I Don’t Know If I Want To Be A Professor Anymore (Pt. II)

Photo by Erik Mayes

Photo by Erik Mayes

This is Part II of my four-part series, “I Don’t Know If I Want To Be A Professor Anymore” (see Part I here). Now that I’ve given some perspective on where I was coming from in my disciplinary background (folklore studies), I’ll talk about the other factors influencing my decision to maybe, kinda, sorta, not pursue a career in academia anymore.

In the past, I have blogged here at Conditionally Accepted about gauging internal and external ways to validate my work as an adjunct, as well as how identifying patterns of normalized weekend work in academia has led me to reevaluate my working habits. On my personal blog, I’ve written about how my experience of academia has oscillated between potential career and very expensive hobby. I’ve ranted – a lot – to friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, both online and in person, about the uneasy fit between my experiences of academia and the narrative I’d swallowed in grad school. And finally, I’m able to put some of it into a coherent format.

But first, a word about how academia’s cultural practices complicate the personal/structural binary that runs throughout my piece. As grad students, we’re taught to link our professional career to our personal identity, which can be problematic when the number of jobs dwindles, simply making it a fact that most of us will not get to do what we love or what we’ve trained to do. There are “approximately 36,000 new PhDs each year, and only around 3,000 new positions created.” And yet, PhDs who “fail” to get jobs are facing damaging and misguided rhetoric, such as the idea that “The best students will always succeed” and “The problem isn’t that there are too few faculty positions. The problem is that more students and postdocs are CHOOSING not to become faculty.” Rebecca Schuman’s outraged response mirrors mine, in that I’m appalled that the dominant response to those leaving academe has been so disdainful and out of touch with the reality of the academic job market and adjunct working conditions. Those who are stubborn enough to stick it out may eventually win a TT job, true, at which point the exploitation and abuse they’ve endured transmutes into praise for their dedication. This is such a bizarre system that I don’t think I’m alone in wondering whether I want to stick around for that outcome.

The metaphor of “a thousand cuts that kill” describes my experience of alienation from the academic career track pretty well. There are lots of individual aspects of academia that I love, but the things that have worn me down and hurt me have begun to outnumber them. The things I enjoy are often concrete experiences I can easily point to and describe, whereas the things that detract from my enjoyment and my sense of integrity are more abstract, and hence more difficult to discuss. But hey, that’s why I got an advanced degree, so that I could describe the difficult-to-describe, right?

If I were to make a list of pros and cons of being a career-path academic (from my perspective), the shortened, blog-post-palatable version would look like this:

Pros:

  • I love teaching, research (both textual and ethnographic), writing, and presenting.
  • I excel at these tasks and have been recognized in various ways (yay external validation!), such as receiving fellowships, publishing many articles in peer-reviewed journals, and having multiple “this class was awesome and/or changed my life” conversations with grateful students.
  • Having a flexible schedule and the option of having summers off is great for me, plus I love to travel (like for conferences and research).
  • I need intellectual engagement in my life.

Cons:

  • I had inflated expectations about being able to get a job right out of grad school, so spending 3 unsuccessful years on the job market has been emotionally painful for me.  (For more on why academic rejection hurts so much, see Rebecca Shuman’s post, gathered from the responses she crowd-sourced here).
  • The nature of the academic job market is needlessly expensive, time-consuming, and exploitative (see Jennifer Guiliano’s suggestions for a more humane job market), and I’m not sure how long I can keep it up.
  • Spending the last few years adjuncting has opened my eyes to the exploitative nature of university work, and I can’t say I really want to be a part of this system in such a way that I structure my identity around it (and even should I land a TT job, I would be implicitly endorsing this hierarchical structure by participating in it).
  • I am close to burning out and no longer wish to work evenings and weekends on research that would help me stay competitive on the job market.
  • Getting tenure no longer seems to guarantee job security, so why struggle to get a TT job and subsequently overwork myself to have a shot at a vanishing dream?
  • Even if I did get a job, I’m not sure that I could, in good faith, mentor students.  (See this blog post for another perspective on advising grad students in good faith).
  • I’m at a point in my life where I want to prioritize my family and my relationships with others, so academia’s culture of overwork is less appealing to me than it was when I was younger, single, and itching for something to be passionate about.
  • I tend to struggle with anxiety and self-worth issues, and the culture of overwork in academia has not been good for my mental and emotional health.
  • The longer I work for exploitatively low wages, in order to have a shot at the hypothetical “it’ll all be worth it” outcome of a TT job, the more I question the wisdom of this plan despite the sunk costs and investments over time.
  • The longer I work for exploitatively low wages, the more I feel like I’m not contributing to my household financially (because, truly, I’m not, and even though I got a decent funding package, I still graduated with student loans).
  • The longer I work for exploitatively low wages, the more I want to use my time to do other things, rather than work for an institution where students are paying the same tuition regardless of whether a part-timer or full-timer is teaching their classes.  (Hm, where is that extra money going?).

Lest anyone reading this think I wasn’t good enough to get a job, let’s all remember how arbitrary and flooded the academic job market is. I’ve got similar amounts of publications and other accolades as my colleagues who have found TT positions.

