Earlier this week, a friend drew my attention to this article on Times Higher Education, addressing the question of when to give up on an academic career. When do you decide that the sacrifices are too much, and the chances of successfully landing a tenure-track professorship too small?
The article takes a particularly interesting tack: it imagines academia as a boyfriend who “does not want to commit himself,” insisting his partner give everything to the relationship while refusing to make any firm plans. Basically, the kind of guy that makes advice-givers want to say, “Dump him now!”
I think this analogy is really interesting, if imperfect. Confession time: sometimes, when I’m in the car singing cheesy country break-up songs to myself, I think of them as break-up messages to grad school. You know, stuff like “You stole my happy, you made me cry…” (What can I say, my marriage is happy and stable, so I don’t really have any feeling-wronged emotions to express in that direction.)
As I do, I shared the article on Twitter:
Academia as an abusive boyfriend... sounds about right. twitter.com/johannateske/s…—
crazy grad mama (@crazygradmama) July 11, 2016
(In retrospect I think this was maybe a bit glib toward people who have had to deal with real abusive partners, and for that I apologize.)
One of my followers, PB (@fuckyascience), reacted:
PB (@fuckyascience) July 12, 2016
And I felt sort of bad, because PB is a neuroscience student who’s really interested in pursuing a PhD. We’ve had chats about the grad school admissions process, and now here I was saying that an academic career was all kinds of awful.
I’ve been thinking for the past few days about how to respond. I’ve written about this dilemma in various forms before, puzzling about how to talk to prospective grad students and sorting out my advice to incoming grads. But neither of those quite captures what I want to say today, which is this:
Yes, the job market in higher education is crap. If you want to do a PhD, you should know that. Don’t go to grad school because you want to be a professor, go to grad school because you think something is really cool and you want to study it for 4, 5, 6+ years.
Yes, the academic employment system is pretty exploitative of early-career researchers. You get paid very little as a grad student, and then a mediocre salary as a postdoc, and then nothing fantastic money-wise as a professor. You should be aware of this going in.
Yes, at some point, grad school is going to suck. There’s a reason why PhD Comics is so popular.
But I can’t in good conscience actively discourage anyone from pursuing a PhD, and I don’t want to. Plenty of people are very happy in academia and can’t imagine themselves doing anything else. You, dear reader, could be one of those people!
Go to grad school, with your eyes open to its problems and the difficulties that people face. Know that at every stage, there are people who’ve been there, done that, and can offer support. If at any point you find that the cons of academia are outweighing the pros, give yourself permission to re-evaluate your plans.
And if you ever need to, know that it’s OK to sing cheesy country break-up songs about your career.