Academia is just a job

Really.  It is a job.  It’s not a calling.*  It’s not the route to superiority.  The PhD is a job qualification just the same as a plumber’s license or RN or bookkeeping license or what have you.  It qualifies you to teach certain kinds of students  and to do certain kinds of research.

Some folks get caught up in the maximization aspect of tenure– all their lives they’ve been getting good enough grades to go to a great college, then great grades in order to go to graduate school, then struggling in graduate school to try to win.  There’s a defined path up and pressure to reach for the golden ring of being a tenured full professor at a top R1.  Just knowing what to strive for when you’ve been striving all your life can be easier, even if leaving that path might make you happier.  The world out there is a great unknown.

Leaving academia does not make you a failure.  Once you’ve left there’s a big world outside where nobody cares if you’re a professor.  They’re just impressed you got the PhD.  And maybe they care more about your car or your house, but you should still make those choices based on your priorities and what you can afford.

Do a cost-benefit analysis about what is important.  Weigh the pros, and the cons.  Academia has nice things, like flexibility, academic freedom, tenure, working with other PhDs, and so on.  But it also has downsides– you don’t get to choose where you live, lower salaries, the tenure clock can be harsh, you may not like those other PhDs you’re tenured with and see all the time, and so on.  Think really hard about whether or not what other people think should enter into your cost-benefit analysis.

Do people on the TT feel superior to those not on it?  Probably only the insecure ones.  The rest of us, the majority of us, don’t really think about anyone but our own little circles of families and friends, just like most people.  Most of us on the TT realize that we are partly here because of luck and persistence; we all have friends who are just as smart as we are (or smarter!) who haven’t been able to land a TT job in their field because of the market (or, even more impressively, have done that cost-benefit analysis and have willingly chosen not to!).

For all our non-pf readers, we strongly recommend you read Your Money or Your Life: Revised and Updated for the 21st Century.

See, there’s another way you can win at life by maximizing something, if you still want your ambition to head up a straight path.  You can become financially independent.  Then if you’re financially independent, who cares if you enjoy teaching students in your spare time or writing papers or doing volunteering or what have you.  The rat race is just an aside.  And you can feel superior to everyone else stuck striving for something they may never reach.

Or you can just live your life moving forward in whatever direction the future takes you.  We all end up at the same destination, so enjoy your individual journey.  It takes energy we don’t have in order to care what other people think of us.

*Hint:  A calling is what they call it when they want you to do it for no money. If fewer people were fooled by this “calling” garbage, then people wouldn’t be willing to do academia for no money.  We want more money, not more dancing dogs.  I didn’t get into academia for the money, but I didn’t get in it to be screwed over, either.

How did you choose your job/profession?  

What do you have for breakfast?

The idea of getting things done (besides the standard morning ablutions, maybe getting dressed) before breakfast doesn’t really fly at Casa Grumpy.  We tend to, you know, want breakfast.  And breakfast is a good thing to do– it’s correlated with being a healthy weight, it helps start your day, etc. etc. etc.

Here’s our current routine:

#1:  These days I’m having yogurt with granola.  Sometimes Whole Foods Cheerios in milk.  When I’m in a hurry, a larabar and a banana.  Second breakfast is generally a larabar or piece of fruit, though occasionally I’ll dip into lunch and have to find something else for first lunch.

#2:  Bagels & cream cheese.  Frozen waffles.  Microwaved sausage.  Always coffee!  Sometimes cold cereal.  Sometimes instant oatmeal.  Occasionally, leftover pasta.

What else do folks have for breakfast in the grumpy nation?

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I don’t get regular clothes shopping and a challenge update

The kind you do when you already have a closet full of clothes still with tags that have never been worn.

The kind where you complain about how your huge walk-in closet is stuffed and you have to declutter and you can never find anything to wear.

The kind where you set yourself a challenge to spend *only* $100/month plus the several hundred you have on gift-cards plus whatever you get from doing consignment for the stuff you declutter so you can make room for new clothes.

