Sunday, July 30, 2006

The Dangers (?) Of Academic Blogs

When I got into blogs a year and a half ago, I was entering my last semester of college and staring out into the void of What Am I Going To Do Now? Since I'm such a nerd and such a bookworm, I was really thinking I'd go to grad school and become an English professor. Therefore, I made a conscious decision to read a lot of academic blogs (a number of which are linked in the sidebar). Not only was I genuinely interested in the subjects they write about, but I thought it would give me a better idea of the lay of the land of my possible career.

Reading the academic blogs, though, had an unforeseen side-effect: I realized I was totally not cut out to walk amidst the groves of academe. Every workplace or institution is full of politics and petty jealousies, that is human nature, but the sheer viciousness and bloodthirstyness of academia is astounding. And I realized that isn't all reading and Thinking Thoughts, but a lot of bureaucratic bullcrap, often not very well-paid. The job market being what it is, there's no guarantee you'll even have a job in the end; even if you get a job, you'll probably have to move around a lot, which, for a person of a change-averse character such as mine, isn't a very attractive prospect. The grad school experience sounds absolutely dire, incestuous and emotionally abusive. All of this is Not For Me, so I decided that academia just wasn't in the cards.

Though I've now gone off the idea, I do wonder if my reasons were good. I mean, the point of blogs is, partly, to bitch and moan. And I might not have read a representative sample. Maybe most professors are happy and contented, had a great time at grad school, had no problems writing their thesis, find a job easily, love teaching, while still doing meaningful research, like their colleagues, and enjoy a happy and balanced home life. I kinda doubt it, but it could be possible. Did I let the academic blogs turn me off something I should have gone for? Just thinking.


Anonymous said...

I'd at least consider going in for a MA, depending on your financial situation. The potential debt may be too much of a hassle, but you may find that you do have a taste for academia - or find for sure that you do not.

Although many people just see the MA as a formality/trial by fire before the PhD, especially in the Humanities, I think it's a good resume builder. Also, even in my unhelpful department, there are a few opportunities to build connections or find excellent internships and jobs outside academia proper.

jo(e) said...

That's an interesting question. I do think people tend to write about stuff that's going wrong ... which might give a warped view of things. Writing about a balanced life of contentment is much harder.

For the record, I am an academic and I love my job, but I would also agree that there is an awful lot of petty politics in academia. My own daughter is an English major, and I am not sure I would encourage her to become an English professor, even though it's something she's be good at.

Names said...

Well, I do spend a great deal of time complaining about my grad school experience it is worthwhile.
Now going for your PhD...that is a whole other kettle of crap. That is where the real academic bullshit starts.
But the Masters is worth it. Consider it a testing ground.

Dr. Richard Scott Nokes said...

My usual advice to people considering grad school is this: unless you have an obsessive NEED to get your degree, don't do it. So, if you feel like you can't be happy until you fulfill your dream of being an English professor, go for it. Otherwise, your energies would be better spent elsewhere.

You also wrote: "Every workplace or institution is full of politics and petty jealousies, that is human nature, but the sheer viciousness and bloodthirstyness of academia is astounding." This is especially true for English departments (though I'm not really sure why). I can't speak to the issue of bloodthirstyness at grad school, as I had a great experience at grad school, but I have been told by some of my professors that I went during the Golden Age of grad student cameraderie.

Do I hate being an English professor? No, I love it, because though it has its fair share of "bureaucratic bullcrap," it also offers more opportunity to think (cue music) Deeeeeep Thoughts! (echo, echo, echo!).

By the way, if the job market is the big fear, go into Composition -- it is one of the least bookish of the fields, but it offers jobs galore.

Maxine Clarke said...

I would venture to suggest that it would be a big mistake to base your views of academia solely on blogs. Most of them (and they ones I know are scientists) have never heard of blogs or if they have, would be too busy being academics (or nerds as you might call them) to have one of their own.
There are lots of scientist blogs of course. But they are written/owned by a tiny minority of scientists.
And I think that backbiting, pettiness and politics are human nature, not profession-specific.

Jeff said...

Frank, I would never tell you whether you should or shouldn't pursue an academic career, but I can tell you that becoming an English professor is not the only (or even best) option for all die-hard bookworms. Most of my fellow grad-school dropouts have gone on to satisfying and sometimes lucrative careers in teaching, publishing, and library science, among other fields. If you choose not to pursue an academic career, you have plenty of other options. You may even find, as I have, that some non-academic employers are more tolerant of your quirks and quicker to reward your intellectual curiosity.

I agree with Chad, though, that a Master's program is a good way to test your interest firsthand, as long as you can avoid incurring serious debt in the process.

For what it's worth, I'm envious of the information and diverse opinions available to you in 2006, courtesy of the blogosphere. When I first plunged into grad school in 1993, which wasn't really that long ago, it was harder to learn about the professional realities of an academic career. In fact, my classmates and I were receiving career counseling from profs who had had no contact with the job market for years or even decades and who eagerly repeated rumors that a "professor shortage" was imminent!

