Tuesday night I began writing the all-planned-out piece from yesterday and one of my academic pals started chatting at me on Facebook about the direction of our respective careers. He is quite successful and works at a large research university in a wonderful location.

I am a complete failure at this and I do not.

If you want to have the feeling of being a cork in the ocean or the ball in a pinball machine, become an academic. Because whenever people give me this talk, the only thing that becomes apparent is that I have no control whatsoever over my career. It all hinges on totally subjective decisions made by strangers.

Sure, I can send out lots of papers, apply for a lot of jobs, and so on, but then it's up to others to make the decision, often in startlingly random ways. So instead of thinking, "I need to publish X papers" we end up having to think, "If I can somehow get X papers accepted" or "I hope there are some job openings this year.


The action verb is always referring to someone else in this field. Nothing to do but try and hope for the best, knowing full well that the odds against The Best happening are 99% and growing. If having no control over where you live or the conditions of your employment sounds appealing, contact me to learn more about how to get started in the exciting world of higher education.

32 thoughts on “SO, SO CLOSE”

  • Yep. You could've stopped at "he is quite successful" and I would have been able to write the rest of this entry from memory. Not of your life, or internal angst, but my own. It is not a case of "I've been there," but "I *am* there." You: Politics, Me: English Lit.–Functional Distinction In Terms Of Control We Have Over Our Careers: Nil.

    The degree to which academics are–is there any other word for it?–punished with their own irrelevance in charting the course of their careers is…well, OK, what's the term for when something is technically farcical but makes you want to weep while shattering your drunken reflection in a mirror with a single bloody punch? That. Whatever that is.

    People hear where I live, and where I'm from, and ask "Why the hell would you move from there to *there*?!" And I smile the patient smile of the alcoholic who knows that there's a full bottle waiting for him at home, and I explain, for the 800 billionth time, that, as an academic, you go wherever there's work. Basically, we're like the Joads, only with less salt-of-the-earth dignity. (Gary Trudeau has made a great series out of this plight.)

    It's hard to gin up much sympathy for us (pardon the pun), because what we do doesn't look terribly hard to people whose job requires a working knowledge of sheet metal or an industrial floor-waxer, and maybe that's fair. Our drudgery isn't particularly physically demanding, and therefore jerks no tears. But still…

    There's something about having to work for the better part of a decade to become qualified to do a job–just that one, very specific job, and nothing else–and then to be told that that job–which, for Chrissake, is an *essential* job to any healthy society–is unavailable to us. Or that if it is, it does not pay a living wage, and we are discouraged or even forbidden from seeking additional employment. There's something about being unable to live more than hand-to-mouth, and to know that every year, you must re-apply for your position, hoping that somebody cheaper hasn't made him/herself available. There's something about caring about doing your job well, and having that mean nothing to your employers, who only want publications in journals that no one will read. There's something about being on the front line of ignorance, and losing by inches, and then winning by inches, and being told that you're an elitist by people who don't know you.

    There's something about this life that just breaks your goddamned spine, and added to it is the indignity of being sneered at by people who tell us we should've known better and gone into something shrewder, like the law or marketing or some such. As if wanting to be a teacher was something we should be ashamed of sacrificing our lives for.

    I'm with you. I *am* you. And the best I can tell you is that–you're not alone. And you're not wrong. And…I don't know if it will all matter very much in the end. I just hang on by my fingernails, and teach. Because if it doesn't matters to anyone but me and my students–fuck 'em. And that's how I get by–but man, is "fuck 'em" a slender thread to hang from…

  • Well, having no control over our working lives is the norm for about 95% of us.

    That's how Power and Money likes it. Otherwise we might start to think we're somebody.

  • middle seaman says:

    Many academics are stuck in a department they prefer not to be in. Hell, they are in my department (and about 100 others). All our juniors (but one) have tried to find a better place after they joined us. They all got the finger raised high and straight up. We are, however, in a big important city.

    You can complain the rest of your life with no results and increased frustration. You can leave academia and start a new career in a better place. And you can work like most of us grunts and build a beautiful life for yourself. I have chosen the latter and never regretted it.

  • Ed-

    I'm old now, and broken on other wheels, but I understand your plight.

