Some real talk today, talkin’ ‘bout my feelings ‘n shit.

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[Rockin’ the Catskills today. You jelly?]

I am coming to terms with the fact that I am never going to be a “real” professor—although try telling that to the students whose lives I will enter in a few weeks’ time: their homework and grades will seem “pretty real” to them. But no, I’ll be a mere adjunct at a tiny Honors College inside a regional university in the Middle West (Gatsby style!), an “academic nobody,” as Lee Skallerup Besette has characterized the uncharitable views of some of her blog’s worst trolls.

Most days I am happier than I have been in many years about this. My long-term partner, whom I met my first year of graduate school (and whom I attracted precisely because I “didn’t seem like a grad student”) has remarked that since my postdoc ended and I moved back to St. Louis, that I’ve aged in reverse.

It’s true—there are some “Ohio wrinkles” I don’t see anymore, accompanied by a life in my eyes and a general dearth of the abject terror that lurked below each day in Columbus, like so many pollution-filled mussels on the bed of the Olentangy River. I dye my hair again, a glorious bottle-red, unleashed in all its pigment after years of Professorial Gravitas Brown—or, even worse, my natural color, which is now aggressively peppered with grey.

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[Who’s that sweet redhead who appears to be in her MID-thirties instead of her LATE thirties?!?]

If I was a disciplined and productive academic writer, cranking out journal articles and then finally my monograph—finished and submitted to the press this past May—then now I am a motherfucking locomotive. I have so much to write that I simply can’t get it all down. It’s like eight years of pent-up creativity that had been stuffed back by my own dismissals of anything other than Serious Scholarship as wasted energy have come geysering out, for better or worse.

A few weeks after “Thesis Hatement” came out and all I saw on the Internet was hate, hate, hate, hate and more hate, I lay curled on the couch in St. Louis crying, wishing aloud that I would just die in an accident already, something that wouldn’t be my fault, quick and painless, gone. I had lain extremely bare my own failure after seven years of sacrificing my health and my happiness, I had perilous few new prospects, and I had an Internet peanut gallery making sure I knew I had no future in anything. I wanted to die. One night, I made a list of my positive attributes: I started with “Usually Remember to Drink Enough Water” and was stumped thereafter. Although in my defense, hydration is IMPORTANT. (I know now, of course, that it was far from all hate, but like so many of you, I get eighteen adulatory evaluations and one critical one, and I commit the latter’s complaints to memory forever.)

Three months later, I feel like a different person, though I am drawn sometimes into spats about the vicissitudes of the job market and academe’s cult-mentality in general. Still, now I’m emboldened by my new identity as a curse-spewing postacademic hellraiser, straight-up high on the inimitable sobriety of being able to speak aloud the truths that so many people are still afraid to whisper. I’m emboldened by the simple fact that I live another life now,  one for which I am infinitely better suited.

So it’s true—I was not “suited” to academia. But I don’t want to hear that from anyone but me, and here’s why. First of all, I still adjunct, and because it is not my primary source of income and it’s two sections of the same course I’ve taught before, it truly is part-time and I like it. So when nonacademic friends  said, in attempt to make me feel better during the “die in an accident” stage, that academia cramped my style—well, I’m still a professor, so watch it. I think like a literature professor about everything; I bring my ability to scrutinize texts and take apart issues to everything I do. I may not act like Avital Ronell (shudder), but, to paraphrase the great scholar Young MC:

I had to go to college because I’m an intellectual
I only sleep with men because I am heterosexual

I’ve called myself the “intellectual’s anti-intellectual” as a joke, largely in reference to my equal proclivity to enjoy Bertolt Brecht and The Bachelorette, but I am a goddamned intellectual, so don’t tell me that such things don’t “suit” me, because they “suit me” just fine—my way.

I sew most of my own clothes to fit my body just-so. Because if this, I don’t know what size I am. I’m 36-28-40: me-sized. I’m exactly the right size to fill out the clothes I make to suit me:

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[Bridesmaid dress for my partner’s sister’s wedding, the Sultry Sheath from Gertie‘s New Book for Better Sewing. This wedding was on the day “Thesis Hatement” came out. Can you see the shellshock? And no, I didn’t walk the aisle in the Mickey Mouse flip-flops.]

I have done this with academia as well: I have taken the parts that “suit me”—teaching, reading critically, thinking philosophically, participating in critiques about the present and future of higher ed—and tailored them to fit my personality. And I have done away, for now at least, with the parts that don’t “suit me”:

Research, for example, doesn’t suit me right now. But not because I wasn’t good at it. I mean, I guess, like the hundreds of commenters on my op-eds who either didn’t read my CV or don’t know how to read a CV, you could say I wasn’t good at it, but that would be news to the editors at Modern Austrian Literature, The German Quarterly, and Northwestern University Press; to the Internationales Forschungszentrum Kulturwissenschaften and the Austrian Fulbright Commission; to the DAAD and the American Council for Learned Societies; and to every department where I’ve ever been interviewed—and even some where I didn’t make the cut, but scrawled in handwriting below the form rejection was a missive insisting my writing sample was “nothing short of amazing” (I love positive academic hyperbole on the rare occasions I get it!).

