Academics on Academia: Ignorance Is Bliss? (First Installment)

*Updated post

My friend and colleague Janni Aragon and I have been thinking a lot about the relationship between academia and women and people of color. A lot has been said about imposter syndrome, that feeling of not belonging in a career, that you ended up there by luck. It’s that sense that you’re not supposed to be here/there. Although this can hit men as well as women, and whites as well as people of color, we both agree that this syndrome affects women and people of color hard, especially because we are always made to feel like we are the exception. It is also difficult when you know that you are one of a few at the graduate level; the pressure can be staggering. This is how the “Academics on Academia” series came about. I will start the series with my post today, and Janni will respond to my post on her blog.

When I first went away to college I wanted to be a writer, but I also wanted to be a teacher. These were two things that went hand in hand. Like Ashley mentioned at Small Strokes Big Oaks, “I loved books so much I wanted to create them.” But I also wanted to share the books I liked with others and talk with them about these books. I thought teaching would be a good way to do this. As I made my way through my bachelor’s degree, I saw in a PhD the way to the professoriate. So, I set my sights on becoming a professor: I was going to get a PhD and teach literature.

One of the things that I liked about being a grad student was that I saw (or believed to have seen) a clear, determined path. I knew (or I thought I knew) what I needed to do to become a professor. It wasn’t until later that I discovered there was something called “the tenure track” and rankings such as associate professor, assistant professor, full professor. It wasn’t until later that I found out that it wasn’t enough to be smart and hardworking and passionate. You may think I’m naive for not learning more about my career of choice when I signed the acceptance letter that guaranteed me funding for the next five years of graduate school. But honestly I didn’t hear much about these rankings or about The Tenure Track when I was at  the University of Puerto Rico. All I knew was that there were professors I admired and they did what I wanted to do: teach literature. They came to the United States and studied PhDs. Then they returned to Puerto Rico at taught at La Iupi, my alma mater. I did well in their classes, and they advised me on my work and wrote letters of recommendation for me.

I learned quickly at my new school about becoming a professor. Tenure track was the Holy Grail: you worked your butt off from the MA to the PhD, you wrote field exams, you picked a committee, and you wrote a dissertation. Even though I knew there were some who took a long time to finish or who never finished at all, this was never discussed. I didn’t ask either. All along I believed that hard work and insightful writing would get me through. I don’t think I had a single conversation with a professor during my MA about what going on the job market entailed. It wasn’t until I made it to my PhD that I found out what this “market” meant and what I needed to do to succeed at this job market. On the other end, I heard from fellow graduate students that I would never get a tenure track job at a Research 1 university (another phrase I picked up in grad school) because I went to a lesser-known public university in New York. I had chosen this school because it had a PhD program in Translation (even though eventually I switched back to English) and it was close to New York City. Closer than I had been in the past sixteen years I spent in Puerto Rico, at least. Much later I began to notice that I lacked the cultural capital to navigate the job market for the career I had always wanted. The more I learned, the less I knew…that’s how it felt like.

But I stayed the course. After all, I wanted to become a professor and that’s what you do with a PhD, right? I look back, visibly a different person from that wide-eyed young woman who applied to only one school for her PhD (the one school who had guaranteed funding from the start), and I only now understand why I feel so anxious about my job prospects today. I am about to finish my dissertation and finally get the PhD I dreamed of getting. If I feel anxious it’s not just because of my dim job prospects; it is because I found the certainty of the career path comforting, and that certainty is long gone. I tend to plan for everything. I find comfort in certainty, in routines, in following recipes, in reading instructions. (For someone who values critical thinking as much as I do, I sure do rely on certainty a whole lot.)

I was not educated about job prospects as an undergrad…and as a graduate student a lot I’ve picked up is through conversations, observations, and articles. The workshops at my school focused on cover letters and interviews. It wasn’t until I found a mentor that someone finally had the frank conversations with me about what it takes to make it in academia. It wasn’t until I started working on my dissertation that I started to read about the state of the job market, sad story after sad story. The machinations of academia are a big mystery, and you don’t find out much until it’s too late, at least for some. The cultural capital becomes essential, as does mentoring. Who knows the ropes? And who is passing down this information?

I’m eager to hear your thoughts, Janni!

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9 thoughts on “Academics on Academia: Ignorance Is Bliss? (First Installment)

  1. Thanks for the shout out. :)

    I totally get what you are saying here. One of the reasons I didn’t apply to PhD programs for this fall is because I was nervous about job prospects after the degree was completed. (And I didn’t want to leave a job I actually like just to chase a piece of paper…) But you are awesome, and super smart, so I have no doubt you will land on your feet.

    • Glad to share, Ashley! I LOVED that line from your post. I hope readers click on it because it was a good read. :)

      I think it’s important to put that information out there. To be honest, I’ve stopped reading articles on the job market, because they make me sad. It’s a little too much for my heart to handle. On the other hand, it’s something we need to stare straight in the face and ask ourselves, “why do I want to get a PhD?” And if you feel good where you are now, I think you should run with it. Me, I’m excited to see what’s out there once I get my diploma.

      Thanks for the support, Ashley, and for reading!

      • For you, the PhD made sense, in my opinion. You want to be a professor, and that’s how you get there. For me, it was just a thing to cross off the bucket list, and it was a bucket list I made when I was 10 years old, before I realized how much time and money it would take to do it.

        No matter what the job reports say, there’s a position out there for you. I know there is!

  2. Don’t feel bad about going into your PhD program naive about the realities not only of the job market but of the job itself. I was in a similar situation; I did my MA at the same place where I received my BA mostly because I wasn’t ready to leave yet. The professors were supportive, available, and interested in my work. So doing a PhD just made sense. I did choose an excellent university, but not necessarily the best topic. I also chose to get married and follow my husband. I’m not sure what I’d be doing right now. Perhaps living back home and not in academia at all or toiling away as an adjunct. Your narrative, I think, isn’t that uncommon. At least, it rang true and familiar to me.

  3. A lot of what you’re saying sounds very familar, and I’m in the sciences not the humanities, where I know job prospects can be even more difficult once you’ve graduated. Seems to be the state of academia as a whole these days…

  4. Liana– I can so identify with what you describe above. I used the most bizarre criteria for choosing a Graduate School, and had no idea of how academia worked until I was very far along in the process. My own self-doubts (once very much related to an unconscious assimilation of pedigree prejudices) have frequently left me feeling like an impostor. I think in my case it also mixes with survivor’s guilt, and certainly affects men and women, both white and people of color as you say above.

    A few months ago I had drinks with a number of current graduate students at my old institution, and found myself really surprised at how askew their interpretations of the job market of the last few years is, despite what I know to be an honest and supportive faculty that many of them work with. I realized that in my own capacity, which next year will also include directing my department’s graduate program, I need to work constantly to transparently communicate the realities of the academy, striking a balance between candor and empathy. And, to check in to make sure the message is being interpreted correctly.

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