Eminently sensible

I’ve steered away from writing about the job market in my field (what job market is that, you might ask!), so I don’t have much to offer this year, I’m afraid.  But, Inside Higher Ed offers us a thorough and eminently sensible explanation for why a dual-career academic heterosexual couple decided to hang it up shortly after the husband started his first academic job.  “John” sums up all of the problems of his particular position:

Individually speaking, I left the academy because the job was not worth all the sacrifices, which included: relatively low-pay; a heavy 3/4 workload — with five of the seven classes outside of my field; living apart from our family/friend network in an ethnically homogeneous and Bible-belt conservative city; and working in an unsupportive department in a college that was not interested in dealing with diversity/inclusion at the administrative level. Over the course of the year, I eventually arrived at a place where I thought to myself, for low-pay and an O.K. job, I should live somewhere enjoyable and/or near family.

I know what you’re thinking:  with so many strikes against it, it’s kind of amazing that he took the job in the first place!  But, as he writes in the next paragraph, “Yes, the myths about the professoriate being a vocation or calling did implicitly influence my decision. The whole discourse about having a passion for teaching and fighting the good fight proved illusory. I was doing the grunt work for the department. And though I was once enamored with the status of being a professor, I concluded that I was paying a high price for that status.”  Go read the whole thing–both John and his wife have a lot of thoughtful comments about being some of the only brown faces in an overwhelmingly white small town.

I’m glad this couple were able to redirect their careers without too many years of job searches and too much stewing over what they were giving up.  Their decision to leave academia seems eminently sensible to me.  But, I’ve heard similar tales from people who remained in academia as well as those who took a different path.  When one is offered a tenure-track job, it’s difficult to walk away precisely because they’re so rare.  But as John’s experience indicates, the accumulated sacrifices may not be worth it.

A friend of mine used to say that you can never have the perfect job, the perfect apartment, and the perfect girlfriend or boyfriend.  You might get two out of three, but expecting three out of three is just too greedy.  If we generalize my friend’s comments as a calculus of work or professional satisfaction, satisfaction with location, and family/relationship happiness, I still don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask for two out of three.

0 thoughts on “Eminently sensible

  1. I’ll just point out that in dual-career couples, Historiann, 2 out of 3 isn’t really the math: it’s how many out of six. And there’s an additional potential difficulty–when the partners in the couple have achieved different numbers–one with 2/3 and one with 1/3, for example, because most dual-career couples like the idea of equality. And professional dissatisfaction can make one a grumpy partner, too.


  2. Historiann:

    This is where John lost me:

    “And though I was once enamored with the status of being a professor, I concluded that I was paying a high price for that status. I always joked with friends that instead of getting paid in dollars, I was paid in status.”

    One of the professors in his grad program should have sat John down and explained what they actually do all day. If he went to one of those few programs where the professors actually get some respect from the outside world, then they should have stopped soaking in the love for a few minutes and told him what the real world is like.


  3. I know I sounds like a broken record, but none of this shitte is unique to academia. If you want the best positions in elite institutions–whether they are in academia, music, sports, business, law, medicine, etc–you gotta put up with shit, because those positions are rare and desirable and fucktonnes of people want them. If you want shitte to come easy and have a guaranteed career path of professional advancement, then don’t shoot for the best postitions in elite institutions.


  4. People change jobs all the time, and many change professions because they are seeking higher pay, better work conditions or a better location. But for some reason, when people leave academia for one of the above reasons, especially if they have a t/t job, especially if their spouse also has a t/t job at the same institution, folks think they are insane. I don’t quite understand this. For some people, the nature of their job (i.e. being in academia) trumps all. For others, the equation looks different.

    And I say this as someone who has been the privileged recipient of a spousal hire, whose spouse is considering leaving academia because the job just isn’t what he wanted. No whining, no finger pointing, just making a decision about his professional life that makes sense to him. And I know that if he does leave, people will think he’s insane. Especially since he’ll be leaving join the ranks of the unemployed.


  5. My husband, a lab scientist, is in the process of realizing he will probably not become a professor. In a field where a big percentage of the jobs are his specialty (alternative energy). He knows, really, that his life will be better. As a family, we’re beginning to think about how to go back to where we want to live, which will mean new careers for both of us. Right now I have a very good TT job at an R1 with a 2/2 load in a very desirable location.


  6. I have to chime in with CPP here. All the out of work nurses, lawyers and engineers right now know that it doesn’t matter how well your program prepared you to do the work it matters if you can find the work. Is it unfair professors get “paid in status”? Sure, but that’s market forces in action.

    I think people (in general) overestimate how perfect their job has to be to make them happy. Though the problem with academia specifically is you never even consider NOT using your PhD and doing something else. But I know plenty of people with bachelor’s and master’s degrees working in careers that don’t require them, might seem low-level to some people, but they are satisfied and happy with their lives.

    Also “John and Nadia” wanted to live in a major metropolitan area, preferably in “New York or California”. There’s a reason cities cost more, and there’s a reason NY and California have two of the highest costs of living. Out west it’s called the sunshine tax, but the idea is you pay more to live there, have to compete with plenty of other people for the jobs, and are generally not compensated any higher than living in some podunk low cost part of the country. I think it’s unfair to ask dual career couples to only expect 2 out of 3, but it is fair to expect tradeoffs in life. Having kids means you sacrifice for your kids. Having been someone who married relatively young I realized that meant I couldn’t just move to whatever city I felt like, that we had to agree on the place unless I wanted to live alone. But then a lot of my friends/coworkers tell me how lucky I am to be happily married and it’s true it’s great having someone you love there to support you. But often it means limiting your horizons in some other part of your life, maybe not being able to move to some city where your spouse can’t get a job. Life has tradeoffs for everyone, I hope John and Nadia can focus on having each other and a family rather than not having the “perfect” career.


