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?  


45 Responses to “Academia is just a job”

  1. eemusings Says:

    I suppose mine is a calling, but my job is just a job. I’d still write if I was employed in something different.

  2. plantingourpennies Says:

    Another sorely underpaid calling? Weight Watchers employees…

    I kindof fell into my job/profession. Ended up here without intending to, but because it sounded interesting, fairly well compensated, and turned out to be both of those things.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Yeah, that sounds pretty typical. I bet most of those self-help industries underpay their on-the-ground employees, or rather, the employees accept lower wages than they ought because it is a “calling”.

  3. moom Says:

    What is a “calling” then? I’ve never felt underpaid as an academic and certainly not now as a full professor. I don’t much like teaching and find that hard work. So that part of it is definitely a job though I think a socially useful one. But I definitely won’t teach if I’m not paid. On the other hand I would be very happy to do research if/when I will financially independent. The happiest time for me is when I can just work on research, not teach, and not have too many responsibilities.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Note that economists don’t *believe* in callings, which is part of the reason that our wages are higher than most other academics. Though I am still underpaid to what I would be making in industry, but most of that can probably be explained by true compensating differentials, not “warm glow” calling effects.

      • moom Says:

        I earn more than my friends who work in the Federal bureaucracy here (e.g. Treasury Department), which is most likely what I’d do otherwise if I hadn’t got an academic job last time around. Yes, they aren’t as at as high a rank as I am I guess, but I probably wouldn’t be either. I do think that what I am doing on the research side is not “just a job” whereas working for the Federal government would be. I don’t know if that is a “calling” whatever that is.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Some folks believe that public service is also a calling! Though my friends at the Fed here in the US get a lot of their salary in terms of really luxurious benefits, because the gov’t can’t have dollar amounts be too high for gov’t employees.

  4. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    At a certain point in my career, I was presented the choice between maintaining a rapidly rising trajectory in a vastly more remunerative profession and taking an assistant professor position in an elite private medical school. I chose the latter, because it sounded like a lot more fun.

  5. What Now? Says:

    Exactly! For me the cost of staying in my tenured position at a university I increasingly hated and that was actively persecuting me (as in, the university president actually said to me, “Don’t think that tenure will mean that our actions toward you will stop. We will keep working to make you unhappy enough so that you leave”) became so astronomically high that the cost-benefit analysis was pretty damned easy. Of course, it helped that I could get a lawyer and negotiate a very beneficial settlement (the school really was willing to pay to rid itself of lesbians and maintain its Roman Catholic “purity”), which considerably bumped up the benefits in the cost-benefit analysis for leaving. Given the realities of the job market, I knew that I was probably walking away from academia when I left, but I thought it was worth it … and I was right! But I do wish that I’d been able to look at academia with clearer eyes before I went through those miserable years; there were good opportunities I passed up back in Grad School Cities because I wasn’t willing to let go of the academic dream.

  6. Belle Says:

    I had many jobs in the business world and landed here because I discovered I loved learning and teaching. And I’m good at it. Other jobs also paid very little (I was never underpaid at this rate though). I never thought or even dreamed of getting a t-t job, or even a full time teaching position. I chose the path of academic learning in a field that offered no professional future to an over-age woman. That I found a profession, a place and tenure still surprises me. It’s not all that tough to me, although those that had a more direct path, with less time ‘in the real world’ seem to think it is. My advice to them is to try life outside academia, with just a college degree, and they’ll find the academy a much easier life.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      That is definitely true– the people in my graduate school cohort with work experience found grad school to be far less stressful than those of us who came in right out of undergrad.

    • rented life Says:

      That makes a lot of sense. I couldn’t understand the “grad school is so hard” mentality that was pushed in my institution, but I was one of two that had worked other jobs first.

      • moom Says:

        Grad school was fun and it wasn’t any harder than my undergrad really just more sophisticated/professional as we went to a higher level.

  7. oilandgarlic Says:

    I worked at a company that was more of my “Calling” in that I cared about the work that we did. I hated the politics and was really unhappy toward the end due to the back-stabbing colleagues, incompetent higher-ups and low salary. Now I pretty much work at a typical profit-making company that sells “useless” consumer goods. I have a great boss and co-workers, and am better compensated than before (though I still wish it was higher). Overall I’m much happier. Oh, I do like my field / industry enough to read up on it on my own, which I consider a good sign.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      You don’t have to do your “calling” or avocation for a job! You can take a job that pays nicely and gives you good people to work with, and keep doing your passion on the side. Go you! Sounds like the best of both worlds.

