It started as a hobby, and then it became my job: Every day, I read (and react to) something about higher-ed that makes my head almost explode. Clueless, out-of-touch status-of-the-profession reports. Insistence that there “are jobs out there for good people.” Lifeboating. Mealy-mouthed grad-student fuckery. But somehow, day after day, my noggin remains stubbornly intact.

Until now.

Peep, if you will, Stacey Patton’s newest for Vitae (which is, of course, one of my employers), about what senior professors really think when their progeny leave academia. It is everything you feared/hoped, and more. Here are a select few gems, but read the whole thing:

“The problem isn’t that there are too few faculty positions. The problem is that more students and postdocs are CHOOSING not to become faculty.”

Nope, the problem is that there are too few faculty positions, and too many of those faculty positions are taken up by inveterate dipshits.

I’m very supportive of students in my lab who decide they want to leave academia. But they’re smart. They’ll figure out how to get there (alternative career) on their own.

You keep using that word (“supportive”). I do not think it means what you think it means.

I made it and nobody helped me. Plus, I was the only woman in my graduate program. The best students will always succeed.

Lifeboaters: Not just urban legend. (Also, it should go without saying: Fuck you, you piece of shit).

There are huge–huge–obstacles to clawing your way out of the cess pit. Such as: “Alternative” employers not champing at the bit to hire unrelated PhDs with zero experience. But the biggest obstacle, still, that stands in the way of students who “fail” to become replicants of their mentors? The mentors themselves.

Get it together, assholes. Or, go fuck yourselves. Either one, really.

And “congrats,” I guess, for finally making the stoic, smoldering, oft-agigated head of Rebecca Schuman explode for good.


40 thoughts on “Boom.

  1. I don’t know how I’d feel about advising a grad student if the student was planning to be a science writer, high school teacher or taking any other non-research career (research in industry or a gov’t lab is a great career choice for a PhD chemist). I know that it’s my job to be a mentor to such a student but I could be mentoring a student who wants a PhD in order to pursue a career in research instead of a student who needs a PhD because of credential inflation in other fields.

    Beyond that, I am surprised that any faculty would dismiss the problems for new grads. If they serve on any faculty hiring committees, they’ll see dozens of candidates with multiple post-doc positions trying to break into academia. Do they think these candidates took the post-doc jobs for the hell of it?


      • And these responses suggest that beyond their refusal (or inability–fair) to mentor students looking for nonacademic careers, there’s a total refusal by these faculty members to even learn where to refer students (i.e the career centre, or the grad professional development program) for that specific kind of mentoring and training. Ugh. And yet so, so predictable.


    • It’s not necessarily “credential inflation” to do a PhD — if you consider the PhD as the capstone of a research ‘career’ before switching fields to work in something else next, this leaves open the possibility that students who go on to post-ac careers are not real researchers, nor that they are over-credentialling, but that they are switching careers.


      • But think of the emotional and psychological ramifications of doing this. You ‘cap’ your research career before anyone can take you seriously, or you produce anything that is not confined by the strict boundaries of your dissertation (and, often, your dissertation adviser). Graduate students are not real researchers yet. They’re not. They’ve often never been through peer review, they’ve not been out in the field long enough to develop their voices and free themselves of their “parents'” influences. It’s like telling a baby bird right before he learns to flap his wings, “Well, you’ve had your time as a bird and now you should be grateful for it and ‘switch’ beings to a mouse; just because you’ve never had any experience as a mouse and don’t know what a mouse does and don’t have the body parts of a mouse? Who cares? You had this wonderful life as a bird!”

        As someone who made the “switch”–as most do, in my late 30s, a broken and shattered person, but not as most do, amidst the cheerful jeering of spectators–I can tell you that it’s not a “switch” so much as it is a “crawling your way out of a giant hole.” You are ten years older than most of your competition–and yet less experienced. The only–only–thing you have “going” for you that they don’t is the PhD degree: Your credential. And yet, this credential is wholly unnecessary for whatever career you’ve “switched”/crawled/clawed your way into (usually, that “career” is adjuncting, by the way). Thus: Overcredentialed.

        To say that somehow it’s admirable or even OK to encourage people to do a PhD for the fuck of it, as the whole of their research career, whilst squandaring their most employable (and often most fertile, if they’re women) years, so that they can then just “switch” and start over at the entry level when they are 35 years old with a family to feed…

        Just some food for thought. I may turn this into a whole post today if I have time.