I’m taking a hiatus from academic writing for one reason only: I am sick of spending years of my life squeezing out meticulously researched and difficult academic prose—which I then have to manipulate, sometimes four times over, to placate the needs of meanie-pants anonymous peer reviewers—that maybe, maybe, seventeen people on Earth will ever read, for the grand sum of $0. I’m not saying I don’t Believe In My Ideas, your Royal Highness FULLPROF Mayhew, I’m saying I want to write things that appeal to a wider audience.

You know what else doesn’t suit me? Going on the job market. Spending months crafting individual 70-page dossiers for each school because every search committee demands something different: a three-page teaching philosophy! A one-page teaching philosophy that pertains specifically to the courses taught by that department (but not THOSE courses you like, those are the purview of Mean Senior Prof Everyone Hates, and even displaying the slightest interest in them is enough to make the committee go nuclear on you)! A five-page research statement! A twenty-page writing sample (even though all of your articles are twenty-five)! A six-page abstract of the dissertation you finished four years ago! Your three most recent evaluations and your three least recent! Your ten most negative evaluations! And then pretending not to check that goddamned baby-killing Wiki, but then checking it anyway and watching as the interviews start piling in for everyone, it seems, but you. x4! x12! xEveryoneButSchuman! And do not get me started on conference interviews, because I have such exquisite bile for them that I think someone will pay me to share it. And the waiting. And the searing, wrenching rejection that “isn’t personal, so move on.” After four years, you know what? Don’t mind if I do.

And you know what else doesn’t suit me? Politicking, preening, ass-kissing; servility, sycophantism, cowardice. I’m not saying that every department ever is filled with, or requires, these things, nor that other industries don’t run on them. I’m saying that there is enough of this bullshit in academia that I’ve had my fill, and I would rather hang out with people who don’t treat a coffee date like a comprehensive exam.

And you know what else? Getting sneered at every time I let slip that I have any hobbies besides alcoholism. “How do you have the time to sew or watch TV?” I get, over and over, from people who spend three nights a week belligerently drunk. I have time, in part, because I write very fast, and in part because I don’t drink. I spend all day, every day, 100% sober, so I lose no time to either drunkenness or hangovers. But the thing is, for a lot of academics (not ALL OF THEM, Vim, so lay off), drinking somehow counts as scholarship, as long as you’re yelling about Kant and Kleist when you do it.

I am fully, painfully aware of the ways in which academia doesn’t suit me—but that doesn’t mean that I like it when FULLPROFS and others say this, because it smacks of that heartbreaking dismissal so many disillusioned PhDs get when they fail to become adequate replicants of their mentors: “Well, not everyone is suited for academia.”

What they mean is this, and this only: you weren’t good enough. You weren’t cut out for it because you aren’t smart enough. You failed. Academia’s only for winners like me, and you’re a loser. Academia is only for the best—like me. This is an unbelievably cruel thing to say to someone who already feels like a failure. It is inexcusably, searingly cruel, and I really wish that people would stop.

If I had been willing to squelch my natural “pluck” and remain servile, to lose my wonderful relationship while I moved, alone, from one Midwestern town where I didn’t know a single goddamned person to the next, to withstand (or even enjoy) departmental politics and conferencing, then academia would have “suited” me fine. I am coming to terms with the fact that those sacrifices weren’t worth it—but that is my journey to take, and my conclusion to reach.

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121 thoughts on “Please Stop Saying “Not Everyone is Suited for Academia”

  1. Your post made me sad. Sad that you’ve worked so hard but academe still found a way to make you feel inadequate and marginalized. We need bright, young thinkers like you. Academe will be better for it. Do not dismay, the problem lies not with you but the rigid guild academe remains to be for all of us.

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    1. Thank you. It makes me sad, too. I’m not the greatest scholar or teacher, but it is very sad that there is no place in academe for someone with my passion, abilities and spark. My students love it, at least.

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      1. Thank you so much for sharing your story, esp the last paragraph. You do know, for sure, that universities typically don’t select the very best 🙂 They do select those who are ‘seen as most fit’ by the very tiny and coincidental circle of those ‘somehow implied within the tenure track vacancy’. It’s precisely because ‘success’ is so arbitrary in that world, that some of those who seem to have succeeded are apparently STILL TREMBLING that someone might ‘find out’ and perceives them as being just as worthless as they often perceive themselves. I might add to that: unlike we. (And just the act of adding that fills me with great pride and a sense of joyful relief.) Thank you for writing all of this and the previous “Thesis Hatement” that I have read with great pleasure and a few great laughs. You surely help me hunting down the self-destructing and perfectionist voices in my own head, and the anger that does resurface at times. How come you wouldn’t be suited fir everything you dream about? You have finished a PhD, mastered the dark riddles of kafka AND managed to psychologically escape the twenty first twin of the Schloss 🙂 I want to wish you a long, safe journey.

