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Why You Should Quit Grad School During The Recession​

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in Reflection

Yesterday I asked, “Should you quit grad school during the recession?” My answer was roughly, “Well, why not?” Related to this is the larger question–which a few people have asked me to post about lately–about timing. If you’re going to quit academia, when should you do it?

To me, the answer is, “Whenever it’s best for you.” How’s that for precision? But seriously, the answer is going to be completely up to you. The major considerations are many: financial (what will you do for an income if you leave at this stage?), career (what field will you switch to?), family (do you need to support family members? Are you all living together?), geographic (will you need/want to move when you quit?), and so forth.

But deciding on the timing of your departure also has to do with the delicate matter of cutting your losses. Calculating losses, though, is an imprecise science because there are so many unknown factors. For example, if you quit after, say, completing your comprehensive exams, are you cutting your losses by sparing yourself years of the gruelling dissertation-writing process (which can be totalled up in dollars, tears, therapists’ bills, damaged relationships, etc.)? Or are you incurring a new loss by not finishing a project you’ve started (an emotional toll) and having to work to explain what you did during those years on a résumé (a potential financial toll)?

Well, the answer is both, isn’t it? When you leave academia–regardless of when you do–you carry around a balance sheet of losses and gains. Gains: a deep relief, a feeling of freedom, a sense that you’ve narrowly escaped something that temporarily had control of your soul. Losses: debt, regret, the struggle to find a new career and life path.

Sometimes, the dividends blur and the gains start to look like losses; the feeling of freedom, for example, can quickly turn into a terrifying landscape of possibility with no clear direction of where to turn. Sometimes the losses look like gains: struggling to find a new life and career path reminds you of how many wonderful interests you have and all of the fun ways you can pursue them.

This is where the matter of the timing of your departure comes in. The dividends of leaving are going to be felt more and less sharply depending on when you jump ship. The longer you stay in your Ph.D. program, your debt load goes up, but so do your credentials. But do those credentials even mean anything to you if you’re depressed, disillusioned and miserable?

If You’re Going To Quit Academia, When Should You Do It?

For those of you who are thinking of leaving mid-degree, and are tortured by the thought that you’ve wasted your time and money: here’s a timely link to a post Seth Godin wrote earlier this week. I think it’s brilliant, and although he’s not even thinking about grad students when he’s writing this post, it applies perfectly. The post is called “Ignore Sunk Costs.” Among other golden advice, Seth says:

When making a choice between two options, only consider what’s going to happen in the future, not which investments you’ve made in the past. The past investments are over, lost, gone forever. They are irrelevant to the future.

Here’s a breakdown of the balance sheet referring to different stages of leaving. I’d love to hear more thoughts on your analysis of the gains and losses in the comments section. If you…

1. Leave after the M.A. You’ve got yourself a valuable degree with great income-earning potential. But maybe you feel skeptical about your academic prospects, you don’t think you’d enjoy teaching and although you enjoy your research, you don’t feel crazy about doing 5-10 more years of it. So you quit.

Gains: High. You may have some student loans, but this recent report from StatsCan shows there is a 33% wage gap between someone with a B.A. and someone with a Master’s, but someone with a doctorate only earns 8% more than someone with a Master’s.

Costs: Low. Unlike a Ph.D., a master’s makes you feel good about your capabilities.

2. Leave after the first year of your Ph.D. You’ve had a taste of the program, the university, your colleagues and your potential supervisors. Maybe it’s not a good fit, and when you look at the faculty, you’re turned off by the constant search for external funding, the “publish or perish” mentality, and the lack of value placed on family time (like, uh, making one at all). So you quit.

Gains: Medium-high. You’re sparing yourself the time and emotional aggravation and expense of staying in grad school. You can be honest on a resume about what you did with your year.

Costs: Low. Some debt, maybe, and maybe a little bit of “What if…?”

3. Leave around the comps process (before, during or after). When I speak with former academics, this time of intense stress (comprehensive exams are now also called qualifying exams at some schools) can really bring one’s feelings about academia to the forefront. Maybe it’s taking you years to finish your comps, you’re riddled with insecurity, you feel like a total fraud, and you’re on the precipice of clinical depression. So you quit.

Gains: medium-high. Getting out before you lose any more of your precious time, precious money, precious brain cells and spend any more on prescription drugs is really smart. Living in a world where you don’t have to prove yourself through comps fuckin’ rulz.

Costs: medium. Suffering through the comps and STILL leaving without parchment in hand is gonna sting. You will have to explain to employers what it means to be ABD with respect to your transferable skills, which is kinda annoying.

4. Leave during the dissertation stage. Whether you’re struggling to get your proposal done, churn out that first chapter, or finally kick the final chapter to the curb, the dissertation process is a long, emotionally intense, wearing process that can tear down the mental health of the most balanced grad student. Maybe you loathe your topic. Maybe you’re burnt out. Maybe you’re making yourself miserable trying to keep up with the demands to teach, publish, present papers and produce a brilliant 300 page document all at the same time. Maybe you just don’t have it in you anymore. So you quit.

