Reflections On Departmental Division Of Labor By Psyc Girl

psyc girlPsyc Girl is an Assistant Professor in Agricultural Psychology, her pseudonymous niche.  She regularly blogs at stressful times for psycgirl on her journey (the good, the bad, and the frustrating) toward tenure.  Be sure to follow her on Twitter (@PsycGrrrl)!

Below, Psyc Girl reflects on the lack of even distribution of service in the department, and the consequences of this imbalance for her and her colleagues’ careers.

psyc girl’s cycle of collectivist angst about unbalanced workloads

Members of academic departments can be roughly divided, I believe, into two groups: Those who one would define as collectivists, and those who one would define as individualists. Collectivists value interdependence, and are likely to see the well-being of their in-group as important. Sometimes the group is even more important than their own individual needs. Individualists, in contrast, are more likely to value their own well-being, achievements, etc.

It seems to me that the collectivists in academic departments are those who are more likely to engage in administrative work, volunteer to do things even if those tasks are not reflected in their official designated workload, and to help someone else even if it means putting their own needs on the back burner temporarily.  The individualists are more likely to decline tasks that are not reflected in their official workload, prioritize their publications and items that will translate into lines on CVs, and to put their own needs ahead of the group or department.

Anecdotally, the collectivists around me seem less likely to have the publication records (and thus the salary) of individualists. It seems that the characteristics possessed by individualists are those more likely to lead to “success,” as it is often defined in academia. (Anecdotally, again, it also seems that the collectivists vs. individualists seem to reflect the women vs. men in many departments, but this is not a post about gender.)

I’m a collectivist. The individualists around me have caused me a great deal of grief during my journey on the tenure track so far. I’ve done tasks that have not been reflected in my workload, taken on administrative work that needed to be completed (and completed well) by someone, and my intensive mentorship style with my students probably slows down my publication record even further. Taking on many of these tasks frees up the time for my individualistic colleagues to focus even more on their own research.

My coping strategy with this “unfairness” has oscillated between two options. One is to say “Fine then. I’ll check out and focus on my research, too.” I see a lot of people around me taking the “fine then” approach. The problem with this approach, however, is that I don’t find it rewarding. I feel guilty. Tasks don’t get done in the manner they should. I’m not happy. I usually respond to these feelings with my second coping option – throwing myself into the work, telling myself no one will ever change, and eventually burning myself out. This makes me feel incredibly powerless. (And then I start again with “fine then.”) I end up locked in this vicious cycle of engagement, burnout, cynicism, disengagement, and guilt. In the meantime, my individualist colleagues have probably been working away, with no guilt whatsoever. Not only are the collectivists dealing with less time to dedicate to their research, via their personality style, they also have to work under the psychological cloud of this cycle – which can be exhausting. It exacerbates my inability to focus and produce research.

Recently, I needed some help with something, professionally. On paper, it wasn’t something that should have received any help from those around me. But, to my surprise, I received multiple offers of assistance. Helping me didn’t garner any lines on my colleagues’ CVs. They helped me because they respect me, they value me, and because several of them are my friends. I was surprised to discover, from this experience, that I do have power: I have social capital.

As an untenured junior faculty member, it is easy to feel powerless. It is nearly impossible to ignore the fact that almost every other member of my department will vote on my tenure application. I feel particularly powerless when compared to my individualistic colleagues. In fact, I often feel like a fool working away on administrative tasks while they publish twice as many papers as I do each year. As a result, their salary creeps up more quickly than mine and by the end of our careers there might be a large gap between our incomes.

Suggestions For Change

Lately, however, I’m doing okay – I’ve got the collectivist cycle of negativity on hold. I can’t guarantee these tactics will work for other scholars, or that they are all even possible in other contexts. Below are the strategies that have worked for me.