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      2. I’m a PhD in biology, currently postdocing, and I feel exactly the same way. I did undergrad and PhD at large state universities that were well regarded in my field. Getting a PhD was a soul crushing experience, mostly because I figured out that it didn’t really matter how good you are, it only mattered how feverishly you were willing to self promote and step on your peers. I thought it was just my department, but two short post docs later, I’m unhappy to report that it’s the same everywhere I’ve been. Thus, I’m starting my journey out of the academe.

        I’m trying to stop feeling bad for not fitting in a system that is terrible, but it’s hard. I am not a failure, I just don’t have faith in the system anymore. I feel lost, but it’s good to hear stories of people who have made it out the other side and are happy.

        Loved your clothing analogy by the way. Perfect.

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  2. My first reaction was, “Amen, Sister! Testify!” I have felt all of this so many times since finishing my PhD. As I apply for various jobs, I feel less and less enthused about starting all over yet again–especially because I am raising a family. And to have anyone but me judge my life and work as “not suited for academia” is insulting.

    We do need the freshness of thought and expression that you have. If you choose not to work full time in the academic world, it’s your business. Choosing to work in humane conditions and to get paid for your writing and original work is smart. Wanting to reach a wider audience is also smart. Having intelligent, accessible work out there can only make society that much richer.

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    1. Amen to you!! I am so delighted at everything you have said. A few people have said similar things about academe being better off with me, and that means so much, because so many jerks have said the opposite.

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      1. Well, there’s such pressure to go full-tilt for a tenure-track job when you go to grad school. Everyone assumes the students are all going to for the same thing, but no one talks about other reasons one might go to grad school or other careers that make use of the skills we pick up there. To do anything different is interpreted as “settling” when it is often more rewarding and sane to pursue life outside the hallowed halls. I don’t know how things are where you are teaching, but where I’m adjuncting, it is becoming more and more like K-12 with pressure for standardization of everything. The intellectual freedom and pursuit of ideas is rapidly being replaced by the school-as-factory/business model. The students aren’t getting the challenge and skill development they did in previous generations; now, it is often four more years of “teach the test.” Frankly, I’m not sure I really want to be part of that.

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      2. transparentguy: I couldn’t agree more about the standardization of courses. I am told at every turn how to teach (more powerpoint, more handouts, less abstraction, tell them exactly what will be on the exam). How is this teaching critical thinking skills? Its just more rote learning. I think there will be a shift in the coming decade where less people choose to go to undergraduate school and just opt for more structured college courses. And why not? This will give you skills that are clearly defined and you won’t have to suffer through 3 or 4 more years of high school-style teaching. To pan-kisses-kafka, thank you for the article, I am in the same predicament. Like you, I don’t want to uproot those I love to travel from one random place to the next, to be treated like a subservient well into my late 40’s, to be paid little, and to be told to not have real opinions. I am done, and I am finally, happily beginning to be okay with this-it took me awhile though.

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  3. I enjoyed reading this column. I have recently finished my PhD in the humanities, and so far I have nothing remotely close to an academic job. One reason for this is that I moved away from the university/town where I got my degree in order to follow my spouse for a financially-necessary job. While I am not the most stellar academic, I was a very good instructor and I am committed to my subject. I still hope to land some sort of teaching job at a SLAC or CC by next fall.

    I agree that academia can be a disheartening place to work. However, I have found in my experience that the private sector (the heart of the much vaunted “real world”) is far worse. It is hard to tell what exactly the business world has to contribute to the real world, and the “politicking, preening, ass-kissing servility, sycophantism, cowardice” displayed there far surpasses what I have seen in humanities-based academia.

    Finally, I would want to emphasize the political context that has largely determined the difficulties of job seekers in the academic market in recent years. Since the 1980s Reagan era, the attack on the public sector has been relentless. In particular, anti-tax increase policies have left the public sector underfunded, and deregulation has created huge unsustainable bubbles — such as the housing bubble that burst in 2008. After Republicans funded two budget-busting wars in the Bush II era, the GOP is now holding the government ransom in order to enact austerity measures. The cumulative effects of these policies have had devastating effects on the higher education marketplace. As a consequence, all academics face increasing job scarcity, with corresponding pressure to succeed and to set oneself apart from other candidates. For new academics, this means publishing more, scoring higher on teaching evaluations, getting stellar recommendations and outdoing the “competition.” In this context, the preening and pretentiousness of some academics is an affective response to the aggressively anti-intellectual culture of America since at least the Reagan presidency.

    That said, I hope to read more kicking-against-the-pricks columns such as this one.