    I gave up on the academic life as an ABD when I was 29 years old. I never wanted to do anything else-like the Chaucer's Cleric (and Dryden above) "gladly would I learn and gladly teach.".

    I've spent the last 30+ years groveling at the altar of commerce out of sheer necessity. I'm within a hairs breadth of the Boomer Dream–Medicare and Social Security. It has occurred to me in my dotage that I was unable to spend my life as I wanted to; rather, I spent it as the lords of capital wanted me to.

    What you do is hard and noble. We are all subject to the vagaries of whatever power structure we decide to trade our labor to for bread. You might as well do what you love.

  • “Life's single lesson: that there is more accident to it than a man can ever admit to in a lifetime and stay sane.”

    Seconding J. Dryden's "I'm with you. I *am* you. And the best I can tell you is that – you're not alone. And you're not wrong."

    Hell, the rest of it, too.

  • There had to be a reason for Monday night's post. Thanks for explaining.

    Ed: First and foremost, when you wake up in the morning you need to feel like you enjoy what you do. Not that every day has to be great or free of angst and frustration but you need to feel like what you are spending your days makes a difference, that you affecting at least some of those you interact with (your students, your colleagues) in a way that makes your existence meaningful.

    What Dryden said. You go where there is work. And you measure your success in millimeters because if you convey the passion of what you care about to just one or two kids a year (even as the rest meander through in zombie-like fashion), you have succeeded.

    You have the opportunity to mold minds. To take young men and women and give them a greater understanding of the world around them and to care about making it a better place than it is now. And that's not nothing.

    30+ years ago, I took a 100 level course in American Government taught by a newly minted Ph.D. assistant professor. I had recently returned to college after a 2 year hiatus working as a car mechanic because my first stint at college had ended in failure. Not only did he instill in me a love of politics and political science that continues to this day but he directed me to courses that would give me an indication as to whether I would want to pursue a path toward law school. Three of my closest childhood friends were in law school and I thought maybe I could follow that path as well. I hated the classes he recommended and thoughts of law school ceased and I ended up with a degree in Economics that serves me well to this day. And that professor is now the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the university where he once taught Intro to American Government.

    So you just never know. (I emailed him a few years ago to ask about an analogy he had once made about the American government being like an aircraft carrier in that its mass and inertia make rapid, radical change very difficult. I held onto this lesson as a thread of hope that Bush and Cheney would not be able to totally flush the country down the drain in 8 years. He didn't remember me–not that I expected him to–but was delighted that I had remembered the lesson. And seemed to be really happy that a student from long ago still thought about what he had taught.)

    But you clearly need a different yardstick to measure if what you are doing is satisfying and worthwhile. I hope you find it.

    You are lucky though. There are a lot of people here who like you and want to be supportive. And that ought to, at least in some small way, help.

  • One more thing, Ed. You are not bound to a career in academia even if it helps pay the bills now. You have a gift for writing and a gift for satire. You could be another PJ O'Rourke if you set your mind to it.

    Regardless of what you decide to do, you have to give it your all, recognize that it is hard (read "Outliers" if you haven't already), and to measure success in ways that give you a chance to believe that you are successful.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    Back in the mid-90's, at the college I had graduated from with a BA, and the college I was a Theatre adjunct at, had a proposal for me – they would pay for my Masters and PhD in Russian, so I could take over the program from my favorite former Professor, who was getting older.

    When I finally got done, he would retire, and I would take his place – with, some sort of guarantee of commitment from me, but none from the college.

    It was a great offer, and I thought about it long and hard.

    And while I was thinking about it, I watched as one of the young professors of English, a man named "Professor of the Year' numerous times by the students there, NOT get tenured.

    He had had many, many articles printed in respected journals – just not "the right ones," as determined by the elderly head of the English Department.
    He left, because he saw that he wouldn't get tenured there as long as that elderly professor was still head of the department – and the only way the older man was going to leave, was when they buried him.

    The young professor weighed his odds, and left – to go on a tenure-track at some new college.
    How many years had he spent (wasted), trying to get tenure at my college, only to have to go somewhere else and do the same thing again.

