TaxProf Blog

Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Finding Meaning After Academe

Chronicle of Higher Education: Finding Meaning After Academe, by Elizabeth Segran:

BooksThe "do what you love" mantra pervades academe, engendering seemingly rational people to forsake lucrative careers for the study of Mediterranean archaeology or, in my case, classical Tamil love poetry.

During my years in graduate school, that philosophy toward work was rarely challenged. On the contrary, in subtle and overt ways, my colleagues and professors reinforced the belief that it is more noble to pursue a love of literature, history, or science than to pursue financial stability. It was a seductive fantasy, especially since, for a time, my work—the teaching, the research, and the digging through archives in far-flung corners of the world—made me very happy.:

The problem, however, is that for the vast majority of newly minted Ph.D.’s, it is now close to impossible to find financially viable academic work. Toward the end of my doctoral program, that grim economic reality eventually set in, forcing me to make difficult decisions about my future. I applied to hundreds of positions and went on dozens of interviews over the course of two years, only to find myself with no good options at the end of that grueling process. My choices came down to taking adjunct work or leaving the academy altogether. Reluctantly, I chose the latter: I filed my dissertation, started an internship at a public-relations agency, and put academe behind me. ...

When confronted with the instability and poverty that accompany adjunct employment, many Ph.D.’s are compelled to consider alternative careers, and a significant number will cross over into the nonacademic realm. According to recent studies from the American Historical Association and Modern Language Association, 24.2 percent of history Ph.D.’s and 21 percent of English and foreign-language Ph.D.’s have, over the last decade, pursued nonacademic careers. 

In my experience, the transition out of academe can be painful. Apart from the stresses of job hunting, one of the most challenging parts of the process for me was confronting the possibility that I might no longer be one of the lucky people able to do what I love. ...

It took me years—and several paradigm shifts—to arrive at the conclusion that it is possible for a former academic to have a meaningful career outside of academe. Here are a few things I wish I had known earlier in my journey. ...

Public intellectuals can thrive outside of academe. Another revelation for me: Academe is not the only place to find vibrant intellectual engagement. As I was changing careers, I feared I would no longer be able to contribute to the discourse in my fields of South Asian studies and gender studies, thereby squandering the years I spent acquiring expertise in those areas.

What I’ve discovered is that there are many spaces where specialized content knowledge is valuable. The Internet has made it easy to participate in conversations about a vast range of subjects. Online publications are always keen for fresh, insightful content that Ph.D.’s are well positioned to contribute. ...

Finding new meaning in life. In a recent article in The New York Times, Gordon Marino makes the case that the "do what you love" ethos is naïve and inward-looking. Self-fulfillment, he argues, can come from doing work that you had not sought out to do, but that simply needed to be done. Indeed, "we can be as mistaken about our views on happiness as anything else."

That was true for me. When you are thinking through what will make you fulfilled, you only have your own limited experiences on which to draw. It’s hard to know what might make you happy in unfamiliar realms. I pursued an academic career because I thought it would give my life meaning, but as I veer further and further away from the path I had initially set for myself, I have found that there are many rich sources of meaning in life. Over the last three years, I have stumbled upon fulfilling work that I never would have discovered had I not been nudged out of academe.

To the extent that my experience and Marino’s argument apply to others facing a similar, apparently bleak transition, the prescription is clear: Be open to alternative tracks, even if they are not what you had envisioned, and take the plunge. And maybe, like me, you won’t look back.

Ryan Anderson, Academia and the People Without Jobs:

[T]here are no jobs in academia. ...

Me, and thousands of others learned that lesson the hard way. We spent about a decade learning how to become academics, only to realize the dream has already passed. We’re all trained for positions that don’t exist. We’ve been prepared for a way of life that is rapidly vanishing before our eyes (the secure, tenured academic). We go into debt because of a strange “loyalty oath to an imagined employer” (as Sarah Kendzior recently put it) that certainly doesn’t come knocking the day you graduate.

We’ve been had. And we walked right into it. ...

We have to open our eyes. Because it’s pretty much impossible to change the world when you have the weight of compound interest grinding into your soul. When the debt collection letters flood you mailbox. When the phone calls won’t stop.The reality is this: maybe we don’t want to accept reality. Maybe we simply don’t want to admit how bad things are. We don’t want to acknowledge that our prized possession—higher education—has run off the rails. We tell ourselves that the institution of higher ed is still doing fine, thank you very much. But it’s not. ...

The job market in academia isn’t just lukewarm. It’s not “Well, it could be better.” It is, as Karen Kelsky once said, imploding. Meanwhile, many tenured faculty members continue to stand on the sidelines, safe in their own positions, as the collapse ensues. ...

Ok, sure, there are some jobs in academia. But the chance of getting one of them is so infinitesimally small that grad students might be better off buying quick-picks at the local 7-11 than spending 6-10 years of their lives slogging away at a PhD that doesn’t even lead to anything remotely worth the time and effort. It seems that everyone knows about the bad job market. We all know. But for some reason the grad students keep trudging forward. Behind them, legions of new graduate students send in applications and willingly join the whole fiasco. It all begins to look like The Grapes of Wrath, when thousands and thousands of people made their way to the golden hills of California…only to find out that all of the promised jobs didn’t exist and people were so desperate they were willing to work for almost anything. We all know how that turned out. Can anyone say “cheap labor source”? Yet we keep going. Hoping.

Legal Education | Permalink


I sure am glad this doesn't resemble the legal profession in any way. Nope, with our mighty versatility and sheen, we can just all go work on Wall Street or in compliance or something - or so certain prawfs keeping telling their young wards. After all, why be an entry-level compliance worker with a bachelor's degree when you can spend another three years of your life and $150k to $200k to become that same entry-level compliance worker (if they'll overlook your JD and give you an interview)?

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | Jul 9, 2014 7:24:29 AM