Monday, September 14, 2015

So...there are blogging topics, and then there are blogging topics.  This post could be called Let's talk about - academic disenchantment, but I can't actually publish it, so I can't call it anything.  For one thing, I am terrified that although I am careful never to mention my full name, or especially Avram's full name on here, that somehow an academic search committee will find this blog (it's not too hard to find - it comes up on the second page if you google Avram), and then stumble upon this post, and then decide that with this kind of negative wife they don't want to hire Avram at all, and then my fears about Avram never finding a job will be self fulfilling, and I just don't think I can handle it.

Rewind ten years.  I met Avram.  He, even then, knew he absolutely wanted to get a Ph.d. and become a professor.  He has always known this, ever since he first found out what a Ph.d. was - he knew that he had to get one. So, then I fell in love with him...blah blah blah....lots of drama...blah blah long story short - we got married, and became a student family.  I had graduated, but Avram still had two years of his undergraduate left.  So we scrimped and saved and got by with a little help from our student loans, and then his senior year needed no loans at all because I got a 35 hour a week job being a nanny for a family.  Sacrifices, yes, especially since I really just wanted to stay home with my new baby Lydia, but I wanted to not have debt much, much more.  And it was all worth it - getting a Ph.d. was worth it.  As Avram neared graduation, and applied to schools, there was no plan B.  There was no even plan A.  Grad school was the only plan, the entirety of our plans.  I was fully, 100% behind Avram pursuing this career field. It wasn't hard - through him I got to vicariously live my own dropped career plans.

Maybe I need to rewind even farther - to 2001, when I entered BYU with the firm intent to graduate in Near Eastern Studies (I had picked my major two years prior - actually, maybe four years prior? I was very focused on what I wanted to do).  As I told a friend right before I started school, my plan was to go to BYU, go to grad school, get a Ph.d. by the time I was 26 (ahh, the young ignorance of youth, thinking I could get a ph.d. in four years in the humanities), get married at that point, and raise lots of fat babies while being a tenure track, then tenured professor.  So, what I actually did was graduate in Near Eastern Studies, but that's about the only thing that went according to plan. (Even that plan wasn't very great because they got rid of my major only one year in, and so I ended up grabbing other classes from the new Middle Eastern Studies major - hence the Arabic, Egypt study abroad, and general disorganization of my undergraduate career.  They made the major I had actually wanted the year after I graduated - Ancient Near Eastern Studies, which was the one Avram graduated in.)

By my sophomore year, I was really struggling with the realization that my intended academic path meant studying lots of dead languages (I like living languages, I like to talk to people - but I hate living topics because they are so political, controversial - I mean, do YOU want to work with the modern middle east?  I didn't think so), and that although much of why I cared about the ancient near east was because of my religion, getting a Ph.d. is a secular thing, which meant that I had to learn to do research on secular biblical topics.  Plus....there was this small thing called boys, which meant I dated a freshman whom I wanted to marry my first year, then while he went on his mission I briefly dated his brother (I have no comment on this), then later my sophomore year I got engaged to yet a third boy. Then I broke it off four and  a half weeks before the wedding, because I had known for most of our relationship that I didn't want to marry him at all, yet still planned a wedding (no comment on this, either), and then swore off dating for a while, but unfortunately for me then, but very fortunately for me now, met Avram six months later, started dating him four months after that (yes, four months before the first freshman boyfriend got home from his mission), and married Avram after lots of waffling, a big break up, and tears galore right around the time I finished college.  So, to recap, I basically abandoned my complicated academic plans because I fell in love. A lot. And thus I didn't want to wait until I was 26 and had completed a Ph.d. (that I wasn't sure about any more) to get married - I wanted to follow option B, which despite all the drama, still seemed like a more favorable option.

Not that I then became opposed to me having a career - but I had no salable skills (remember Near Eastern Studies major), no firm career goals (I had considered becoming a librarian in my field, but that required getting a master's of library science, which seemed all techy and not booky), and so I went to the raising lots of fat babies part, and decided to put all my career aspirations on Avram.  This....was probably not the best thing, but I don't know what I could have done differently, with what I knew then, what my options were then.  I mean, this whole rant is actually related to how academics isn't actually a career path, more like a becoming highly qualified so you can have the opportunity to try out for a very competitive slot, like trying out for Broadway,'s not like I exactly wish I had followed my original career plan at all....  And yes, I have struggled with being a stay at home mom.  And I am an extrovert, so it's not really like I want to get a job while being at home - I don't want to make money.  I want to be fulfilled.  But this isn't about me, exactly, except as to how I am too enmeshed with Avram, and with his career plans, which is to say, very enmeshed.

Phew, good thing I am not publishing this - this is all very complicated, and full of unnecessary back story, which is to say, exactly how I like to write.

Anyway, so when Avram wanted to get a Ph.d., and he even wanted to get it in the field I had planned on, and unlike me he was very certain about what he wanted, I was all in. It was like fulfilling a lifelong dream of mine, which just as much sacrifice, but also with a whole lot less paper writing, scholarship planning (but also a lot less job satisfaction....).