Granted, I, like Cloud, hate spending time clothes shopping.  It’s not even that I’m pudgy or anything or that I can’t afford it.  I just don’t want to spend the time.  But even if I had a ton of time, my closet has enough stuff right now, I have plenty of variety, and nothing looks too shabby.

When I do go clothes shopping it’s because I need specific items.  A pair of black pants.  Some new suits.  Colorful shirts.  Anything I buy I have to be able to see in a completed outfit.  When it’s just me, these outfits tend to be very simple (skirt or pants + top), but shopping buddies will often put together something complete and I just have to memorize it.  (I always get compliments when I wear a shopping buddy chosen outfit.)

So I go shopping once every few years, generally at the January or late Spring/early Summer changing of the season sales.  I go with a shopping buddy who loves shopping (and has a closet full of clothes, many still with tags).  I stick to Ann Taylor, Ann Taylor Loft, and Brooks Brothers.  Though in my youth before I had a real job, I was more of a J.Crew, Gap, Banana Republic, and Marshall’s kind of shopper.   (I still wear my Paul Harris Designs suits– wish they were still around.)  And lots of online comic t-shirts, not to mention this guy.

It’s not that shoppers necessarily want more diversity in their clothing.  I actually wear more variety than my shopping buddy.  She has favorites that she wears once every week or two, whereas everything in my closet gets worn or it gets put in the goodwill closet.  (With the exception of a small number of “fat” clothes and an even smaller number of “skinny” clothes because occasionally I do hit size 12 or size 6, but not for long enough to replace the wardrobe.)  I only buy things that I like enough to wear regularly and make me look great.  Since I’m so busy with mental load, I set up my closet so I can just pull the next “teaching” outfit or the next business casual outfit.  (This semester my teaching days are such that each suit will get worn twice.)  Only my weekends take any planning and that’s just figuring out the temperature and which top to wear with my (anthropologie) jeans or (ann taylor) shorts.

It might be something about keeping up with fashion, which is something I don’t tend to understand.  I tend to buy what looks good on me whether or not it’s “in” and never go so deep into fashion that it looks off years later.  I tend towards classic styles.  My friends don’t go crazy with fads either, but they do tend to be aware of the seasonal colors and styles and so on.

It could be something about the shopping itself.  My current shopping buddy loves getting a “great deal” and clothes shops at least once a month.  She’s also single and goes shopping with a lot of other single friends and they give each other hundred dollar gift cards to clothing stores at Christmas and birthdays.  So she gets endorphin rushes and it’s one of the ways that she socializes and networks.

Or maybe clothes are just Gazingus pins for some people.

And now,  a challenge update:

A nasty GI thing kept us out of the grocery store last weekend, and DH made up for it with a mid-week shopping trip on Wed: $60
He went again on Saturday: $120
DH and DC1 had pizza for dinner as a treat because DH had to host a review session right after picking DC1 up from school: $11
DH bought gas: $33
And went to the dentist: $34
Utilities: $35

DH also hit Starbucks but that’s out of his allowance.  We got a little income too– a cash settlement from a class-action suit against Honda and an honorarium for an NSF panel (but not counting that either).

Why do you think some folks spend so much time and money clothes shopping?  If you do, why do you?

Link Lovers

We think we will too, Cherish.

A quokka is a real thing? who knew?  Apparently zooborns did.  It sounds like a Star Wars animal.

Excelsior tells the story of our life, or our days anyway.  Except the working out part.

We do too. (From berate my professor)

Kittehs: walking all over the paper you’re working on since medieval times.

Interesting video from ted talks/CNN on the Patriarchy, by a supermodel.

The little professor cracks us up again.

Afford anything with an antidote to all those “outsource everything” and “outsource nothing” articles.

BYU with a handy “when to use which” statistic.

Also our congratulations to spanish prof!  and excelsior!