  8. chacha1 Says:

    I fell into my profession. During grad school I held a number of low-paying jobs, the most notable being managing a discount bookstore (part of a chain) in an outside-the-perimeter strip mall. At a certain point it became clear to me that my store was going to be closed, so I started looking elsewhere. Given that I was making next to nothing, I didn’t have many hang-ups about what sort of work I’d do, so I interviewed as a file clerk in an intellectual-property law firm.

    Fast forward five years and I’d worked my way up to foreign patents paralegal. Then I moved to California and doubled my salary. Been doing this work ever since. It hasn’t been stable, exactly (I’ve been laid off twice and had an office close underneath me) but it’s been steady, physically easy, and I’m surrounded by smart people who understand so little about what I do that they have, by and large, treated me with considerably more respect than my equally competent secretarial colleagues receive.

  9. nicoleandmaggie Says:

    Ironically, one of my colleagues studies how to get people to turn their jobs into callings. It’s all about the dancing dogs for hir.

  10. MutantSupermodel Says:

    I don’t know if I believe in callings the way they’re generally described. I believe in general callings. My mom was called to teach for sure. She does it naturally, even outside of her classroom setting. She is always teaching. But what kind of teacher? Where? That’s not a calling. My dad was called to help people through counseling. He does it naturally, even outside of the office but the specifics of it– this area, or that area, this place or that place, those things aren’t calling.
    As for me, I was called to nap and read :)

  11. Dr. Koshary Says:

    All good advice, and all hard to remember at certain moments of emotional distress.

    I’ve stopped thinking of academia as my calling in life, and more of a preferred career trajectory if I can make it. But I cannot fully dislodge the idea of grad school as a calling. Those long years of making no money, in suspended adolescence compared to most of my age-peers? In a way, feeling like academia was my calling then was what got me through grad school. Grad school seems almost tailor-made to break the human spirit.

    I also had the benefit of some good-hearted professors as an undergrad who clued me into the nasty underbelly of academia, so I had relatively few illusions to lose when I applied. Nothing fully prepares a person for a decade of impoverishment and job training for a career that probably will not materialize, but I was better off than some of my friends, who were seriously traumatized.

  12. Debbie M Says:

    I chose teaching as soon as I started school because I loved learning all that stuff. I taught my little brother to read, I saved all my favorite dittos (ahem, handouts) I ever got, etc. But teaching didn’t choose me. If you want to teach 5th graders, you risk being stuck with first graders. To teach college, you need to like research, and I didn’t like the research I was good at (statistical studies–look, blacks are still paid less than whites–zzzz), and I wasn’t good at the research I like (going into alien subcultures to see how they work–scary!). To teach middle school or high school, you can’t look 12–you have to look like a disciplinarian. And I figured out I’m not as charismatic as I’d want to be if I were teaching large groups of people all day–I’m much better one-on-one and explaining via writing.

    I settled for clerical work in a school–still got to be around people who value education. I found it wasn’t so bad–low pay but no layoffs (until recently), good benefits, low stress (until recently), and you only have to work 40 hours per week (um, until recently). The actual work tended to be repetitive and/or frustrating, but some of it was interesting and I was well appreciated by the people who relied on me (if not the people deciding on my raises). Eventually, I even got to teach–I did trainings and wrote an online manual for the system I was in charge of.

    Now I’m aiming toward the Your Money or Your Life strategy, but quitting now would mean I’d eat up half my Roth IRA waiting for my pension, so it would be wiser to work some more. I guess. Normally I feel that working only half-time should be a good compromise, but some days ….

    When I quit, I plan to do some volunteer math tutoring at the local junior high and try to look around and see if I can get some ideas on how to help out the math teachers there. So I guess that’s how my “calling” will play out.

    My friends are mostly programmers and engineers, so compared to them I have very low status. Fortunately, they don’t care. And because of my frugality skills, I can join them on vacations or visit them when they figure out how to live in an exotic location for a while, which helps them not to have to care.

