A Retrospective on Grad School Retrospectives

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I became a philosopher instead of a welder. Or, to be more precise, I obtained a “Doctor of Philosophy” degree – presumably, there are no “Doctors of Welding” – and, after a brief (by academic standards) post-doctoral excursion, I became an ex-academic.

Ex-academics, much like ex-Catholics or ex-Republicans, are the some of the most trenchant critics of their former institutions. They combine the insights gained through years of intimate experience with the institution with the clarity of no longer being part of it. Current academics, on the other hand, often suffer from a surprising lack of clear thought, especially given how intelligent they might be in other areas.

That was certainly the case with me. During my academic career, I seem to have suffered from persistent delusions that required repeated contact with reality to shatter. I don’t view my time in academia as a waste, like some other ex-academics do, but I think that my personal life and mental health certainly suffered during parts of my pursuit of the academic dream.

There has been almost a cottage industry of grad school retrospectives in recent years, particularly as the adjunct crisis in academia has grown, as competition for the dwindling number of tenure-track jobs has intensified, and as budgets for research have failed to keep pace with labor supply (i.e., grad students and post-docs). I quite like most of these retrospectives, such as this one: even though they are often written by academics in fields distant from mine, I find myself nodding along and mmmhm-ing nonetheless.

But I wonder whether any number of retrospectives, educational pieces, dispassionate analyses, or alarming statistics will solve or even ameliorate the grad school problem. Let’s talk first about what the phrase “grad school problem” actually means. In my subfield of engineering, there are many possible career paths. For example, grad school can be viewed as a sort of extended internship, where one works on a project funded by an industrial partner, and then proceeds to get a job with that partner using the directly applicable skills and personal connections cultivated over the course of 5-odd years. There are other, more challenging career paths as well. One can use the hard skills – developing computer code, giving technical presentations, reading and writing research papers, being able to follow lengthy derivations, seeing long and ill-defined projects through to completion – and attempt to demonstrate to a prospective employer, outside of your narrowly defined research area, that these skills would be equally relevant to them. Or one can quit engineering altogether, and sacrifice high income to become a writer or a cook or a stay-at-home mom or a public servant or nonprofit employee. (I occasionally entertained this prospect in grad school, and still do in my current job.) And, finally, one can stay in academia, at varying levels of status: from the lowly lab manager or research scientist, to adjunct/teaching professor, to non-tenure-track research professor, to tenure-track professor, perhaps the pinnacle of all human achievement.

The grad school problem arises when there is a mismatch between the number of people interested in a particular career path and the actual number of positions available for this path, or, relatedly, when there is a mismatch between the perceived costs and benefits and odds of success associated with a particular path and the actual costs and benefits and odds. Presumably, the purpose of grad school retrospectives is to clarify these tradeoffs, and to illustrate the brute economics of supply and demand that govern the outcome in the absence of good fortune. It was certainly alarming to me to find out that getting a desirable tenure track job involves competing against 500 other academics, most of whom are indistinguishable from me, at least on paper. It was also somewhat disheartening to find out the process is quite far from meritocratic (as loaded a word as that may be), both in a good way (increased opportunities for women and underrepresented minorities) and in a bad way (knowing someone on the hiring committee is highly advantageous, and nepotism is rampant).

But would this knowledge have changed my mind? More broadly, does knowledge of the relevant facts and statistics really lead to wiser decisions? Do nutrition labels lead to healthier eating, or do Glassdoor reviews inform more sensible career decisions? Obviously, to some extent, the answer is yes. However, the benefits often accrue to the people with the most agency in the first place – the ones who can afford to buy more expensive food with better nutrition statistics, or the ones who have many job offers and can thus afford to be selective. I suppose that the same is true of grad school. Once you have eliminated all other jobs as boring or unfulfilling or evil, then the academic path becomes the only option left, no matter what the anecdotes or statistics say.

I’m reminded of a comment I read in an LGM blog post about adjunct faculty: “The brute fact of the matter is that people who do something they love for a living are easy prey for exploiters.” I also liked this comment: “As someone who stopped adjuncting in my early 30s: it’s a hard fucking decision. It’s admitting you failed at something that was really important to you. And it is fucking hard starting over from scratch in a completely unrelated field at that point. As shitty a deal as adjuncting is, there’s a really good chance that starting over means a pay cut, at least to start.”

In other words, the decision to enter or exit academia is primarily an emotional one, not a rational one. It is driven by the most powerful forces in life at large: love and fear and shame and disgust. I’m not a particularly emotional person, but my two years as a post-doc were the most emotionally challenging years of my life. I left a girlfriend, a great circle of friends, and an uncomplicated life in sunny California to move to a foreign country where I didn’t speak the primary language and didn’t have any friends. (As it turns out, making friends, let alone picking up women, is tough if you can’t hold your end of a conversation.)

I made those sacrifices for my career, because I loved research and teaching and writing papers and nerd-ing out over science. I believed that a few more published papers, a few more conference talks, and the prestige of working with a world-class scholar would be enough to get me the tenure-track faculty job I had been envisioning ever since I entered academia. I remember firing off my first set of faculty applications in December, feeling anxious and giddy and hopeful that one of my dream schools would respond positively and my post-doc would soon be over. And then December turned to January, and January to February, and February to March. I heard nothing, positive or negative, although it turned out that no news almost always means bad news. And my optimistic anxiety slowly gave way to fear and despair. Fear of being stuck as a postdoc for years and years, like some of my colleagues. Fear of having to stay in this foreign, unwelcoming land for at least another year. Fear of being alone and isolated for that time. And most of all, genuine despair of being a failure. It’s tough for someone as driven and high-achieving as myself to come to terms with failure, especially when it wasn’t even clear exactly what I had done wrong. My grad school advisors told me that I had an excellent chance to get an excellent job. My publication record seemed substantial. I was doing good work, and I was proud of it. But it didn’t seem to be enough. So I did what most driven, high-achieving academics would do. I redoubled my efforts, cranked out a few more publications, and tried again next cycle. And it was the same story.

I suppose what saved me from being stuck in academia forever, ironically, was the fact that I was so miserable (perhaps not clinically depressed, but close). If I had been content with my social life, I might have been able to ignore my discontent with my career. That’s not to say that leaving was easy. I had to overcome inertia as well as the shame and embarrassment that I felt. I felt that I had disappointed my grad school advisor, my postdoc advisor, my committee members, and everyone who had invested time and money into my research career. I also felt that I had disappointed myself, by failing to live up to my potential. I was so embarrassed that I still haven’t emailed my Ph.D. advisor to inform him of what I’m doing now.

Perhaps this is the real problem with grad school retrospectives. Even when they are written beautifully, they often don’t adequately capture the feelings and emotions at play. There is a difference between reading “2000 mg sodium” on a nutrition label, and feeling the salt caking your mouth, persisting despite your best efforts to wash it away. There’s a difference between reading a Glassdoor review of a dysfunctional company and experiencing the office politics and miserable interactions with coworkers and management on a daily basis. And, quite similarly, there’s a difference between reading that you should be an academic only if “You don’t care where you live” and actually experiencing life in a sub-optimal and occasionally misery-inducing place. It is perhaps also like the difference between reading that Trump plans to deport illegal immigrants and actually witnessing first-hand your spouse being deported. In that post, I complained about the high-information low-information voters – the people who should have been well-educated and well-informed enough to understand Trump’s true intentions and goals, but who voted for him anyway. I suppose my grad school retrospective retrospective demonstrates that I’m not as different from them as I would like to be.

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