Gains: high. Though departments notoriously do not keep track of their attrition rates, I’ve read research (which I will cite for you in a follow-up post) indicating 50% of social science and humanities doctorates drop out of their programs before finishing. That means you’re in pretty good company among people who decided that life was too short to wait for a satisfying career, to move out of poverty, to save their mental health, or to just figure out that the academic life was not meant for them.

Costs: high. The niggly feelings of “what if?…” or “if only…” might linger for a long, long time. Feeling like a failure–or being worried that other people will see you as a failure–may be very intense. Your possible debt load may amplify feelings of anger, resentment, shame and bitterness. Feeling lost and unsure of how to orient your life is a strong possibility. Struggling with the concept of waste–a waste of your time, money, energy and potential–may stay with you.

5. You leave once you’ve finished the Ph.D. You’re done! Yahoo! But you got what you came for and you are outta there.

Gains: high. Freedom, sweet freedom. Sweet, quaking-at-the-knees, dripping-with-relief freedom.

Costs: medium-high. Severely compromised mental health, a significant debt, relationships that needed some nurturing after long periods of neglect. There is some belief (which I believe is a myth) that having a Ph.D. makes you unemployable.

(NB: Perhaps I’m biased here (since this was the path I chose and I’ve had three years to gain distance from the experience) by seeing the costs as “medium-high” and not “high.” To me, though, the gains far outstripped the costs, in terms of the feeling of freedom, the wild array of life choices I knew I could make, the ability to do the teaching and research and writing that I wanted that wasn’t limited by the classroom, and yes, the satisfaction of having the degree in hand.)

6. Once you’ve done contract/adjunt teaching, done your post-doc or gotten a tenure-track position. It might seem weird to lump these three types of academics into one category, but I’ll explain why below. Even if it’s news to some grad students, people do actually leave secure, tenured positions (Rebecca Stienitz is one of them–here’s her story–and so is Kenny Mostern of “On Being Postacademic” fame–which you can read here. NB: I’ll be interviewing Dr. Mostern and Dr. Stienitz for the podcast series in the next few weeks).

Gains: high. Once you’ve got your Ph.D., you can go anywhere and do anything with confidence. Contract faculty have a lot to gain by landing in a job that actually pays a living wage, and they, along with tenure-track faculty, gain by being able to move to the city of their choice, actually have free time, start a family, make more money, etc.

Costs: low-to-medium. I haven’t been there, and so far I haven’t done any interviews (yet) with people who’ve made this jump. So I am only speculating here. But making a career change at this point just makes a lot of sense to me in the same way that any other career change makes sense. I know someone who used to be an award-winning, professional Irish dancer and is now an IT guy at an art college. I know someone who used to be a professional chef and is now a naturopath. I know someone who used to make giga-bucks at Goldman Sachs and is now a freelance writer living in the English countryside with her young children. I admire people who make crazy career leaps because although there are potential costs (like failing), the gains (like actually being happy and/or satisfied) seem to be so much greater.

What do you think? If you’re going to quit academia, when is the best time to do it? What other factors are there that contribute to your decision? (You can also read a post-doc’s far more brief take on the matter here at Damn Dinosaurs).


Science PhDs Are Post Academics Too​

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in Career Planning

Given the current dismal job prospects in tenure-track science academia, it’s no wonder more science PhDs are exploring alternative career options. Although we were groomed to succeed our mentors in the academy, bench life isn’t for everyone. Some of us don’t have the passion for conducting the same meticulous experiments day after day or the wherewithal to generate the endless grant writing required for PI survival. We are tired of spending nights and weekends in the lab, sacrificing sleep and social life to experiment-based timetables. But what non-bench career options are available that utilize our doctoral experience?

As postdocs, we are responsible for staying current with research in our field. However, sometimes that field is so narrow that we find ourselves unable to converse with other scientists about our work, much less attempt to explain it to our family and friends. We are intelligent detail-lovers, but we can also be generalists. A broad understanding of contemporary science is essential in order to produce high impact research, which is typically a by-product of collaboration. But inter-disciplinary collaboration produces more than prominent publications; it enhances our ability to communicate science across other fields. Some scientists are gifted communicators with a knack for relating research to anyone. And for those who can put research into a social and political perspective to engage and enlighten a non-technical audience, science writing may be the perfect career path.

Science writing encompasses a variety of career prospects, from technical writers who prepare users manuals for biotechnology companies to science journalists who work for media outlets. Science journalists don’t always write for lay audiences, though. Some write for professional audiences in institutional or society newsletters, alumni magazines and in-house publications. For science PhDs interested in public relations, there are a myriad of public information positions available at universities, non-profit organizations, government agencies and private research foundations. These organizations seek spokespeople as conduits through which research can be articulated to the public. For example, public information officers write press releases that are distributed to the media and serve as liaisons between reporters and institutional staff.

