Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Raul from Russellville is Ready to Give Up. What To Do When You Feel Your Career Has Been a Mistake.

Since I sent in that first grad school application, I've been consumed by becoming a college professor. It took me 7 years to get my MA and PhD, and all during that I TA'd and taught classes, and did other odd jobs to pay the bills. (I was especially good at telephone sales for some reason!)

I got married right after the PhD while doing a postdoc job. And then after another year of postdoc work I got my first tenure track job that started in September of last year.

I struggled in that first semester, but worked hard through it. I was astonished at the students, how exquisitely dumb they were, how fantastically lazy, how creatively they avoided work. It was something I never noticed much as a TA. Back then I was working on my own classes. The undergrads I met were just elements or obstacles to deal with and get out of the way. But now, somehow, as they are the largest part of my job, I find myself mystified by them and their lack of sense.

I spoke to some colleagues about this - in general terms - after the fall term, and to a person they said, "This is what it's like. You must find career satisfaction somewhere other than through the students." I talked to my grad school advisors and colleagues, and found that they had similar advice. Some seemed to have better students than I did; some seemed more prepared for what they faced in their first jobs.

But somehow the entire illusion I had about the career has disappeared.

It is not just the students. My colleagues are closed off. My attempts to be collegial are often rebuffed or ignored. I haven't come in expecting to be beloved or anything, but I find that I'm just ignored, left to fend for myself. They are pleasant in a distant way, but there is no camaraderie, and I notice in other departments it appears the same.

I don't want this to sound like a pity party. I want to honestly express that this career is not at all what I thought it was. Was I naive? I suppose so. I had a romantic feeling about the life of a college professor, the so called life of the mind. But it's just drudgery, long hours, relatively mediocre pay, and a feeling that what I do doesn't have any meaning.

My students work harder at avoiding work than at anything I assign them. And even though they vex me, my main feeling about them is just disinterest. I don't even get mad at them. I just think to myself, "Why would I want to teach these lazy fucks?"

But how do I walk away from this now? For the better part of a decade my whole goal has to become this thing, a thing I clearly didn't understand or get prepared for. I think all day, every day, about quitting in May. How do I tell my wife, my friends, my family. What do I say when I quit? "I'm sorry; it wasn't what I thought it would be."

I feel shame about this. I feel stupid. How could I not know? I just want to say "stop" to the whole thing.


  1. My heart goes out to you. I think you should give it some more time. There are always good students, who are interested and interesting. Focus on them. It sounds like such a cliche, but I do find that it works for me, some of the time.

    At the Community College, we have an added element that we are able to reach people who very often did not think they could ever acheive this much. It is silly, maybe sappy, but I love it. Again, some of the time. I was never going to teach the brilliant students of Yale, Harvard, etc (if they really exist there). So I am glad I ended up where I did. You need to look around and see if there is anything of value for you in the community in which you are currently working.

    And if not, if you really give it time and still hate it, don't be ashamed. You are in good company and there are plenty of other things you can do. One of my favorite people abandoned his PhD from Penn after working three years at an R1 and now works in publishing as an editor of a journal that has nothing to do with his degree. He is so happy.

  2. If the students disappoint, why not dedicate your time and energy to research? Teaching and service are relatively minor components of what we do. They bring you neither recognition nor respect. Doing massive research, however, is what makes one really valued in academia.

  3. I agree with Clarissa, though research may not be a top priority for your school. Stick with it unless you find something better. As the post above yours says, it's better than being unemployed.

    Over time, you will help to change the atmosphere in your department. New profs will likely want to socialize more than the old guard, who are used to it (maybe that's what they thought academic life was like).

    Above all, you should not quit after one year. You have no idea what things will be like and your first year is often the most difficult.