At The Individual and Interpersonal Level

  1. Acceptance (Part I): Yes, the system is set up to reward the individualists amongst us, and yes that system should be changed. But it isn’t something that I’m going to be able to change by myself, and it isn’t something I’m going to change this week.
  2. We need to be having conversations about the broader impact of this tendency. Who is doing the most administrative work? Who is “taking advantage” of the system? Are women doing less of the work that shows up on CVs and more of the grunt work? Minorities? And how are we going to change that, over time?
  3. Decide what is important to YOU.  It’s hard to know how to get from point A to point B if you have no idea where you want to go. What do you need to do, to focus on, to work on, in order to close your office door at the end of each day and say “I did a good job, today.” Maybe that doesn’t match with what your individualist colleagues find important. That’s okay. It’s also okay for this to include tenure requirements!  Apply this phrase as needed: “I would love to do more of [task X]. I really need to focus on getting tenure right now. After that, I’m all yours!”
  4. Acceptance (Part II): When I evaluated what is important to me I realized that being liked, respected, and having friends at work are all more important to me than extra lines on my CV or having the same salary line as my superstar colleagues. In my department those people are quite isolated. Being isolated would make me miserable!
  5. Regularly evaluate what you are working on – what can be dropped? What are you doing out of your “should” beliefs? What is not actually required of you? One of my colleagues is infamous for taking on no-recognition tasks that probably don’t really need to be done.
  6. Recognize that when you take on a task that shouldn’t fall completely on your shoulders, you are choosing to do so, and you are preventing one of your colleagues from doing that task. This further rewards the individualists for not picking up those tasks!
  7. Set boundaries. My individualist colleagues do it, and I started doing it too. I’m no longer giving away my writing time for meetings, I’m no longer overloading myself. I’m doing what I need to do for tenure, and what I need to do to accomplish #3.
  8. Last, recognize that there are other ways to get power besides publishing a ton of research. My power comes from my social capital – but as someone raised in the “publish or perish” culture of academia, it never occurred to me that this was helpful. Find your own place of power, and use it – don’t assume the only way to have power is by publishing.

At Department Level

We also need to be having conversations within our departments, where the cycle is unfolding. There are respectful, tactful, and powerful ways to say “I think I’m doing a disproportionate amount of work here.” Here are some possible outcomes of talking:

  1. Your colleagues might not know what you’re up to. Sometimes the individualists say “I didn’t realize you were doing all that. We should definitely share it more.” Don’t be resentful in silence, assuming your colleagues even know what you do, let alone that they are actively taking advantage of you.
  2. This cycle might not actually be occurring (or is not as bad as you think). After having conversations about workload in our program, we realized we’re more balanced than we thought.
  3. At the department level, years of this conversation have led to us considering “non-traditional” accomplishments as reasons for a raise. In fact, we now have a policy dividing our raises up into those for research and those for teaching, and we attempt to hit the same ratio of these each year.
  4. You can get some backup.  In my program all untenured faculty members get an annual review meeting with our department chair. That’s my spot to say “I’m doing X and Y, and I don’t think I should be yet. What do you think?” My department heads over the years have actually been quite supportive of balancing obligations to the department and individual progress.

“Another Blow” — Essay By Contingent Faculty Member On The Endless Academic Job Search

In the anonymous essay below, a contingent faculty member writes about the frustration of an endless search for a tenure-track position, as well as the financial woes that many contingent faculty are all too familiar with.

“Another Blow”

I guess I could see a case being made for the fault being entirely my own.  After all, I got my hopes up—again.  No matter how much I try to tell myself that this time, when I mail out that cover letter, CV, and scanned copies of my transcripts, I won’t care, one way or the other, I still end up caring. A lot.  Especially in a situation where I feel so perfectly suited to fit the needs of the job.

overwhelmedonlyIn any interview situation, I always feel like the pimply-faced geek asking the cheerleader to the prom.  I never quite feel like I’m going to appear good enough for the position, even though, rationally, I know that I am. I know, in my heart of hearts, that I am a gifted, dedicated teacher; a competent scholar, interested in a wide range of scholarly topics and issues; and a “good soldier” for the department, cheerfully performing whatever tasks are assigned to me.  I can get along with just about anybody. I am not judgmental, confrontational, or hostile, nor do I have one of those “prickly” personalities that takes offense too easily. I am not a plotter and schemer, I am constitutionally incapable of deception or manipulation, and I am not stubborn or lazy.  I have a positive outlook on life and the people around me, always believing that they are basically good. I applaud my colleagues’ successes and commiserate with their losses. I do my work, and I do it well. My students, the vast majority of them, respond well to my teaching and go on to lead happy, successful lives. I believe in their abilities, while holding them accountable for their contribution to their own educations.  I want them to be satisfied with their own learning and their grades, but I do not sacrifice my integrity, or the integrity of the educational process, in order to manipulate that outcome. I make positive, substantive, and supportive contributions to any department and any school I am a part of.  I do not know what more any department could ask of one of its members.

But, the truth of the matter is, for whatever reason, a reason that has escaped me for years and continues to elude me, none of that gets communicated in an interview.  Now, mind you: My mother despaired of me when I was child, because in spite of her best efforts to teach me, in her words (and the words of my grandmother, and probably her grandmother before her), to be “gracious and lovely,” I still managed to come off to others as graceless, tactless, mannerless, blunt, rude, and insensitive. I say stupid things that betray my intelligence. I say the wrong things at the wrong times, sometimes hurting people’s feelings without intending to.  I put my foot in my mouth.  I ask questions that have obvious answers. I come off as clumsy and clueless.  I babble, or allow my train of thought to drift way off topic.  I seem to have no internal sensor, no warning bells, and no internal “mom” who can give me the “eye” from across the room to signal me to stop, go forward, or turn left.  I have no angel sitting on my shoulder, guiding me with gentle persuasion.  I am clueless and guideless.