Trading pipette for pen is a daunting transition, but postdocs would be surprised at how they already fulfill the job requirements. Science writers are expected to attend scientific meetings, read journals, and maintain contact with scientists in their field of interest in order to stay current on advances in the area. Depending on the size of their organization, science writers may be responsible for covering a wide range of science or they may have a narrow range of interest such as biotechnology or neuroscience. Science writers, like postdocs, spend their professional life continually learning. Each article challenges them to master a new vocabulary and become familiar with new concepts. All science writers share a common responsibility: to monitor research developments and translate information of interest to their audience. The advent of social media has many science writers producing more than print journalism. Podcasts and videocasts are becoming popular, and prospective science writers need not only an in-depth understanding of their topic, but also the ability to accurately and clearly communicate research to a broad audience.

So how do you know if science writing is right for you? Dr. Sue Ambrose, science writer for The Dallas Morning News, offers advice for aspiring science writers in Alternative Careers in Science: Leaving the Ivory Tower, a book I recommend for any science PhD who is considering alternative career options outside academia. As Dr. Ambrose puts it, good science writers “would rather learn a little about many areas of science than spend the rest of [their] career focused on a single, narrow field.” If you savor the sense of accomplishment that comes with publication, loathe writing in the context of academic prose, and would be relieved to never have to run another experiment again, then science writing is a career to consider. If the prospect of returning to the classroom isn’t appealing, there are other ways to launch a career in scientific journalism that don’t necessitate financial investment in formal coursework. Several awards, fellowships, and grants are available to aspiring science writers; a listing of these opportunities is maintained by the National Association of Science Writers. AAAS sponsors an annual Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellows Program that places STEM graduate and post-graduate students at media organizations nationwide. The Council for the Advancement of Science Writing is also a great resource for the science writing community, and includes a guide to careers in science writing.

As trained scientists, we anticipated a future at the bench. But for many of us, due to the current state of the academic and industry job market, alternative career options represent more tenable choices. And for those who love science but not lab work, science writing may offer the perfect solution.

Meghan Mott (PostDocs)


The Last Word…For Now

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in Career Planning

From Julie Clarenbach at Escape the Ivory Tower

All that education, but not on this

Unfortunately, most of the people around you are academics – and they likely know next to nothing about the non-academic job market.

The people in your life who aren’t in academia, well, they aren’t in academia. They don’t have the experience to help you translate what they know about getting a job to your particular situation. Worse, many of them probably did go a traditional route, getting a degree in and then staying within one particular field. They might even be telling you it’s the only option and you are, what’s the technical term?, screwed. (Or worse: They might be saying you have to go back to school.)

Of course, there are hundreds (probably thousands) of books out there explaining how to go about the job search process and even how to switch fields, but none of them address the particular problems of translating academic experience into something persuasive.

There are a handful of books helping academics and humanities majors think about what else they might do with all of their training, but they don’t really explain how to go about creating a comprehensive job search that will maximize your chances of success.

If only you could combine all of those things into one…

In order to craft a job search process that is both likely to be successful and isn’t going to make you lose your mind (either from anxiety or boredom), you need to put all of these pieces together: an understanding of how to translate academic experience to a non-academic audience, the tools and strategies that make a non-academic job search easier and less stressful, and how to combine it all into a system that you can use.

Call it a non-academic job search system. But I’m sure you can come up with a better name than that.

Week 1: Articulating what you have to offer

There’s a lot of work to do before you even start looking for things to apply for, which is why a solid master resume is the foundation of a successful search. It’s important to gather all of your experience together and document what skills and talents you’ve demonstrated throughout your life.

It’s easy for us to downplay our skills and accomplishments. We do it for lots of reasons – we’re afraid of being boastful, we’re afraid of being called out, we’re afraid of being thought of as snooty or intimidating or whatever. But the best antidote to downplaying isn’t forcing ourselves to sell ourselves, it’s confidence. And the easiest way to become confident is to document your actual skills and achievements.

This session enables you to articulate why you’re appropriate for a job you just know you’d be good at – and avoid jobs you don’t want just because you look like a fit on paper.

Week 2: Reaching out to find more

People are always going to be your best source of information for everything from all the ways engineers have gotten jobs trading stocks to whether company B’s vacation policy really is unlimited to whether the flower industry is likely to slump.

This sessions helps you activate your network, get clear about what you need, and find the right people to ask for help. I’ll also give you strategies for dealing with any anxiety you have about asking, for networking without smarm, and for getting the most out of your discussion.

Week 3: Finding and creating job openings

Some organizations have clear rules and procedures for hiring employees. Higher-ups have to approve it, departments advertise in particular ways, and everything goes from there.

More often, the whole thing is a bit more chaotic than that.

Yes, jobs are advertised in print and on-line lists. But employers want to attract good candidates, and placing an ad somewhere is rarely the most effective way to do that. And sometimes companies have problems they don’t even know how to solve – until they meet you.

This session will help you expand your search beyond job listings and even beyond job openings by exploring companies of interest and considering the ways you can solve their problems.

Week 4: Applying for a particular job

Applying can look like anything from filling out an online form to emailing a resume and cover letter to having coffee with someone who knows someone who could actually hire you. And make no mistake – interviewing is part of applying.

It’s your job to articulate how your skills and experience can help the company achieve the goals it’s going after. To do that, you have to have a reasonable understanding of the company – and of yourself.

This session will enable you to ask the right questions, dig for the right information, and connect it to what you have to offer.

