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The Myth of Academia

Academia’s great. It’s a job where you get to do something about which you are passionate, read/write/think for a living, and have a flexible schedule. And if all else fails, it beats working in an office, right? Well, sorta.

Let’s break it down:

You get to do something about which you are passionate: Not all the time, unless you are passionate about teaching, research, grading, committee meetings, faculty meetings, advising, and everything else academics do. And if you’re not at the right kind of institution, you may rarely get to do what you love. If you love to research, but are at a teaching college, you could potentially hate your job.

You get to read/write/think for a living: If no one else reads, writes, thinks, or is intellectually stimulated at their job, it wouldn’t be true that a large percentage of the top undergraduates are going into business. If you do not like your job, you may need a new one. But it does not necessarily have to be in academia to have an intellectual benefit.

You get to have a flexible schedule
: Yes, but not perfectly flexible. You still need to do the work. You can do it from home or the coffee shop or even a bar, but you still need to put in the time. You may not have to wake up early every day, but you will have to work nights and/or weekends to make up for it. And many of the hours still need to be done on campus 9-5. Most classes meet within this time frame. Office hours are almost exclusively in it. And most meetings fall within it as well. Additionally, while there are breaks in the semester during which you can travel and do your work from essentially anywhere, if you are taking or teaching a class it is pretty difficult to take a random week off.

It beats working in an office though, right?: Depends on the office. I sometimes get the impression that some academics think the options are to work in the movie Office Space or in academia. Now, I may not the best person to write on this subject, but I have to believe many of the same dynamics that exist in almost all offices also exist in academic departments, though perhaps in slightly different forms. And it seems finding the right job is similar within academia as it is outside of it. If you pick the wrong campus/corporate culture you will probably be unhappy. Again, if you’re at a teaching college, you better not have your heart set on doing a ton of research. If you’re at an R1 university like UNL, you probably should not get your hopes up of advising a large number of students (unless it’s inside your lecture hall).

While nothing I’ve said is meant to detract from the job of being an academic (I still think it is a good deal), I feel as though the ugly sides of being a faculty member or graduate student (yes we’re academics too) are glossed over as part of a myth about academia as a dream job (though it certainly helps to justify low paying careers and long nights writing). However, more tragically, it seems the concepts that make academic jobs so good are the same things that seem to create a culture that discourages dropping out of academia or taking an alternative academic career path. Again, I fully acknowledge I am not a great person to make this argument. I have little “real world” experience. But I still observe my most of my non-academic friends and all of my family enjoying their careers. Frankly, those outside of academia do not need to be told this. They already know it. The only people this myth really hurts is academics, which it does by luring people into academia, not preparing graduate students for actual life as a faculty member and separating academia from the “real world.”

Luring People Into Academia
Now if I felt wrongly lured into academia, I wouldn’t stay in it any longer. However, there is an overproduction of PhDs and many students are paying thousands of dollars to be part of the overproduction. Taking the academic system on the whole then, there has to be a certain percentage would should not be in graduate school (I’m not on my high horse, just stating there needs to be a smaller graduate student population for the production to correct itself). So why go into graduate school if the pay out is so small and the odds so bad? Because it’s a dream job.

Failure to Prepare Graduate Students for Faculty Life
I just completed the summer course for UNL’s preparing future faculty program so I’m an expert on this issue (that’s meant tongue-in-cheek if you didn’t pick up on it, instead take Bethany Nowviskie’s word for it). In terms of coursework and other degree requirements (comprehensive exams, the dissertation, etc.), graduate school is about research with some training on teaching thrown in. There is little to nothing about service, advising, or administration, yet these are still important parts of faculty life (and the parts that make it seem like many other jobs in my opinion).

Outside the “Real World”
Worst of all, by building up academia as a dream job, it removes faculty life from the real world and places it in an ivory tower. This positioning allows critics to lob false accusations on faculty that apparently don’t work hard enough (the same way many incorrectly and foolishly say that teachers are paid for a full year’s work while they get summers free).

I enjoy graduate school and anticipate enjoying the next part of my career as an academic, but I freely admit I would probably enjoy other careers as well. That’s not a dig at anything, but an acknowledgement that my job is not the sole way that I identify myself. Being an academic is a great job. But it’s not the only great job. Once the myth of academia as the “dream job” dies, the culture that prevents many unhappy students from leaving graduate school, discourages other students taking non- or alt- academic positions, and continues to draw students who enter graduate school despite the overproduction of PhDs (myself included, but I’ll be different, right?) can die a happy death.

Published in Academia