And if that were not bad enough, I also for some reason that has also eluded me for years, come off to some people as arrogant and self-congratulatory.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I am my own harshest critic, in spite of (or perhaps because of) my lack of internal sensors.  After any interview, I often re-play the entire thing, second-guessing every word, every gesture, every sigh, every ill-advised laugh or answer to a question. Once the hoped-for invitation to join the faculty does not come, then I launch myself into endless rounds of more second-guessing, followed by even harsher recriminations.  It is agonizing.  If I knew what I was talking about, I regret my own confidence, fearing it was interpreted as arrogance.  If I talk about past successes, I review them with a harshly critical eye, chastising myself for presuming to pride.  It seems, no matter how successful I have been in the past, if that phone call does not come, it all amounts to naught but pain, anguish, and intense disappointment.

Rationally, I know that hiring anyone on the basis of a couple of interviews is a crap-shoot, at best.  Other people seem to have perfected the skill of misrepresenting themselves.  The interviewers must be unable to see through practiced artifice.  They may, in fact, make the worst possible choice, but be unaware of that fact for many months. And then, it seems, it is too late to correct their mistake. And of course, it is entirely possible that they hired exactly the right person, and that was not me.

It is also entirely possible that I was mistaken in my judgment of the job, the department, the school.  I am always reminded of the cliché about being careful what you wish for since you might actually get it.  It is possible that I could have been the wrong choice for them, or they could have been the wrong place for me, after all.

But it is also entirely possible, and highly probable, that I was the person who should have gotten the job. And it is that possibility—coupled with the heartfelt certainty that I am absolutely right, and I have lost out on yet another incredible opportunity because no one can see, or that I was unable yet again to convince the hiring committee of, the “real me”—that haunts me.

And so I remain where I am. In a job I got, most likely because, through a happy convergence of circumstances, I did not have to interview for it.  I had the credentials and needed a job, and they needed to hire an astounding number of instructors at once, and could not afford the time it would take to interview large numbers of people the traditional way.  Sometimes, I torture myself and read the biographies of the tenured and tenure-track professors that are posted on the department’s website, where they talk about their interests and their latest research project.  I then think to myself, in my low-self-esteem moments, “Well, I guess I am right where I am supposed to be: in a low-paying, no-status, work-horse job I have to re-apply for year after year, with no guarantee of future employment, especially if my students suddenly decide to turn on me, since most of our jobs are significantly influenced by student evaluations.”

But in my heart of hearts—that same heart of hearts that tells me that I am great teacher and a good person—I know that I can do better, and that I deserve better.  Apparently, though, what I am really unable to do is convince anyone else of that.

And so I remain in a job that barely pays the mortgage, does not allow for a second car, and that causes tense moments when the student loan payments are due. I continue to write papers and send them out, many being accepted for publication, just because that is positively thrilling to me.  I do not, however, feel any pressure to do so, or pressure to be diligently revising my dissertation and trying to convince a publishing house to take a chance on me. I just write and publish because I like doing it.  I do not have ideas for new book topics on my hard drive, or outlined chapters of those books, or whatever it is that publishing professors do. I have ideas for murder mysteries floating around in my grey matter, along with a script for an updated filmed version of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and there’s that unfinished Star Trek novel, too

I teach my classes and grade my papers.  I do my committee work.  I go to meetings, sometimes.  I speak to the department chair casually, in the elevator or the main office. He, however, does not know me well enough to call me by the shortened version of my name that my friends and family call me—he uses my full name. I suppose I should be grateful that he even knows my name at all.  I continue to get summer school assignments that help with the bills, and I keep getting re-hired. Yay. And my students love me. And I love them.  Thanks be to god.

And so I remain.

 —Anonymous,
toiling in an annually-renewed contingent position
at a Top-Tier R1 institution, year 10;
have stopped applying for other jobs.

Find Your Own Pocket Of Protection In Academia

It is too easy to look back on stupid things I said, did, or thought in my youth.  But, at times, I can look into my past with pleasant surprise regarding a thought or action.  “Wow — how did I know what the heck I was talking about then?”  Since I started the countdown to finishing my PhD around this time last year, I have been reflecting a lot on my college years.  Maybe I am looking back to compare my experiences as a college student to what I imagine my students experience.  There is also a bit of nostalgia because — well — graduate school was just a different beast.  Related to that aside, I also find myself reflecting on the past because I actually knew things before grad school (despite the implicit messages I received)!

