On Jobs, Tenure, etc., part two
On Jobs, Tenure, etc., part two
Right. I thought I was done with this topic, but I’m not. The Frog Princess has made a couple of comments that I think need addressing, and they probably need a post of their own, so I’m going to bring them up here. The things I really want to address are these: the ‘silencing of the debate’, the sacrifices vs. rewards argument, the honesty and ethics of the field. And some other stuff (what, you thought I would limit myself?).
Here is her first comment:
I’ve enjoyed reading this post but as someone who remains firmly on the other side of this debate, I do have a few thoughts.
First of all, I’ve seen a lot of professors blog about how they refuse to feel guilty for having a job and I have no idea where they’re getting the idea that they should feel guilty. As far as I read the debate, the issue is not that individual people should be apologizing for having jobs. The system worked as it should.
And yes, people lose their jobs all the time. But losing your job suggests that you had one to begin with, not that you spent a decade earning qualifications and never got a job that you could then lose.
For what it’s worth, I don’t think individual professors are to blame necessarily, although again I should stress that not every advisor is as up front about the realities of the job market as the professor side of this debate assumes. But graduate school is incredibly difficult (it’s taken a hellish turn for me in the past several months) and I don’t think it’s too much to ask that there be a decent shot at getting a job. I do know this: should I not get a job, going to graduate school will have been a waste. Yeah, I’ll have a PhD and I’ll be proud of it, even as I hide it on my cv to get employed elsewhere. But nothing’s going to make up for the ways in which my life has not progressed in service of pursuing a certain professional path.
Frog Princess — here’s the things that, for me at least (and I expect some of the other people who have commented similarly) are problematic in your statement:
- Those of us who have jobs have also gone through grad school. It is incredibly difficult, and has been hellish for many of the people I know. I had all sorts of health problems in grad school that ended about 4 months after I finished. All stress-related. I joke sometimes that Prozac finished my diss. I also lived with very minimal possessions, hand-me-down furniture, seldom going anywhere nice, never had a real vacation for years. Even now, I live in a small apartment because I’m only just at a point where I might qualify for a mortgage. Yes. It’s difficult in what we have to do to get the degree and the sacrifices many of us make to get the degree.
- You can think grad school will have been a waste. Fine. But it’s a choice, and in life there are tradeoffs. I would most likely have got a job sooner and at a better institution had I not chosen to get married and raise a child. That choice, and that marriage, totally derailed my academic work for a long time. And I don’t have that marriage anymore. Ironically, I probably would have met someone else who I love very much much earlier had I put grad school first, and we might even be together now. Or maybe not. At any rate, I have an ex-husband who is a dear friend, a child I love very much, a bunch of in-laws I adore, and my share of the post-divorce debts is almost paid off. We make choices and live with them. You can spend your life bemoaning where you might have been without grad school, but you have no idea where you’d be now. None of us do. And even getting the job doesn’t mean we don’t look at people who are “ahead” of us and wonder what life would be like. Hell, my little sister had a baby a month after graduating high school, never went to college, and makes $30k more a year than I do — and theoretically can retire on a full pension in about 5 years, at 49 years old. She made some shitty choices and ended up “ahead” of lots of us.
- yes, you need to have a job to lose it. But grad school is a job. And there are no guarantees in any training that there will be jobs. Nor is there any guarantee that, had you trained for something else, that you wouldn’t be changing careers. I can very much understand feeling that you deserve a decent shot, and I don’t know what your subject is, but honestly, I think “decent shot” is pretty nebulous. I know many people who would not ever have applied for some of the jobs I’ve taken, because they had heavier teaching loads than they wanted or because they weren’t FT or T-T. But those ‘lesser’ jobs gave me the experience I needed to get the job I have. It’s still a crap market, but it’s a crappier market for people whose idea of what sort of job fits them is limited to certain sorts of institutions. Either way, this goes back to the feelings of entitlement I mentioned in my post. Grad school is already a fantastic luxury compared to what non-academics go through.
- About the apology thing: I think some of us are refusing to apologize because of the underlying message that I see in many of the posts about this — that we somehow just don’t understand, or that somehow, we were more fortunate than we know. That’s probably true for some people. But it’s a lot less true than we are given credit for, I think.
And her rejoinder:
I don’t disagree with what you’ve said, really. I just think there are legitimate reasons to question what’s going on and I don’t like the attempts at silencing that are going on. In my opinion, silencing the debate only perpetuates the aspects of academia that are grossly unfair. Just because everybody’s been through it doesn’t make it right. And I think the extraordinary sacrifices academia demands people make with little reward isn’t right. There’s a “trial by fire” mentality (and I don’t think you’re making this claim but it’s out there) that I think is nonsense.