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    1. Oh hellllll yeah. As someone whose family fled California after Ronnie decimated the school system, I wholeheartedly concur. And I’ve worked in the private sector so I know, alas. The difference is that academics pretend to be Marxists concerned with social justice.

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      1. “Academics pretend to be Marxists concerned with social justice.”
        Ha! That is a brilliant line!
        Great rant, by the way.

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      2. That, to me, is what makes academic culture so toxic at times (and of course not all schools are like this–the honors college where I teach now is more like Hogwarts than a uni). In business at least the Capitalist brutality is out in the open. In academia it’s all doublespeak. It’s supposed to be an industry that cherished free expression and advocates on behalf of the oppressed.

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  4. I still remember talking to people about the non-academic books I was reading, and being told “how do you have time for that?” That should’ve been a huge red flag, because if I am ever at a point in life where I am not able to read literature I might as well kill myself. I would also add that I have been affiliated with academic institutions that had teetotal tendencies, and some that were extremely boozy. There just doesn’t seem to be any middle ground.

    I spent the last week participating in a summer history seminar with a diverse array of other teachers, and the difference in professional culture was astounding. Our institutional affiliations or where we went to school did not establish some kind of hierarchy. We did not look at another person’s nametag to determine whether they were worth talking to. We spent our time not only talking history, but comparing notes on how to educate our students. It was an exhilarating experience, full of such goodwill and comradeship. Teachers know that they need to band together to fight the forces marshaled against them. Academics continue to wage their internal turf wars while a tidal wave of capitalism threatens to envelop them. I think this mirrors the workplace, since there are not “adjunct” teachers or “full” teachers. Those teachers who are respected earn that respect after years of proving themselves worthy, not by getting some title. The hierarchy you speak of in the academic world is just the worst.

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  5. Hydration IS important. Most days I don’t even manage that.
    My wife Ellen has made the radical suggestion that adjuncts should demand the minimum wage for the actual hours that they work. This might even put them in the same income bracket as those smiling McDonald’s employees depicted in the commercial that the website managers decided, after their apparent ironidectomy, to put after your column.

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  6. Just discovered your blog. Very powerful writing. When I was the clergy wife living in the rectory with 4 little kids, I had 2 survival fantasies. One was hopping the train and disappearing. The other was life if I’d become the single Ph.D. English professor living in an attic or garret. I dropped the train fantasy after some kid was stupid enough to try it and froze to death before he reached the closest city. Your writing turns academia into dystopia and makes me think I may actually have experienced eutopia . My kids are pretty much raised and my husband literally died of a broken heart so I’m toying with the fantasy of being a closet contemplative. The B.A. in English lit gave me a voice, a life of the imagination and an unlimited supply of similes and metaphors to complete the sentence “Life is …….”

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  7. Lovely as always PKK! Re: comments about nonacademic job cultures: I’m in the nonprofit sector now and I find it to be far comfier. Just as committed to social change but without an entrenched elitist structure making everyone nervous about their social roles and commitments. Conferences are useful and practical. Without job interview stress sweat and desperate pounding of free drinks. And I actually enjoy the MLA!! So yeah, I’m a bit skeptical of the corporate world. And sad I can’t spend time now writing the way I want for money. But there are people who seem to make a living with meaningful and challenging work outside the ivy covered walls.

    Also, very happy you found an adjunct gig that works for you!

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    1. My partner is reading a fascinating book right now called THINKING FAST AND SLOW, and you might be fascinated, as I was, at neurological/psychiatric evidence that shows that there are two kinds of thinking, and the kind that you need to employ difficult academic research actually takes over and impairs the rest of your thinking–about day-to-day cognitions, other stuff like human relationships, creativity, etc. I had thought it was me, but I think that *everyone* with creative impulses has those impulses challenged, if not quashed altogether, doing academic writing. I may return to research someday, but I’d have to find a way to get paid for it. If I’m going to do the part-time adjuncting thing, it will be truly part-time. Barely any prep (taught the courses before and have detailed lesson plans and Study Questions and activities), moderate grading, zero service, zero research. I’m getting $3300 a course, and I will earn it, but not a penny more.

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  8. Also: what about, instead of “not suited” — “not limited to” … ? Some US academia really does require an overdose of deference and conventionality, it is not good.

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    1. I love “not limited to”…I don’t want to denigrate academics (individual ones, I mean) in the same way they have denigrated me, but I still love it. A lot of US academia doesn’t require the servility I mention (hence the qualifier), but enough does that I find it hypocritical (a whole industry full of people ostensibly on the side of the little guy, standing for freedom of expression and social justice).

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    1. I saw that you taunted FULLPROF with my past (and future) as a professional writer. I’ll join the taunts when I start making enough to support myself without adjuncting and consulting (though right now I have to say I am loving the three-pronged approach to my professional life–none of the three defines me completely, all of the three give me things I want and need, and not just $).

