On the “do what you love” platitude
Today’s link is a great read on one of those academic platitudes that really annoys me – “Do what you love”. I’ve often argued that these four little words are regularly used as an excuse to exploit workers, academics in particular, and this article is a great summary of why.
Confession of an Ivy League TA – grade inflation
Today’s article is a bit less serious, but it still reflects an issue I definitely noticed when I was a grad student – the idea of grade inflation, driven largely by a desire by the overworked grad student to avoid drama. I definitely ran into the same thing, and actually got some pretty vitriolic, hateful student evaluations when I was a tough-but-fair grader. At an elite school like Harvard, which is probably going to have a higher fraction of rich, entitled students, I shudder to think at how much crap you’d have to deal with if you gave a low grade to the wrong student. No wonder the median grades are so high.
The financial realities of a tenure track faculty position
I’ve spent a lot of time on this blog warning people that tenure track positions are so rare, and so difficult to obtain, that it often seems completely insane to waste years on postdocs pursuing those positions. However, there’s another angle that I’ve rarely touched upon, mostly because I know so few people who have successfully navigated that maze and landed those tenure track positions.
Today’s link is a description of the realities of tenure-track positions at smaller schools – the ones that, realistically, most people have a shot at getting. I’ve often complained about the financial realities of trying to live a normal life, or support a family, as a postdoc, but it turns out that the financial realities of a lot of tenure-track positions are also pretty grim.
This is yet another example of the multitude of reasons that I recommend that the vast majority of people “escape the tower”.
Academy Fight Song
Today’s rather long and somewhat hyperbolic read comes courtesy of The Baffler, and nicely summarizes a great many issues in higher education. There’s a bit of an excessive political slant to the writing, but the article drives home many very real issues with higher education, and has a lot of great quotable moments. Well worth the read.
Treating Tenure-Track Positions like a 7-year Postdoc
Today’s read is an interesting, and really pretty fresh, take on life as a tenure-track scientist. If we ignore for a second the fact that a tenure-track position at an R1 University is a near statistical impossibility for most students, there is a great lesson to be learned from this read. The author started with the upfront idea that tenure is not the goal of a tenure-track position. Read that again – tenure is not the goal! When you enter the position in that mentality, you give yourself the freedom to actually enjoy the science, enjoy the work, and enjoy your life. If we could expand this to all other areas of schooling, graduate studies and postdocs, and start shifting the culture in the direction of bringing joy and sane work-life balance back into academic research, the quality of the research would go up alongside the quality of life.
The big caveat to keep in mind when you take this approach is the “backup plan” – the author is a computer science professor at Harvard with a PhD from MIT, with a pretty well defined path to industry. If you have a degree from a lesser-known University, or a degree in a field with less direct applicability to real-world problems, you need to constantly be vigilant about maintaining open doors into the “post-academic” life. If you want to have the mental freedom to treat academia as a temporary gig and worry less about the long-term “success” goals such as landing a tenure-track job or securing tenure, you need to have a really great alternative to fall back on.
Why women (and everybody else) leave academia
Today’s link is a Guardian piece discussing a study focused on female chemistry PhD students, which expresses alarm at the fact that only 12% of female students plan to remain in academia. There are two aspects to this article that I believe are important to address:
- Academia is a more hostile environment for women than for men. This is absolutely true, and things like raising a family are incredibly difficult when pursuing the publish-or-perish rat race. There are a handful of grants and fellowships focused toward female scientists, but that’s like putting a band-aid on a bullet wound. The underlying problem is far more systemic and the effort is too little, too late. The culture needs to be adjusted at a core level to be more appealing to ALL scientists who would make awesome teachers and researchers, instead of marginalizing a specific group.
- The article perpetuates the idea that students leaving academia is a bad thing. This has to stop! A typical tenure-track position receives in excess of several hundred applicants. A successful professor will graduate dozens of PhD students in his or her career, producing far more students than there are available academic jobs. A large percentage of students need to leave academia, solely due to the massive imbalance in supply vs demand. The real crime here is not that students intend to leave academia – it’s that people look down on them for wanting to do so. As long as people are willing to work a decade of postdocs, or suffer through low-paid, low-prestige, long-hours adjunct teaching positions for years, the Universities have very little motivation to do anything to make academic jobs more appealing. And why should they? They still get hundreds of applicants, even with the poor chances, lousy work-life balance, and insane application process that requires potentially weeks worth of work writing teaching statements and research plans – only to never even hear so much as “thank you for submitting your application” from most departments.
The problem here isn’t that a lot of students want to leave academia. It’s that more of them don’t realize that they should.
The ‘jobs of the future’ do not require a college degree
One of the repeating themes in this blog is how I find it distressing that our society places such an excessive value on the college degree as a necessary prerequisite to a successful career, despite the fact the skilled trades can provide rewarding careers, both financially and personally. This short piece at Forbes nicely summarizes those thoughts, as well as bringing up an interesting (and troublesome) trend toward requiring college degrees (and excessive student loan debt) for jobs which really don’t need a degree. I think it’s well worth a look.