Sheldoncomics speaks the truth about parenting.

Ask the Grumpies: Should I stay or should I go now?

Pessimistic grad student sent a question to us, to Wandering Scientist, and to Isis-the-scientist.   We’re curious to see their responses!  (And we’ve bumped this week’s Google questions to next week– sorry!)

She asks:

I’m a female PhD student in a natural science.  I originally entered graduate school because I wanted to teach and conduct research.  I knew the job market wasn’t great, and that women still had mountains to climb, but it seemed scalable.  Now, the further along I get, the more insurmountable the challenges appear to be.

I’m also frustrated that gender/ motherhood still seem to hold so much sway in career prospects:  women receive about half the PhDs, but rapidly drop off in the postdoc ranks and have a low representation in tenure track jobs (the well-referenced leaky pipeline).  Part of me wants to pursue academia and fight the good fight at a liberal arts college (not R01) type school and not contribute to that leaky pipeline.  The other part is more jaded—with such low job availability (and even if you land a job, terrible grant odds), it seems like the more realistic and practical option is to pursue a non-academic path—either after a postdoc, or just dispensing with the post-doc altogether—instead of 5+ years of frequent moves/ low job security/ lack of guaranteed retirement benefits/ maternity leave.  The other factor is that non-academic jobs may offer better ‘balance’, and be more portable.   I’m also trying to balance the desire to be close to my spouse—I draw the line at long term long distance, after doing it before—and my desire to have kids sooner rather than later.

Non-academic jobs for my skill set tend to involve government work (also less hiring these days) or non-profits—there isn’t really a traditional industry option in my area (without extensive retraining), otherwise I’d love to consider it.  I could potentially also look at teaching only (community college or non-tenure track lectureship) jobs if I avoided the adjuncting dead-end.

I’m conflicted.  I’ve planned to pursue academia since high school (!), with no deviations along the way.  Abandoning that career path feels like giving up on a dream.  I also don’t want to give up before I’ve really started, particularly with the ‘lean in’ mindset of Sheryl Sandberg and others.  However, I’ve met enough older, jaded post-docs, with no career prospects in sight (at a very highly ranked department) to make me wary of following their footsteps.

The most logical step is likely to reconsider my direction after a post-doc.  But, I’m finding that my pessimism is harming my enthusiasm for my work, and I’m wondering if that’s a sign I should strike out in a different direction sooner rather than later.

Well, we’re social scientists and the job market is better for us.  We have met folks with your exact same story (minus the being female part)… in graduate school to get a social science PhD after ditching natural science graduate school, and another with a degree in physics from a top school who was doing RA work for an economist after he graduated.  Several schools have masters programs in which they train scientists to become finance people who can work on Wall Street.

We might have a post up next week titled, “Academia is just a job”… it’s almost finished but we haven’t gotten around to finishing and queuing for the week.  But it is true.  Academia is just a job.  The PhD is a certificate that you need in order to do certain kinds of jobs or to get a certain salary scale (for instance, in gov’t work).

It is true that it’s a job that has nice perks, like flexibility, academic freedom, tenure, working with other PhDs, and so on.  But it also has downsides– you don’t get to choose where you live, lower salaries, the tenure clock can be harsh, you may not like those other PhDs you’re tenured with and see all the time, and so on.

Still it is just a job.   Even after we have tenure, we may not stay as professors forever.  The siren call of Northern California is always in the background, singing to us of its weather and food and natural beauty.  Not to mention all of our other friends from high school and a few from college.  (Oh, and also the $.  But that’s kind of balanced out by the cost of living.)

I really like academia, but when I started I said that I would not make any major sacrifices in my life just for the sake of a job.  Because I would feel bad both not getting tenure if I’d made those sacrifices and if I got tenure having made those sacrifices.  In each case I’d feel better off seeing if I could have done the same thing without the sacrifices.  That’s not the same as leaning in– I figured I’d try for both tenure and a family and if it didn’t happen, well, I’m a smart, educated, skilled, person whose abilities are worth far more in industry than they are in academia. And so long as I enjoy the journey, it doesn’t really matter if I make it to the prescribed destination.