      • Good points. I have some further thoughts on this, but I’ll wait to see your full post. (If you don’t get to it today, it’s definitely worthy of its own post/article).


      • Please do write that column today, Rebecca, about how unethical it is to feed those baby birds malarkey!


    • Isn’t it really much simpler than this? A student works hard getting a research degree they have chosen to undertake. You have accepted them into your supervision and it is now *your job* to supervise and guide them through that degree.
      When did we start moralising about a student’s motivations, about which ones are worth the effort, playing favourites? (I know, I know – but ask yourself if it’s legitimate).
      The student you are choosing to mentor could get hit by a bus tomorrow, they could get a great offer and leave the field, you don’t know. The student you neglect may not fit your image of the ideal student, but they might go on to make a significant contribution in their own way.
      And when does this become the concentration of scarce resources of attention and opportunity on students who are most like their mentors, to the exclusion of others (women, minorities, disabled students)? (And yes, I know, I know…).
      Students choose to learn the craft of research for many reasons – there are as many reasons as there are students – can’t we just honour that choice, wherever it may take them? (And odds are, it won’t be academia…).


  2. I just laughed for a full minute–after the smoke settled. Really? They are really that obtuse? And I love the deriding remark about “teaching and other distracting activities.” SHEESH. This makes total sense, though. Even now, after I’ve all but left academia (I still teach one class, every couple of semesters, for the love of it), former students ask me for recommendations to PhD programs and MFA creative writing programs. I don’t necessarily discourage the MFA — for some writers, it’s not a bad thing — but I constantly tell them about the way things are and caution them about spending the better part of their 20s (or even 30s or 40s, in some cases) in a career where the likelihood is that they will end up adjuncts. But they always swear to me that they’ll be the one, that special one, who will make it . . . Attitudes like these expressed by those faculty members do nothing but continue fostering the illusion, which by now, I’m even almost sure is a willful DElusion. Arg.


  3. I think you might be overly sensitive. When a someone says:

    “I made it and nobody helped me. Plus, I was the only woman in my graduate program. The best students will always succeed.”

    that person is simply following sound scientific method and generalizing from n=1. Seriously, how can that be wrong?

    Further, from a social science perspective, the best ethnographic research always, always starts with “I” since “I” represents the center of the known universe.

    I just don’t get why you are upset. Clearly this person is destined for greatness and must be heeded, if not adored.


  4. “Senior faculty members may be disconnected from the current job market, and not well-equipped to prepare students outside their disciplinary specialties, because they’ve always had stable employment.” Well, they got that part right anyway.


  5. As a loyal follower, when I saw this posted on Vitae I immediately conjured up what kick-ass rebuttal you would have to this nonsense, exposing these unbelievably delusional remarks for what they are (BULLSHIT), and most certainly as they are made by some of the “top names” in their respected fields. Thank you, Rebecca, for confirming what this realistic/pessimistic PhD student in German has been thinking while various R1 professors refute the realities of the job market to us. How unsettling to think about the underlying narcissism in some of the quotations used; everyone without a job is meant to feel like they are simply failures, crazy, or both.


  6. I’m tempted to explode my head, too. Then I’m tempted to say, these are anonymous quotations from a slide show reported in an article — it’s like a game of telephone! So the data in this case is not direct or reliable.

    That said, I have heard professors say these things and it makes me bonkers. There certainly are a lot of incompetent disphits with tenure, and their self-image depends entirely on this Hunger-Games-style competition of apprentices that allows them to feel their own success is entirely merited. Why. Why. Why.

    On behalf of the tenured, I apologize. Ugh.


  7. I guess these remarks don’t really blow my mind, because I think of them the same way I think of the kind of lazy moral relativism some students bring to my introduction to ethics class. They’re predictable things for people in their position to say because they haven’t really thought about it yet. So while it’s important to address them when faced with them directly, it’s hard to take them seriously as assertions, and it’s easy to think ‘wait, haven’t we already covered that?’


  8. It is largely legitimate for this article to make your head go boom. However, I have a *tiny* quibble with the collective jumping down the throats of the anonymously quoted senior faculty, because as far as I can tell, their disciplines are not identified. There ARE fields (…computer science) in which we have an actual, bona fide problem with graduate students eschewing academic careers. We lose them in droves to Google and the like (the pay is better; many students perceive academia as too stressful to justify the effort). I’m guessing there are other fields in which this is true (speculating about statistics or finance).