Frank said...

A big thank you to you all for all your advice. I really appreciate getting other people's thoughts on this issue.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

I'd read Michael Drout on this! And Tim Burke. But FWIW, I liked grad school, for the most part. But I wouldn't do it unless you know what you're getting into.

Anonymous said...

As an academic, I would strongly urge you *not* to rely on blogs as an accurate representation of academic life or grade school. As others have noted, the sample is overweighted with the disgruntled and sometimes the lunatic, while all of us satisfied scholars have little interest in writing blogs. I had a similar experience to you--I had been reading the first person columns about the academic job search in the Chronicle, and became convinced that the job market was hopeless and vicious besides. My advisor was taken aback by my Chronicle-fed cynicism, and urged me to go on the market anyway. Unsurprisingly, I encountered none of the nasty committees or competitive candidates so often described in those columns--and got a great job.

If you want to get a good read on academics, talk to some--your former professors, prospective advisors, and grad students. Don't get sucked into the weird and insular worldview of these blogs. (The high proportion of academic blogs featuring cat photos should tip you off. . . )

k8 said...

As a compositionist, I want to respond to the post suggesting you go into comp/rhet because of job opportunities.

First, I'm not sure how comp/rhet is less 'bookish.' We read different types of texts - we often work with nonfiction. Some of work with student writing, and some of us do work with fiction.

Second, don't go into the field unless you feel passionately about it. Grad school is tough. It is a lot of hard work. And if you aren't passionate about that work, the possibility of a job in that area is little comfort.

Anonymous said...

I would like to think that your impression is based on selection effects- academics self-select into the blogging community based on strong opinions about their work, often negative. Grad school is tough, but I generally enjoyed the intellectual aspect of it, and being a professor is far better and less stressful, even on the tenure track.

Moreover, I've found at my mid-level state university that my colleagues are very pleasant and pretty balanced people. They garden, are good parents, drink beer (not wine), and generally enjoy themselves.

I think your potential happiness as a professor would depend on your choice of school type, your ambitions/need for prestige (being a professor is prestigious enough for me, no need to be at Harvard), and your tolerance for an unstructured work life.

I have noticed that a disproportionate number of people complaining in Inside Higher Ed, the Chronicle, etc are English grad students and professors, though, which may be a symptom of its particularly rough job market.

I know this doesn't really help much, but I say go for the MA in a place where most people continue to the PhD (with no readmission necessary), then make the choice after you finish the MA. If you leave, you can make a decent living as an English teacher, writer, etc.

If you don't try it out, you'll always be one of those people who says "I thought about becoming a professor- don't know why I didn't go for it..."

Teacher lady said...

I'm in a doc program, and it's not the program that kicking my *ss - it's the teaching part. I really, truly like the professors in my department. Except for one particularly self-important professor (who seems to be disliked by all her colleagues), most of my profs are "regular people." Married, kids, dogs, real "lives" outside academe. Just like "anonymous" above - it's all very "Call me Joe," and not "Call me Dr. RosenRosen." I say if you can get an assistantship or fellowship, at least give it a whirl for a year.

Chris Conway said...

Hey Bourgeois Nerd- you expect anonymous bloggers to write about what they like about their jobs? Now that would be truly boring. Consider the medium here, and what makes blogs popular. Also, I second what Dr. Nokes says.

Anonymous said...

Believe me... I've been through plenty of grad school(s) and the whole experience is awful. If you have the finances to go without becoming beholden to petty bureaucrats and--unbelievably!--jealous tenured profs (why would they be jealous of a grad student?!), then you might enjoy the experience. I had this idea that I'd be having deep conversations about literature and spending hours in the library pursuing the fine threads of ideas. Instead, I've been treated as a malcreant teenager (not as a middle-aged adult woman with hefty professional credentials), openly mocked for having a learning disability, and bored out of my skull by poseurs who consistently cite the same three authors out of the many we all had to read as undergrads.

It's costing me a fortune, not to mention my physical health. If I weren't half-finished and hauling ass, I'd tell them to stick it and go back to making good money in the profession I love.

I'm 99% sure that I won't return to academe after graduation. Incidentally, it's the comp-rhet people who have ruined intellectual rigor in the discipline. Unless you relish giving hollow grades to cheating children of helicopter parents in order to keep your numbers up, stay away from that half-baked faux-scientific bunch of petty bureaucrats.

Anonymous said...

I'd definately consider going in for a MA, depending on your what your bank account looks like. The potential debt may be too much of a hassle, but you may find that you do have a taste for academia - or find for sure that you do not.

Although many people just see the MA as a formality/trial by fire before the PhD, especially in the Humanities, I think it's a good resume builder. Also, even in my unhelpful department, there are a few opportunities to build connections or find excellent internships and jobs outside academia proper.

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