Cary Tennis is becoming the go-to advice columnist for the grads. As usual, I want to ask the author of the letter, “Where is your advisor and why isn’t this person doing his or her job?” But I digress … it’s to Cary Tennis we must turn.
A week ago, the grad student in question wonders why the life of the mind isn’t thrilling her the way it used to:
I’m at a top-ranked graduate school, and I’ve been purring along, performing my graduate student duties, and feeling really good about myself and what I’m doing. Then my good friend and colleague quit a professorship that had taken over and ruined her life. Post-docs are now telling me that they have no job prospects and that they wish they had known earlier. The whole premise of my efforts has crumbled. I feel like I’ve been duped, but my advisor keeps acting like pursuing his profession is the only way to be happy. The more I think about it, the less and less I want to do this for a living.
…on the inside I feel like I’ve been hollowed out like a pumpkin.
I’ll bring my Sense & Sangria to the table. This letter is fascinating because it seems as if the student was happy in school, and if what he or she says is true, the student has a shot at a job because they’re attending a top-tier program. What brought on that “hollowed-out pumpkin” feeling seems to be … peer pressure, more than anything else. The person mentions the plight of her friends and colleagues first.
Advice after the jump! Advice-themed comic book cover from Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
My mom, a Post Academic supporter, sent me a news clipping in which another forlorn PhD turned to an advice columnist. A prospective PhD asks Harriette Cole of the syndicated Sense & Sensitivity: “The work is too overwhelming for me…. I feel burned out…. Do you think I should continue pursuing my degree or take a break and smell the flowers?”
After suggesting “self-care” a la Cary Tennis, she concludes, “… hopefully [the economy] will have leveled out by the time you have finished your degree. With the advanced degree, you will be able to re-enter the job market from a position of strength…. But don’t lose sight of your dream now. You can do it!”
It’s okay, Harriette. Sense & Sangria will take it from here. You’re not expected to know the oddities of the academic job market. Here’s my tips for these advice-seekers:
There’s something to this “self-care” business. Yeah, yeah, when Harriette tells you to get a massage and meditate, it sounds cheesy, but you need to take a break. Make it a year-long break if you have to, lest you wind up like furze-cutting Clym Yeobright. Teachers as a whole are expected to martyr themselves, and that’s a trap, usually designed to squeeze as much work out of a teacher as possible without the proper payment.
More after the jump! Image of Ann Landers in 1983 by Alan Light from Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons license.
It was only a matter of time before an academic wrote a letter to an advice columnist. In this case, last week a recent PhD wrote to Cary Tennis of Salon.com. Here’s the last paragraph, which sums up what so many people have been going through:
But also, it just sucks. I get headaches. I can feel my blood pressure rising. I cry (at home, not in front of students). And I haven’t even addressed the other parts of academic life — trying to get published, presenting papers in front of experts at conferences, dealing with the whims of university administration. I don’t know what I’m doing. Sometimes I feel like I don’t know why I’m doing this anymore. But I’ve spent so much time and energy and money working toward it — and I’m afraid that if I quit academia, I’ll be miserable, as I was when I worked in data entry. I suppose I’m just wondering if you can tell me how I can either be at peace with the crap parts of my field, or with the prospect of giving up the great parts of it too. I want to be happy. And I feel like I don’t know how to get there.
We’ve written before about the physical toll of being in grad school. And, in the letter to Cary Tennis, the author mentions having to deal with plagiarists and ratemyprofessors.com, but the author doesn’t mention turning to anyone else for help. Far too many academics fly completely solo, and it sounds like part of the issues driving the author of the letter involves a lack of support.
More after the jump! We don’t have a picture of Cary Tennis, but we’ll go with an advice columnist anyway. Image of Ann Landers from 1961 by Fred Palumbo from Wikimedia Commons, Library of Congress, no known copyright restrictions.
Other than “ass school” (ahem!), somebody went to Post Academic looking for the answer to this question. There is only one answer: Yes, yes, yes! If you’re in a literature program, read Thomas Hardy’s “Return of the Native.” One of the characters, Clym Yeobright, goes blind from studying too damn much. After a few long weeks of studying and grading, I started becoming dramatical and fearing that would be my fate.
Unfortunately, like Clym Yeobright, most grad students have a strong perfectionist streak, coupled with raging ambition. This is not a good mix. You want something so badly you’ll give up sleep and food and money for it, but the perfectionism freezes you up so you can’t break the cycle. At some point, you’re going to have to prioritize and figure out what it is you really want to do, which means you’ll need to let some things slide. And then everything you do in grad school, aside from the occasional moments of service, must guide you toward that goal.
If you aren’t good at setting priorities, grad school may not be for you. I fully admit that I tried to do way too much in an attempt to be perfect. I didn’t wind up being perfect, and I only got sick for my trouble.
The Hamster World provides more structure than the grad school world, unless you’re working for an asshole or a bully. Even then, you get paid more for your relentless pursuit of perfection than if you are a grad student. So, put the book down, and take a walk. You might come back with a clearer head and a new game plan.
I’m sure this dog is going to take a break. So should you. Image by Fantagu from Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
The response to “Can Being a Lowly Grad Student Kill You?” was intense and informative. One of the comments led me to Bob Sutton’s book “The No Asshole Rule,” and this book needs to be shared with anyone who is about to enter the work force. Sutton argues that a) Assholery results in lost profits and b) Assholery is contagious, so unless you know how to handle a workplace asshole, you might turn into one yourself.
