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.
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.