Thursday, February 23, 2012

Changing Perceptions. A Big Thirsty from "Living in Exile."

I wasn't the best student when I began university. I can come up with many snowflake excuses, but the bottom line is that I wasn't mature enough to study at a college level and I eventually dropped out. Shortly after, I decided to enroll at my local community college (after working at a gas station and realizing how much that sucked), and it took me a bit, but I finally got it and started to succeed in college. I transferred to a small state school and graduated with a pretty respectable GPA and an honors degree. Not terrible for someone who completely flaked out for two years. In any case, I made a decision that I wanted to apply for graduate programs and pursue a Ph.D in order to become a professor, like ones that I admired at my state school. The first time around, I was rejected by every school I applied to. I wanted to be honest on my applications, so I sent in all of my transcripts, including the first one which flaunted my 1.6 GPA in one year of study. Maybe it was naïve of me, but I tried to rationalize that the 1.6 from the first school and the 3.8 from the state university are both part of who I am. Whatever.

Two years after graduating, I received my first letter of acceptance from a well-known state university with a respected program in my field. Excellent. I was happy because I proved to myself that I could turn my life around from the bottom that I had reached 7 years ago. I feel like I have finally done something good or reached some goal in my life. Also, I was pleased because I can say a big “suck it” to all the schools who rejected me in the past. Now, maybe that's immature, but it doesn't bother me too much. I think we can all be a little immature sometimes.

To the point of this post: I started reading College Misery about 3 months ago, and it has really opened my eyes. I had one professor who wrote a recommendation advise me that I shouldn't try to enter this career because of the uncertainty of job prospects for new Ph.D's, and that he even gave the same advice to his own daughter. Ok, I believe it. But, the turning point in my mind is when I started reading this website. I never thought about how soul-crushing this line of work could be. I imagine exciting research, engaged students (like I was during my second tour), a good salary, and other benefits. The reality is much more jarring – boredom, apathy, and in extreme cases, alcoholism and severe depression. Is this the life that I want? Certainly not. I started to consider other options. What can one do with a history specialization? Good question. I've lived abroad for the last two years and have acquired one language fluently and another at  B1 level (in a bilingual country). This, combined with a knowledge of world history has persuaded me to apply for a job in the State Department after I finish an MA. I considered the government my enemy up until now, but maybe it wouldn't be so bad if I were working and living abroad, something which I already feel comfortable doing.

However, this all is mainly for advice. 

Q: Can you all give me some of your thoughts? I feel like someone with my checkered education history already has little chance of finding a dream job in academia. If I do get a job, will it be worth it? Should I do what my instincts are telling me at the moment and look for something else?

- Living in Exile


  1. Dear LiE:

    Academic jobs are, in many ways, just like any other jobs: engineers or accountants, for example.

    Some people get situations that are astoundingly, eye-poppingly amazing: excellent colleagues, good pay, fine work environment, and so on.

    Some people get situations that are grinding, or underpaid, but pay the bills.

    Some people can only find situations that don't pay enough and involve large quantities of shit landing on your head every goddam day.

    Some of it's the luck of the draw.

    Academic jobs are not like other jobs in three ways:

    1. You usually get a lot more freedom: the ability to dress as you like, to keep flexible hours, the choice to work on projects that interest you, and so forth.

    2. If you can get tenure, you have very high job security.

    3. There are a whole shit of a lot fewer tenured jobs in higher education than there are accounting or engineering jobs.

    I am incredibly, unbelievably lucky to have the job I do, especially given my aptitudes and interests. I don't have any illusions about what I'd be able to find if I lost this.

    Like any job, there are good days and bad days. That's not academia, dude; that's life. My best friend is an engineer for a large company, and he loves his job. I'm a tenured professor at a church-related SLAC, and I love my job. Neither one of us expects every day to be lollipops and rainbows, but for both of us the good outweighs the bad.

  2. As to your background, your undergraduate success/failure/whatever will have absolutely no bearing whatsoever on anything else you do for the rest of your life. No one cares, nor will they ever care. You essentially start with a clean slate with a graduate degree. I've heard a couple of times that the Ivys look into your undergraduate experience, but you don't want to work in one of those places anyway (they are, by every account I've ever heard in every field, terrible places to work).

    As for getting a job, I'd recommend continuing to a PhD in a higher demand social science. There are plenty of professorial jobs in the social sciences generally - our department has a >80% success rate at placing graduates into faculty jobs if they want them, and the failures are generally because they did not sufficiently prepare. As a practical solution, I'd suggest getting your history MA and getting the hell out into a field with greater perceived value and better rewards. One without as much alcoholism. Hard sciences would be even better.

    Having said that, if you are really, REALLY passionate about history, you can still be quite successful going for a faculty position, if that's what you want. Folks are still getting professorial jobs. It's not as if the jobs have literally disappeared. You just have to be among the best of the best. If that doesn't seem realistic to you, then leaving for another job post-MA might be a good path.

    For the record, I started reading RYS as a graduate student, and I thought I had made a horrible, horrible mistake going for a PhD. But after reading for a few years, I realized that almost all of the folks posting are in the humanities (I guess they generally have more free time than those in other fields) and the job and student situation in the humanities is WAY worse than it is in other fields. I got a faculty job myself my first time out and am enjoying it quite a bit.

    As to the student snottiness and entitled shenanigans... well yes, that can be soul-crushing at times. But as long as you ignore them and celebrate the good students - and wherever you are, you will get the occasional enthusiastic joy of a student - then it can be quite rewarding. I find teaching PhD students very rewarding, because they're... you know... actually interested in the content. With undergrads, it's a bit more of a crap-shoot.

