Myths About Academia
I am an academic. And I earned the big prize (tenure) in 2014. There are lots of really great things about being a college professor. (NOT summers off. We don’t actually get that…). I am largely autonomous. I control my work in the classroom and I get to define and plan my research agenda. I largely get to say what committee work I do or do not wish to engage in. I meet really smart, amazing people and I get to learn all about THEIR research – an aspect of my job that I love.
This blog post, HOWEVER, is not about my wonderful gig. Instead it’s about the dark side of academia. While I was well on my way to tenure, I watched my sister experience the unhealthy side of academia. And she isn’t the only one. I have so many friends who have been teaching part time for YEARS in the hope of scoring the tenure track position. Having served on a dozen search committees, I know that the likelihood of that position coming their way is practically nil, no matter how hard they work or how many free hours they give away to their universities. I also know that, although I earned my position, everyone I went to graduate school with was just as qualified and that my foot in the door had a lot to do with factors that I did not control.
Here are some harmful myths that prolonged periods in academia (like grad school) can foster:
- You will be the ONE who Makes It. So go ahead and run up that debt!
Despite much evidence to the contrary, prospective graduate students assume that they will be the one to get that coveted tenure track position so they don’t need to sweat the debt that comes with graduate school. In fact running up insane amounts of debt for jobs that do not pay very much and are scarce to begin with is insane. Everyone who earns that PhD is super-smart and capable, and who gets that tenure-track position might have more to do with factors beyond your control than your advisor is telling you. Universities have still not recovered from the recession and frankly so many people are willing to work for practically free as adjuncts that universities have very little incentive to replace full-time professors. Seriously, if you want and can afford that PhD – go get it – but don’t do it because you think it will guarantee you a tenure-track position. It won’t.
- The ONLY thing that will give you value is being a tenured/tenure track professor.
When I spoke to my colleagues about the stresses of earning tenure, this always came up. In fact, my colleagues (who, by the way had PhD’s) would say things like: Well I either earn tenure or I guess I go work for a coffee shop. WHAT? Really? The only thing you are qualified for is the professoriate and otherwise you have to work for minimum wage? Even though you just spent 4-10 years getting a PhD? Unfortunately, this idea is perpetuated by advisors who spend a lot of time being “disappointed” by former graduate students who took positions outside of academia at three times the pay of a full professor. Ick. You are a valuable, knowledgeable person. Your skills, especially your writing, quantitative, and research skills are in demand. People who are not professors are just as valuable as people who are professors (sometimes even more so).
- If you pay your dues by accepting low pay and abusive labor practices, your current university will eventually bring you on full time.
Nope. Do NOT accept this. Adjuncting (figure out those hours – are you even making minimum wage?) and annual contract positions will NOT show that you are paying your dues. Sadly, as in the rest of life, the more you allow yourself to be taken advantage of, the more you will be taken advantage of. Hiring committees do NOT care how much service you have provided to your university. They care about your publication record. You would be better off getting a job in industry and working on your research on the side. Better yet, get an industry job and accept the amazing autonomy a regular paycheck brings to your life.
I am so proud of my sister. She has figured out how to get the money she needed to thumb her nose at the myths above and pursue work in industry. Best of all, she did it by working as a professor…in Kuwait. She tells us about her grand adventure in Brazen BFF Podcast Episode #6. Take a listen.
p.s. Are you considering a career switch away from academia? Check out these resources to help you get started.
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