    That made my decision easy.
    All you needed to block your career was an older, jealous colleague, and you were off to another school – this, after the money spent getting the requisite degrees.
    I turned the offer down.

    I left in a couple of years to become a Training Manager at one of the largest divisions of a telecommunications company, in NC.
    After almost 9 years, that didn't end well, either – like that professors career at my college didn't end well, years before.

    But, that's a long story for another day.

  • I suspect that the feeling that you are not in control of your career is not unique to academia. I feel the same way. Somewhere along the line I zigged when I should have zagged. Other guys my age are a couple rungs higher on the ladder probably making double what I'm making. And knowing that if I'm not at least 1 or 2 rungs higher by the time I'm 50, I will spend the remainder of my career exactly where I am, hoping I don't get reorganized out of a job, knowing that I will never find another one…

  • Hey, Ed. Is it practical to schedule networking or informational interviews with people at the institutions for whom you want to work? That's the way to become known.

  • I think one of the wisest things that Freud ever said was that love and work are the cornerstones to our humanness. And the key is that “work” – as in all the things we do to create something in the world – is as rich and complex and wrenching as “love” is. And just as all your love shouldn’t be crammed into a single relationship (lest it become poisonous), so your work shouldn’t be crammed into a job. You’re job is in a career that is notoriously over-staffed, callous, and capricious – but if it pays the bills – take from it what is worth taking and give to it only what doesn’t harm you. Your work is bigger than that in any case.

  • You've just put your finger on what's so infuriating about the righties' mantra to "pull yourself up by your own bootstraps". You're doing everything right, but often life is a crapshoot. Everyone can point at people who can barely put their pants on the right way, yet have been awarded success. Everyone can point to people who put their nose to the grindstone and work really hard, yet the success goes to someone else.

  • J. Dryden – the good (well, wryly ironic at least) news is that the sneerers who went into law or marketing or business are themselves being crowded out and put on the unstable temp employment path. One of the guys at Lawyers, Guns, and Money has done yeoman work detailing the collapse of law as a viable profession, an MBA isn't worth nearly what it once was, and finance jobs are disappearing like the polar ice cap, and all for the usual reasons – automation, outsourcing, offshoring, and people willing to do 20-50% more work just to keep their jobs. Even tech – the field I went into after leaving academia as an ABD, is hollowing out. Those sneerers are sneering at you because they are covering for the increasing insecurity in their own careers and financial lives.

    I was darkly entertained when newspapers got rendered obsolete and eaten alive last decade. It was great, rich fun watching the columnists who sneered at out-of-work auto and steel workers for losing their jobs – should have paid more attention in school, proles! – whine and cry and plead as Craigslist devoured their entire industry and made them utterly redundant. It's not so much fun when your ox is getting gored, is it?

    Finally, a story from the tech world. I found out that the brother of a friend of mine had gotten a job at Cisco – a hugely successful tech company – doing internal technical and network support. Great! I said, that's wonderful, it must be terrific to work for a powerhouse like Cisco. Except…he doesn't work for Cisco. He works, like a lot of techs, for a contracting agency – the wrinkle being that the agency is owned by Cisco and its only client is Cisco. He can be fired the moment he costs too much to employ or can be replaced with a cheaper tech, or when the company's numbers come in a little low and they need to "trim some fat", or when they find a way to do his work overseas, and they can give him junk benefits compared to Cisco's gold-plated bennies for permanent employees. The transformation of the employment landscape into a two-tier system has been underway for a while, but this is the first time I'd heard of a company owning its own temp agency for the purpose of screwing its workers. I mean, it makes perfect sense, like car makers owning their own rental car agencies. And this is in the go-go field of technology, in the booming heart of Silicon Valley. I can only imagine how much shittier it is in the rest of the country/economy.

    It started with companies outsourcing positions like security guards, gardening, cleaning, and cafeteria work, and now its quickly working its way through the white-collar departments. Pretty soon, even at successful companies, the only people with full-time positions and real benefits will be a tiny number of managers, executives, and critical talent (superstar engineers and sales people) – literally everybody else will be contingent permatemps with no benefits, no stability, and no seniority.