Week 5: Negotiating

The offer of a job isn’t the end of the application process. It’s the beginning of the final act. The job search doesn’t end until you put your things down on your very own desk on that first day of work.

A successful negotiation means that no one is resentful on that first day – and ensures that the first day of the right job actually arrives.

This session will give you the principles of a successful negotiation and how to put them into practice.

Week 6: Putting it all together

No system is going to work without ways to plan for, execute, and keep track of all the many bits and pieces of information, relationships, and tasks. When you’re deep in the process, you’ll be reaching out, finding openings, applying, and negotiating to different ends all at the same time, and keeping it all straight is crucial to the outcome.

This session will help you put everything together into a manageable system that won’t overwhelm you.

How does this relate to the Conscious Careers course?

You might have seen that Jo VanEvery and I offer a class called Choosing Your Career Consciously. In that course, we help people explore their own experiences and interests in order to expand the set of possibilities they’re considering as a next step. You have a lot of options other than academia or teaching your subject in another venue.

In other words, the Conscious Careers course covers the work you have to do before you dive in to applying for actual jobs, namely, figuring out what you might want to look for. We build off of that work in the very first session of Becoming Post-Academic.

While having a sense of what kind of work you want to apply for will be helpful as you go through Becoming Post-Academic, if you’re having trouble imagining what kind of work you’d like to do, taking the Conscious Careers class would support your work in this course. The next round will begin in October, and we’re offering a package discount – both classes for $299.

You can read more about Choosing Your Career Consciously by clicking here.

So what does Becoming Post-Academic include?

The course will take place by conference call and chat on six consecutive Thursdays beginning June  7, 2012, at 7pm ET. (Here’s a handy time-zone-converter if you’d like to see what time that is in your life.)

The $179 price ($149 before May 31) includes six 90-minute classes (including recordings of all sessions), worksheets to help you apply the materials to your particular situation, and examples of job materials, interview questions, and tracking strategies.

When you register, you’ll immediately get my master resume worksheet and template delivered by email to help you start documenting your skills and experience. After the course begins, you’ll get additional worksheets and examples sent by email.

The cost is payable online by credit card or PayPal through a secure link.

Let me sum up

So what do you get by signing up for this course?

  • Concrete action steps that get you to your goal
  • A system that tells you which steps to do when – and that you can use whenever you decide to change jobs
  • Evidence of your experience, skills, and accomplishments
  • Strategies for researching companies and translating your talents into their needs
  • Ways to succeed at interviewing
  • Non-scary strategies for networking
  • 9 steps to simplifying negotiations – and getting what you want
  • The confidence to move forward and actually step into a new career

The Versatile Phd

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in Reflection


Are you a graduate student in the Humanities and Social Sciences? Are you worried about your future or wondering about nonacademic careers? Help is on the way.

The Versatile Phd Pitch

A new resource called The Versatile PhD is now available to you that demystifies nonacademic careers for humanists and social scientists. It can show plausible career paths and provide robust support should you decide to prepare for a possible non-academic career. You can:

  • Read first-person narratives written by real humanities and social science PhDs and ABDs who have established non-academic careers, describing how they did it and sharing their advice from experience
  • Join a thriving, supportive web-based community where you can dialogue with “Versatile PhDs” in and outside the academy

The service is completely confidential.  No one at any university will know you are using this website unless you tell them.

Access to The Versatile PhD is password protected to insure that only authorized members of the Syracuse University community take advantage of these key resources. Once you click the link below, you will be prompted for the proper user name and password (your netid and password). Once entered, you will find links to a number of resources that will help you to with your non academic career search. Questions about how to make maximum use of these resources may be directed to Rosanne Ecker, Graduate Student Associate Director at Career Services.

The Versatile PhD is a web-based resource for graduate students, Ph.D.’s, alumni, and postdoctoral fellows interested in exploring non-academic careers. The site can be accessed from any computer and is confidential. The Versatile PhD is currently mainly for those in the humanities and social sciences, BUT, a second forum was created this year for science, technology, engineering and math students.

 Continued Versatile Phd Pitch

While many areas of the site are open to everyone, UW-Madison is now a subscriber, which means that current students, faculty, staff and recent alumni get access to the high-quality Premium Content Area of the Versatile PhD site. Here’s what you’ll find:

  • A thriving and supportive web-based community where you can participate in discussions and network with actual “Versatile PhDs”, or just listen and learn
  • Examples of successful resumes and cover letters that resulted in humanities and social science doctoral program graduates getting their first post-academic positions
  • A collection of compelling first-person narratives written by successful humanities and social science PhDs and ABDs, describing how they established their non-academic careers, and including their actual application materials
  • Successful CV-to-resume conversions that resulted in a PhD or ABD getting hired into his or her first non-academic position
  • Archived panel discussions featuring PhDs working in non-academic fields who describe their jobs and answer questions from members


The Versatile Phd: Another way to look at it

This morning I received a message from my university’s career center informing me that they now subscribe to a pay-for service called “The Versatile PhD” which has:

* Examples of successful resumes and cover letters that real PhDs and ABDs used to get their first post-academic positions

* A collection of first-person narratives written by successful non-academic PhDs and ABDs, describing how their careers have developed after grad school until now

* Archived panel discussions where PhDs and ABDs working in specific non-academic fields describe their jobs and answer questions.  Past topics include Federal Government, Policy Analysis, Freelance Writing and Editing, Higher Education Consulting, Management Consulting, and University Administration.