However, that was just the tip of the iceburg for sacrifices.  We went to England, to Oxford for a master's.  I didn't want to go - he got into a fully funded (but inadaquate for the city) Master's and Ph.d. at Fordham in New York City in medieval Jewish history.  But, going to Oxford had also been a life long dream of Avram's, and had also been my lifelong dream in my previous academic planning self, and so I finally acquiesed, and we went, although we only had a half scholarship, and not a full one.  (And we didn't even really look into the Master's at Michigan because they didn't even talk about funding or not. I wish we had, because they are a good school).  So, we were very poor, acquired a lot of debt, and were cold for nine months in England while Avram spent a lot of time feeling like a stupid Yankee monkey while he completed a one year master's at the same time as trying to learn how to navigate a foreign country, foreign academic system, and I meanwhile had our second child.

Then, on to the next stage - he got into two schools, one of which with a good funding package (that wasn't so good in subsequent years, although it was supposed to be....). So we came to Ohio State. Even though it was a new program, which meant no job placement history. And no clout in the field.  And so, six years later, here we are, with Avram in his final year, and now applying to jobs.

And here, thirteen years after I began my academic journey and planned to get a Ph.d., and Nine years after I married Avram, who is actually getting the Ph.d., I am finally learning what I wished I had known then about the Academic Field in the Humanities in America.  In summation - it sucks.  It is vastly oversupplied, and getting worse all the time, because tenure lines are going away, not expanding, while schools are still expanding and adding new graduate programs.  If this was a treatise on prospects for job fields, the Academic Tenure Track Humanities section would have a skull and crossbones, with a sign, "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here."  We would even get the reference, since we're in the humanities, and all.

Let me explain. No, let me sum up. The American academic system has as its faculty three levels of career - Assistant Professor (Tenure Track), Associate Professor, and Full Professor, both of which are tenured.  The other options are long term lectures, which some universities have, Visiting Assistant Professors (knows as VAP), and then other things like Post Docs, fellowships, and finally at the far, far bottom is adjuncting, wherein you get paid to teach each individual class as a contract worker, without full time work, health benefits, and self respect.

Each department has tenured professors, and when one professor retires, for several decades instead of then filling the spot again, Universities have not always extend the tenure lines, and fill in the gap with more VAP spots or adjuncting.  This is a lot cheaper for them, and because the market is so large, there is basically an unlimited supply of eager people with Ph.d.s willing and happy to be a VAP (hey, maybe next year on the job market they will get that Tenure Track job!), and often unhappily, but still willing to adjunct (hey, maybe next year on the job market they will get any sort of better job!)

Meanwhile, the number of college graduates has only grown, and hence the number of people excited to go to graduate school and pursue being a professor has grown as well.  There are all the traditional older Ph.d. programs, plus new ones starting up all the time.  Some programs will only let those in that they can fully fund, but other will only partly fund, or hardly fund at all their graduate students.  This means that graduate students can take on thousands, even over a hundred thousand dollars of debt - all for a future promise of a job that at least in Avram's field looks to pay within ten thousand dollars of $50,000.  And, that is if you can get the job at all.

There are aspects that are not hidden - it is generally understood that if you really want to be a professor, that you must be willing to move almost anywhere in the US.  That you will never get rich, or even upper middle class. That the job is very flexible in some ways (you set your own hours, you have a great deal of freedom in what you research, in what you teach), but that you also will be bringing work on vacations, holidays, nights, weekends - at least sometimes, if not for those who struggle with firm life balance, all of the time.  But you are trading this off for something that you really, really love. Maybe it's the research, maybe it's the teaching. Maybe it's the thinking, and the life of the mind, but whatever (pure, good - as apposed to the occasional reason of prestige or public pride) reason you have, you are doing it for the love, not the money.  For those who crave this job, who spend a decade working towards it, they have weighed the payoffs, lived in poverty for years, and this is worth it. They have become a band of brothers (and sisters) who are the few, the happy few that have shed their blood (sweat and tears) with each other through grad school to pay the price.

I have often heard jokes about majoring in poverty, or about the horrible job prospects. These almost become a badge of honor among the band, an aspect of their comaradarie as they joke about becoming plumbers, or flipping burgers with their Ph.d. And yet they are in training for a job, and although of course every humanities ph.d. should not be guaranteed a job, at the same time in such a closed field as academics, where universities control both the supply (how many students they let into grad school) and demand (how many tenure lines they support), there is a lot that could be done that is not.  On both side money speaks - grad students provide a cheap source of labor for teaching.  So do adjuncts and VAPs.  It's not just this recession - this has been ongoing for decades (even while the tuition has been outpacing inflation, while more people than ever are going to college, and where administration in colleges and universities continues to grow and their incomes are growing as well. Administrators are paid better than faculty).