    Academics are just a couple of years ahead of the rest of the market. Those sneerers are going to be joining you in your misery, and a lot sooner than they might think.

  • I've never heard a story from anyone in academia that was anything other than miserable. But that makes me wonder if maybe part of the reason we've seen such a proliferation of non-traditional, for-profit schools recently, is that we have bunches of PhDs who are desperate for a new start in life.

    So, obviously most of us know you've done stand-up comedy, and like to teach; reasonable to conclude you're comfortable in front of an audience. Have you ever considered expanding your online presence into YouTube videos? I'm imagining, you know, the sort of political/historical commentary we get right here on the site, presented with your trademark dark humor. You could even call 'em "Ed Talks", if you like that sort of joke, which I do. Just 5-minute bits, nothing longer, maybe once every couple weeks to get started. I'm sure you know camera and theater people who would help you set it all up for free and a credit.

    I propose this because (a) I think they'd be really good, and (b) that sort of thing might help get your name out there in the way that the blog maybe hasn't yet. More people will watch than will read, you know?

  • You've described, accurately, the reality of most people (Graham says 95% – I'll go with that). At least in those low-energy, hard-edged moments of reflection. Internally it's a deep funk. Externally it's the soul-killing structure we've come up with so far.
    When I go there (often – try not working at all for two years!) my wife hands me a sponge and suggests I find something to clean.
    Life in the minor leagues. Most never get called up. And the odds get worse over time. The big game of musical chairs. No sane or healthy community would do it this way. In that context, what's happening around and to us makes perfect sense. How could it be any other way? It also makes no sense at all.

  • In the end, you have to live with yourself every morning when you wake up. You have to look in the bathroom mirror, really face the person in there. Look at him long and hard, and decide for yourself whether or not you like him. If he's a rotten son-of-a-bitch that you hate, the only person that can do anything about it is you.

    Do you enjoy what you do? If so, then you're fine, stay the course. If not? It's up to you to change it. Complaining about it may be cathartic, and damn it sure feels good — I know, I've been there before. But it won't change a damned thing. The only way anything will ever change is if you pick up and do something about it. You are the agent of your change. That's what makes you better than the other animals crawling around in the dirt out there.

    "Many other animals have feelings. What distinguishes our species is thought. The cerebral cortex is a liberation. We need no longer be trapped in the genetically inherited behavior patterns of lizards and baboons. We are, each of us, largely responsible for what gets put into our brains, for what, as adults, we wind up caring for and knowing about. No longer at the mercy of the reptile brain, we can change ourselves."
    ~Carl Sagan

    If you find fulfillment in teaching, then keep at it. Take pride in your work, content yourself with it, and make yourself right with the decision to place your passion ahead of being financially well-off. If you don't find fulfillment in teaching — if the self-reward of your pride and passion in what you do isn't worth the financial hardship — then stop doing it. Do something else. It'll be hard, don't mistake that. It'll suck for a while. Drastic life changes always do. But you owe it to yourself not to wallow in a pit when you have the strength to claw your way up out of it. Don't let the bastard in the mirror hold you back.

  • High school teaching. I think you would love it, and you could still adjunct at nearby colleges.

    Get out of it. Please. And fuck anyone who thinks less of you for it.

  • I once entered Ed's name on one of those EVALUATE YOUR PROFESSOR! websites. From the more coherent entries you could tell he's a terrific teacher (and HILARIOUS! as more than one student exclaimed). Reading that as an undergraduate, I would have broken down the doors to get into his class.

    Now academia is behind me, having taught at various colleges for 35 years, and been "director" of my discipline at one of them, but without ever getting the brass ring (tenure). My mistake was simple, and one that my successor knew instinctively to avoid. Hardly was he hired than he confronted the dean to ask What kind of department did he want? My successor got tenure, in spite of being a rather lackluster teacher (from HIS evaluations). So my conclusion: you have to Give Your Superiors What They Want. (And when they, themselves, are terminated or bumped upstairs you have to moult like a chameleon to give their successors what THEY want) Particularly in a profession ruled by subjective evaluations, you have to forget why you got into the field and make sure you become rounded if they want you to fit in a round hole or angular if they want you in a square one. It's also good to look like a million bucks to justify the tuition. Exude class. College is show biz; you not only have to teach, you have to convince the flock that they're being wonderfully taught. A neat trick.