One of the best tips Sutton offers involves how to cope when you can’t escape an asshole. The Hamster World offers many more avenues of escape, but the Ivory Tower is difficult to navigate, and you may find yourself trapped with an asshole. You can’t fight back because assholes can wreck your career, but you can thwart the asshole by employing strategic detachment:
If you face constant abuse, then (until you can get out) going through the motions and “not letting it touch your soul” is one tactic that can help you survive with your self-esteem intact. In my view, when organizations and bosses treat their people badly, they get what they deserve when their people respond by becoming emotionally detached and doing as little as possible without getting fired. In this imperfect world, there are times when learning “not to give a shit” is the best short-term solution available.
A seasoned asshole wants a reaction from you in order to validate his or her own power. Encouraging the asshole only makes matters worse. It is tough to resist punching someone in the face, even if it is richly deserved, but doing so means you’ve just been infected with asshole syndrome. The best survival strategy is to look for a new advisor, a new field or flat-out a new career. At the very least, the asshole will lose interest in you and move on to more interesting prey.
Image from Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
A person at the Live Journal applying to grad site asked a good question: How does one deal with impostor syndrome?
Now, this person shouldn’t feel like an impostor. This person got into Stanford. The members of the Live Journal group were super-supportive, which is great to see, as the academy doesn’t always get props for having a supportive community.
Impostor Syndrome is a common problem for academics. But why all the low self-esteem? Academics are among the best and brightest. Here are some of the top sources of Impostor Syndrome, at least in my own experience:
The realization that you haven’t read everything. The reading lists for most grad programs can turn a confident person into a sufferer of Impostor Syndrome right quick. Everyone will seem smarter than you, and they will speak more languages than you do.
Hamster image from Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
Stress and freak-outs are par for the course in academia. You have one goal, especially in the humanities–getting a tenure-track job. All or nothing. That’s why individual grades mean so little. The whole situation seems like pass-fail, with an inclination toward fail.
To avoid failing, you have to trick yourself by breaking up this monster task into small tasks. Otherwise, you’re going to feel overwhelmed.
In the Hamster World, someone usually gets paid to break down large tasks for you. These people are team managers or producers, and good ones figure out who does what and when it should get done. Sometimes, it feels like they’re telling you what to do, but it’s also their job to take a lot of the worrying off your shoulders so you can focus on the task at hand. Here’s how:
Start a daily checklist. I’ve evangelized checklists before, probably to the point where regular readers roll their eyes, but I mention them because they work. Building a checklist is a critical psychological exercise. Instead of thinking “I HAVE TO FINISH MY DISSERTATION OR I WON’T GET A JOB AND I’LL BE A FAILURE … WHERE’S A PAPER BAG FOR ME TO BREATHE IN???” sit down and make a list of what books you have to read, who you need to talk to and what chapters you need to write. Throw in what you need to do to submit the dissertation officially. It might not look so bad.
Image of Legos from Wikimedia Commons under public domain.
Don’t do it. That’s the easiest way for potential grad students to avoid student loan debt.
But who are we to get in the way of a career dream? So, if you insist …
Don’t take out anything more than you think you can make in the first year. Assume that you’ll be employed at a state school, not at a private school. Visit sites that list the salaries of state employees, and look up the salaries of people you know are assistant professors in your field. (It’s a lot more polite than asking people what they make.) Type in “state employees salary database” in Google and see what comes up. Many newspapers keep a database for muckraking purposes. If you’re in California, start here: http://www.sacbee.com/statepay/
Get federal loans at a fixed rate. Perkins or Stafford loans, for example, come from the government, and they have a fixed rate. You don’t want to get a private loan with a variable rate. That variable rate might seem low when you first get the loan, but it can go up based on market whimsy, and the market has been unusually whimsical as of late. At least with a fixed rate, you will have an easier time setting a budget.
More after the jump! Cover of Bleak House from Wikimedia Commons. (more…)
The idea of artists getting involved in business has become a theme as of late. The New York Times just did a story on artists who are taking classes on how to profit from their work. In a recent Rolling Stone, David Byrne–the gold-standard example of a well-fed artist who has not compromised his vision–said:
The romantic notion that musicians can’t deal with the business aspect of things, or can’t be interested in anything outside their music–that has disappeared, thank God. When I was starting out, you were supposed to be stupid! Young musicians that I’ve worked with–St. Vincent, Dirty Projectors, the National–they are throwing away that whole lackadaisical attitude. … These musicians are more engaged in the world around them, and they are going to survive.
Artists are often admonished within their communities to avoid selling out, at all costs (pardon the pun). So are academics in the humanities, who get by on grad stipends and low-paid adjunct gigs until they reach the holy grail of tenure. But starving isn’t glamorous for very long, unless you have a trust fund. The only way to share your ideas with the masses is to keep yourself fed, which is why you need to keep an eye on your money.
If artists are taking business classes and David Byrne is praising the new generation for rocking a balance sheet, then isn’t it time for academics to get more serious about being paid properly? Forming unions and organizing is only the first step. Anyone going into academia must make sure they can survive on what they are paid, and they must fight hard for the jobs they still have. It could be said that older generations didn’t fight hard enough to justify what they do and hire when they had the money, but that time might be over.
If you are a regular reader, you know that we at Post Academic have a deep appreciation for free food, or at least cheap food. Arnold has devoted a whole post to the care and feeding of your grad student, and Adam Ruben, author of Surviving Your Stupid Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School, devotes much of his book to tips on finding free food.
Meanwhile, one PhD has taken the pursuit of free food to a whole new level and has turned it into a possible Post Academic Profession. Mike Prerau, a PhD in Neuroscience, began the Website the Food Monkey to share food deals with others. Eventually, the Food Network gave him a call.
Here’s his audition video, complete with free food tips for any academics, post academics, and lovers of free food in Boston: