why bother?


I've avoided responding to Dorothea's continuing self-described "rampage" against academia, because I suspect that nothing I write will change her well-entrenched negative view of academia. Clearly, Dorothea's got some "issues" on this topic--not just her grad school experience, but her experiences with her father, as well.

But hey, I'm an extrovert. I think out loud. So I'll respond, but not in a point-by-point attempt to rebut each of her assertions. You see, I don't disagree that her view is in some ways accurate. I just don't think it's complete. Academia, like every other human-constructed environment I've ever seen (from the nuclear family to the nation-state) can be ugly or beautiful, depending on your own context and experience.

I feel particularly compelled to counter Dorothea's assertion that "survivorship bias" is tainting my view. In fact, she might want to consider reading my dissertation. The topic? A qualitative ("Sense-Making") inquiry into attrition in doctoral programs in my field. (And what field might that be? Library & Information Science--the same field in which Dorothea has recently been accepted into a graduate program. Which makes me wonder how she can say things like "Deeply sick and sad system. I�m so glad I�m out of it for good I couldn�t begin to tell you," with a straight face...).

I went into the project fully expecting to hear angst-ridden tales of woe from those who'd left their doctoral programs. In fact, that was the exception rather than the rule. Most of the people I interviewed had few regrets about their departure from doctoral work. They'd tried it, found it not to be what they wanted, and moved on.

It was necessary for me to do a great deal of related reading and research into graduate and doctoral attrition, and one of things that really became clear during this process was how very different the environments were from field to field. The experiences of a doctoral student (or a professor) in biophysics are extremely different from those of a sociologist, or a library scientist, or a literary theorist. And beyond that, the experiences of a student in any of those fields will vary significantly based on the country in which they study.

All of which by way of saying, it's not the specifics of Dorothea's complaints that I question. It's the broad brush she uses to paint an entire world of teachers, students, and scholars--based solely on personal anecdotal experience.


You're right. I'm mostly talking about the humanities, though I have some on-the-side evidence from one or two of the hard sciences.

Meant to make that clear, but it slipped my mind. Sorry.

Even "the humanities" is an extraordinarily broad label. And the people you've chosen to throw stones at in this debate are social scientists (me and Alex).

You don't have "evidence from one or two of the hard sciences," you have anecdotal evidence from a handful of hard *scientists*. It's really, really not the same thing.

While I'd never argue that your experiences--or your father's--were completely unique, I also don't accept the argument that they are the norm rather than the exception.

For every person you can find me who's angry and bitter about their graduate school experience, I can find you two or more who aren't. (Whether or not they completed their degree.) For every person you find in academia who jealously hoards their ideas and discoveries, I can show you two who don't--and far more in industry who do. (Open source is far from the norm in the software industry.)

But that doesn't mean a whole lot, really. All it means is that there are a multiplicity of views. You're never going to find a definitive view of what a "family" is like. You're never going to find one of what an "academic department" is like, either. All you can do, in the end, is listen to the stories--as many as you can--and let them shape your worldview.

I should also note that among my cohort, I still have close ties both among those who went on to work as faculty members, those who took the Ph.D. and then went on to something other than teaching/research, and those who did not finish their Ph.D. and continued to do interesting work. In some ways, I object to Dorothea's setting us up as straw people (genderless version of that one sounds funny). Most of those who come into my office to talk about graduate school get the same response: try it first if you can, and don't go directly from the undergrad to the grad program--spend some time out in the real world first. Don't just go back to school because you don't want to leave university, or because you want respect or validation of some sort, or (necessarily) because you think it will score you a better job.

I don't doubt that this system has casualties. But, as you have already stated, in Churchillian form, it holds its own against other institutions. Respect is vital here. I have had a chance to experience the institutional environments in which there was a severe lack of respect: between faculty members, between staff and faculty, between adjunct and full-timers, between students and faculty, among students. Next to the pressure of making things work financially, environments in which the respect has disappeared really can be awful. I guess I've been lucky enough to avoid such places.

I come back to my original assertion. It's not that academia is good only for the "winners," it's that too many people come to grad school for all the wrong reasons, folks who are not suited to the environment, not because they aren't "smart" (I'm not sure what that means, really), but because they don't enjoy the work. Someone needs to write the equivalent of 1L, Law School Confidential, or one of the other dozen books on law school for the other disciplines. Maybe blogs are the right place to do that, and as such, perhaps we should take some time to balance the tone of her advice (and I have to agree with much of the content, if not the tone), with stories of those who finally felt as if they were in the right place when they made it into a graduate program.

Realizing I could only bear a doctoral program if I knew I was truly compelled to -- and I couldn't be happy elsewhere -- I gave myself a year after undergrad to figure out if I was. I wasn't; I didn't go. My two perhaps closest friends from undergrad did go, however. One -- lucky bastard -- is now getting paid handsomely to do research he loves (physics) in a top, top program. The other is more or less about to drop out of a humanities program and go live in Alaska for a while. And I've been out in the real world, or whatever you want to call it.

The bullshit you find in academia you find everywhere -- good work environments are hard to find in general. It always comes down to the people. There are basically two key differences, from what I can see from my own experience and my friends': In academia, there's a greater proportion of good people, but the expectations are much higher. You have a greater chance of being in a good situation (collaborative, creative, surrounded by people who actually interest you, and that you want to work with), but a lesser chance of feeling like you are.

My unhappy, perhaps-soon-to-abandon-academia friend wouldn't necessarily be any happier outside of academia, from anything I can see -- or that he can see: he is making an almost entirely pragmatic decision. If he isn't going to be happy, he may as well make more money. My happy, lucky-bastard friend has got it made -- you couldn't ask for a better lifestyle. More anecdotal evidence, yes. But I've heard the tales, both woeful and glorious, and the high point of an academic career seems easily higher than that of a non-academic one, and the low point hardly seems lower. Sure, there's much that sucks about academia, and working in it, but same goes for everything. The opportunities for those that can hack it are still often yet greater than they are elsewhere, and that's what really matters.




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This page contains a single entry by Liz Lawley published on March 3, 2003 11:35 AM.

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