A Culture Of Opposition

One memory that, now, looking back surprises me is giving advice on navigating what I called a “culture of opposition” in academia.  As a graduating senior, having served as president of the student activities group that year, I was invited to give parting advice to incoming student leaders.  In planning events on campus, involvement in other organizations, and advocating for greater services for LGBT students on campus, I had amassed experience in working with students, staff, faculty, and administration.  Through my experiences, it seemed you could assume most people were either not interested or invested in your efforts, and a few even took an extra step to get in your way.  So, while attempting not to be a pessimist, I emphasized that one should not be naive about others’ willingness to support you.

April 2007, UMBC

April 2007, UMBC

A Pocket Of Opportunity

In the picture above, you can see the poster I created as a visual aid for my advice to incoming student leaders.  That is me on the right, going through my South Pole clothing phase.  The ominous mass on the outside is the aforementioned “culture of opposition.”  I recall seeing a shocked face on one staff member’s face when I misspoke, saying “culture of oppression.”  (I thought it was funny.)

On the inside of the circle, in the center, is what I referred to as a “pocket of opportunity.”  I made an attempt to draw a pants pocket that is releasing little hearts into the air.  For me, this pocket was student life.  The fellow students with whom I worked, but more so student affairs staff, offered a safe, encouraging space that provided what felt like limitless opportunities for me to pursue my passions.  They, along with a few faculty and administrators, supported me in my efforts to create a campus resource center for LGBT students.  Within an otherwise disinterested and, at times, oppositional culture on campus, I found this small pocket of protection, encouragement, and support.

Find Your Own Pocket

I am reemphasizing a (provocative) point I made before: we, as marginalized people, do ourselves a disservice by buying into the fairytale of academia as a safe, inclusive, and equal place.  Despite my wisdom about the “culture of opposition” as a graduating senior, I made the mistake of assuming the best about academia as I entered graduate school.  And, I embarrassed to admit I did so again as I started as a professor (albeit to a lesser extent).  There is no place that I can think of that will automatically be “home” for me, that will automatically be welcoming and encouraging for people like me.

In order to survive and thrive, we have to find our own pocket of protection/opportunity/support.  Unfortunately, I do not have advice beyond knowing that we have to search, for it is not a given for marginalized individuals.  I cannot say that I have readily known where to look, but it became clear that I had to look for allies, mentors, sponsors, and supportive communities.  This has meant broadening my search beyond my own cohort, department, university — and, outside of academia.

Three Posts: Impostor Syndrome, Alt-Ac, And Activism

Every once in a while, I search for myself on the internet.  Recently, I have also searched for any references to this blog.  Call it self-absortion, paranoia, or pride — whatever.  But, I like to keep track of what, if anything, is being written about me (and this blog) other than what I write myself.  For the most part, I am pleasantly surprised every once in a while when another blogger notes feeling inspired by me/this blog to write about a particular issue or experience.  Yesterday, I came across three such blog posts, which are interesting in their own right aside from me feeling honored to be deemed an inspiration for the posts.

  1. Nathan Palmer, a sociologist and academic blogger, wrote a post, “I May Be an Impostor, but…,” about some of the fear and self-doubt many scholars experience as we “write in public.”  Unfortunately, as Nathan notes, we sometimes avoid writing all together because the self-doubt is crippling: “Because of my impostor syndrome I’ve ducked opportunities; I’ve deliberately held myself back. I’ve held my tongue (believe it or not).”  Nathan created and currently runs or edits three blogs filled with resources particularly for sociology classrooms: SociologySource and SociologyInFcous and SociologySounds.
  2. I discovered that the first post on AltAc Liberation, a new blog for “PhDs, grad students, terminal degree-ers, and other doctoral folks to explore the road less traveled by,” reflects on my characterization of academia as a “warzone.”  The author, who writes anonymously for fear of professional retaliation, writes about the pain of feeling unsafe and perpetually vulnerable in academia.  Overwhelmed with this pain, and of frustration and disappointment with academia — what it proclaims it is and what it is in reality for marginalized scholars — the author is seriously considering leaving academia all together.
  3. I also discovered a new blog, that of Michelle Munyikwa, an anthropology graduate student — including Michelle’s recent post on activism in academia: “Be vital. Be involved.”  “I think, ultimately, I am likely to agree with Dr. Grollman, and cannot imagine engaging in this career without an element of activism. I’m hoping to avoid the beating that grad school promises (wishful thinking, perhaps?).”  It is reassuring to hear from Michelle that attending to the problems within academia (e.g., poverty among adjuncts, high debt among PhDs) are increasingly important, maybe as important as addressing problems outside of it — and that Michelle recognizes the importance of “being involved.”