    But then whoever said it's a crap shoot wasn't off the mark. It can all be for naught if you're unlucky. But the political science professor needs to be as political as any other professor to make it. Friends in high places, who you know, and all those cliches.

    Anyone with a chance at fluency in German or Korean should consider emigrating. Those lands really esteem professors and learning. A friend became Herr Professor years ago and never came back.

  • Ed, have you considered selling out? Seems to me like your academic expertise would have "real world" applications in the polling/ Political Industrial Complex. Fuck Nate Silver, we want ED!!

    (Kidding about Silver– hating on him seems like bashing oceanography professors for being right about climate change.)

  • Ed,

    Academia is not the sole great repository of this sense of career futility.

    I spent years bashing my head against an industry that I thought I really wanted to be in. Frankly, I just didn't have the talent to go very far in the direction that I wanted to go in.
    I suffered the ignominy of having to come along with the mop and bucket to clean up other people's messes. Talented in that regard, I just never was able to get things together to get a perm gig and get ahead.
    In and (mostly) out, Up and (mostly) down.

    Things that made me stay at it was my pride (didn't want to admit defeat), and also had no other idea what I'd want to do. Not to mention that I had developed a tremendous amount of skills in the area that I didn't want to go to waste.

    I also felt the oppression of having other people having the say on whether or not I "got the job"or not. It came to a point where I was nearly ready to show up at my next interview with an axe.

    Still had no idea what I would be good at and well suited to. I knew that I was better than what I was doing.

    It took sometime, but I finally believe I've found my niche. I actually have this thing called a career. Yes, I've had to move to the country for my first break, but it's a break and the people are nice enough. I'll also get to learn more in this role than if I'd found my way into a larger organisation.

    So Ed, either listen to what RosiesDad had to say. You never know who you'll touch along the way.
    But, if all you're doing is hitting gravel and it's really affecting your mental well being, it's okay to realise that you can start in a new direction. You're not a worse person for it, in fact you'll be better off letting go of a losing proposition for yourself. Just keep at what you're doing until you decide what you want to do. Become a publican?

  • Just a bit on GunStar's point.

    Change, your change is up to you. But with depression and getting stuck in a rut, it's okay to ask for help. In fact you may need a bit. Either from a professional or finding a support group/network. You're not on your own on this journey.

  • I'm back.

    Ed: You ought to feel good about all the people here who really care for you and your well being. GunstarGreen said what I wanted to say better than I did. And maybe Amanda's suggestion is good. My son–HS senior who reads this blog pretty regularly–has had a number of Ph.D's in social and natural sciences. And the teachers really seem to enjoy their careers as HS educators. Most have been at the school for 15-20 years or more.

    But also this:

    What I read are reviews about a professor who is a good lecturer, who makes material interesting even when students believe it will not be, who explains things well but who is also demanding and fair. (Which makes them better students and also maybe better people.)

    So you have a gift for it, Ed. Maybe Bradley is not the place for you and maybe HS would be a better place than college (come to SE PA–there are GREAT public school districts in the Philly burbs) but I think there is ample evidence that Dr. Burmila has an aptitude for teaching and his students recognize and appreciate it.

    And that is something to be proud of and to build upon.

  • guttedleafsfan says:

    Ed, I wish you could come up here and take David Gilmour's job as English professor. |He is a writer who has a cushy nepotism gig at Victoria College , which he is not academically qualified for. He only teaches what he feels passionate about , which is white heterosexual nonCanadian authors. You could do that!

  • Just think – if it weren't for all of these damned regulations, you could go into the academia business for yourself, outsource everything, and play with rats all day.

  • 95% or 5%?

    It's really all in your point of view: if you were a salesman would you be manipulating people or begging them to buy your product? You might present the same case in the same words/gesture/emphases but it's up to you what you call it.

    I recommend meditation. Not that meditation actually does anything, but if you just sit staring at the wall for days (weeks for slow learners) there will come a time when you are sick of thinking about your problems.