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  9. Interesting about book, I will check out … many academics are hardly on the side of the little guy, they are into kissing up to the man in the big house …

    I think academia is hard for some professors, and that they are still trying to learn the party line, so to speak … which is why they have to repeat it so often.

    Once one understands the standard instructions for how to be a professor, one can modify them. But you have to be sophisticated for that, and not everyone is.

    Fullprof and Acolyte are oddly brittle for people allegedly so happy.

    I know they say they are tired of the complaint culture and of right-wing academia bashing. I agree and find them refreshing for those reasons.

    There is still something really wrong with the idea that only academic work is legitimate — and something even more wrong with the insistence that anything that might be amiss, is a defect in the one who notices it.

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  10. Hang in there. I’m in the process of giving up the professor identity I constructed for myself and I feel you 100% when you describe how much it SUCKS.

    For me, though, I’ve sort of taken the opposite approach to this comment: I see that comment (“not for everyone”) as a badge of fucking honor at this point. In the one month I’ve worked outside of “academia” (but still at a college) I have grown to, in some ways, pity those who academia is “for.” They can keep it for all I care because I get to go home at 4:30 and enjoy my goddamn life. I take great pleasure in knowing that any smug, self-satisfied beliefs that I “lost” in this deal are wholly incorrect.

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  11. Man, I remember being in this space. I beat myself up so much because none of my 6 (!) campus interviews turned into a TT job offer.

    And then I realized that working outside of academia, and living where I wanted to live, and teaching part-time while I raised a small child, and making more money than I’d likely make until I was 40 as a TT academic while enjoying a sub-35-hour work week, was making me the happiest I’d been in years.

    I think the key was this epiphany: I don’t care how intellectually brilliant someone is. If they genuinely look down on another person for failing to get the the top of the pyramid scheme called academia – if they really, in their heart of hearts, think that someone deserves shame or is not good enough or is a nobody because they are not a tenure-track professor at a university – then that person’s opinion is worthless to me. I don’t care what they think of me. And not just in a posturing way: their opinion really, honestly doesn’t matter.

    (Part of that epiphany was realizing that smart people aren’t necessarily good people, and that people can be both brilliant and entirely blind to really obvious stuff, even if – in the case of some famous Marxists I know well, it’s their area of specialty. Rationalization of cognitive dissonance is powerful.)

    Without the external shame, whether real or projected, I became free to live the life that was most fulfilling to me, rather than the life that I thought would keep me from being an object of shame in the eyes of small-minded, if brilliant, people.

    I’m still pissed off at academia, of course. But it’s for the sake of others who are still mired in the adjunct shame spiral, not on my own behalf. Me, I’m doing great. And so are – and so will – you.

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    1. J will you share your secret? How did you work less than 35 hours a week and earn as much as a starting TT job?

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  12. Literature Professor to me (an adjunct) at Faculty Christmas Party: “You read? Books? Magazines? I don’t have time to read.”

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  13. Have you read Bousquet’s HOW THE UNIVERSITY WORKS? Pretty deadly about the casualization of academic labor that means that despite bucketloads of students and plenty of need for what lit profs teach, a dearth of proper (ie full-time and full-pay) jobs. Love your posts. BRAVA!

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  14. Thank you for your article!
    Reading all of this I am wondering, if it is not at all about ‘you (and me for that matter) are not suitable for academia’ or if when there are so many of us, we are a new brand of academics? Just a couple of days ago I had a conversation with a friend discussing that we have more important things in life than 80 hour weeks, with frankly not that great pay, and for what? Peers to pad our shoulders telling us we are in the club? I want to do real stuff with my PhD, I don’t just want to ‘contribute to the discourse in the field’ I want to see impact, do things and when I am in the creative phases of doing things churn out the occassional paper, to bash out ideas, to bring progress. I don’t want to be institutionalised into rigid structures. So I do not think the deficit discourse is something you even need to bring into your language, because these decisions are conscious decisions FOR a better life. 🙂

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  15. Your post is inspirational. Do you have any advice for a history PhD candidate about a year out from completing her degree?

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  16. Great post. I’m not sure how much courage it takes to rant against the broken system, but it does take great courage to walk away from it. I was lucky enough to “break in,” but because I have a family, interests, and like you, I’m no booze hound, I’m pretty well out in the cold in academia. I publish well … with items nobody reads. I teach well … to nasty little snots for students. I don’t schmooze well, though, and my colleagues have finally just stopped inviting me to any social functions at all. Ever. With tenure staring me in the face I would love to walk away and live the ideals I learned in my training, but I don’t have the cajones to do it. It is crap for comfort, but as bad as it might feel, it sounds like the best thing to happen to you was to not enter into the labyrinth.

