Academia: not the only thing I can imagine doing

I’m pretty sure you’re all familiar with the well-worn advice “don’t go into academia unless it’s the only thing you can imagine doing”. I think I first read it from Dean Dad, back when I was a wee undergrad. I know Jon Jarrett has been a proponent of this advice, too. The logic goes something like this:

  • Academia is difficult to get into, difficult to stay in, and overworks you as long as you’re here
  • Also the postgrad scholarships are shitty and the job market is horrifying
  • Ergo, the poor sods going into the field had better be damn sure that there’s nothing else they’d rather do.
Now, I see the logic. I would strongly disadvise doing a postgrad research degree if there’s something else you’d rather do. Why aren’t you doing the thing you’d rather do? But the advice often comes in the form of “if there’s nothing else you could be happy doing” or “if there’s nothing else you can imagine doing”, or just if there’s nothing else you could do.

A vocation is a vocation and I’m the last person in the world to suggest it’s a smart idea not to pursue your vocation, if you’re lucky enough to have one. Nevertheless, it seems to me that this advice is a very poor example of career decision-making. Pursuing a career because it’s the only thing that makes you happy, or the only thing you think you’re capable of? Surely that’s a one-way ticket to a nervous breakdown. And what happens when, for all your smarts and all your ambition, there just isn’t a job out there for you?

That, ladies and internetfolk, is why I vastly prefer this modest proposal from Hook and Eye. And therefore I am going to quote it at you:
If you want to do a PhD, you should do one. But! Only under this condition: you treat it like the first job of your career. Think of the PhD like a 4-6 year chunk of time, a discrete part of your life, where you earn a salary, live a real life (of the mind, of course, but also without taking loans to pay for food), and enjoy the full range of adult experiences. Don’t put your life on hold for some future utopia: that ain’t how this works anymore. Treat your PhD like a job: maybe it’s a low paying job, but that’s okay, because you really enjoy it. If you’re not going to enjoy this time, if you’re not going to be satisfied with your life while you do it, then don’t do it holding your nose for the glorious reward of the coming professorship. Because that’s a recipe for misery, all round.

People change jobs a lot over their lifetimes. Consider the PhD as one more job: it’s a great job, so far as it goes, really. You get to follow your interests and your passions. You mostly set your own hours. Your colleagues are great fun, and really smart. You often get to travel. You’ll write a book-length study of your own devising. You’ll get opportunities to interact with the public through teaching. While in this job, you prepare for your next one, the next part of your career: sure, you’ll learn how to be a professor, but you should also hone your other professional skills, too, because you know the PhD doesn’t last forever.

I, of course, am the sod who elected to do two post-grad research degrees instead of just one. And that’s for many reasons, but at least partly because I actually want the skills training, not just the letters after my name.  Even if everything goes pear-shaped on me, which is possible, and I don’t manage to get into an overseas PhD program, there are a whole bunch of skills I’m picking up here. They don’t have a clear label on them telling me “apply for X kind of job”, aside from the teaching skills (and I’m still not attracted to the idea of teaching high school). But they exist, and I can even describe them to you!

I can write well. I could write well when I finished Honours: better (more clearly, more efficiently), apparently, than many employees in the workplace I went into. I can write better still now. That is unlikely to ever go astray. Thesis-writing draws on a whole set of skills which are described in the ‘real’ workforce as ‘project management‘. A project with one staffmember, sure, but a project nonetheless. I had some of those skills at the end of honours: I have more of them now, including the “oh fuck, this really isn’t working, let’s revise objectives/timeframe/something else” skill.

I’ve always been fairly confident at public speaking, but I’m a whole damn lot better at it now than I was at the end of honours. My speaking pace has almost halved, going by the evidence of wordcounts on papers I gave in 2008 versus 2011. Teaching has forced me to clarify my thoughts, and to learn the difference between imparting facts and teaching skills. I can revise documents and clarify other people’s writing (if anything was ever good editing training, marking is).

And so on and so forth. Many of those are skills I already possessed at the end of honours, but I’m better at them now. I have no real plans for what I might do outside of academia, but the last couple of years has also been a good opportunity to figure out what I need in an occupation. It needs to be intellectually challenging, tick. But it also needs a lot of face-to-face human interaction. I knew I was in the wrong job in 2009 when  I found myself wishing I’d stuck to waitressing – but I still find myself thinking wistfully, especially over summer breaks, about retail and hospitality and admin jobs where I was interacting with people all the time. I like to have both fixed routines and a certain amount of discretion over my own work.

Academia, thus far, suits all of those needs pretty well. But I’m not foolish enough to think that it’s the only thing I could ever do. In fact, for me, knowing that I could do other things, if I preferred doing other things; knowing I have actual useful skills both in and outside of academia , is pretty important in terms of keeping me moving forward and preventing me from dissolving into a little ball of performance anxiety. It’s a job. It’s a job I want to do really well in, if I can. But if I can’t, or if it becomes unbearably stressful, there are other things out there; and years spent honing one’s research, writing, teaching skills are unlikely to be a waste, in the grand scheme of things.


3 Responses to “Academia: not the only thing I can imagine doing”

  1. Annelise Says:

    Definitely keep giving this advice! It’s really good, on a number of levels.

  2. Regan Says:

    That is an excellent Modest Proposal (thanks for the link)! This is basically my approach, phases of despair notwithstanding. If nothing else, I’ll have scammed the better part of a decade’s worth of getting paid to study medieval history out of this whole grad school thing!

  3. Jonathan Jarrett Says:

    I agree with all this, as I think you know, not least because I agree with it having discussed it with you, but I just wanna chip in two pieces of defence: firstly, you will have seen as I have seen a lot of complaint from grad students who were, or who feel that they were, misled about the prospects of employment in academia from their doctorate, and so even for those who did not feel it before, the pressure to give that warning speech is morally very high. Second, I don’t think I’ve ever advised doing graduate study, “if there’s nothing else you could do”. I think a lot of people do choose that (especially one-year post-grad diplomas, where I was, in Computer Science or in Education, just so as to stay at uni that year longer on a funded place), but my advice to such a person, and indeed anyone going into graduate study, includes the crucial element: make sure you pick up some other things you can do (I usually recommend IT skills). This is the whole Plan B debate, though, innit?

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