  4. Don't quit after one year (the first year is dreadful for most of us), but consider quitting after three if you really hate it. At that point you can cut your losses much more easily than you could later on. You're young, and (I hope) childless, and you can start over without too much sacrifice. I watched a young, single, childless assistant professor turn in his keys at an Ivy. The chair was dumbfounded and asked him if he wanted mental health leave. The professor said no, he'd never felt more sane in his life.

  5. This not an uncommon set of feelings, for anyone who logged some time on RYS in the old days.

    It is unfortunate, however, for Raul, and there's no easy answers. But I agree with the other people in this comment thread. Don't do anything in the first year.

    There's just too much other shit going on with a move like this, new city (presumably), new marriage, new everything. The job does settle down, and we all get a handle on parts of it over time.

    But, that sense of shame is horrible, and it can eat up your life if you let it.

    What is true is that sometimes we really don't know what the profession is going to be. Sometimes we're just naive, but sometimes our mentors are out of touch with how the profession is changed, and the first tenure track job of our lives simply does not measure up to the fantasy.

    Good luck.

  6. I recently career changed, after getting to a point where I found no satisfaction in any parts of the job and no hope in the future directions it could take me. It's tough. I'm approaching what should be my most income-productive years and only just paying (significantly reduced) expenses.

    As the previous commentors have said, wait a bit. I would add that you need to understand clearly what it is that you are leaving and why, and what you expect to get out of wherever you go next. Fact checking that against reality can help a great deal. And a move within the academic community may offer the changes you desire.

    A SLAC in small-town mid-america is likely to have a tight-knit community (or rather, everyone you'll meet in town is connected with the school.) They may or may not have better students. There are private 2-year schools with a focus on transferring to Ivies that may have more attentive students. Some private prep schools may offer the teaching experience you desire.

    Take note of what is good for you and not good for you here, and learn as much as you can about opportunities elsewhere. Then, in a few years, you can decide if a lateral move can make the changes you want, without jumping off the cliff.

    (I did not take advantage of a buy-out in my former career a few years before I left. Someone said to me after that those who did were the ones that knew there'd be water at the bottom of that jump)

  7. Raul, I completely understand your frustration. After only four years as a professor, I already feel burned out and I question daily if this is what I want to do every day for the rest of my career. And it's not just the students; I have been disappointed with almost every aspect of the career so far. If there is a solution, let me know.

  8. I just spoke with someone this morning and revealed that I actually do kind of like my dumb-as-a-box-of-rocks students and their wild-and-crazy antics like...oh...setting sofas on fire and stuff. I didn't do shit like that in college and I approach them as a kind of alien species with bizarre ritual practices.

    They looked at me as though I had two heads. I pointed out that one of my more useful personality traits in my discipline is my ability to suspend judgment on pretty much everything, and perhaps that's what's happening here.

    Obviously I am not in your situation. But upon reflection on my 'first year' experiences at various schools (I am an itinerate adjunct) yes, first is the worst. Totally.

    And...I may have a different relationship with my family than you do with yours, but my attitude is very much "You people didn't pay for this, so fuck you re: your opinions about me changing career paths." As to the spouse issue, that I cannot speak to...probably that's why I don't have a spouse. Less guilt. More gallivanting. (I recently had the 'fuck you' conversation with my family, so it's fresh in my mind.)

  9. I feel very much the same way. I've been questioning whether or not this is the right thing for me as well since probably October. I have some good students but I've got some real duds, too.

    When I couple my general apathy for my job with my ticking biological clock and disgust at the idea of day caring my future children (before the thought police attack me I'm not judging anyone I'm just saying I just don't want it for my kids), I think about staying home to raise a couple responsible, loved, intelligent, not-like-my-college-students kids. I don't think I'd be wasting my Ph.D. I think through it all I've learned more about how I want my kids to behave. I'll call it a coming to God experience.