In an effort to understand this service (after I determined that my university login was not working to get me access to the site), I went to their website and learned that it’s geared especially towards the Humanities and Social Sciences, “to help humanities and social science PhDs identify and prepare for possible non-academic careers. We want them to be informed about employment realities, educated about nonacademic career options, and supported in preparing for a range of possible careers, so that in the end, they have choices.”  It’s a laudable goal, and I commend the Versatile PhD service and my uni’s Career Center for providing options for all of us unemployable PhD-types.  But it seems to me, that such stories are available in many places online, such as in Bethany Nowviskie’s open-source (i.e. free) book “#alt-ac: Alternate Academic Careers for Humanities Scholars.”

Call me cynical, but it seems to me that the Career Center could better serve its Humanities constituents by giving them the skills to search the web and become digitally literate in open-source offerings rather than offering canned content about possible careers from a proprietary service.

Do you agree?



We’ve mentioned the WRK4US listserv maintained by Paula Chambers, which is pretty much the best-known online resource for Ph.D.-types transitioning to work off the tenure-track.  Well, the listserv is in the midst of metamorphosing into The Versatile Ph.D., a website that still does all the things WRK4US did, but with more new features and a more accessible online interface.  The confidential email-delivered discussions are now happening on message boards, so you can participate at the website and opt out of receiving email updates if your inbox (like mine) is too cluttered.  Nonetheless, the discussions are still confidential, since you have to be a member of the Versatile Ph.D. community to participate.  If anything, networking and taking part in the good vibes of the helpful, supportive discussions are probably easier in this format, since there’s a list of participants and a search function for members on the website.  Basic membership is free and only requires some info about yourself.

It’s now also easier to access information like job postings and events, since they are tabbed at a menu at the top of the page.  There are more new projects in the works at the site, including a premium content area geared towards institutional members who can subscribe and gain access to non-academic job search info for their grad students.  Check it out for yourself, whether you’re a WRK4US veteran or a curious newbie looking for something to browse while you procrastinate from dissertating.


Being Post Academic

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in Reflection

Finished my PhD in English in 2010. Now I’m trying to get a life, post-academic style. I volunteer, I work part-time in PR, and I read the internet. I also complain vigorously about people who tell me “not to give up” and about those who say, “the good people who do everything right will get jobs in academia.” I hate those people. Don’t be one of those people.

If you are in any way connected with the sad, sad story of the academic job market, you are no doubt aware that the JIL came out recently. The storied MLA Job Information List informs academics about the few (and rapidly dwindling) job openings for fall 2011. A lot of people are depressed about the state of things. Lives completely upended, plans dashed, marriages ended, professors working at Starbucks. And there will be more depression to come. In fact, though last year was widely touted as the Worst Academic Job Market Ever, this year might actually be worse, if worse is possible.

This year, there are about forty job openings in my field. Forty. That is all. Yes, a few other jobs will pop up this fall, and some of them will be good. But these numbers are just not going to change things for the many hundreds of people with new, newish, and rapidly rotting PhDs who desperately want a job they will never get.

This realization is not as depressing for me as you might imagine because I am honestly not sure that I even want one of those jobs anymore. This feeling is, no doubt, partly a psychological mechanism against the pain of certain disappointment. I prefer to think of it as an example of what French Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, in Distinction, described as a class-based response to denial and rejection. “Objective limits,” Bourdieu wrote, “become a sense of limits, a practical anticipation of objective limits acquired by experience of objective limits, a ‘sense of one’s place’ which leads one to exclude oneself from the goods, persons, places and so forth from which one is excluded.”

I know this sounds like French nonsense. But, though some academic theory is French nonsense, this most certainly is not. Bourdieu just means that, when you keep getting the message that you can’t have something over and over again, you eventually decide that you do not really want (or deserve?) that thing anyway. In fact, the thing that you might have originally thought you wanted becomes “stupid” and “boring” and “not for me.” Bourdieu is not really talking about a psychological response to disappointment. Rather, he is theorizing how structural determinants in society create “hidden forms of elimination” that make the world seem fair and meritocratic when it is not. The basic idea is that people cultivate the identities that are assigned to them.

And so I have cultivated the identity of the person who used to want to be a professor but now doesn’t. And the job market is a convenient excuse that allows me to easily reject what I don’t want anymore.

The worst thing is having to face these facts in spite of all the cockeyed optimism and ill-informed enthusiasm I get from former supervisors and colleagues (especially those who haven’t had to find a job in thirty years) who say, as one said to me yesterday, “Don’t give up! You’ll get something!”

To those advice-givers: Just stop. Stop telling me that. I know you want to be encouraging, but your advice is eerily reminiscent of the American myth that the world is fair and that smart people who work hard will always see their efforts rewarded. This is not a helpful way to talk about poverty and unemployment in society at large, and it is not a helpful way to talk about the academic job market. So just stop. Really. Let’s agree to dispense with our delusions and move on.