    The issue stands for most of academia, of course. It just doesn’t seem fair to decry the entire population of senior faculty as disconnected from reality without a more precise picture of the reality in which the particular quoted faculty are operating.


      • Ah, yes, I see that part now. I don’t have the first idea about the academic vs. industrial job situation in those fields. But that’s kind of my point: there *are* fields in which some of those sentiments (not all of them — looking at you, lifeboater!) aren’t as ridiculous as they sound to a humanities PhD. I’m not even saying that tenured/tenure track faculty *aren’t* out of touch, just that, you know, biosci isn’t German isn’t comp sci, the situation differs across the academic board, and it’s a little tenuous to draw broad conclusions about the cluelessness of the tenured based on anonymous, context-free quotes from someone else’s slides.

        (I’m giving the side eye more to the original author than I am to you, fwiw.)


      • Also, biosci probably explains the “teaching as a distraction” comment. Pretty prevalent perspective in the sciences, for good or bad, but not *quite* as detrimental/oblivious as it is in the humanities.


    • Though the disciplines are not explicitly identified with each quotation (most came from bioscience and biomed scholars), it speaks to a larger issue at play that transcends into the humanities and social sciences. What a lot of us are saying, is that many professors across many disciplines are saying these exact remarks to their graduate students, thereby hurting their transition to jobs that in fact do exist (unlike TT or highly paid research positions), but usually don’t require a doctoral degree.

      When the unavoidable happens, and most PhDs that these individual’s train must rely on an alternative to academic or research work to make a living wage, for these senior faculty members to believe most PhDs then are lazy or don’t/shouldn’t need help after being molded into something that doesn’t exist, etc. it can only be labeled as a delusional and distorted view of their own profession that borders on insulting and unethical. If professors in any field are making comments like this and are still accepting students with graduate stipends that barely cover the cost of living, to have those students only come out at the other end hearing comments like this no less, also borders on unethical and exploitive.

      Not to mention, the more troubling remarks made by senior faculty members fail to demonstrate an interest in improving the (broken) system that in its current form is designed to (more or less) solely create future generations of scholars instead of creating a network for those inevitably working outside the academy. In addition, the comments do not rebuke the delusional notion that many senior faculty members relay to naive prospective students that there “will always be jobs for good people.”

      You’re certainly right to say some fields lose many bright scholars to jobs outside of academia, and that is a crisis for subjects that need new talent to remain in academia, but that is another part of the same problem with this broken system. Academia’s structure and personalities provide little incentive for those who would like to (or can) remain in academia to stay for the long haul.


      • Your observations are generally true across much of academia but I’m not sure they address my basic point, which is that whether the prof’s exact remarks are reasonable depends critically upon their discipline. For example, the first quotation that Schu mentioned was:

        “The problem isn’t that there are too few faculty positions. The problem is that more students and postdocs are CHOOSING not to become faculty.”

        An English professor saying this is delusional. A computer science professor saying this is possibly correct.

        As for what to tell grad students: Again, I can’t really discuss bioscience. However, I do tell my computer science students that a PhD in Computer Science is training to conduct research in computer science, and if they do not want to pursue research as a career, the PhD isn’t necessary. Is this unethical? I’ll still train and provide support for a student who doesn’t want to pursue a research career, because I’m not an asshole and I’m happy to teach whomever wants to learn. But a PhD in the sciences is training to do research in the science in question; if a student doesn’t want a research career, the PhD is an awful lot of work for an unnecessary credential. I tell them that (early).

        And, more importantly, *in some fields*, TT and research positions *do* exist. The jobs are still hard to get and there’s still a huge amount of luck involved, but it’s *nothing* like the humanities. To take an example, I was on the market at the same time as a friend in English (within the last 5 years). We compared notes throughout. I *applied* to more positions than there were *advertised* in English, and I ONLY applied to top 100-ranked programs located in cities I’d consider moving to. Perhaps more importantly, if I’d not gotten a position, I could have transitioned to industry. It’s a *completely* different situation as compared to humanities disciplines; you cannot judge the comments out of context.

        The quotes Schu picks on, as well as many of the rest in the article, are pretty inflammatory. Moreover, I don’t know how much of my overall complaint about context applies to biosciences. It’s totally possible these faculty are the privileged oblivious vampire asshats they’re being made out to be. But again, that’s my point.


    • Many humanities professors in similar positions to the professors quoted in the article think teaching is a distraction, too. Again, these problems more or less exist in some shape or form across most subjects in the broken system that is academia.

