when it doesn’t pan out
This post at Unfogged reminded me of what a crazy, high risk venture seeking an academic job really is. Like most things in life, attaining truly elite status in your field requires talent and dedication, involves luck (e.g., good timing) and positive performance feedback, and is only attainable for a small number of position seekers. In some disciplines, getting any sort of decent job in academia is a low probability event. Achieving in academia is a process with multiple selection moments at which a seemingly promising scholar can be removed from the game. For those who manage to stay in, this is the best job in the world. For those who don’t make it, deciding to get a PhD could have been have the worst decision in their life, leading to lots of other life calamities and distress. Take, for example, this testimony:
Between illness, errors and just being lazy sometimes, I fell behind, especially on publications — the main currency by which academic merit is measured. I’ve come to realize, in comparing my qualifications with those of my peers, that I just realistically can never catch up to someone who came out of the gate with a degree in my field, multiple publications, and health intact. Compounding the difficulty is that my husband did get a tenure-track job, at an amazing research university that is, quite frankly, way out of my league. So, if I want to live in the same city as my husband, I’m pretty much stuck — realistically, I will not get a job at his university, or hell, any university at this point. I scrape by teaching the occasional class for peanuts, and one other prof has taken enough pity on me to let me work in her lab so I can pretend to continue my research.
The problem is that emotionally, I can’t drop it. It’s like having a painful sore in my mouth that I keep poking with my tongue — all day, every day, I’m angry, bitter and heartbroken. I resent my husband so much for having what I can’t get that I can barely stand to be in the same room with him, I’m so consumed with jealousy. The workload of a professor is far more brutal than many realize — 60-hour workweeks are the norm, and actually you don’t stop working over the summer, you just stop getting paid — so my husband naturally has little time and energy left over for any housework, which naturally falls on my shoulders. And this ENRAGES me — it’s like I’m not just unable to get my dream job, I’m doomed to 1950s housewife drudgery while my husband does the important stuff. My resentment toward my husband is on the verge of causing me to leave — and it’s not his fault.
One of the main problems with academic training, as I see it, is that we’re horrible at articulating plan Bs for students. For those who are successful in academia, which constitutes the entire population of PhD advisers, Plan B is distant and unthinkable. Unlike other professional training, like MBA programs or law school, PhD programs don’t have an infrastructure designed to help students deal with these sorts of career or life contingencies. Psychologically we don’t know how to prepare students for any sort of life outside of academia.
Somehow we have to get past this mental model that not achieving spectacular success in academia is equivalent to life failure.