    1. "I guess they generally have more free time than those in other fields" Oh, you will catch shit for that.

    2. I think in general I disagree with this advice. My friends from both an Ivy and a Top Ten school with difficult awards like Fulbrights and other discipline-specific but highly competitive fellowships are going on Year Three and Four of the job market. This is the best of the best; some people were hired directly out of grad school. Others flail. It's so hit or miss that nothing can really do it for you.

      Choose a career based on flexibility. The idea of retiring as a professor with tenure and perks is slowly slipping into the past. There are for-profit schools and non-profit schools that run on the for-profit, student-as-customer model. There are simply too many people applying for every job, and those who get those jobs today will find their university system come crashing down over the next 35 years.

      Just find something that keeps a roof over your head and the bill collector at bay, while making you happy.

  3. As to your background, your undergraduate success/failure/whatever will have absolutely no bearing whatsoever on anything else you do for the rest of your life. No one cares, nor will they ever care. You essentially start with a clean slate with a graduate degree.

    I second this. If you stay in academia, getting into grad school is the last time your undergraduate grade point average will ever be important. Enjoy it!

    Which doesn't necessarily mean that you should go on to grad school, of course, because there are all sorts of other reasons that don't have anything to do with your checkered past why you might not want to take that chance. I'm just saying.

  4. This reminds me of a good college friend. He was the salutatorian, and went on to finish his Ph.D. in History with Dr. Big Name In The Field. So my friend starts to look and finds there is exactly one open job in his specific area to apply to. However, it's at a very rural institution in a very red state. Students don't exactly beat down the door to be there, but this job was attracting top shelf applicants left and right because it was the only job. My friend thinks about it long and hard, and being a professor at an extremely mediocre school doesn't make living in Hicksville worth it.

    Now he's applying (and will get in) at a top-tier law school. He's a smart guy, he'll do well and be happier to boot. I don't mind either, because I have added him to my list of people I can get free legal advice from.

    1. THIS.

      You work hard, you are top of your field, you win everything and even get a lucrative job!! Everyone a winner!!! BUT you are sentenced to die a long, slow, horrible death in the middle of no where. Only tv will be your entertainment. It's terrible.

  5. One of the smartest people I know got a PhD that was immediately snapped up by a publisher as a book, had tons of publications, and couldn't get a job in academia, so he took a job in the Foreign Office in his country (State Dept for USians). His job initially was writing policy, but his bosses discovered he actually had a real talent for diplomacy, and so he got posted several times to exciting foreign locations. Now, at just under 40, he's in a top embassy position and next step is Ambassador to an actual important country.

    He's making way more difference in the world than I am in my little Hamster Weaving 101 classes.

  6. I worked for the government for several years after leaving school. It was great, in that I never took work home, I had very good benefits, lots of vacation days, and a very very very secure position. I also hated it and was extremely depressed.

    Now I'm a teacher, at the college level, and while it was hard work to get here, I'm lucky enough to have a secure spot with good benefits and summers off. I make enough for my family to live on, and I'm ridiculously pleased with my position... all because I actually love teaching.

    Remember that CM and RYS are places teachers come to bitch. Yes, they are (probably) honest accounts, but they are honest accounts of the worst of times.

  7. @LiE: I agree that if you get a graduate degree, no one will remember what you did as an undergrad. A fine elementary-school principal I know is effective at his job precisely because he was a problem child, who flunked out of 7th grade on a dare. He knows far more than what people with only exemplary backgrounds in the classroom have. But then, he did later acquire a good classroom background: people too often forget that.

    As far as your other questions go, consider that my field is astronomy. It’s a science field without many immediate practical applications, or jobs in the private sector. I got interested in it when I was five years old, and if I hadn't gotten tenure, I'd probably have become a frustrated, underemployed, exploited person. Indeed, that’s exactly what I was before I went to grad school, when I gave shows at the local planetarium: they knew they were the only planetarium in town, and they had me coming and going.

    It’s great fun now to go to reunions and announce that I am now a genuine mad scientist; even better, I am now a genuine nutty professor. An old friend who’s made a fine living as a computer programmer and who’s had a long interest in amateur astronomy likes to remind me that I beat odds worse than those of becoming a professional basketball player. (My friend is very tall and so was encouraged to play basketball, but only because he’s tall: he was never very good.)

    I didn't leave myself many other options, but then I'm a highly obsessive fanatic. In most professions this would be a considerable drawback, but in academia, it’s a positive boon. Whenever I get students asking about careers in astronomy, I tell them don't bother, unless you're passionate about it. We are -not- facing an imminent shortage of scientists, and the oversupply is so great, we won’t for the next 10-20 years. To become a professional astronomer, you have to spend 6-8 years making $10-20k/year as a grad student, in order to be eligible to make $35-40k/year as a postdoctoral researcher on a series of 2-to-3-year fixed-term contracts, and with only a 1 in 3 chance of ever finding a job in the field with any security at all, which pays $50-70k/year. There is a 2 in 3 chance of spending 15-20 years after college working 60+ hours/week, and may end with little more than a handshake. Who in their right mind would do that? A fanatic would, but they don't count as being in their right mind.

    I may be reading wrong, but your post doesn’t present you as being terribly passionate. Even that you ask these questions makes me wonder. If you have better prospects, I think you should take them seriously. As I’ve told others in CM, even if you do win the prize of a tenured job in academia, it may quickly start to feel like a booby prize. The next time a snotty undergraduate who strikes you as acting like a 9th grader whines that he’s not happy with his grade, even though he can’t read, write, or think (and the thought of doing math makes me laugh!) as well as you could in 6th grade, and you’ll remember this.


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