Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Why do academics so often say, "No one ever told me!" when having career trouble?

Approaching mammatus at sunset, bad news for night pilots and astronomers

I got interested in science when I was five years old, at the 1964 World's Fair. I was initially interested in dinosaurs, but I switched fields to astronomy when I was still five, and I've been at it ever since.

All throughout Project Apollo, the '70s, and most of the Space Shuttle program, up to when I finally got tenure in 2005, I was told about nine billion times, "A degree in ASTRONOMY? What are you going to do with THAT?" I was told this by seemingly everyone: relatives, academic advisers nearly every step of the way, friends, and often people I'd just met.

I understood early that many more people want to work as astronomers than there will ever be jobs for them. It's much like making a living as an actor, or a musician—or getting a job as an astronaut. I therefore don't understand why so many academics say, "No one ever told me!" when they're having career trouble.

I don't want to seem hard or mean, since I spent too many years as a postdoc and as an Accursed Visiting Assistant Professor. Fourteen years of never being able to see a year into the future caused me chronic anxiety that was awful, almost as bad as the skimpy paychecks. One particularly unscrupulous boss would yell, "Your work is its own reward!" when cutting my pay. Me yelling back, "So give me your paycheck!" didn't help.

It made my brain want to scream, but still, I wasn't surprised by it. I'd been reminded about nine billion times that this wouldn't be easy, and that risk was involved. I knew this at least since I was seven years old, when a relative gave me a copy of "The Question and Answer Book of Space" (then new), and I read its entry, "Is it easy to become an astronaut?" (It said no, since many more people wanted to be astronauts than there were jobs for them.) I knew that there was a significant possibility that I'd never make any living as an astronomer, much less a decent one.

So, as a veteran of plenty of career trouble, I still don't understand why so many academics say, "No one ever told me!" when having career trouble. Karen Kelsky, on her site "The Professor Is In," reports she often gets this remark from academics having career trouble (although I didn't see any astronomers quoted on her site).

Why do they say this? I never did, since I was told about nine billion times to expect a struggle. But of course, per ardua ad astra. When I was an undergraduate, in the mid-to-late '70s, most of my fellow astronomy students knew it wouldn't be easy. This might have partly been because in the '70s, after the cancellation of Project Apollo, unemployed Ph.D.s were novel.

Many academics today seem genuinely surprised when they have career trouble. Why? Do people not say, "A degree in ______? What are you going to do with THAT?" in fields other than astronomy?

Curiously also, most of my students today seem genuinely surprised when I tell them about the stinky job market in astronomy. Why?


  1. I'd guess part of it is the availability heuristic. Students only see what appears to be happily- employed professors.

    The other part, I think, is that it doesn't make sense to them. It seems too "unfair." In a typical undergraduate's experience, school's been more or less a meritocracy. You work hard, you do well, you get good grades. How is it possible, then, that you can get a Ph.D. and end up unemployed? (I recall with some shame my own youthful belief in a more-or-less just world, and how hard reality hit me upside the head when I started my first real job and saw for myself who got raises and promotions and who didn't.)

  2. Couple of comments.

    First, I knew intellectually, but I didn't know emotionally. So facing the gut clenching, bleak reality was a moment (or rather a series of moments) of really uncomfortable awakening. Not that I can recall saying the words, but I sure thought them in the privacy of my head. Then I pulled up my big girl panties and tried even harder.

    Second, I've just watched a colleague make a total hash of his position here (luckily he's found a new position that could have long-term prospects and could serve as a spring-board to actually "succeeding elsewhere"). But part of what got him into trouble was a blindness to how his actions would be perceived by higher ups. He just seemed not to understand the motivations and expectations of the people in the administration building. That myopia meant that he didn't understand the consequences of his actions and couldn't see the trouble coming. So it hit him from behind halfway through a day that he thought was going really well. The suddenness must result in some wild emotional turns.

    I'm noodling around a third idea, but it's not very well articulated right now and may only apply to the case I've seem most recently.

  3. I'm sympathetic to this post. There are definitely some students who get an overly rosy picture from their professors and don't have the career skills to seek out other perspectives on the field, including online. Unfortunately, I wonder if this is especially a risk for first-generation college students. But I know plenty of grad students who have every advantage, and stay away from opportunities designed to help them prepare for the job market because "it stresses them out too much." That's ostrich behavior.

  4. Sure, some people questioned your career aspirations but hoe many others said, "Follow your passion"? It depends on who you listen to. Even in chemistry, a very practical science, there are subfields that have poor hiring trends. Lots of theoretical chem PhD students were told that industry will need them and that demand has not materialized. Last time we hired one, good candidates had seven years of post doc experience.

    1. No one ever told me "Follow your passion" during Project Apollo. That's what they said in the '80s, right around the time "Baby on board" signs in cars became noticeable. Remember, adults were still in charge of the world in 1969.

      The first time I ever heard, "Do what you love, the money will follow" wasn't until 1981, when I was reading "The Next Whole Earth Catalog." In 1969, one might have been told "Do your own thing," but that was usually when drugs were involved. After Apollo 11, of course, everyone and his brother said, "If they can put a man on the Moon, why can't they _____?" even though it was never good logic in the first place.

      It is true that some subfields of chemistry are in more demand than others. Still, have your ever heard anyone say, "A degree in CHEMISTRY? What are you going to do with THAT?"

    2. The one I heard growing up was "figure out what you like to do (and are good at) and figure out a way to get paid for it." In other words, there was no expectation that society would throw money at you simply for doing something you wanted to do; you were supposed to go out and GET A JOB where that kind of activity was already in demand. Barring that, you could make your own job, or you could GET A JOB doing something that you might not like as much but still do that think you like as a hobby.

      "Follow your passion" is perhaps an attempt to avoid awaking every workday in dread over what's in store, which is something the previous generation probably tolerated. However, it's no insulation from the dread of the heat being turned off and the refrigerator being empty because the credit cards are already maxed out.

      Everybody is special, everybody gets a trophy, everybody gets a job doing what they love and everybody gets a fat paycheck. Yeah, fucking 1980s, I blame you too.

  5. My experience of the 80s and early 90s ( a time of deep recession in my part of the globe) was not being told " follow your passion" but "all the good jobs are gone anyway, you may as well please yourself and study what gives you the happy"