profits), and I’ve worked at both–as well as having held senior roles in the private sector. I love my job at a low ranked uni where people create a supportive, collegial culture (which coincidentally makes for better research). Working at top ranked uni’s is a game that works for the hyper-competitive who care about little else. I have had more challenging intellectual discussions at my low ranked uni in a year than I’ve had in many years at a higher ranked uni in nearly a decade.
    Rankings don’t tell us about quality of education, quality of life, qualities of the experience there or the qualities of the people and policies we’ll find there and will have such an influence on our lives.
    Hopefully, policy makers will pay attention to the critical factor of culture in universities before they all become for-profit grind factories, or a public facsimile of that model.

  28. Hi Karen

    Great post.

    I am on a similar journey but for different reasons. I was a succesful researcher at a top flight biomedic research institute. For family and personal reasons we moved to a small university in a regional area.

    Unfortunately their is no soul in my new place. I never realised how impotant that was too me until I didnt have it anymore. There is no collegiality.

    My Dean also expects me to produce as much research as I did in my old job. The old job was 100% research in an Institute stuffed full of state of the art equipment. My new job is 40% research and has one small lab.

    The upshot is that I will not get tenure. I have had lots of sleepless nights worrying about my future and my families finances.

    I have finally come out the other side and have realised my entire ego was caught up on my academic self. I have stopped being arrogant abput my job and am starting to look for new careers where I can do the things I love. These are science and science communication.

    Its a little bit sad that my current University us not the place for this… but I am now excited about the future, not scared of the future.

  29. I’m currently at UIUC and reading this made me feel so much better that I’m not going crazy. It’s things like receiving an award and inviting your group out for drinks and 3 people out of 20 show up. Hosting a party and having people that RSVP’d “coming” not show up because some reagents that were back ordered come into lab. Going out on a Friday and having people leave early to go back to work even though they arranged the outing. I’m surrounded by extremely smart people who get things done, but I’m alone in having anyone to talk about my work with and also share in the non-work things that make collaborating and working with others fun. Hoping my next stop in academia will be different…

  30. Hi Karen,

    I’m reading this, and unlike most people that have commented from UIUC, I have to say that this place is home. I am in my last semester finishing up my PhD, and I am currently dreading the thought of leaving a community that I call home. I very strongly believe that this is not as someone said above “endemic to the institution.” Maybe I got lucky, I don’t know, but my group of friends and fellow grad students have been some of the best people I have ever known. We regularly go out, make time to just turn off and be awesome, but also know how to get work done. In my time working with faculty, everyone has always been warm and talkative and just overall lovely people. I am sorry that your time here was largely negative, but I my time here has been some of the best of my life. I hope that wherever I go, that people there are as awesome as they have been here. I wish all the best for you.

    p.s. I love the advice on your website.

  31. Fabulous blog, thank you Karen! I first became aware of the realities of academia when I undertook a research project (with supervision – well, sort of) as a mature age Masters by Coursework student. As a supervised student you start to get a glimpse into The Way Things Really Are for the people you only previously knew as your lecturers… and it’s brutal. Nearly 10 years on I’m in the final stages of an MPhil and nothing has changed, other than the pressures have increased. There is so much that is wrong with academic life it’s hard to know where to begin (and don’t get me started on the business of thesis production!). Happily I have connected with a bunch of women academics at all stages who share my concerns. And in my spare time I run a research student support network at my university to try and address some the struggles and isolation felt by this cohort. Academic life needs to be seriously re-imagined. And deconstructed. And its outputs made truly accessible to all.

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