      I also don’t think the way to incentivize an academic career option is to remain ignorant to other career paths like many of these quoted scholars are implying.


  9. Tenure privilege and obtuseness is a real problem, one that I wanted to deny for a long time, not because I didn’t think there are a lot of tenured assholes & idiots out there, but because I don’t want to give neoliberals more reasons to try to abolish tenure (which I consider one of the “commons” — spaces intended for public good, free of market or state interference).

    At this point, I’m convinced that only by shaming tenured faculty into acting can we save tenure (and expand the good jobs) so we gotta put all that crap out there. So here’s one from my experience: my dept. had long been letting the good positions disappear and the adjunct sections multiply. A handful of us tried to turn this around by insisting on new tenure lines with searches for all those new PhDs out there who deserved jobs. We did better than we expected to but we had resistance from our peers we weren’t prepared for. Lots of resistance for lots of reasons. But the one I’m thinking of here is the time that we had permission for three new hires (two replacements and one entirely new) but then a budget crunch hit. We were told that we had to eliminate all course releases so that we were running as efficiently as possible. I knew that if we didn’t make a good-faith attempt to do this that we were going to get one or more of our searches canceled (this was happening to other departments.) There is a tenured person who taught 5 instead of the standard 6 classes. This had come up before and previous chairs had fought her on this but given up because the more time that had passed with her doing this, she more she claimed to sue on the basis of “past precedent.” (The weedy details: there was no paperwork anywhere or reason for her to have a different load. This is a person who lives 2.5 hours away and has had the same schedule– T/Th–to accommodate her living situation her whole career. She also regularly taught v. specialized classes for three to six students. I say all this just to make clear that this is not someone who taught as many students as everyone else, so why quibble about 5 vs. 6?) I went to her explaining the situation. I said we had to do everything we could to save the searches. She said, “So you are saving the searches on my back?” From my perspective, her situation should have been cleaned up a long time ago but when there’s nothing very clearly at stake, why bother? Now there was, though. She threatened to sue. She didn’t. We got all the lines and I know that our efforts to demonstrate our seriousness is a reason why we were protected from cancellations. I guess how the woman handled the situation was to be expected and shouldn’t surprise me, but it bothered me that she felt comfortable using the phrase “on my back.” My university balances the budget on the backs of adjuncts. In no way is her situation one in which she is oppressed. But I see this identity — the beleaguered, oppressed tenure-track faculty– play itself out often.


  10. My committee will basically cut off all ties with anyone who works for a military contractor or goes into the CIA, FBI, or NSA. No letters of recommendation, no letters of reference, nothing. You will be dead to them. And on one hand, I understand–I’m no fan of any of those organizations and have no plans of joining them, (not that they’d probably take me anyway given my ideological inclinations.) But on the other, the people on my committee HAVE JOBS. Good jobs, with benefits and security and everything. What are the rest of us supposed to do? Adjunct forever, earning $15K – $20K / year with no benefits, and no security?


  11. As an aspiring PHD candidate, I’m a little disheartened by what I’m reading. It makes me wonder if I should even try to get into a doctoral program if my prospective instructors/mentors will be influenced by my career goals. But is it possible their opinions are shaped by the circumstances of their students? I imagine many of the “research track” PHD students moved quickly from graduate to doctoral programs, which may influence the students’ desire to go non-academic. That was my original plan in grad school, but then I took a different path. What about someone (like me) who went to work in industry for 10 years and desires to get their PHD to teach and do research? Would those same professors hold a bias because I didn’t take a more direct graduate to doctoral program approach? Should I put off my PhD pursuits in lieu of more “real world” experience before I put in my applications?


      • No. I work in the Public Relations/Strategic Communications consulting industry. My goal was to get into a related PhD program.


      • Huh. Why? Do people with PhDs in that field make more money? Is it GUARANTEED that you’d make more money at your current job (and even be able to return to your current job) after taking five-to-seven years for grad school? If neither of these answers is “yes” I’d reconsider doing a PhD.


      • That’s exactly the conundrum I have. On one hand, I want to be recognized as a expert in my field with some scholarly/research credibility, and I want to teach. On the other hand, there’s the money issue as well as the prospect of entering a tight academic job market. Still, getting a PhD has always been a personal goal for me (and I’m getting jealous of siblings and friends of are working towards/received their doctorates).


      • You can get a teaching job–an adjunct teaching job that is actually “adjunct” to your career–just by being a pro in the field. Unless you are willing to give that job up and perhaps never get it back, I’d be wary of a doctorate in your field. But talk to some! I don’t know any.