“A Good Job? Depends Who You Ask.” By Dr. Leah VanWey

VanWeyLeah K. VanWey is a displaced Southerner who has spent almost a third of her life outside of her North Carolina home.  She has no intention of returning until hell freezes over, AKA North Carolina legalizes same-sex marriage.  Dr. VanWey teaches Sociology and Environmental Studies at Brown University, and researches human migration, agriculture and development, and land use and climate change in Brazil.  She also runs the interdisciplinary graduate training program in Population Studies at Brown, and currently mentors 5 graduate students and 3 postdocs.

Below, Dr. VanWey has offered her reflections on what a “good job” in academia is.

A good job?  Depends who you ask.

Every year the job market comes around and we talk about “good jobs.”  Are there many good jobs out there this year?  Anything good enough to apply for?  Did you/your student get a good job?  I’m a positivist social scientist, so I like to think that I can tell you what a good job is and set up some crisp measurement criteria.  But after doing this for more than a decade now, I am farther from that point than when I started.

I have a good job but not for the reasons I first thought, and not for the reasons you might think.  For those who care about such things (I don’t), I teach at an Ivy League university.  I get to teach about things I love to students who are future world leaders, I do research that I find intellectually stimulating and practically important (even if talking about soybean farms in Brazil is a sure conversation-stopper at a cocktail party), and I can give back to the university through various service work.

But those things aren’t enough.  What makes my job good are the relationships.  I have strong relationships with graduate students, postdocs, and colleagues around campus and beyond.  The one-on-one aspect of these relationships gives me energy and makes me happy, while the broader network makes my job feel more meaningful.  Nothing makes me happier than getting people together and figuring out how the right kinds of relationships make us together more than the sum of our parts.

It took me a long time to realize this was my “good job,” and I was lucky enough to realize it by getting and growing in my current job.  When I went on the job market in graduate school, my goal was a tenure-track job in a top 10 Sociology department.  I wanted to do research and I wanted the prestige of an academic job rather than a pure research job.  I came close to that goal, landing a job at a school that was arguably indistinguishable from the top 10.  I liked my job and my colleagues, but I felt like something was missing and decided that something still had to do with the substantive part of the job.  I left that job in part because my family was not thriving in small-town Indiana and in part because I decided the good job was in a university with a strength in population studies.  The intersection of population center with a place that my family would be happy brought me here to Brown.  This year I received an invitation to apply for what I would have considered a “good job” 10 years ago: higher ranked sociology program, population center, great colleagues, probably a lower teaching load.  I didn’t hesitate in replying that I am in the perfect job for me and I wouldn’t move.

It has also taken me a long time to realize that the “good job” for my students is just as variable and has little to do with the quality of their work or their confidence, and little to do with me.  A colleague recently told me that she thought the way to motivate graduate students to want R1 jobs is to consistently tell them that they are good enough and they can do it.  I have no doubt that any of my current and former students and postdocs are good enough or smart enough, but thus far only one seems poised to follow my path toward an R1 job.  All of the others have said at one time or another that they have watched me and don’t want my job.

This isn’t a failing on my part, nor is it something that I should have worked harder to change.  It is the reality that a “good job” means that something gets you up in the morning even if the day is full of unpleasant tasks, and that something is different for all of us.  For one of my students, the “good job” lets him integrate undergraduates into his community-based research locally and in Brazil.  For another, the “good job” lets her balance quality of life with the opportunity to make one corner of higher education a more diverse place.  Lucky for me, part of my “good job” is working with students and postdocs on the path to find out what makes theirs.  Lucky for them, I’m slowly figuring out how to think about this beyond teaching loads, salaries, prestige, conference money and other easy metrics.

Dr. Jeana Jorgensen Reflects On “Normalized Weekend Work”

Dr. Jeana Jorgensen is a folklorist, writer, and dancer (see her full biography here).  Her scholarship explores fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, gender identity, feminist theory, and digital humanities.  She is a blogger at MySexProfessor.com and on her own site (including many posts on folklore and academia in general). 

Below, Dr. Jorgensen has shared another guest post (see the first here), in which she raises the unspoken question about working beyond the 40 hours for which academics are typically paid.  Enjoy!

Normalized Weekend Work:  It Is Basically Like Homework, Right?