While I too dislike money, and have no problems with people seeking a demanding job for comparatively little pay, but for the love.  What I do not like, nay what makes my blood boil, my overly wrought prose purple, what makes my metaphors and similes grow like dank mushrooms in must is that many more ph.d.'s are being admitted, trained and graduated than can ever possibly hope to find a Tenure Track job.  Because of this, Universities have become more and more picky in what they are looking for in candidates. When you have a hundred applicants (not unusual) for one position, and at least fifty are completely qualified, twenty five are very qualified, and ten are basically rockstars of the academic world - those top ten will all get Tenure Track jobs, and many of the rest will limp along to another year, working on their CVs, trying to get another publication, pitch a book to a publisher, something to move their career along.  Universities did not used to expect candidates to have a publication upon applying - now it is becoming more and more standard to see this, and to even expect this - it is called the pre professionalization of the job.

So there are less jobs, more candidates, and therefore you must be better than your predecessors to get a job at all, and even being good, very good, does not guarantee you a job.

This is what I wish I had known, thirteen years ago, ten years ago, six years ago.  It is hard to see a dream die, and yet the idea of an attainable dream of being a professor in the humanities is increasingly a dream that despite ones best personal efforts and work is unattainable except through luck.  Of course, there will always be jobs - not all universities are cutting their tenure lines, and even among those that are, there will always be some tenured professors in each department.  Just the attainability of these positions has decreased, and will continue to do so.

If Avram doesn't get a job, then this will all just sound like grumpy sour grapes.  But I promise you it is not. Even if he does get a job, then I will still feel the same way (and also, I will feel very lucky, because we will be, and very grateful that he gets to work at what he loves to do in what is a shrinking, changing field).

Here are some articles that lay some of this out.  If you are thinking of graduate school, please read them. If you are getting a master's please read them before continuing on to get a doctorate. I know this is all gloom and doom, and you did not go into academics in the humanities to think about depressing job markets, economic short term policies driving universities and their tenure lines, about making money. But the academic job market - and by extension, academics, is not an ivory tower.  It is more like a lake of boiling blood in the inferno, where you can only get out of it by ascending to living island of flesh that you get to stand on and keep down just so you can keep out of the blood yourself.

These are by Thomas H. Benton, a pen name for William Pannapacker, who is a professor in English

So You Want to go to Grad School?

Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don't Go (this is particularly hard, because Avram actually did go for all the right reasons - he knew a lot about what being a professor was like, he loves to teach, he gets above average student ratings, and yet....all that doesn't make the market any better).

Just Don't Go part 2

The Big Lie About the 'Life of the Mind.'

If you are determined to go, first think about what are the right and wrong reasons for going.  Often professors will tell students to only go if they cannot imagine doing anything else.  The precise difficulty with this advice is most of the student they are advising have never done anything but school in their entire memory, and so struggle to imagine themselves doing anything but more school, which they are very good at (or would not likely be having this conversation in the first place).

Wrong Reasons:

1.You are good at school, everyone has always told you how smart you are (and you are!), and so it just makes sense. You like learning, you like to read.
    Answer - you can learn on your own your whole life.  Lot's of smart people do not actually enjoy doing academics as a career.  Just because you can do something, does not mean that you should do something.
2.It is a bad job market out there, or the variations - the real world seems scary
     Answer - Do you know what's scary?  The academic job market.  Do you know what's a bad job market?  The academic job market.
3.You like the idea of being like your professors that you see, who get to do things like think deeply while getting paid for it.  Variations - you think that you get summer's off, that being a tenured professor is the best part time job you'll ever have.
     Answer - Being a professor is a lot more than just teaching classes and reading a lot. Professors have a three part job - teaching, research, and service. Do you actually know what professors do behind the scenes?

 And if you are truly going for the right reasons (you know what professors actually do, you like to do these things, you like conferences, writing papers, presenting, teaching, grading, serving on committees) here are some criteria I would recommend:

Only go to a school that has a proven track record.

Only go to a school if you have promised, written full funding for a set number of years (at least five or six). Even with full funding it can be easy to 'need' student loans.  Maybe you will get married. Maybe you will have children.  Just remember, at the end you will be paying back any loans, regardless whether you have  job or not.

Have a plan B - another career you can explore outside of academe using skills from the field you are going into.  Beyond Academe is a website that can help with this, among others.  Don't just give this a cursory look - put some time and effort into looking beyond just and academic career for your field.

Realize that it isn't just enough to be good at school in academics any more.  Don't listen to your professors who say that presenting and publishing can come later, after you get a job.  Now days, if you cannot be better than the best, you may not have a chance. Plan on not just fulfilling the requirements of grad school, but also actively at the same time pursuing a research agenda, including presenting at the major conference for your field. Two years before graduation, polish up your best presentation, paper, or chapter of your dissertation, and send it out for publication. Consider doing this twice, to maximize your chances of being published.  This way by one year later you will have at least one publication in time for application season in the fall.

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