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  17. I appreciate this piece so much and am so glad I found your blog. And I want to specifically thank you for the comment about “hobbies besides alcoholism” because I really thought that was something specific to my university or program, and perhaps a few others I’m familiar with. We have so much time to sit around smoking and drinking and bitching it is incredible that we ever get anything done. And when I took up cycling, baking, and a generally positive outlook on life (which I consider also to be a hobby because it doesn’t come naturally and takes quite a bit of active cultivation) it felt as if I had betrayed some deep bonds of brotherhood. (I would include “sisterhood” to be politically correct but that’s not what it felt like. It felt like “brotherhood” dammit.) Anyway, thanks for bringing the issue up, and keep writing up a storm. You’re great.

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  18. Great post! Agree, agree, agree.

    Sometimes how much of the hate inspired by your Thesis Hatement is guilt-induced. Like how some white Americans get really hostile when the fact of slavery and racism is raised, or some men get really defensive when the fact of sexism is brought forth. A sort of “Well, shit, *I’m* not sexist or racist, so why are you blaming me for this?” response. Except it’d be “Well, it’s not *my* fault that the system chose me, so stop blaming me for the system!” followed quickly by “You know what? It’s probably your fault somehow. See how in your blog post you misspelled the word [fill in the blank]? See how you incorrectly generalized to 100% when the figure is closer to 95%? See how angry you sound? You didn’t deserve the job I got.”

    It’s funny, because I don’t think anyone is blaming the “winners” for “winning.” I think they feel guilty for winning in a system they recognize as flawed, at least to some degree. (The whiplash of their defensive responses must be severe. Lucky for them they probably have health insurance.)

    I also wish that people would stop saying “The only reason you should get a PhD is because you love learning, not because you want a job.” There’s no other degree that I can think of where someone would say something that unreasonable. “Yes, I know that you spent the last 13 years getting through med school, residency, and that prestigious fellowship, racking up almost $200k in debt, but you did that just for the love of learning more about the human body, not so you could get feed and clothe yourself and perhaps a loved one as well.” Or worse, “How could you have had any expectation of being a practicing doctor just because you completed medical degree? What a fool!”

    A love of research and teaching is not incompatible with a love for independent economic existence–or at least, it shouldn’t be. Research and teaching is wonderful, but so is food and going to the doctor: How should I choose between these? Just *how much* do I love research and teaching?

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    1. The last sentences of your first paragraph describe so effortlessly and perfectly the tenor of every academic’s self-righteous and yet transparently insecure indignation. This was an amazing comment.

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  19. oh, yes I will, yes I am, YESSSSSSSSSS! This is the first thing I read – just the beginning sections of this blog – that describes exactly how I feel! I am *57* years old, so don’t talk to me about late thirties – (had a life and career before my graduate programs – that’s a plural – and was denied tenure a year ago, so have just finished my final, 7th year on faculty. I have noticed a weird sense of empowerment, energy, purposefulness, lack of procrastination – and desire to write! Losing my job has unleashed a a delightful relief and sense of freedom. Tenure can no doubt provide those things; but I didn’t get it, that’s the way it is, and I will want to write the next book – but have it be both rigorous in research design, which I believe in, but socially useful! (remember – I’m in social science and study U.S. politics, which needs all the help it can get…) What a concept.

    You said it all for me – if someone says to me anything else like “you may find that what’s next job is even better” (although I hope it’s true), bullshit – there is nothing like the extravagant privilege and security of tenure. OR “you may not be right for academia” – I do not want to hear that, after 11 years of grad school and two Ivy League graduate degrees, as well as my love of good scholarship – even though it ALSO may be true, as I dislike excruciating misery, trashing, suffering, and especially trying to curb one’s creativity in order to fit the standards of the peer reviewed social science (in my case) journal – land of horrible prose.

    enough. Thanks for the blog!

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  20. Thank you so much for this post…really.I read an article a couple of years ago written by a guy who left academia and compared it to leaving “the village”(remember that bad movie in which nobody was allowed to leave the place fearing that horrible monsters were waiting for them outside?). The author argued that he left the academic village and he was happy and doing fine. The problem is that I hate a lot of things in the so called village but I am confident I could do a very good job in there… I’ll be back for more posts!

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  21. this is a love letter. you are clearly awesome!!! you rock!! (and hydration is really very important). p.s. academia is for everyone. that is the POINT of academia, at least in my corner of the world.

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  22. It is the one thing I cannot stand about academia – snobs, snarks, and stabbers in the back. You are suited to it and Im sure you are doing very well…you just dont have your pointer stuck up your ass and your ego in the clouds. I worked for years at community colleges. Id go back if I could…the CSU has lots of back stabbing and snarkiness. It can really be anoyying. Best of luck.

    Ron Lopez
    Associate Prof, Chicano & Latino Studies
    Sonoma State

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  23. The problem with PhD programs is pretty much everyone used to getting report cards that show them in the 99th percentile for test schools. Ultimately when they discover that they’re not in the 99th percentile for that final test of the job market, you get some paragraph form whining.