I do not think that industry offers better hours than academia.  Both industry and academia will try to take as many hours as you let them take.  You have to set limits for yourself– at some point the job no longer becomes worth it if you kill yourself to do it.  Cloud also talks about how you start screwing stuff up if you work too many hours.

I’m also not sure that fixing the leaky pipeline for a field that has too many phds and not enough jobs for them is the best use of your woman-power.  There’s still plenty of trail-blazing to do outside of academia as well.

My advice… figure out what you want to be doing next year.  Are you interested in the projects you’ll be working on?  Do you have other opportunities you’d like to compare?  Think about several different 2-5 year plans.  Make your fertility decisions separate from your employment decisions (there are a few cases in which you would want to combine the decision, but not with most civilian employment).  Save up enough money that you have an “FU fund” to turn employment risks into calculated employment risks.

And remember, even if you’re in theoretical physics, you can always make a ton of money working in finance.  Yes, there’s retraining, but it isn’t as much as you think.  That PhD taught you how to learn.

Grumpy Nation, if you haven’t already given your wisdom elsewhere, how about sharing it here?

I had a midlife crisis in class today

There comes a point in a young professor’s life when nobody in the class gets her jokes anymore.

So today, I made the off-handed comment, “Not only am I the hairclub president, but I’m also a client!”

Student 1:  Wait?  You’re the president of a hairclub?

Student 2:  Huh?  Obama uses rogaine?

Student 3:  I think she means the college president.

So after my little mid-life crisis, I pulled up the commercial on Youtube so they wouldn’t think I was too crazy.  They made fun of the cheesy 90s music.  “This commercial is sooo 90s, ” student 4 proclaimed.

That made me feel even older.

The new assistant prof told us over lunch the other day that she had a nightmare that her students were laughing at her.   A more senior associate and I told her that our students laugh at us all the time, and sometimes even when we intend them to.  I also pointed out that I read somewhere that they’re more likely to remember material when there’s humor.  So that’s good, even if the humor was unintentional.

So my joke didn’t go over the way I planned today, but they did get a hearty laugh out of my mid-life crisis.  Hopefully that will help them remember non-linear functions.

Help me feel better!  Do you have any interesting stories to share about feeling old or people just not getting your jokes anymore?


  • Portlandia is REAL.
  • verbing nouns weirds language
  • Women faculty are not the same as faculty wives.  If you’re going to invite the wives of male faculty, then it is not appropriate to invite the women faculty unless male faculty and partner/spouses of the women faculty are also invited.  No offense to the lovely SAHW that my colleagues have, but if I have to socialize for work, then the men damn well better have to too.
  • Dear Authors,  I should have rejected your manuscript to begin with.  It was a really lousy paper (ex.  did not say whether results were significant), but I thought it had promise and I guided you through a number of steps that turned it from an idea into a reasonably decent paper (also:  it was for a crappy journal).  In return, you have refused to do much of the work and you’re being an asshole about it.  You have taught me not to be generous.   Perhaps the true lesson here is to stop accepting referee assignments from crappy journals.
  • hopefully a guy will fix my keyboard in the next hour, or else it will have to be tomorrow and i will remain shiftless
  • Re: crazy people on the internet:  I wish they weren’t on so many people’s blogrolls.  You click on the tantalizing headline and it turns out to be a waste of time (because of the crazy).
  • DC2 can whistle.  I have never seen anything like it.  And then I’ll whistle too and then ze’ll smile and ze won’t be able to whistle anymore which will make hir upset, so ze’ll stop smiling, but then ze’ll be able to whistle again, so then I whistle too, which makes hir smile…  Anyhow, it’s super cute.
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No big wins

Playing around with Mint, you can see where your money goes.  Prior to setting this up, I had the idle hope that I’d look at where our money was going and think, “Gracious, we spend how much on X?  Well, we can easily cut that out.”  And then save thousands with minimal effort.