Regarding those last few bullet points, obviously it’s not all about the money. But when you’ve spent the last decade-plus believing that you’re laboring intensively to build the skill set to land you a given career, and then you learn that you likely won’t have a shot at the full-time version of that career unless you labor under exploitative conditions with no certainty of renewal… it’s tough. From another perspective, I experience cognitive dissonance about the pay scale because in other communities (like the performing arts), working for so little could be perceived as undercutting one’s competition. Except, in academia, it’s almost the opposite: because we adjuncts are willing to labor for so little, we are enabling those in pay scales above us to continue to do what they do at the rates they get paid. A little odd — isn’t it?

Even though this list is a rough approximation of my experiences of the last 3 years on the job market, simply weighing these considerations has been helpful for me. I’ve come to see that, while I enjoy and am good at many of the localized tasks involved in being a career academic, the overall culture has been toxic for me.

I’m not used to making big life decisions based on how I feel. (This should tell you what a great track record I’ve had in relationships). So it’s really weird for me to say that, despite being a competent scholar, and despite all signs pointing to me eventually being able to land a TT job someday, I don’t feel happy doing this work anymore. I just don’t. It doesn’t excite me, it doesn’t fulfill me, and those fleeting glimpses of joy simply don’t make up for all the frustration, anxiety, misery, shame, and other negative emotions and experiences that have come to comprise my attitude about academia. I know not everyone is in love with their job, and I’m not trying to be a special snowflake who deserves more happiness than everyone else. I’m just trying to relate how my negative experiences and feelings are making this job not terribly worth doing, given the other unsustainable aspects of this gig. And yet, like Elizabeth Segran, I fear that if I leave, I won’t get to do what I love anymore, so that’s another factor in my thought process. The “do it because you love it” rhetoric has always been problematic for educators (and really, everyone), as pointed out in this excellent Jacobin article.

So there’s been a fair bit of cognitive dissonance involved in reaching the point where I can say I don’t know if I want to be a professor anymore. Note that there are a bunch of vagueness modifiers in this sentence; it’s not that I’ve completely ceased wanting to be a professor (I might want to take a job if I can find one that’s a good fit for me). And it’s not that I’m absolutely positive that I will never work in this profession ever again; the right circumstances could lure me back, and I’ll likely continue to do this kind of work, just with different expectations and goals.

Now that I’ve reached this realization, though, how do I act on it? That’s what my next blog post in this series addresses.

18 thoughts on “I Don’t Know If I Want To Be A Professor Anymore (Pt. II)

  1. There is a natural incentive for institutions to mint considerably more academic-focused PhD’s than to provide opportunities for commensurate academic employment.

    This is an old problem. Airlines overbook flights, supervisors over-promise on production, and students naively cram a semester of learning into a long night before the test. We are a society that believes we can do more than is actually possible, because there is tremendous short term gain to be made in insisting what is not true.

    Your story is one that happens everywhere. The only cure is honesty. Keep sharing the painful truth.

    Like

    • Thank you, Robby. You’re right in that institutions tend to have different goals and values than individuals, which can lead to conflict. I suspect this wouldn’t be as life-shattering a problem if our professional identities and financial security weren’t tied in with our ability to attain institutional employment.

      Like

  2. Thanks for sharing this. It captures a number of feelings I have as I begin my third year of adjunct work.

    Like

    • Thank you for your comment, Derek. I’ve just finished my third year of adjuncting and have mixed feelings entering my fourth.

      Like

  3. The marriage of identity and career role is common in other lower paid professions as well, like teacher, social worker, nurse, clergy…

    Like

    • That’s an excellent point, Kathy. Thank you. I think it happens in high-paying professions too (doctor, lawyer, politician) but perhaps in different ways.

      Like

  4. thank you very much. although German and US-Academia certainly differs a lot, I cannot agree more

    Like

    • Thank you, J. I’d be curious to learn more about differences in the academic systems around the world, though I suspect that we’re all being treated poorly.

      Like

  5. Well said. After a harrowing and humiliating job hunt, I changed paths and love my job on the outside. Best of luck.

    Like

    • Hi Carol – thank you for your comment. My job search has only gone on for 3 years, and has only been somewhat harrowing… but yeah, I think there are plenty of reasons to try to look elsewhere for a career.

      Like

  6. I was an adjunct at a liberal arts college for 5 years until I landed a full-time instructor position at a regional state university. I don’t get to teach the classes I truly love anymore and I’ve ended up teaching some things I wouldn’t have chosen on my own (which I’ve come to not mind too much, now that I have some idea what I’m doing), but I have great colleagues, a real paycheck, and I didn’t have to move (which at the age of fortysomething with a kid and a spouse is a very big plus). Right now I’m working on finding ways to do the other things I love outside of work. I wonder to what extent I was just really lucky to get a full-time job in a world so full of adjuncts, and to what extent these kinds of non-tenure-track teaching gigs might be viable options for others as well. We all get trained to think we need to have that tenure-track “dream job” that is our true calling and totally defines who we are, but sometimes it really is ok to get a job that’s just decent and pays the bills and makes the rest of your life viable (and doesn’t have that publish-or-perish stress).