Volunteering is a one way I am moving on. I got a call yesterday from Mary at one of the social service agencies where I helped distribute food to low-income folks. I was going to do some “job readiness” workshops for their clients. But things fell apart after two of their interns left, and the workshops never happened. She called to see if I am still interested. She said, “Are you the one with the PhD?”


Illness Academia |Post-flu, the blog is back

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in General

Whenever I’ve fallen behind on doing something, I try as much as I can to avoid creating an apology and explanation that sounds like this:

“I’m sorry I didn’t ______; I wasn’t able to get to it because I’ve just been so busy.”

I dislike it when other people use that rationalization with me, so I try not to use it with others. Busy-ness, to me, is not an adequate explanation for not getting to something. I want to share about dealing with chronic illiness:

Traditionally, the experience of serious illness has been approached in two ways: (1) a gloomy perspective of resignation, self-denial, and helplessness, or (2) a Pollyanna approach that denies altogether that there has been a real trauma. Both of these perspectives distort and disguise the reality of chronic illness.

The first perspective views the chronically ill person as a failure. This is the patient who does not respond to the “miracle” of modern medicine, and somehow the lack of recovery is often perceived as the patient’s fault. This attitude of blame accounts for some of the worst psychological abuses of patients by health practitioners and caretakers, an attitude typified by the too-frequently heard statement, “Stop complaining. You simply must adjust.” Unfortunately, the sick person may also adopt this punishing attitude toward himself or herself. Sadly, the word “adjust” too often means “resign,” “settle for less than a desirable existence,” and “surrender.” At its worst, “adjust” is just another way of saying “You are now a nonperson without the right to experience strong passions, desires, or fierce and unyielding hope.” All the anger and blame inherent in this attitude is misdirected: the patient rather than the disease becomes the target.

The Pollyanna approach is typified by — and fueled by — personal stories or testimonials of complete recovery from extreme illness or disabling conditions. These stories tug at the heartstrings and catch the fancy of all who read them. Besides creating false hope by overplaying the likelihood of complete recovery, these stories consistently underplay the sadness and feelings of worthlessness that are part of the legacy of any physical or emotional trauma.

Sometimes, it is useful in social situations to present yourself as a Pollyanna. When meeting new people and situations, it may be an advantage for you to let others think you have mastered your disease. The anxiety of other people is reduced by not having to confront illness. The danger is that this Pollyanna image may create a barrier between you and the people who can offer real help.

The resignation viewpoint holds little hope; the Pollyanna viewpoint holds little reality.

The approach I propose took shape as my own understanding developed. My experience as a patient, observer, and psychotherapist has allowed me to see the many ways in which people creatively adapt and use their individual internal powers of wholeness (the sense of being emotionally intact) to reduce the destructive effects of severe physical limitations and accompanying depression, rage, and fear. The wellness approach I present stresses both the subjective experiences of loss and your responsibility for looking outward to reestablish quality in your life.

Central to wellness is the concept of adaptation — the flexible, creative use of resources to maximize your choices and experiences of mastery. This is the key to creating and sustaining a sense of inner tranquility in the face of difficult realities. There is no need to deny grim facts of existence or to pretend to others that all is well when inside there is little except torment. To be psychologically well while physically sick involves the belief that your personal worth transcends physical limitations; you need positive self-esteem for true adaptation. This belief in your self-worth rarely emerges until what you have lost and grieved for stands second in importance to precious moments of inner peace and joy.

Each stage in the progress toward wellness involves loss, grief, and acknowledgment of internal pain. During difficult times, emotional pain can engulf your life. All sense of time and proportion fade. The scope and intensity of the psychological pain fluctuates day to day. At times, it carries you closer to invaluable inner resources. At times, like a dangerous undertow, this pain drags you far from your recognizable self. It may seem that you have no reason for living or that you are living only to experience pain. Even so, the reason for living is life. The incentive for becoming psychologically well is the potential for the future.

Illness is an emotionally as well as physically depriving experience. It can do lasting harm by threatening a person’s sense of well-being, competence, and feelings of productivity. At their worst, emotional reactions to illness may culminate in the feeling that life is meaningless. I do not share this belief; but I recognize how stress can make you feel this way.

Illness is a process, and like all processes it has different stages with different characteristics. We will discuss the stages below. The stages can occur in varying orders; often they are repeated. If a sick person lacks emotional support or a necessary feistiness, the process can stagnate, and one may be mired in one or another phase of the emotional transitions taking place. The emotional process begun by illness is a highly varied and individual one. Not everyone gets bogged down. Not everyone experiences all the stages discussed in the following sections. The stages are not part of a once-through program, but are repeated as symptoms recur or losses come about.

The level of adaptation is an upward spiral in which coping mechanisms, learned one at a time, can be combined with strategies learned at other times to make each bout of illness less emotionally upheaving.

How people react to chronic illness depends on many conditions. Three deserve note. The first is the severity of the illness. The very sick must put all their energy into healing and may not have the luxury of energy left over for emotional growth.

The second is the social support available. If you are willing to ask for help and you have a wide support network, you’ll have an easier time than if you are isolated.