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    1. The problem with comments like this is that you are treating academia like a meritocracy. If it were true that only the best students got jobs, your theory would have weight. And yet, often the most mediocre do (with some great ones thrown in there to keep everyone confused). It is true that PhD programs admit far too many students and are thus rackets, and that most will not get jobs. It is far, far from true, however, that the reason we didn’t is because we’re not good enough. That kind of dismissal is hurtful, cruel, obnoxious, and most of all factually incorrect.

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      1. Thank you! I have a friend whose first book has just won an a big award, yet he still has a contingent job after seven years on the job market. I worked with people on the tenure track who will never be capable of writing an award-winning book, much less any kind of book. The job market is not a “test,” it is a crapshoot. The victim blaming of UMich1984 (people who name drop their alma mater are typically fonts of smug privilege) is just ridiculous.

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  24. Thank you so much for your post! I finish my PhD in the humanities in a year. I feel disheartened with academia. There simply are not enough jobs for everyone and if you admit to your committee that you’re looking for jobs elsewhere (and hopefully also teaching a class or two at a community college) you’re treated like a sub-par intellectual who has “given up.” I will have student loans coming due, have no safety net, and feel as though I need to be realistic. So…I remain silent, applying to tenure track jobs at the same time and feeling as though my time and effort would be better spent doing other things (I was on the job market last year, too.).

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  25. Thanks for this honest post. To add my two cents into the mix, I want to highlight what I see as two logical fallacies within the discourse of academia, particularly in the US:

    Fallacy One: Doing a PhD means you want to become a ‘professional academic’

    If one does a PhD, slogging through the hard work, suffering for years, living on canned soup, in order to obtain the ‘prestige’ of being a tenured professional, one is, in my opinion, a fool. If you are so damned ambitious for prestige, power, etc, why not become a politician? Or a journalist? Or an activist? Hell, why not just go out and make a ton of money in the finance industry? All of those things require less work and you will certainly be able to strut around as a ‘success’, at least as it is understood in our society.

    Fallacy Two: Being an intellectual and being an academic are mutually exclusive. If you have one, you must by law have the other.

    I don’t think this needs much elaboration, but if it were the case, reading the stuff that is churned out and published by some of our leading academics, I would be forced to conclude that we are living in some sort of new dark age as far as intellectual life goes. Some of our leading intellectuals are not academics, and many – of course, not all – of our leading academics are by no means leading intellectuals.

    The short answer is, just keep doing what you love, and let the rest of ’em shove it.

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  26. Thanks for this post, and for speaking so frankly about academia here and in Thesis Hatement, my favorite article about the current “state of academia” (ug) ever. I agree with the commenters above who wrote about the aggressively reactionary defense of those (or perhaps us, as I am now one of the lucky few who won the roulette game that is the tt job market) on the inside who continue to insist that academia is a meritocracy because, damn it, they made it! And they deserve it! Lots of other people “deserve” it too, who are doing lots of other things that are valuable, fulfilling, and profitable- or maybe not- but are still “suited” to intellectual life. We can have lives as intellectuals outside of the security of the tenure-track, and we should be allowed to admit to being complex people with hobbies and interests and relationships on it as well. I am so glad that voices like yours and Radhika Nagpal’s are guiding this conversation. And from a fellow sewer, your sewing is badass. Much love to the Lou, my hometown!

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  27. Starting TT professors make 2x as much money as my family of six ever had growing up. Grad school trained me to live on $10k a year, and most other people who weren’t subsidizing it with allowance money had a reasonably similar experience. For the first time in my life, an exceptionally fortunate fellowship year gave me twice the money I am used to making, and I’ve given it all away to support a hungry friend who twice shared his home with me when I couldn’t afford rent and another friend who left school with depression and is fighting his way back in and needed support to get to a conference and pay application fees. We need an organization that empowers us to share this sort of camaraderie on a large scale. No one needs these TT salaries. They are offensive, and doubly so when others are hungry, regardless of their qualifications. I have family members and friends who have both tithed heavily and donated significant portions of their take-home pay to support political parties and community organizations in spite of paltry incomes. Of course we also must make demands on our institutions to fight for support for a broader and more diverse community of intellectuals (in every sense, including teaching vs. researching, academic vs. mass-market writing, etc.), but we can do a lot ourselves. WE DO NOT NEED THESE TT SALARIES. THEY ARE UNACCEPTABLE IN THIS JOB MARKET. Especially given the absurd workloads they press upon TTs. OVERTIME IS STEALING FROM THE UNEMPLOYED. Everyone has a stake in this fight.

    /rant, and thank you for your writing. Make the best of your time in the Ozarks.

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    1. This is a strange argument. 1/ There is no general figure for starting salaries on the tenure track. At my institution it is about $44K, with some benefits but not great benefits, and no research /travel funds, and our cost of living is higher than Missouri’s. Yes, you do need all that money if you are going to make any kind of headway, because much of it must go to professional expenses — which are higher when you are no longer in graduate school. 2/ and more importantly: what about administrative salaries, salaries in the B-school, and so on?