Of course, it didn’t work that way.  There’s no enormous latte factor.  No big ticket items that we buy repeatedly and don’t get pleasure out of.  Even our eating out patterns seem pretty reasonable.

There’s just nothing obvious to cut.  Even if we never bought any more food ever again, at most we’d save $500/month in groceries and $300 or so per month in restaurant meals.  So if we never ate again, we’d maybe save 10K/year.   And of course, we still have to eat.  Cutting all food out isn’t realistic.  So that gets us down to much smaller wins.  Maybe we could cut 4K/year (or more!) by being super careful and never eating out and cutting down our consumption of organics, fancy cheeses, lara bars, and so on.  Are those cuts worth 4k/year?  Given my income and our current savings, no, probably not.  I would rather have the little food luxuries than another 4K/year of savings.

Similarly with our utility bills (except in August, but you can pry my August a/c from my 82-degree dead hands… and the HOA dictates the summer water bill grrr).  We don’t spend that much all things considered.  We already have an extensive fan system and keep the thermostat at temperatures at a level that is better money-wise than most public finance tips suggest.  We take short showers.  Our dryer is on gas rather than electric and adds at most a few dollars to our gas bill.

Cutting all childcare or all insurance would be a “big win”, but it would also be a big loss to our careers or to our risk-averse well-beings in the event of a negative shock.  (Or the state government finding out, in the case of our car insurance.)

Even though there’s no big wins, we still spend a lot of money each month.  More than graduate school us could ever have dreamed.  So money can be cut.

But money must be cut in unsatisfying ways of cutting a little here and a little there.  Eating out a little less.  Price shopping at the grocery store a little more.  Calling up our regular providers again to ask about discounts (though we already do this about once every year or two).  Smaller Scholastic orders.  More needs on the Amazon wishlist and fewer wants.  Driving on our annual trek to the relatives rather than flying.  And so on.

Of course, we’re already doing all the easy stuff.  Real cutting is going to be noticed.   Spending will have to be more mindful.

And now, another challenge update:

DH made another unscheduled run to the grocery store (he needed ones and the bank wasn’t open yet), but ended up buying things that were on the grocery list.  We’re around $400 at this point.  He also got cleaning supplies and batteries at Walmart for $15.

Our refrigerator is dying, specifically the freezer.  We vacuumed all the parts that could be vacuumed and we’re going to try to eat down the freezer and hook up the ice maker (the people who owned the house before us didn’t cook but they threw lots of parties) so we can save the frozen breast milk should it go completely caput.  We’ve had the fridge for around 10 years now and it was the cheapest one they had at home depot when we were graduate students.  We suspect we would do better getting a more energy efficient one rather than trying to repair this one.  It may not last the month, and if we do get a new fridge we’ll probably get a more pricey one meaning we probably won’t make the February challenge even if we never leave the house.  But we’ll see.  DH is going to try a few more things to see if he can keep the thing alive, so maybe it will hold on until March.  In the mean time, we’re trying to eat down the freezer.  Update:  He seems to have gotten it going, will probably post tips at some future date.  Update 2:  Keeping it going requires vigilance.

I got tired of the books I had and got a hankering to reread a Discworld book.  This time around I’m reading them from first published to last, but I don’t have all of them.  Our local library (surprise surprise) does not have Mort, and the university library has it but it’s on reserve and can’t be checked out.  So I bought it on Kindle.  $6.  I also don’t have the one after that, but the university library has two copies of it.

We went out to eat at the local Korean place.   $60.

I put gas in my car:  $27.49.
Phone bill:  $78.
Vacuum cleaner bags:  $23.
Utilities: $117.
Quarterly insect control:  $72.