The third condition is the preillness personality of the person. If you have always been pretty resilient, you are likely to have resilience in coping with the illness.

The emotional trauma of chronic physical illness is caused by loss of a valued level of functioning, such as the ability to drive or dance, for example. The chronically ill person not only suffers the loss of immediate competency but is deprived of an expectable future. No one’s future is ever guaranteed, but most people become accustomed to looking at the odds; if I invest my energies in a particular direction, I can be reasonably certain I’ll reach a desired goal in that direction. When illness intervenes, all past efforts may seem irrelevant — and in fact they may be.

In the face of such losses, to experience fear, anger, depression, and anxiety is normal. It would be abnormal to deny that your health and your life had changed for the worse. Serious emotional difficulties are more often the lot of people who do not acknowledge the emotional stress they feel and thereby bottle up depression or anxiety until these feelings are so powerful they break through their defenses. By the time an emotion becomes this powerful, it is much more difficult to survive its impact without severe scarring.

Is there anything that can help overcome the displacement and depression caused by physical loss and the loss of goals and dreams? I think the answer is an unqualified YES!

Goal-oriented striving, any experience of mastery, any outside acknowledgment of competence, a well-tuned sense of humor, any experience of joy, and the constant striving toward an inner state of tranquility are the aids that help overcome the displacement and depression of chronic physical illness.

These aids are of critical importance in the stages of the ongoing emotional process. I identify these stages as crisis, isolation, anger, reconstruction, intermittent depression, and renewal.

These are good summary categories for the whirl of emotions triggered by illness and we will take up each stage in turn, although in the course of an individual illness they may not always proceed in this order.


What It Means to Be Post Academic

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in Career Planning

The scariest thing a young faculty member experiences is not, as is conventionally supposed, the “need to produce” and therefore her/his experience is not aided by the “mentorship” of an experienced scholar.  Rather, the young scholar’s fear stems from the fact that no one in the department is talking to each other about scholarship.  Faculty are socializing, going out, schmoozing all the time, and the ideas that supposedly drive the work they do are not being discussed.  The mentor, if assigned, will try to teach the young faculty member how to navigate the minefield of the department, but that is exactly what is alienating. .  The mentor, especially when well-intentioned, may be the model for what is wrong, not an aid in coping.  Indeed, if the mentor is really similar to the young faculty member in terms of ideology or social identity, the mentor may be a model for what the young faculty member does not wish to become.

The one conversation everyone is having incessantly is the one about the micropolitical maneuvers within the department.  This conversation is, of course always done with armor on, with an eye toward alliances and enemies already made, with everyone watching to find out which camp the new faculty member will join.  And while there is a relationship between micropolitics and geopolitics, it is far more tenuous, far more mediated by local institutional conditions, than the new faculty first imagines.

Because no one is talking about substance, only alliances, and because alienation is general, a vacuum exists at the center of institutional power which is not filled by talent or argument, but by those who feel most comfortable or justified taking advantage of it.  For those in power, and for those who hope to attain power, the arrival of a new junior faculty member is to be watched closely for his/her schmoozing choices. As a result, it is not simply the case that junior faculty fear senior faculty, but that the senior faculty fear the junior faculty, walking around wondering whether this new person will contribute to their already hatched plan to take over the curriculum.  The fact that the new person was hired with accomplishments and expectations much higher than so many senior faculty members does not help this form of fear, of course.

While it remains true that the power differential between tenured and untenured faculty makes the ubiquity of fear particularly threatening to the careers of junior faculty members, the longer one stays the more one discovers that one’s unhappiness is simply an example of the larger misery of faculty members.  Senior faculty don’t exactly help or support one another either.  Tenure might lead to a sense of security; it surely does not breed happiness.

The net that academics are ultimately caught in, regardless of the structure or the “progressiveness” of the specific department, is the net of personal power. Within the capitalist professional class, the criteria by which alliances are formed and judgments made is generally limited by an abstract and objective, rather than personal, question:  did you make money for the shareholders?  Even where personality or group dynamics dictates one or another poor relationship, there is some criteria of performance evaluation outside of academia’s twin criteria:  personal alliance and ideology.  In truth, it takes an incredible number of hours to evaluate adequately any individual’s research.  For all but a handful of us, the number of people who have given our work that kind of attention is miniscule.  We are tied to those individuals not the way a consultant is tied to a client’s account books, but the way we are tied to lovers and friends — and ex-lovers and enemies.  Obviously, I am aware that markets create winners and losers, and also, that there is no “free market” unconstructed by the intervention of human psyches.  Yet at least within the bourgeoisie the existence of a monetary reference point provides some resistance to personal power, while the structure of institutionalized intellectual work permits no such outside reference point — not community service, not ethics, not, in light of the inability of humanities scholars to agree about what such a concept might mean, truth.  Academia has neither capitalist forms of abstraction nor socialist forms of solidarity to recommend it.