And I guess I wasn’t clear: I don’t think anybody should be apologizing for getting a job. At all. Your getting a job hasn’t taken a job away from me, it’s a totally separate issue. And while I don’t think I’ve seen any calls for the professoriate to apologize in this debate, I do notice this among graduate student colleagues where bitterness increases when a person gets a job that other people feel didn’t deserve one. That’s ludicrous. My concern is the larger structures in place that have created a situation in which there are significantly more students than available jobs.
All I want is for the field as a whole to be honest about what it demands of people and what little it may give. But hey, I guess I should be suffering in silence for the comfort of the field as a whole.
And yes, I’m living with the choice I made; that doesn’t mean it was the right decision, nor does it mean that the field is acting in an ethical way.
The silencing of the debate
I honestly don’t think this is going on. No one is saying that the system hasn’t got tremendous flaws. But I think that what we are seeing in many cases is a conflation of an academic system that is flawed in many ways with a graduate school experience that is not systemically flawed. Yes, many people are totally unprepared or unable to handle the stresses of grad school. But lots of people make it through with relatively little stress — or at least no more stress than one finds in any other job. Many people even enjoy grad school. Some departments can suck, but others, like mine, were amazingly supportive. I was still stressed out, so much that I was sometimes ill, but I’m not going to put that on the system. I knew what was expected of me, pretty much, from the first day. I was stressed because I was not as good at it or as organized about it as I wanted to be. Obviously, this may not be true for everybody, but that’s my point. Unless one is in one of the relatively few completely screwed up programs, people’s mileage will vary when it comes to handling the demands of grad school. One of the demands of my program was that I pass three language exams in two years. Any medievalist coming in knew that upon acceptance. I wasn’t worried about it, because I know that I can do languages. Others actually dropped or changed fields, because they hit a wall. So in the case of grad school being amazingly stressful or ridiculously difficult, all I can say is it isn’t really debatable. Only we can judge whether or not it’s going to be too stressful or too difficult for us.
The honesty and ethics of the field
Again, this is where I see a conflation of arguments that is very unhelpful. One of the things I’ve mentioned, and that others have also noted, is that many of the people complaining about the system is that, “nobody told me that I might not have a job at the end.” And at pretty much every blog where there has been this conversation (and I’m talking now about over the last several years, not just this iteration), working academics have pointed out that professional organizations and grad schools have often pointed out that the retirements that were supposed to hit beginning in the 1970s and 1980s have never materialized. Now, I think that there is some variation over fields, and even in History, in some sub-fields. And perhaps medievalists are a bit more in tune? after all, we have to prove our relevance all the time in order to preserve lines. But when I think of the numbers of Americanists in my grad program compared to Europeanists, and all the modernists compared to the medievalists, it seemed pretty clear that there were more people than there would be jobs. So that’s the first part. I’m not denying that some faculty mislead their students about their prospects, although I think it has more to do with wishful thinking than trying to con the students. After all, undergraduate faculty often see in the students they send to grad school mirrors of their own success, and thesis advisors often measure their real success in how many successful students they produce. But on this point, I am loath to accept that the system is any more at fault than are the students who fail to perform due diligence.
I began to address the second part of the honesty question above, in terms of the emotional, stress, and work/life costs of grad school. Again, I think part of this really is about knowing yourself, rather than there being a systemic problem. Culturally, we aren’t that good at that level of introspection and actually behaving like grown-ups rather than superannuated adolescents. Grad school is a big decision, one akin to marriage and, like marriage, lots of people do it right out of college. And like marriage and having children, we have ideas of what it will be like that often omit real consideration of how very damned hard these things are. The difference is, I suppose, that marriage and family confer expectations of sucking it up and being adults, while grad school can, and often does, infantalize students. By doing so, we tend to think of it as training, as something we do while postponing our lives, when really, it’s much more akin to a job or at least on-the-job training. So here again, I am not sure there is a systemic dishonesty perpetrated by academia, nor do I think it’s all down to grad students being unrealistic or irresponsible. But I do think there is a clash of expectations that can lead to people feeling let down.