  13. First Gen American Says:

    Is academia supposed to be a more noble profession than a real real world money making job? That’s super annoying on so many levels.

    • moom Says:

      I don’t think it is about whether it is more “noble” or not. I think the question is whether it’s just a job or something that you feel “passionate” about and would want to pursue even if there was no money in it. So is it more like art or acting which seem to mainly be things that people would like to do anyway and feel lucky if they get paid for doing them. For me, I think research is similar to art is for most artists. I’m sure there are plenty of artists out there of course, for which art is “just a job” too. I think there are going to be people who are “passionate” about their thing in most industries. Hi tech probably has a lot of people who would program or tinker with computers for fun too. The proportion would be lower in many other industries.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Oh, I dunno, there’s a lot of rhetoric out there, “a noble calling”, “ivory tower” and such. Personally I think it’s just an excuse to pay folks (especially in the humanities) peanuts after getting them to stay an extra who knows how many years in school.

        Those of us in more “practical” degrees don’t get so much with the prestige. The more theoretical your area of expertise, the more noble it must be. (See, for example, theoretical physics.)

      • Cloud Says:

        Speaking as someone who works in tech, most of the techies I know do program or do other techie type stuff in their off hours. I don’t think we can really help ourselves- we see a problem at home, for instance, and know that we can write a program to fix it. Or we get curious about a technology so we start playing with it. But we still get paid really well at work. To me the passion/interest level and the money aren’t necessarily related.

  14. Z Says:

    I always wanted to learn foreign languages and live abroad and discover things in archives.

    • Z Says:

      But — calling? No, I do not believe in callings. I believe in tastes, interests, abilities, proclivities, we all have several of these and then we have our circumstances and what we are exposed to and so on. A job that uses a good combination of these things can feel like a “calling” but if independently wealthy I would probably write. But I would have some sort of job, I think working and workplaces add something to your life.

  15. contract labor Says:

    long-time adjunct here would like to learn more about this magical “become financially independent” path. does that come with healthcare?

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      No, generally it does not. Unless you live in Canada.

      But the idea would be that you quit adjuncting, get another job, and save a lot of money. Then you can go back to adjuncting later when you no longer care that it pays nothing.

      Not a particularly easy path, but it does provide the same kind of moral superiority that some folks may be looking for.

  16. Linda Says:

    I fell into my current career. While I’ve been frustrated and unhappy at times, there’s enough opportunity at my very large company that I’ve stayed for nearly 15 years now. The pay and benefits are great, so it’s hard to leave even when I do think I would be happier milking goats and making cheese.

    And sort of OT here, but I have some questions for the Grumpie who rides horsies, but I don’t see a blog email address anywhere. Do you only take questions in comments? If so, then I’ll add another one.

  17. becca Says:

    I don’t think “would do this for free” is a good bar for “calling”. For one thing, I do a lot of things for free that would not be fun if I had to make money from them. For another, I kind of feel like the specific act of getting paid at a job, at least in our society with all the contextual meanings, will inherently reduce almost anyone’s innate enjoyment of something. Academics aren’t people who love their subjects *more* than other people, but just people whose love of their subjects is a little bit more resistant to the incentive-skewing that comes with a paycheck.

  18. rented life Says:

    I’ve alway taken the first job offered–financial security being a bigger goal than a dream job. So the reason I have been teaching as long as I have been is because that’s the job(s0 I’ve been offered–full or part time. If I was offered a different full time job that I applied for, I’d do that. I used to think that not getting certain jobs meant I was “supposed” to be teaching–equivalent language to calling I suppose, “meant” to be somewhere. I don’t feel that way anymore. Truth is, people are dumb and assume to no end that I’ll “take a full time teaching gig and leave them” and that’s why they won’t hire me (if I were paid each time I was told that I wouldn’t need to work). I don’t feel called to teaching, I’d never do it for free, but I do think I’m called to help people–in that general sense of I’m always helping, offering advice when asked, etc. It just happens naturally; it’s not something I think about. I think the language of callings or where you’re meant to be is really damanging. It kept me stationary for far too long, thinking I needed to be where I was and not considering other options. Now? I’d be happy to pay the bills, pay off debt, save.

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  20. Da Realist 1 Says:

    Great post! Love your explanation of “calling.” It’s spot on.

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