  12. I am a late entry to this very interesting topic and comment thread. There’s a lot I could say on topic, from both the grad student/humanities TT route, and the outside of academia route, but instead, I’d like to offer a different and VERY left field take from someone late to the thread.

    Lifeboaters. Yes. Academia is under attack. Direct, overt attack. We are cannibalizing those most able to be cannibalized, the weakest and lowest status. Like Jumbo Shrimp and Military Intelligence, the idea of a Tenured Marxist scholar in this environment is a total oxymoron. If it isn’t, it’s because there are careerist scholars who are missing some key points of critical analysis. Donner Party. Totally.

    Who created the Lifeboat? Why are we on a Survivor reality show? Academics are supposed to be smart. How about some critical analysis of the REAL larger picture? Because something a lot bigger is going on here. It is going on in the Michigan State government, for instance, with Emergency Manager takeovers in supposedly failing towns, basically turning off democracy. Clearly a pilot program, and researchers know about running pilots, right? There are political operators on this landscape with 30-year plans, and they’ve been playing the long game for a while. Are any academics paying attention to the rising tide of grassroots fascism/authoritarianism in the broader culture?

    The overt attempt to take over higher education with MBA-style university “executive management” is nearly complete. Faculty governance is a dim memory. And most hilariously (in a sick, ironic sense), some of these decidedly pro-business, deep cover GOP agenda folks who have always seen academic disciplines and faculty access to young adults in their formative years (meaning future voters) as a direct threat (as opposed to something to be avoided once you get tenure). And they aren’t done.

    They’ve already won a victory over academics, who took their budget cuts and 70% adjunct replacements without a fight, so deep were they in their insanely hair-splitting disciplinary specializations. The coup has moved on, and public education in the U.S. is in the cross-hairs now. Resegregation, charter school movement, the focus on testing and assessment, the banking model of education, garbage in, garbage out. Stuff that was EASILY disproved by research more than 20 years ago. They are intent on rewriting textbooks with dumbed down, religio-centric non-science, all the right things to get those future voters primed and ready for the fear-mongering authoritarianism of Fox News demagoguery.

    So there’s a precedent for what happened to academia, what is happening to public education. Nobody in academia paid attention to it, but the exact same Lifeboat thing has happened before and will happen again (to quote Battlestar Galactica).

    Talked to any former journalists lately? You know, people who used to work a BEAT at a state house, or attend every school board or county board meeting? You know what kinds of profits were going to corporate media companies as they were driving newspapers and real journalism into the ground, gutting and hollowing out content so readership was BOUND to fall, almost by design? 20-30% Banked regularly, and WHILE actively conducting annual newsroom layoffs of the most experienced (most expensive) knowledge workers. Kill two birds with one stone. Veteran reporters would have objected to the management tactics. The young green folks who remained were so destabilized by their Lifeboat, they became compliant as lambs, writing vapid culture stories that didn’t disturb anyone. And subscriptions and advertising went down? Who’d have thunk it? You couldn’t have executed a more complete coup.

    This is the Grover Norquist long game strategy. Deep culture change by hollowing out institutions that take critical thinking, reasoning, support, tolerance for ambiguity and the ability to see past binaries and black/white dualities out of the specialized classroom and into the public square. I don’t blame academics for this isolation in the disciplines, because the blame clearly falls on this pseudo-named, “professional” six-figure salary, physical-plant expanding, “management” class that has taken over university and college administration over the past 30 years.

    You tell them there needs to be belt-tightening. We have to do more with less. Look at these charts with the trend lines going down. Send 20-30% profit to shareholders. Increase tuition. Collect what are basically auto-payments from student loans, a virtual river of money. Start capital campaigns to fund at least 2-3 new buildings. Gut the product, so that it barely limps along, so trend lines continue to fall. Have active layoffs while still sending 20-30% profit to shareholders.Take another salary increase. Hire over some more friends from the board of directors of the massive company you used to work for.

    Oh yeah, and maybe, plagiarize your administrative reports without citing sources, because nobody in administration, who are the overlords of the knowledge workers, has a degree or intellectual background in any of the areas requiring actual intellectual work.

    First they came for the journalists, and I did not speak out—
    Because I was not a journalist.
    Then they came for the academics, and I did not speak out—
    Because I was not a academic.
    Then they came for the public school teachers, and I did not speak out—
    Because I was not a public school teacher.
    Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.


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