HOWEVER, and this is a big however, and one of the crucial points in the debate: there are ethical problems. But those problems are not down to letting in more students than there will be jobs. The main problem is that the system is replacing full-time faculty with contingent faculty, and not providing the sort of long-term prospects that it should. This is a problem on many levels, and not simply for employment. Another problem is that fields and departments are being cut, and budgets cut, so that all faculty are being asked to do more with less, even while requirements for tenure and promotion for those who *do* get T-T jobs are raised. Another problem that I see is that some programs do offer PhDs in fields that they really can’t support properly. Part of this is departmental politics, part is administration, and sometimes there is even external influence. In my opinion, departments shouldn’t offer a PhD in a subfield unless it really has the library and faculty to support that subfield. But the reality is that being able to direct graduate work, especially at the expense of undergraduate teaching, is a carrot. And again, students with good undergrad advisors will know not to apply to grad schools that don’t really specialize in their chosen fields. And again, no one should accept a place unless it comes with guaranteed money. So overall, I think that the greatest systemic ethical problems are in the reduction of T-T jobs and the replacement with (usually unbenefited) contingent faculty and accepting students that universities aren’t going to fund.
sacrifices vs. rewards
Again, this is a subjective argument. As I said in my previous post, it’s a choice. The Frog Princess implies that the choice is one where people who are not given the whole picture, and says that she will regret her choice if she doesn’t get a job. In short, this is a variation on the “nobody told me” argument. And for me, it really doesn’t work. It doesn’t work because for many people, whether or not they get a job, the sacrifices of grad school are worth it. There was a point in my life where I genuinely thought that my academic career was over before I’d even had a chance to put my degree to work. I had a good job making more than I make now, and I was unsure if I’d finish before my clock ran out. At that point, I realized that I could have one regret about grad school or two: I could regret that I’d fucked things up, but still finish and have the PhD, or I could regret having written three chapters and never finished. I could regret having let my personal life get in the way of my work, rather than learning to integrate the two. Or I could deal with what I had chosen. But that’s me. I’m a ‘shit happens, and you make your choices and take your chances’ kind of person. What I do, the choices I make, and the things that happen to me over which I have little or no control are all things that contribute to the person I am.
Here’s the thing: I regret all sorts of things about my life. I regret some of the choices I’ve made, especially when I know that having made a particular choice probably kept me from being in the right place at the right time for something else. Goodness knows I can look at my life now and think of the crappy things about it. I hate that I’m single. I hate that my most recent relationship died in small part to the demands of two academic schedules and the costs of traveling across the Atlantic and the fact that I will never get a job in the country where my ex-bf lives and will retire. I hate that I don’t own the house and am years behind on saving for retirement. If I’m disabled and can’t teach till for at least another 25 years, I’m screwed, although at least I qualify for full social security. I hate that I live so damned far away from my family — but at least I knew when I started grad school that chances of employment near them were minimal at best. BUT, when I think of all the things I do love about my life, and people I might not have met if I’d done things differently, I wouldn’t change it for some nebulous alternative reality. Any one of those different decisions could also have led me to being hit by a bus and crippled.
So I’m not buying the sacrifices vs. rewards argument. It’s personal. It depends on one’s own value system. Perhaps it’s also generational, I don’t know. Maybe Gen X and Gen Y people have expectations that I and others my age don’t and that’s part of the problem. I’m genuinely troubled that so many people feel that they have been victims of some sort of bait-and-switch, but as the Frog Princess herself says, she may have made the wrong decision. And I think that is at the heart of the discussion. We are dealing with personal regrets about entering into a system, and those regrets tend to demonize everything about the system — and frankly, it often comes across as an unwillingness to own your own shit (I’m not directing this at anyone in particular, especially not Frog Princess). And I think this derails productive discussions about what is really wrong with the system, and the things that we all need to work to fix, either as professionals, or as the ‘paying customers’ who send their children off to expensive colleges and universities to be taught by contingent faculty and under-trained and overworked grad assistants, or as the taxpayers who can’t be bothered to complain about the way their taxes are or are not spent. I’m not even going to go into people who don’t want to pay taxes — unless there are huge infusions of money into higher ed, either from private donations or via public spending, this is all a moot conversation. Even cutting a hell of a lot of administrative deadwood won’t fix things (although in some places it might be a moral victory!). We’ve got to a point where I’m not sure most places could afford to increase FT benefited positions without upping class caps, teaching loads, or letting facilities fall apart. Those are the systemic problems we have to deal with — but I’m fairly sure that our warnings, just as the ones about the job market that some of us paid attention to more than 20 years ago and yet seem to have gone unheard by so many people, will fall on deaf ears.