DH spent about $75 out of his allowance, but we’re not counting that.  We also spent a little under $600 for two weeks of childcare.  We’re not counting that either.  And of course the mortgage posted.  :)

If you had to cut your budget, do you have any obvious big wins?

link love

NJWV warns us about the monster at the end of this tweet.

Our fricking budget tells about how it took $15 to fall in love.

Laura Vanderkam adds commentary to a post of ours about obstacles to turning income into leisure.

Things you wouldn’t know if we didn’t blog intermittently tells us about an adorable and deadly little sea slug.

We were in this week’s carnival of personal finance.

Glamour does a little spot with Jessica Williams of Daily Show fame.

WTF Evolution Tumblr

ABDMama needs some academic advice for how to set up having a post-doc.  (Our best guess is to reach out to a senior professor at her institution and ask them!)

This post from Donna Freedman makes us smile every single time we think about it.  :D

And the following video needs no explanation.  It beats even the old spice guy and is wrong in so many very right ways.  I almost want to buy what they’re selling.  (May or may not be safe for work depending on where you work.)  Hoooooeeee.

Ask the grumpies: Estimate someone else’s mortgage payments?

Grad School Cautionary Tale asks:

Husband and I are trying to save for a house. He is a prof and was on leave this year. For various reasons, we were unable to buy a house this year as we had planned. For the next academic year, we need a place while we look for a house to buy.

A colleague in his dept. is on sabbatical next year. We thought we could rent that place, agreed on rent and we would pay utilities. Turns out there is oil heat and utilities are an extra 500. In trying to negotiate with the colleague, I’m trying to figure out their mortgage payment without asking to try and find a reasonable amount to pay. I have, from public records, sale price, year bought and term of loan. Is this something that I can figure out/estimate w/o knowing interest rate/down payment?

We are sort of stuck b/c at first colleague said ze didnt know what ze would do with the house while abroad. It is not a true rental in we would only be moving in our bed, have no storage space, and make no changes. We don’t want to be paying their phone and cable package though, and it seemed like we were doing each other a favor, (we house sit, pay some rent, live constrained for a year so we could save money, ze has someone they trust with their house/stuff, doesn’t have to move much). Now that i type it up, it sounds kinda crazy, but I think my original question of figuring out mortgage payment still stands.

Can you help with that?

Well, I think the best you could probably do would be to plug assumptions into online mortgage calculators and get a range.  Keep in mind that their mortgage payment is also likely to include property taxes and insurance.  I’d start by assuming that they put 20% down on whatever term mortgage you found and vary the interest rates.  You’ll end up with a range.

We have been on both sides of this furnished housing rental deal.  We paid fair rent for a furnished place for a year (we got a discount for asking and being a good risk, but paid extra for our cats, so it balanced out), and another family rented out our furnished house for that year and paid less than the going rate but still more than our mortgage.  (There was a glut of short-term professor rentals that year because of an overseas program– usually the short term rentals in our market go for a premium.)  I don’t think in either case we thought of it as doing a favor or having someone do us a favor.  There are still risks to having a family living in your house, just as there are risks to leaving it alone.

You can also see price ranges on sabbaticalhomes and academichomes.  Craigslist and whatever rental sites are used locally will tell you what unfurnished rentals go for in the area.  You can also contact a local realtor who specializes in rentals.

If you’re in the northeast, it isn’t unusual for a house to be oil heat.  Since the price did come as a shock, personally I’d just try asking for a discount off the rent because of it.  They may be willing to work with you.  People are often willing to come down in price for low-risk renters, regardless of ideas of fairness, especially for a short-term deal.  I’d suggest not even naming a number, but saying the cost of oil heat is a problem for you and letting them name a number– they may be willing to lower the rent by quite a bit.  (And if you don’t like their number, you can suggest a lower one.)  If you haven’t written up a contract yet, then feel free to walk away if you find something you like better.  (And do make sure you write up a contract eventually wherever you end up.)

Good luck!

Any wisdom to add, Grumpy Nation?