Academic Leavers

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in General

First, I’d like to second Recent PhD’s advice that potential academic leavers choose a specific point at which you are going to quit – or at least a point at which you will begin sending out resumes with the understanding that you will leave academia outright as soon as you are offered an outside job – even if it’s the middle of a semester. If you don’t do this, it will be far too easy to just continue postponing the decision over and over again until you’re just lingering in grad school or as an adjunct, afraid to actually cut the cord. And while I don’t think it’s ever too late to leave academia, you certainly don’t want to keep postponing the decision endlessly. So as I’ve hinted at before, I think recent PhD’s advice to sit down and make a decision about a concrete point at which you will officially be done with academia is critical for anyone considering quitting.

This advice works for grad students and full faculty as well as adjuncts, by the way. Come up with your own end point, not the ones academia assigns to us. If you’re utterly miserable and sure you want to do something else, there’s no sense in hanging around until you get tenure or until you finish the dissertation. If you’re leaving, the academic milestones shouldn’t matter for you anymore. Make a plan for leaving based on your own personal goals and preferences, and stick to it.

Recent PhD rightly emphasizes that people transitioning outside of academia need to market themselves as career changers, not as students looking for a first job after graduation. This is tremendously important. I’d like to double down on this point in particular:

“…you spent 10 years as an educator (a teacher, NOT a student – yes, you were in graduate school, but that was a matter of professional development.) … [you are] looking for new ways to use the talents you’ve aquired through your experience in the education industry.”

This is such a critical point, which I think a lot of potential academic leavers (especially those coming straight out of grad school) miss entirely. They think “what kind of job can I possibly get? I’ve been a student for X years. I’ve got no experience and any employer is going to laugh me out of the park for being a ‘student’ for this long.”

Screw that. Even if academia tries at every turn to emphasize how you’re “just” a student? You know better. After you finish coursework, you aren’t a student in any way that a nonacademic person would view it. You are working in education for a salary … even if that salary is just a graduate student stipend or adjunct per-class salary.

Do you feel weird about this? Don’t. It’s only within the system of academia that you’re still considered a “student in training.” To the outside world, designing and teaching a semester-long college course on your own is clearly work experience. It doesn’t matter if you’re doing it with a Ph.D. or a permanent contract or not. You were *working* as a teacher.

Similarly, in what world is that research project you designed and completed independently, won grant funding for, and got published in a professional journal a “school project” … while the same project completed by a faculty member is “work?” Bullcrap. Designing and carrying out a research project to publication is doing *work* in research, regardless of how many letters follow the author’s name.

It doesn’t matter how academia views you – the hierarchies that exist in academia are invisible to most of the outside world. To the outside world, you’ve been working as a college instructor and as a researcher. You’ve been earning a salary (no matter how small) while providing important services to the university and gaining professional development. This is work experience. Don’t bury it under “educational background” on your resume, and don’t hesitate in presenting yourself as a “career changer” in cover letters. That’s what you are.

Don’t get caught up in how academia views you. The outside world will view you differently.


Academic Habit

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in General

From the Guardian’s piece on Sunday about the outing of Brooke Magnanti, aka Belle du Jour, the PhD who anonymously wrote the Diary of a London Call Girl blog (which was turned into a British TV show):

Among sex workers themselves there was little surprise that a well-educated woman like Magnanti had got into prostitution.  She took the job because she ran out of money as she was finishing her PhD; she is a now a research scientist. Hers was an extraordinary experience of prostitution; she was lucky, because prostitution ordinarily is, simply put, a condition that kills women.

The 34-year-old said she decided to unmask herself because the stress of the deceit was making her paranoid. Interest in her identity increased when her memoirs became a television series. Dr Magnanti, who now lives in Bristol and is a research scientist for The Bristol Initiative for Research of Child Health, became a prostitute because she needed a job that left her enough time to complete her studies.

She kept her double life a secret even when she started the blog describing her experiences and the books which followed. Dr Magnanti told the Sunday Times she worked as a prostitute from 2003 to late 2004, and found it “so much more enjoyable” than her shifts in another job as a computer programmer. She told the newspaper “I don’t want this massive secret over me any more,” and that she feared an ex-boyfriend might reveal the true identity of Belle de Jour.

Sunday’s entry on the blog said: “It feels so much better on this side. Not to have to tell lies, hide things from the people I care about. To be able to defend what my experience of sex work is like to all the sceptics and doubters. “Anonymity had a purpose then – it will always have a reason to exist, for writers whose work is too damaging or too controversial to put their names on. “But for me, it became important to acknowledge that aspect of my life and my personality to the world at large. “I am a woman. I lived in London. I was a call girl. “The people, the places, the actions and feelings are as true now as they were then, and I stand behind every word with pride.”

A spokesman for her employer, the University of Bristol, said: “This aspect of Dr Magnanti’s past is not relevant to her current role at the university.” The spokesman added that Dr Magnanti’s revelations would not affect her chances of future employment with the university.




A Toronto Based Meeting

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in General

Are there any graduate students and/or contract faculty in the Greater Toronto Area who would be interested in meeting up this summer specifically for a workshop on identifying transferable skills and converting an academic CV into a résumé? I’m currently having an email chat with a contract faculty person who’s really interested in working on this in a group context, but there are obviously some professional reasons to not go around trying to recruit colleagues to this kind of thing.