Post Academic

An Academic Reaches Out to Salon

Image Source,Photobucket Uploader Firefox ExtensionIt 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 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, 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.

Tennis immediately catches on to this and responds, “Well, I think you’re in the right field, and you just have to learn ‘self-care.’ You have to learn to take care of yourself. That means identifying sources of emotional support, and ways to revive your spirits.”

This isn’t softie stuff. Academics (and teachers in general) feel compelled to give it all up for their students. Media representation creates the impression that teaching is a reward unto itself (because it sure as hell doesn’t offer money or respect). When students respond negatively, where else is there to turn, especially if the department is underfunded or professors are overinvolved in their own pursuits?

The end result is that people get sick and depressed and write to advice columnists. Grad school and academic environments need to set up a better support system that academics can turn to. Tennis even asks, “Shouldn’t plagiarism be dealt with by the institution itself, not by individual instructors?”

Yup. It should be. It sure was where I went to undergrad, but that may not be the case in other places. Also, there isn’t that much support for new teachers, period, besides their peers. Somebody needs to help teachers deal with plagiarists and deal with the emotions that come from discovering that not all students give a crap about their educations. Teachers are expected to be these saintly figures who do it all without any help–and that’s just wrong.

Tennis’s advice is great: Don’t idealize or overidentify the job, or you’ll get burned. But he also tells the person to tough it out because “You’ll gain status.” That might not fly given the lack of jobs in academia. Unless this person is in a field in which a job is practically guaranteed, I’d recommend a more post-academic plan. That’s the only way this person can find a job that gives him or her a little more distance and a lot more support.

5 Responses to 'An Academic Reaches Out to Salon'

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  1. Agree 100%. I think Tennis’s advice was fine for general jobs, but didn’t quite “get” the XTREME nature of academia. And at at least a few people did reach out to the questioner in the comments, suggesting alternate advice!

  2. jmel said,

    I thought Tennis’ advice about sticking it out was awful and displayed his ignorance of academia. While I agree the student has to learn self-care, the academic job market is such that it may end up being more rewarding for the student to learn self-care in another industry. Given the glut in the academic job market, the very worst advice to give anyone is to remain.

  3. Eliza said,

    I agree, while Tennis’ advice was good in a general sense, it demonstrated a total lack of knowledge about academe, particularly the current state of the job market. If this near PhD is already full of angst and uncertain about his or her future as a professor, imagine how s/he will feel in 2-3 years time after failing to find a full-time job? Or how s/he will feel if, after a 3 year or so search, a job finally does materialize but the salary is barely enough to get by every month, teaching becomes an intense, mind numbing 24-7 task, and there is little to no institutional support for faculty. What then?
    My advice would be to finish the degree and take a break from teaching for a bit before immediately jumping into the hamster job-hunting wheel.

  4. Taking a break is a good call. Even working a different job that’s completely different from academia can give someone who feels burned out some perspective. Taking a break is self-care in its own right!

  5. […] suggesting “self-care” a la Cary Tennis, she concludes, “… hopefully [the economy] will have leveled out by the time you have […]

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