    Then you declare yourself "enlightened" and get on with your life. It really doesn't get better, you just get over yourself.

  • The boring one says:

    @anotherbozo: Well, your friend der Professor was lucky to i) get a position as a full professor (there are typically no tenure track positions in Germany) and ii) not be eaten alive by administrative duties. I once read that Switzerland has the most satisfied academics in Europe, though.

  • Can I add another sad story to the mix? I went to graduate school with two dudes, one of whom graduated several years ago, floated around in lecturer positions for a few years, then got a job at a shitty university in a mediocre city (sound familiar)? He is a minority and has dedicated his life to the academic study of his group in addition to and related to community activism. He also publishes frequently and is the best teacher and mentor I've ever known. Sure, I like the guy, but these are cold hard facts from his CV and his evaluations.

    This year, a dream job with a *focus on his minority community* opened up in his dream city. Seriously, the stars were aligned. But remember this story opened with two dudes. They hired the other dude, a white guy who is ABD. Don't get me wrong, I really like the second dude, but he is objectively underqualified in comparison to the first dude.

    I don't know why I told this story, except to second and third and fourth the sentiments already expressed here. Qualifications are clearly second to… luck? connections? the ability to give a really good hj in the back of a VW? Who knows. What I do know is that it falls hard on academics, who spend half a lifetime doing well in school and being fed bullshit about merit-based success. There's no merit-based success once you're done getting your degrees.

    Which is why I shmoozed my way into industry instead. I've never looked back. Did I pass up an opportunity to be an important thought-leader in my field? Probably not. My hj's aren't that good, especially in cramped spaces.

    Ed, good luck. We're rooting for you.

  • My partner was in a similar position. Not a PhD, but an MA. In a performance art. After a few years he realized his top-line performance goal probably wasn't happening so he needed Plan B. Some in his cohort, facing the same realization, chose the 'change careers' option: JD, MBA, etc. This is a good solution for some. My husband recognized that he was too deeply attached to his art to ever be away from it, so his path was to make an alternate place within his particular art. He will never be wealthy or widely known, but his talents are appreciated. And renumerated. My partner would admit to you he definitely has his tough moments, days sometimes, but overall this path has worked for him. He has always been able to help keep a roof over our heads, and he can face himself in the mirror.

    This might be something to consider. To me you are an absolutely blazing writer–humor that doesn't get in the way of your point! I wish you could hear all the laughs you have given us. And the learning, frankly.

    As for the K-12 public teaching solution, all I can say is 'whoa.' Would any of you either considering or advising that path please talk to someone currently inside the business? Please? 'Cause it might still be an option for some, but it is not what it used to be.

  • I can relate. I'm a tenured associate professor at a decent regional university in the Midwest. I like teaching and research and get along with most of my colleagues. The job is enjoyable and reasonably challenging and I like most of it- with the exception of grading papers. The problem I have with grading is more about the quantity of papers I have to grade than about the quality.

    It seems that the longer I teach, the more god-damned grading, new course prep, and committee work I have to do and my research stream has become just a trickle. I still write and submit papers but have been unsuccessful as of late in getting them published in good journals. I am feeling more and more that I have so little control about those outcomes. This uncertainty has created a great deal of anxiety and has decreased my motivation to churn out manuscripts and submit them. After all, it takes quite a bit of time to conceptualize a study, to conduct it, to analyze the data, and to write it up and then submit it and wait for the reviewers and journal editor to provide feedback.

    Anyway, I still want to continue as a professor and to stay in my school but can't seem to shake the funk I'm in. Perhaps it's a mid-life or mid-career crisis. I supposed I should have better insight to myself, given that I am a behavioral scientist. Perhaps I should spend less time reading political blogs and jacking off in my lair at night.

  • I know the feeling completely. In my physics cohort, a decade after the phd, two people are professors, two people are still in postdocs, and everyone else has left science entirely and bemoans ever having bothered with a phd + postdocs.

    I recently set up a (paid) internship at my company to help math/science phds transition to quantitative business work. The pay isn't spectacular, but slightly more than a postdoc. We had more than 700 people apply for two positions. Honestly, I have no real objective criteria to decide, its essentially just a career lottery.

Comments are closed.