Academics and Real Life

Over the last few years, and particularly over the past few months, I’ve increasingly encountered statements like “academics don’t know anything about real life” or “academics don’t have real jobs” in the media and in popular discourse. I’ve heard it from friends who tell me I have an easy job, or who “joke” that I get paid for doing very little, and oh those lovely long summer “holidays.”

I feel somewhat strongly about this topic, so some sort of response is in order.

The primary question, of course, is what is meant by reality. Clearly, these statements aren’t meant literally. Academics don’t literally exist in some alternate realm which is outside the commonly encountered plane of reality. We live in the same world as everyone else. So this “real life” and “real” job is a metaphor for something else.

Perhaps it means our lives are easy? Okay, let’s talk about this. Most academics have a Ph.D., or are on their way to getting one. That means they have gone through grad school, or are currently going through it. What do we do in grad school? We learn to teach and do research. What does that mean? Well, first we go through coursework, which means we spend anywhere from 5-16 hours a day for anywhere from two to four years learning the basics of our discipline–theories, ideas, schools of thought, methods, how to do things, applicability, etc. We also use this time to develop projects and problems of our own, areas in which we eventually become specialists. Once our professors are satisfied that we know as much as we ought to know (or are ever going to know) about our discipline and our intended areas of specialization, we are tested on them. These tests are called comprehensive exams, and are extremely rigorous. Think hazing. They can range from intensive oral exams conducted over a few hours, or a few days, to extensive written exams conducted over a few months. Fail them, and usually it’s all over. All the previous years of work are useless–you’re out of the program. So these years are very stressful.

You’re also usually poor in grad school. Grad students may have assistantships, but they work very hard and earn very little. I’m talking about maybe on average $20,000 a year. Many of them support families on that money. I’ve known colleagues who had to resort to food banks. They may or may not have insurance, and may have to use free clinics. They may not have assistantships. Then they work full-time jobs and work on grad school, which is another full-time job. This is in addition to “normal real life”–marriage, family, kids. Grad students make sacrifices. They may not have very much stuff, or luxuries like cable. They may not have cars, even clunkers. Some go hungry for days on end so they can afford textbooks (particularly international students). Grad students put off marriage and children so they can dedicate themselves to their work, and because marriage and children are expensive and they can’t afford anything expensive. So, when their friends are earning the big bucks and have happy families and ten year-old children, grad students console themselves with the thought that one day, before they are forty, they might have those things too. And perhaps even cable with HBO.

Then you do research (you’re still in grad school). In some disciplines, like the sciences, you might already have been working on your dissertation project all this while. In anthropology, you spend the next year (or two, or three) doing research somewhere. You might be excavating at a dig, or measuring bones, or living with a group of people and learning about their lives–we do a lot of different things. Research also costs money. If you’re lucky, you’ll get funding from somewhere, but that’s looking bleaker these days. Usually you save, or take out loans, or compromise the parameters of your research, or stay in school a little longer (thus putting off the rest of your life a little longer) so you can do good research. Research–fieldwork–is hard work, and sometimes grad students give up and burn out at this stage, finding other, more stable jobs which they might actually be able to feed their families on.

Most come back to school, though, and start writing their dissertation. A dissertation is the final product of a doctoral degree. It can range from 50-100 pages, in subjects like math, to 300-500 pages, in subjects like anthropology. Some people even write 700 page dissertations, but we won’t talk about them. This writing process can take a year, or two, or six, or seven. It all depends on how lucky you are. If you’re lucky, you haven’t burned out too badly, your brain is still working, you haven’t fallen sick from hard work, exhaustion, and poverty, your partner still loves you (grad school leads to breakups and divorces at an alarming rate), and you still have funding. If you’re really lucky, your funding is a scholarship. If you’re less lucky, you have to work, but hey! You still have funding. If you’re not so lucky, you lost your funding, and have to find work. Time spent working is time not spent writing, and so you take that much time more to write. Remember, the life you want is still on hold, usually including marriage and children. This is particularly hard on women, but isn’t much fun for men either.

If you’re lucky, and not burned out, and disciplined, you can finish writing in a year or two. If you’re not any or all of those, if you have to work, or have a family that needs you, or burned out, it can take years. Some people give up, even at this stage, when the end is close. Academics suffer a high rate of burnout and exhaustion, and not just in the U.S.

When you’re done writing, you defend your dissertation. This is usually some sort of public meeting, with at least your committee members present, and they grill you on everything you did and didn’t write about. Then they say it’s okay for you to get your Ph.D.

I’m skipping over the bits where you spend a few months getting every comma and period in your book-length manuscript just so for the editors in the university grad school office. Also very stressful.

So, when you finish grad school, you are tired, exhausted, poor, burned out, emotionally drained, poor, often single, usually in your thirties, and did I mention, poor?

Now it’s time to find a job. Generally, people start looking for jobs in their last year of grad school. So in addition to being all the things above, and stressed about all of them, you are also spending a lot of time sending out job applications, and stressing about whether you will have a job or not when you leave grad school. This stress is compounded by the fact that jobs these days have hundreds of applicants. Even jobs few people would have wanted a few years ago now have at least a hundred applicants, and the bigger jobs that more people want have anywhere from three to seven hundred. At least in anthropology. So, in addition to all the other pressure in grad school, there is pressure to shine. Publish! Be a research rock star! Get a teaching award! Get external funding from a prestigious place! And sometimes, even if you have all of this, you just don’t have the right pedigree, so you’re not a “good” candidate.