  10. I wanted to quit the first three years of teaching. Then it got better. And better for a few years (I've beent eaching about 15 years). But then it got worse over the past few years with more and more Snowflakes appearing in class. I've felt this way for about three years now, and I actually work in a collegial setting with supportive colleagues whom I love. But the emotional/brain drain caused by slacker students and snowflakes is rough. Being disappointed MOST of the time with student performance and interest level is rough. I recognize that I teach most of the General Ed courses in our dept., which means I see more of those who don't care about their work than those colleagues of mine who teach in the major. Perhaps a change of rotation (of classes) would help you at least encounter some students who have SOME interest. Every two years I get to teach a theory course in my field. That helps a lot. But then I go into a two-year slump. I recently attended a conference session on this and about 48 people attended and expressed dissatisfaction with their careers BECAUSE of student apathy and lack of basic skills (i.e. not prepared for college). Hang in there!

  11. CMP, go for it. Life, as it turns out, is short. And while being at home to raise kids isn't really glorified by anyone except the far right, it's an important and fulfilling job if you're doing it by choice. I'd be surprised if you could not adjunct a bit to keep a hand in the field, and then go on to teach in secondary ed if/when you want to go back to full time work, assuming that's teaching.

    Carpe Diem, Professor.

  12. There was a excellent reply to this issue by Wylodmayer on the main page, which instantly disappeared. What's the story?

  13. @honest_prof

    As noted on the page earlier, occasionally items get caught in the spam filter, but I see nothing there now. And, doing a check of the recent action on the stat page, the only comment I see around the time you posted on the same post is yours.

    Wylod, are you still around?

    Commenters can delete their comments, but it usually shows up as having been deleted. If Wylodmayer is also a CM correspondent, I believe the comment can be erased entirely.

  14. It was not a comment, it was a post on the main page, perhaps he had a change of heart at the last minute and erased the whole post. Too bad, it was going to open a lot of discussion on an issue I think is interesting.

  15. This comment has been removed by the author.

  16. If it was a post, then the original writer could delete it at any point. I can see in the stat program that about a dozen folks viewed it for the 40 minutes or so it was up.

    I'd think if Wylodmayer took it down, that perhaps you may be right that he decided it wasn't what he wanted to post at the time. That happens occasionally.

  17. ok, certainly his prerogative, too bad, it was
    great, but would have drawn ire...

  18. I can see Wylodmayer's original post on the Google Reader. It is tremendous. Just as a reader of the page - and NOT as the moderator - I'd hope Wylodmayer would reconsider and put it back up. I won't do that, though, and it would be inappropriate for anyone else to.

  19. The post was indeed excellent and worth reading. I happen to agree with most of what it said, and I'm actually not so sure it would have drawn much in the way of ire. So like LK, I too would hope Wylodmayer would reconsider and put it back up.

  20. I, too, just went over to Google reader and took a look at Wylodmayer's post, and I agree with those above -- it makes some very good points, for Raul, and for anyone considering the profession. It's also comforting to someone like me who, a couple of decades in, is wondering whether she screwed up by taking the teacher training (mostly self-training, in my case -- not the most efficient or effective approach) too seriously, to the detriment of her research.

  21. But, back to Raul, and with my sympathetic hat on:

    Don't quit yet -- definitely not until you've had a chance to recover from and review your first year with a bit more perspective. Since I've never been on the tenure track, I've never begun a job with the thought that I'd be there a long time, but I do agree that it gets easier (in fact, it can get too hard to leave a job one really should). Frog & Toad's suggested 3-year time frame makes sense to me (one more year to really focus on making it work for you, then, if that isn't working, another to cut back to the *responsible* minimum and start exploring options while you still have a paycheck). And, yes, think about other kinds of institutions and/or other jobs within your own institution as well as jobs outside the academy.

    It sounds like you're pretty good at approaching this analytically, identifying what you'd hoped for and what currently disappoints you. Try turning that analytical approach to imagining what profession or combination of professional and extracurricular activities might give you at least some of what you want. Barbara Sher's book _Wishcraft_ might help with the process; the title's a bit new-agey, but it actually guides the reader through a process of breaking down a fantasy/ideal future into its essential elements, figuring out which are essential and which aren't, which could be had at least partially now -- in short, a pretty analytical approach that still draws productively on the realm that fantasy/emotions can reach.