Photo by James Mortiarty

Photo by James Moriarty

As I pulled the pile of grading into my lap on a Saturday evening, I paused to reflect on how normal it seems to do work on the weekends, in the evenings, and on the weekend evenings. These are normally coveted times for socializing, relaxing, and even doing unofficial labor like domestic tasks, relationship maintenance, and errands. I didn’t used to have a problem with working on the weekends, but something has changed: my perspective.

I was a student for the bulk of my life, going straight from high school to college, and straight from college to a PhD program (earning my MA on the way). When I finished my doctorate and starting adjuncting, for lack of other opportunities, I thought, okay, I’ll take on some freelance writing work to help pay the bills. Since I was trying to remain competitive on the job market, I also made time to do my own research, which has included publishing articles, presenting at conferences, writing book reviews, and starting to work on my book proposal. Teaching plus freelancing plus researching plus writing plus publishing has led to a somewhat busy schedule, likely to the detriment of my relationships and personal life.

I’m not as bad off as some academic overachievers, like this scholar, Kate, who delayed routine health checks only to discover that she had breast cancer.  But the more I think about the situation—what I’m putting in vs. what I’m getting out—the less I’m happy with working on weekends.

The disconnect came when I realized that working on weekends didn’t used to bother me. In fact, back when it was just “homework” I usually enjoyed it (yes, I’m a nerd like that). I have to spend this weekend reading a book? Oh no, how terrible! I can only go to the party after I finish a first draft of a paper? Fine by me, I hate arriving early anyway since it feeds my social anxiety issues. It didn’t seem that bad at the time.

Now, I realize that a large part of the reason I was totally okay with giving up evenings and weekends as a student was that it was supposed to be temporary. Being a student is a phase in one’s life, during which one works very, very hard to achieve the kinds of grades and learn the kinds of skills that will help one land a job or achieve whatever the next life goal is. Then, in the mystical, magical place known as Adulthood, one would maintain sane working hours and actually have something resembling the oft-rumored free time.

jeana

Photo by James Moriarty

Obviously, life is life, and we’ll never have as much free time as we desire. There will always be chores to do, sick friends to bring soup to, conversations about finances to schedule with partners. I balk, however, at accepting that I will always have to work weekends simply because I chose to pursue an academic career. Forcing weekend work on scholars is tantamount to assigning mandatory homework. The amount of labor implicitly present in academic job descriptions is deceptive, and I believe that the unspoken requirement to bring work home infantilizes us, treating us as though we’re still students, as though the institution always knows best, and we must always keep busy.

The blog post, “Perfectionism and Its Discontents,” distinguishes between having (usually healthy) personal standards of excellence and having (usually unhealthy) perfectionist tendencies. What the blogger advocates is that academics have high personal standards, and that these “standards be achievable, that our successes be recognized, and that our mistakes be accepted.” Is a job that implicitly requires take-home work encouraging its workers to subscribe to achievable standards? Will it recognize its workers’ successes?

In my mind, if I am getting paid to do a job, I’ll want to consider, among other factors, the hours involved, and how that correlates to the pay, the prestige, and what sort of good I’m doing in the world. I don’t think it’s unsustainable to expect scholars (or workers in general) to bring work home on some weekends or some evenings. However, it should not, in my view, be the norm without it being crystal-clear in the job description, without additional compensation, or unless the person chooses, without punishment or incentive, to take it on because they’re really, really into what they’re doing. This impulse to go above and beyond could be for institutional reasons (wanting to see a project through because it’ll benefit everyone) or for personal reasons (getting excited about new research).

I know I’m in a bit of a slump, being between research projects, and still trying to figure out how I feel about being in my second year of adjuncting, and attempting to plan my next move. But now that I’ve begun thinking of working on weekends as being akin to homework, I find myself less than eager to do it. Maybe my next exciting research project is just around the corner and I simply haven’t caught sight of it yet. Or perhaps realizing that there are power dynamics at work in how you spend your time is a bit of a disincentive to expending more energy for an institution that isn’t looking out for you. A little of column A, a little of column B?

Once I became more aware of this pattern, I’ve made the following attempts to work with this realization and deal with my resentment over it. Perhaps these strategies will offer you some ideas, too:

  • I log hours like I would for a “real” job, thus letting me see if I’ve put in 8-10ish hours already. Then I might feel justified in calling it quits in the evening (granted, measuring intellectual labor is tough, so I try to use a mix of looking for measurable results, like finishing a draft of that syllabus or those article edits, and simply measuring the time I spend with my laptop or a book being productive, regardless of how much I accomplish).
  • If there’s a non-academic event I’m looking forward to, like dinner with friends or a dance performance I’m in, I will establish in advance that it’s a priority, and that I will put down my work when it’s time to go.
  • If I really must work over the weekend or through the evening, I tell someone about it, so that I can be held accountable for that much work and not more. I’ll tell my workout buddy that I need to finish a stack of grading before we can hit the gym, and if there’s still grading waiting for me when I get back, I feel like it’s reasonable to keep working until the grading is done, and then stop.