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      1. I don’t think the problem is that starting TT make too much, I think it’s that the tenure track is fast disappearing with no dignified permanent faculty system to replace it.

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  28. Well, just because I’m your mother and did not get around to reading this entry til now, and I know that you are a brilliant teacher, scholar, and writer, does not mean that I am unqualified to say that this is a brilliant post. As usual it is funny and at the same time spot on.

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      1. Why? I don’t think this is embarrassing at ALL.
        My children are fabulous ;p
        Sometimes we don’t really give a shit and stick up for our children publicly. We get our two cents in. Especially when deep in our bones we know how God Damned fabulous they are.

        I still have half a mind to write to that University admissions department and rub their noses in how fabulous my son is doing, considering how they TURNED HIM DOWN! I swear one day I AM going to write that letter.

        No matter how old you are we are still your mothers and we are DAMNED PROUD of our children. Sometimes we just gotta put it out there or we will burst.

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      2. I think if you made that call, your son might be the first human alive to literally die of embarrassment. That is almost (but alas, not quite) as embarrassing as the time my mom called my brother’s work (an investment bank!) and demanded the IT guy tell her how to print a high-res copy of his website profile so she could frame it. It says a lot about that IT guy’s integrity that he never, ever mentioned it to my brother. Probably because the IT guy had a mother too!

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  29. I think people wanted you to be speaking for everyone, so they could respond as part of Everyone. It’s great fun to be part of the misunderstood.

    I love academia, and I want in-in-in! But it sure as sweet hell isn’t For Everyone.

    And that last “hate” you listed? The grad student from McGill, was it? I don’t think he’s even started his diss. Give the guy two years. Maybe three. See how much of his own hair he’s pulled out by then.

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    1. I have found the most bile has been from the grad students who desperately want not to become me, but are secretly scared they might, as my CV is many times better than theirs and I still failed. I will be here for them all in five years. 🙂

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      1. Meh. What is fail?

        You know, I’m one of only four (I think?) people in my PhD cohort who found work in academia. And by “academia”, I mean somewhere on a campus, in any capacity. I’m not talking golden ticket TT heaven, here. Only four of us found work in some form within the university system.

        Why, just a few weeks ago, a job opened up. It’s the only full-time faculty position IN THE ENTIRE COUNTRY for which I am qualified. (Before that, there were zero ft faculty jobs in the entire country for which I was qualified. So this is totally a move in the right direction).

        I’m going to apply the hell out of that job. But what are my chances? Is it really a failure if I don’t get this job? I hope to hell not.

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      2. No, no you are not! When I use the word fail, I use it weighted with a million inflections. I will write a post about it someday. Or a book. Good luck for that one job. Sheesh that makes my field’s 28 sound flush.

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  30. Bless up yourself. You articulated in Slate and up here what I thought about the academy before I signed up for a PhD ( I didn’t enrol) – your experiences mirror those of my favorite professors, the ones who were kind and candid and giving enough to tell me the truth about their lives- often happier outside than within the academy. They were often scorned by those who lowered more sets of eyelids per class than they ever opened minds. They got put in difficult faculty roles while enjoying a sabbatical. I will forever be grateful to them. Me? I am using my Humanities BA and Science Masters to work for NGOs in another part of the world with a very flexible schedule. I cannot thank you enough for writing this…someone will read this and pass on the academy for reasons valid and varied.

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  31. Are you on Twitter? If so you probably want to follow @conditionaccept
    In case you are interested, on Twitter I am Str8Grandmother
    I post a LOT of Gay Rights stuff. All the Torture & abuse + the successes and happiness also.

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  32. Hey, I’m an academic who gave up a TT job at an R1 place because I found academia to be much as you’ve described. Now I too am moving to St Louis.

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  33. This feeling of professors, that they are always right. I said yes to a book contract I knew I could not fulfill in the time given, because so much needed to be re-researched and rewritten to do what the press wanted with it. But Professors told me that my judgment of the time the project needed *must be* conspiracy to procrastination because if the press thought it could be done in that time, it must be true. One is not to honor what one thinks or knows.

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    1. That is so important. And it goes all the way to the desire to quit–when I voiced this desire, members of my committee simply acted as if I had not expressed it. They just went right on talking about next year on the market. I am now realizing that one of the most important reasons I wrote Thesis Hatement as vehemently and “abrasively” as I did was because the Professors WOULD. NOT. LISTEN. and would not honor what I knew, in my heart: that academia was making me profoundly unhappy, and that even if I were to “win” and secure the coveted TT, it would likely continue to do so because it would likely mean the end of my relationship. In a way I chose my relationship over my (academic) “career,” and it is a choice I could not be happier that I made. Not just because I’m glad I got married–which I am–but because I was thinking, the other day: if I had 10 minutes left to live, what would I do? I would put my arms around my husband and tell him how much I loved him; I would call my family and say goodbye. I would not read Gottfried fucking Keller.

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