Interview With Adam Ruben, Author of Surviving Your Stupid Stupid Decision to Go to Graduate School: Part 2
Yesterday, PhD, comedian, and recovering grad student Adam Ruben, author of “Surviving Your Stupid Stupid Decision to Go to Graduate School,” answered our questions about how grad students can stay sane in their programs. Today’s questions focus on what happens after the program, specifically on how Ruben got his book published and on why he decided not to become a professor after earning his degree.
1. Your bio says how popular your stand-up comedy classes were at Johns Hopkins. Did your advisors or your grad school peers ever catch your show? What did they think? Was anyone offended, and how did you get around it?
Some of my grad school friends did attend the final show for the stand-up comedy class I taught, but that show mostly consisted of performances from the students in the class, not me. For other on-campus shows that peers and advisors might see (though I don’t think my advisor ever saw a show), I made sure that the things I made fun of were more universal and didn’t pick on anyone in particular. For example, I talked about the difference between conceptions of science when you’re in grade school (You get to make a volcano out of baking soda and vinegar!) and in grad school (You move small amounts of liquid from one place to another) and why such a large percentage of the students’ lab reports included the sentence “Overall, this lab was a success” even though they didn’t understand anything in the lab. Actually, I’ve never really offended anyone with stand-up, though I did get a few angry letters when I edited the grad student newspaper and introduced columns like “Undergrads Say the Darndest Things.” Some people didn’t like that.
2. Obviously, you have made the move from academia to the working world. We were wondering a) how did you launch your stand-up career and b) how did you land a book contract?
I began doing stand-up in college, and I started performing in the real world when I started grad school. A couple of comedy clubs in Baltimore had open mic nights, and I’d perform there when I could–and I’d meet other comedians, and some of them told me about other clubs, and things kind of grew from there.
As for the book contract, I was writing some freelance pieces for National Lampoon, and one day they contacted all of their writers to see if any of them would be interested in submitting book proposals. I came up with the idea for this book, and I wrote up the proposal, and they promptly rejected it, since grad students weren’t exactly National Lampoon’s demographic. So since I had the proposal anyway, I started sending it to literary agents. The most common response I got was, “I love it! I don’t want it!” Apparently it’s not a good idea to try selling a book to people who are notoriously cash-strapped. But a couple were interested, and I signed with Laurie Abkemeier at Defiore & Co., and she sent the proposal around to publishers. The process began again, and I received lots of very polite rejections, all claiming that impoverished grad students won’t buy books. Broadway Books turned out to be interested, though, which was great news.
More after the jump! Image of Adam Ruben courtesy of Broadway Books/Crown Publishing.
3. What was your original approach to writing the book? Who did you interview? Were any of your advisors willing to talk to you?
My original approach was to write one of those “Buy this hilarious guide to college!” books, but for grad school. A lot of prospective college students end up with these humor books about how to cut class or how to make a beer bong, and I thought it would be fun to do the same for the group on the other side of the room–the teaching assistants who are frustrated that their students are cutting class or showing up drunk.
The purpose of interviewing people for the book was to assuage my paranoia that someone would pick it up, flip to the section on, say, oral exams, and say, “My program doesn’t have oral exams! This guy is only writing about his own program! I no longer care about the book!” So I wanted to interview people whose graduate experiences would differ from mine. I talked to a friend in a Ph.D. program in History, and I talked to people in part-time Master’s programs, and I especially made sure to talk to people who’d survived law school, med school, and business school, since I really knew very little about those. I didn’t end up interviewing any advisors, but I’d talked to lots of professors during grad school, so I was able to hear a bit from their perspective as well.
4. I read in the Inside Higher Ed interview that you decided during the course of your Ph.D. program that you ruled out becoming a professor. How did you come to that decision and was it a difficult one to make, considering how Ph.D.s (at least in the humanities) can have an “tenure-track or bust” attitude?
My field (molecular biology) seems to have two types of research: research applicable to a certain problem, and research that pretends it’s applicable to a certain problem. (There’s also research that proudly declares its irrelevance, though it never does so until tenure has been secured.)
I left academia because I wanted to work on a project with real-world applications. Too much academic research seemed to focus on publishing papers declaring that such-and-such is promising, and such-and-such has “implications,” but you never see such-and-such actually help anyone. I found my current job when I attended a seminar given by the CEO and thought that the research–aimed at the creation of a malaria vaccine–might actually result in the creation of a malaria vaccine.
I do miss teaching. It was one of my favorite parts of academia, which probably is more evidence that I’m not cut out to be a professor. But the “tenure-track or bust” attitude may be more justifiable in the humanities, because for me, “bust” meant finding a job in industry and using skills learned in grad school. For them, “bust” might mean finding a job at Arby’s.