    Consider talking to a counselor, first to get a screening for depression, just in case (yes, the situation itself is depressing, so some depressed feelings are "normal," but you want to be considering all your options with a clear head, not through the gray film that depression spreads over everything. It's really, really hard to identify any positive options when you're depressed). Once that possibility is dealt with, having someone objective to talk to as you work your way through this would probably be a good idea. If you really hate the idea of a "counselor," consider a "life coach" or "career counselor" (but check into certifications, etc. beforehand; as with many professions, there are very good ones, and there are quacks).

    If you haven't done so already, start talking to your wife about this. I'm pretty sure there was something in those vows you took that at least implied making your way through crises like this together. Like BlackDog, I'd think twice before sharing your thoughts with family (or friends) unless you consider those people trusted confidantes whose help you'd want regardless of biological relationship. Definitely don't tell anybody who's overinvested in neat mileposts and other signs of your "success," or who will wail or tell you to cheer up or otherwise fail to recognize the complexity of the situation, or the fact that you're undergoing a fairly normal sort of crisis that doesn't necessarily reflect badly on you (or them).

    And be careful how much you say to colleagues or even referees. You don't want them deciding that you really aren't cut out for the job just about the time that you're realizing that, on second thought and with a few adjustments, you are. That's another good reason for considering some sort of counselor/life coach/other professional outside advisor, so you have someone to confide in other than colleagues/referees or your wife (who deserves to know what you're thinking, but shouldn't find herself forced by default into one of the above roles).

  22. Raul, my brother.

    Go 2 years at least. Use some energy on figuring out the parts of the gig you like the most. Focus on them.

    And the comments about working with your best students are correct. There's a lot of pleasure in helping even a handful.

  23. For me, it was after the third year that things got easier so I'd actually recommend sticking it out four years total.

    In reality, though, I think many of us feel the way you do but learn to somehow live with it. I struggle with this constantly. I wish more of us felt that we could talk openly about this with our colleagues but I feel like it is only hear on CM that people are honest about how demoralizing our work can be.

    Perhaps the only real solution is to realize that no job can be your life or your source of meaning. After the first few years, it gets easier to have a life outside of the job. Find your joy and meaning there. I'm still working on it.

  24. Wow, Raul, I could have written your post almost word-for-word after my first year in a tt position. I think other posters are right about hanging on for at least 2 years, probably 3, to give it a fair shot. Wise words have been said about finding meaning elsewhere as well - I think that's right too. I'll add, though, that sometimes you land first in a place that's not really the right place for you. (And sometimes you stay there and make it work.) It's ok to try to move, ok to quit, and ok to make your peace with the job you have without necessarily feeling overjoyed about it every minute. I do think, though, that even though any of the above will take time and patience, things *will* get better. I turned a sudden corner in my 3rd year teaching. If it helps, this feeling of being let down by a career you've trained for for years isn't unique to academia, though I do think it's exacerbated by it.

    Last: your colleagues may be standoffish because they really are that way, but it's also possible that they're waiting to see how invested you are in the department before they let you in. Counterproductive, I know, but common. Again, give it time. And if they really are standoffish, find friends in other departments or through your kids' daycare playdates or whatever. You'll be more well-rounded for it anyhow. I kept hoping I'd find a departmental 'family,' but it just wasn't in the cards for me, though it can certainly happen.

  25. And ps - I know a number of people who've quit pre-tenure, even post-tenure, and they're happy with their choices. I *would* say, though, that if you really love the research, and it's the students and the lack of connection with colleagues that's hardest, hang on. Those things almost always get better. If you hate the research, or have come to hate it: quit. In my experience, that part of the job doesn't get better or easier if you don't have a passion for it. Teaching should make you *desperate* to get to your research.


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