What are some of your strategies for dealing with academic “homework” once you’re no longer a student?

On Choosing The Right Job

Yes, you read that appropriately.  This post is about the process of choosing a job once one has finished graduate school.

In the years leading up to my job search, I heard all sorts of warnings about how difficult the job market would be.  The scariest, yet most sound advice was to acknowledge that at least 80 percent of what occurs during one’s job search is beyond one’s control.  At the start, even deciding to go on the market is a negotiation with one’s committee and department.  But, I stress that this, and subsequent decisions, should also involve the other committee members in one’s life: family and one’s gut.  And, ultimately, where you take a position should be an informed choice.

Number Of Offers ≠ Number Of Options

Once you are on the market, securing one job offer is a major feat; landing multiple offers is described by many is “luck.”

Say you only land one job offer, and it is something short of perfect or your dream job.  You can choose not to accept it.  Sure, others will probably say you are foolish to give up a job “in this market!?!”  If you have any reason to hesitate in accepting a job at that institution, it is worth really asking yourself — is there a chance you will need to look for a new job within a few years, or even immediately?  I know of some folks who have chosen this route, but I cannot fathom taking a position knowing I will need to go through the stress of a job search again.

So, what other options are there?  There are a number of good reasons not to accept a visiting position.  But, the alternative may be staying in graduate school another year, maybe even two or more if subsequent job searches do not go well.  With another year in hell grad school as an option, I went on the job market with fairly open preferences for a job; you couldn’t pay me (ha!) enough to stay longer than I did.

To be completely honest, the “oh no, I’ll never get a tenure-track job!” fear stayed at a tolerable level because I eventually decided that academic jobs were just one type of job.  Yes, I am make the blasphemous statement that there are jobs outside of academia, as well as some within it other than faculty positions.  I told myself that if I received no offers, I would continue my job search but in applied and non-profit positions.  I know that leaving academia immediately after graduate school would come with the possible feeling that I am better off, but also with other academics’ assumptions that I was less committed.  (Oh, there are so many ways we jump from life decision — get married, have a baby, take something other than an R1 job — to assumptions about one’s commitment to the academy.)  Though I have seen some return to academia after some years working outside of it, the myth is that one will never be able to return (probably because of the aforementioned assumptions about commitment).

All of this is to say that I am troubled by the pressure to accept the sole tenure-track job offer one receives.  It is a job then, but it may mean a few unhappy years.  It is important to think about the long-term consequences of something that seems “better” today.

What if you have two or more offers?  Good for you!  Having one, or even none, is still no signal that one is not competent, or ready, or worthy of a job.  But, for the job search itself, it is nice to have two or more to choose from.  The aforementioned advice about considering alternative careers, or not even accepting a job, still apply here — even if you have 10 offers.  If/when you accept an academic position, it should be because you are absolutely certain that you want it, not because it is the expected outcome of graduate school.

A Few Things To Consider

Below, I offer some tips that may be useful as you weigh your options — even if you only have one offer.

Do Some Soul-Searching

If you have yet to sit down with yourself to make a job wish list — what are your wants and what are your must-haves in a job — do so before you accept an offer.  And, even if you have at earlier stages in the job search, I would encourage doing so again.

During my job search, I experienced great pressure to follow the path that was chosen assumed for me.  During the window I was given to accept the offer with University of Richmond, I went on an interview at a research-intensive university in the Midwest and was called with another interview invitation for a top-ranked program in the South.  I knew in my gut that UR would be a great place for me.  It was an offer I would accept if it was the lone job offer or one of many.  But, I had to revisit the wish list and some personal journaling to ignore all of the external (and internalized) pressure to “go R1.”

Contextualize Advice

When I began receiving advice that was so far afield of my interests, passions, and personal needs, I felt as though I wanted to shut my eyes and close my ears to concentrate on what my internal adviser was telling me.  This is not to say that others’ advice was bad or even malicious.  But, I had to remind myself that much of it was based either on an inaccurate or incomplete picture of who I am, and some is either standard advice (“go R1!”) or self-centered advice.

Unfortunately, so much advice presumes a certain commitment to academia, one that is uncomplicated when you are not disadvantaged in some way.  For example, telling people to take a job in North Dakota, either because it is a great school or one’s only offer, ignores that some people — especially queer people, people of color — may be miserable in such a place.