So there are a number of job situation possibilities when you leave grad school:

  1. You get really lucky and get that wonderful job you wanted, and it’s tenure-track.
  2. You get somewhat lucky and land a decent job at a good school. It’s not tenure-track, but it pays well and the workload isn’t exploitative, and it will tide you through until next year, or the year after. Hopefully, by then, you have some job interviews lined up and you might get a tenure-track job.
  3. You get a little unlucky and don’t land a full-time job, but you have a few adjuncting positions. They will tide you through until next year, or the year after. Hopefully, by then, you have some job interviews lined up and you might get a tenure-track job.
  4. You get very unlucky and get nothing. You can hope your university gives you something, or seek options outside of academia.
  5. You are very unlucky and find nothing, but you haven’t defended yet, so you put it off until next year, and stay in school another year. Maybe by then the market will improve, and your CV will look better, and you will get a job. Life will just have to wait. Next year, you go through it all again.

Options 3 and 4 are risky. You can get stuck in a lifetime of adjuncting positions, with exploitative workloads, no job satisfaction, not enough pay and–here’s the kicker–no benefits. So no insurance. If you leave academia, you might not be able to come back, and you might not even want to, because earning a regular income is addictive.

And all of that is even before you start a job.

Let’s talk about those jobs. I’ve already mentioned the harsh conditions under which adjuncts work, but I confess I am one of the luckier ones and am not personally aware of the struggles of an adjunct.But even if we talk best-case scenario. You get a tenure-track job at a reasonably good or very good school. Now it begins. You put off having children for a couple of years more, because you don’t want your colleagues to think you’re not serious about your career, and having kids sends off that impression, apparently. You’re still poor, but you don’t think so, because you have benefits, and you think $50,000 a year is a helluva lot of money. You go out and buy a car, commit to a serious relationship, and maybe even get cable with HBO!

At work, you serve on a number of committees, because that is expected of you. You also do research, because if you don’t have five, or seven, or twelve high-quality publications in six years, you won’t get tenure. You also have to teach, advise students, grade, set up classes, prepare for classes, and answer emails. You would be surprised at just how much time all of this can consume. So what you do is, you work odd hours. that’s right, academic jobs are flexi-time. What this usually means is, we work longer hours that many people. We may work on our research at home early in the morning, answer a few emails from students, do the reading for our classes/make power points. Simultaneously, we makelunches, get kids ready for school, drop them at school or see them to bus stops, do the morning chores. Then we come in to school. Where we spend the day teaching, grading, writing, talking to students, serving on committees, attending meetings, answering emails. Then it’s time to pick up children from school, go home, make dinner, do evening chores, take kids to classes, feed them, put them to bed. Then you put up your feet (it’s been a long day) and get to work. Prepare for the next day’s classes. Answer emails. Do a little writing. Some people even go back to school and stay late.The next day, it’s all over again. So yeah, we have real jobs. We don’t work three hours a day–we often work ten or eleven, and that’s not counting all the stuff we do for our families.

Sure we have long “breaks.” They’re nice. We don’t have to go into work. That’s one of the benefits of being an academic, and it’s why many of us are willing to go into this line of work, which is a lot of hard work for relatively little money. This does not mean, however, that we don’t work during breaks. For many of us, this is the only time we can actually work full-time on our research. Academics are not just teachers–we are teacher-scholars, and we are obligated to keep up on our research. It’s part of our jobs. We also spend these “breaks” setting up classes, drafting syllabi, grading (in the early part of break), and doing other logistical work involved in getting ready for the next term. We send papers out for publication, or revise them. Many academics also plan babies to be born in breaks, so they might be busy managing new babies as well. Or older ones.

Then, if the stars align, after many years, you get tenure. And you know what most people do as soon as they get their tenure letters? For the first time in many, many years, they stop to take a breath. It’s the first time since you started grad school that you don’t have to worry about your job. So long as you keep doing what you’re supposed to be doing, it’s yours. You stop worrying about something for the first time. In your forties! I think we’re entitled to that little break, yes? Because it doesn’t mean we stop working.

And remember, the percentage of academics who get tenure is very small. I don’t know an exact figure, but I’ve heard that non-tenure track jobs account for about 75% of academic jobs. Many of these are part-time adjuncts who hold multiple jobs with no benefits.

So we know about real life. We work hard, we’ve been horribly poor, we’ve made hard choices and heart-wrenching sacrifices. We’re tired, exhausted, and weary with stress. And we work real jobs, difficult jobs, where we study all the time so we can teach your children. We also look out for them, listen to their stories of worry and fear, guide them toward choices we know will be good for them, and all of this with cheerful, happy faces, because our worries, fears, and stresses are not their fault and we get into the habit of not sharing.

We aren’t disassociated from how “real people” live. You’re disassociated from our struggles. And part of the reason is because academics don’t talk a lot, publicly, about how hard our lives are. Part of the reason is because some of us buy into our own bad press. Some of us still remember what grad school was like, and are overly grateful for every little thing we have. Some of us simply aren’t given to complaining in public.

So I don’t know what people mean when they say academics don’t know about real life, or don’t have real jobs. Our lives aren’t made of plastic. They’re as real as anyone else’s. We enjoy thinking, I agree, and spend a lot of time doing it. That makes us abstracted much of the time. Our minds are on something else most of the time. We live in our heads–when we can. Time is the greatest luxury for us, and so we grab it where we can–on the street, on the stairs, in the bathroom 🙂 We think everywhere! But we’re not fools with cushy, easy lives. Far from it.

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