    Like

    • Thanks for sharing your experience. I’m starting to think that people who land full-time jobs are in the minority and that this trend will continue as more full-time jobs are replaced with part-time jobs. I know that for myself, participating in a profession where luck plays such a large role in employability (not to be confused with success) does not feel healthy or sustainable.

      Like

  7. The thing that gets me, about this entire discussion, is that the inflated sense you spoke of is all too common. This isn’t about any sense of overflowing the job market, as much as it is telling extremely talented and accomplished people that they could do extremely well in academia; the only problem is academia isn’t big enough.

    I am a second year PhD student, but I tend to believe that I have a much more sobering idea of the job market because (a) I’m older than most people in PhD programs (I’ll be over 40 when I graduate) and as such (b) I’ve been in the full time job market for a bit, and thus understand more components. I also kid myself into thinking I will settle; if that position does open up in, say, the University of Alabama (for several reasons, I hate the South, and being there would be a fate worse than death), I tell myself, hey, I wouldn’t be happy, but I could (and would) do it. Truth? I’m not sure, and it scares me.

    I also look at examples in the field, like a former friend who finished his PhD in Sociology and indignantly said he would only teach at one of five schools. Four of those schools had positions open: he got an interview at exactly none of them. So he spent two years as essentially a post-doc teaching assistant before just giving up completely.

    But this inflated sense of confidence that some have in academia is where my friends’ experience comes from, and the by product of this inflated sense is:” I have been trained as an academic – why would I ever want to do anything other than be a professor?”

    I find that the field of law (which is going through an overload of bodies like the academy) is having this same “falling on deaf ears” experience where more and more law students are graduating without landing jobs as lawyers, being told by others to think of other fields beyond law, and they sit thinking “why would I want to be anything other than a lawyer? I went to law school”.

    As I push through my degree, and adjunct part time (and go to school part time and work a full time job), I am increasingly coming to the belief that maybe, just maybe, I don’t want to be a FULL time professor – and if I don’t then I will have zero idea of what I want to do once I’ve walked across that stage….

    Like

    • Thanks for sharing about your experiences and expectations. I agree that there tends to be a sense of… almost entitlement… in a lot of academics I’ve talked to. But then, academia is a very insular culture, and when you spend 5-10 years immersed in it, why wouldn’t you emerge with their same set of values imbued in you?

      Like

  8. Thanks for sharing! I’m in the same boat…three years as an adjunct…trying to make something work. The exploitative nature of academic culture is off the charts–and some friends who have found a TT position are playing into it. One told me I could work as a caterer on the weekends or become a nanny. I frankly would love to see a system were EVERYONE enters as an adjunct and you have to work your way up the ladder so that everyone knows how exhausting the endless job search is, how expensive this profession really is when you have no income, and what it’s like trying to have a life when you have to work around the clock to keep up with people making 10x as much who have 1/2 of the work (i.e., no job search, no second/third, job, etc.)

    Like

    • Wow, yeah, I can see where those comments would really highlight the exploitative nature of academia. Thanks for sharing them, though. I think your idea of everyone having to work their way up the ladder is an intriguing one… but I don’t know if it’ll ever happen. I mean, if they can find a way to expand the exploitation they will, but I think there still needs to be a prestige class for people to aspire to.

      Like

  9. I have been in the same situation – got my PhD, published a book, edited a couple, a journal article, book chapters, loads of teaching experience, presentations at conferences, being on committees etc. etc. I worked as a part-time teaching fellow for a year, a research fellow at another uni (moving from NI to England) for two years (which I hated as it was mostly writing grant applications for other people!), a research associate for a year (which I loved as it was mostly interviewing people) and all this time I was becoming more and more disillusioned and angry about academia. I could see friends who were academics falling apart, feeling like they weren’t good enough, and I felt the same. It ruined my self-esteem (already not being great) and increased my anxiety issues, it meant I felt guilty if I wasn’t working evenings and weekends. I just ended up hating the whole culture of competition and ridiculous expectations.
    So I left. I’m now running my own business as a transcriber and proofreader for academics and I love it – I get to learn about lots of stuff but much more broadly than before as I read PhD theses and journal articles and listen to interviews, I’m my own boss. Okay the money isn’t great and I often don’t know from one week to the next how much work I’ll have but it’s worth it, so worth it, to have much much better mental health.
    I in no way regret leaving academia and I will never go back. Good luck with your decision 🙂

    Like

    • Thanks for sharing about your experiences. The route you describe – all that publishing and work, leading nowhere – is very familiar, and I could see myself having gone a few more years in that direction before throwing up my hands in disgust.

      I’ve mostly talked to people around my own age/cohort about what it’s like being an academic, even when you’ve “made it” with a TT job, and yeah, I’ve heard similar things about feeling not good enough, feeling overworked, etc. It’s pretty sobering that even people who’ve won the lottery (as TT jobs are becoming increasingly rare and luck-awarded) aren’t always happy with it.

      How cool that you’re in business for yourself! And thank you for the words of encouragement. 🙂

      Like

Comments are closed.