Do Your Research

While most who will offer advice have good intentions, the onus to make an informed decision falls on you.  The most work I had to do was to figure out what the heck liberal arts jobs really were.  Funny, most of the people telling me to “go R1!” have only been at research-intensive universities.  Thus, they are not really in a position to tell me what liberal arts jobs would be like.  I had to contact friends and colleagues who were actually in faculty positions at liberal arts colleges, and scour the internet for information and personal reflections on the differences from positions at research universities.  One of the most helpful reflections I read was “Are You A SLACer?” over at Memoirs of a SLACer.

On my interview with UR, my future colleagues were honest, yet positive about faculty life.  But, I supplemented those conversations with some investigative work.  I looked through the student newspaper, documented history of the university, and students’ personal reflections and ratings on the university (e.g., U.S. News & World Report).  I looked for specific things — the campus climate and institutional support for people of color and queer people.  Like any place, I saw a few concerning events in the not-so-distant past, and grumblings about the historical lack of racial and ethnic diversity.  But, I was impressed by the recent, intense shift toward greater inclusion.  For my other options, I saw enough of a concern that I had major reservations about accepting a position there.

Interview Them

It is crucially important in assessing whether a job is right for you that you treat a job interview as as though you are a potential buyer.  As I said, even if you receive one offer, you should think long-term about how the university fits in your life and career.  It is a potential employer’s job to sell the job to you, too.  A place that does not attempt to sell itself is either riding on its prestige (“you know you want me”) and/or may not be a place worth considering.  (Personal aside: I don’t care how big your di… *ahem* I am not status-obsessed enough to be impressed by prestige alone.)

I was particularly impressed with UR because parts of the visit were clearly tailored to my interests — namely meeting with staff/faculty involved with diversity programming on campus, and community-based research and teaching.  Not only were my future colleagues showing me that I could fit (resources, initiatives, climate), but that they also cared and celebrated the unique aspects of my scholarship.  Once I started, and slowly let down my guard, I have found they think quite highly of my blogging.  Hello, perfect job!

Observe And Take Notes

As an academic, you have skills to observe, critique, listen, connect dots, etc.  In your hunger for a job, do not turn off these skills during the interview and negotiation phases.  Observe interactions among faculty, especially across power lines: senior to junior faculty, privileged faculty to marginalized faculty (e.g., whites to colleagues of color), and vice versa.  Observe how faculty and administrators interact, or at least how they seem to talk about one another.  Observe how faculty interact with staff, especially the department’s administrative staff.  Observe how faculty interact, or talk about one another, across departments and colleges.  And, observe student-faculty interaction.

Of course, try to treat how students, staff, faculty, and administrators interact with you as participant observation.  Do not rush to either demonize or justify unusual interactions — at least until once you have enough information to assess the whole university and department.

Red Flags: On one campus interview, there were several red flags for me.  A few off-handed remarks were made by faculty that suggested they thought little of their students.  And, I was told outright community service was for post-tenure.  But, the sirens really went off when faculty either noted first-hand experience, or hearing about others’ experiences, with discrimination and exclusion.  I do not know if they assumed they were doing what is right by being completely honest, or maybe figured I could understand given my own research on discrimination.

In interactions with another school, faculty stressed so hard how diverse and accepting the college is — but it felt as though they were trying to convince themselves more than me.  Via a phone interview for a joint position, it was quite obvious the two departments had different visions of what the job entailed, and there seemed to be little connection across departmental lines.  Whether the departments themselves saw these as problems is important, too; but, that these problems exist was enough for me to be wary of taking job in these departments.

Personal Fit:  I also noticed varying levels of closeness among faculty.  On one visit, there were strong friendships among the faculty, but mostly among junior faculty; it seemed the senior faculty were on the margins of the department.  Ironically, the appeal for UR was that faculty have strong professional relationships, but have their independent lives after hours.  As the chair described it, the department is more like family than friends.  I was surprised that this was appealing to me, but now realize it was the promise of not having colleagues in my personal business.  I am free to make personal connections as I wish, and share the personal aspects of my life I feel comfortable sharing at work.  The supposed collegial, yet high-school-like microcosm that was graduate school has led me to appreciate leaving work at work and home at home.

Also, I took note of how relaxed or stressed faculty seemed.  Some of the most wound-up academics I know can easily dissolve into a monologue rant about all of their upcoming deadlines.  The flip-side is being carefree because one is working at a leisurely pace.  The strength for UR over my other options was that my future colleagues appeared to work hard, but at a pace and within a climate that did not mandate 24/7 stress and anxiety.

Others’ Advice

Remember, this is just a job.  You should chose one that serves your goals.  I am well aware that this is simply my perspective and experience speaking, so you may find others’ advice useful, too.