  7. Well, I was shocked that someone got through grad school NOT knowing that faculty worked 50+ hour weeks.

    I completely respect this decision — I think John and Nadia made the decision that made sense for them. And perhaps their graduate teachers should have done a better job of advising, and helping John and Nadia navigate the issues involved with being a minority outside the coasts and the liberal towns.


  8. I do think the minority aspect of this is critical. While I get where Jonathan Rees is coming from, I still think there may be an implication within minority communities that being a professor comes with some kind of status. For example, in some African American communities, teachers are held in high esteem. And it’s really not to be underestimated how miserable it can be to be one of a handful of people of color in a town. “John”‘s point was key here: more concerning than the raw numbers was the unquestioned assumptions and the rampant levels of privilege that come in places where there aren’t folks of color. I respect his decision; it’s the reason why I won’t apply to jobs in the “middle of nowhere”. I know I’ll be miserable and, unlike John, I don’t have a partner and it’s doubtful I’ll find one in that kind of environment. And more concerning than whether “John” thought the status would make up for it is why advisors continue to peddle the advice that everyone must apply for jobs everywhere as if the joy of teaching will make up for living in a hostile environment.


  9. sorry to double-post: but in response to Susan, my experience has been that advisors who aren’t minorities themselves have no conception of what it might mean to teach in some of these small towns, and never think about it being an issue. And that’s the good ones. The bad ones can end up themselves projecting their unchecked assumptions onto their minority students.


  10. I’m Sri Lankan-American (brown-skinned), and did my Ph.D. in Salt Lake City, Utah. The program had a TERRIBLE time trying to hire minority faculty — they would come, taking a tenure-track job, but then leave again within a few years. I heard it anecdotally, and I saw it happen too.

    As a student, I was fine there the first year, uncomfortable the second, and desperate to leave by the third, even though I loved my department and my compatriots and was excelling in the program. (I did leave at that point, and completed my doctoral work remotely.) Although many individual people were nice, the overall environment felt incredibly claustrophobic and hostile — not just to brown people, but also to queer people. (I’m bi, although my partner at the time was male.) And it wasn’t super-friendly to women either; I had to actually work hard to establish my authority in the classroom — not a problem I had while teaching in the Bay Area or in Chicago.

    When I finished grad school and did a national job search, I specifically excluded vast regions of the country because I didn’t want to go through that again. Nowhere super-white, or super-conservative. (My white male partner was willing to search with me, and would have gone anywhere.) And now that we have mixed-race children, I am especially wary about raising them in certain areas — there are places that I just wouldn’t go, no matter how good the job is.

    All of those factors has almost certainly contributed to my white male partner being the one with a tenured position, and my being a spousal hire with a renewable three-year contract. (It’s the super-adjunct position — benefits and an office, twice the pay of an adjunct, half the pay of a tenured professor. In theory it has a promotion ladder; we’ll see what happens.)

    I think we made the right choices for us, that optimized our happiness, given the circumstances. But that doesn’t mean I’m not occasionally bitter about those circumstances.


  11. It sounds like John and Nadia made absolutely the right choice for them and their family. Good for them that seeing that academia wasn’t the be-all and end-all.

    But like Susan, I was a little surprised that anybody could get a PhD and survive the job market thinking that being a professor was LESS work than a 9-5 job.

    Now, I don’t think that anybody should have to work a 60 or 70 hour week, but it seems like pretty much any professional job requires its holder to work a bit more than 9-5.

    Is it the advisor’s job to spell this sort of thing out, or should PhD students just pick up on this sort of thing? It seems that budding academics are expected to pick up a lot of information almost by osmosis – what could be done to address this?


  12. @Tom – yes, that’s absolutely right. In any profession, but particularly in academia, the matrix of whose career matters more, whose happiness matters more, can get incredibly complicated quickly. My partner and I both have TT jobs in good state universities with reasonable teachings loads in departments we like. My job is a “better” than my partner’s, but he has more job satisfaction overall that I do. We live 350 miles apart and have 2 children. The place where my partner lives is so small and rural it hardly even qualifies as a college town, and I can’t emphasize enough how little employment there is there for anybody, let alone a spousal academic. If I gave up my job to be where he is, I would at least temporarily evolve into a stay at home mother in a rural town that I can’t stand.

    Believe me, I’ve done my share of eye-rolling at (white, straight, partnered) colleagues complaining about College Town X they ended up in simply because it wasn’t on the California-NY axis. I don’t think everything in between is a wasteland. And while I get the arguments that some of the posters here have made about how we need to stop reifying academia and acting like leaving it is some overwhelming tragedy – as someone who is faced with that decision year after year, I can tell you it’s a wrenching one. Not because of “status” or those fabulous benefits, but because I love being an historian. I love research, I love teaching, I don’t even mind service work. I find that work profoundly fulfilling. And so does my partner. So we’re faced with the question of – will one of us have to sacrifice something that is incredible important to him/her in order for us to be happy on another level (as a family). And as frogprincess points out, the matrices only become more complex when one adds in race/ethnicity and sexual orientation, and geography.

    I’m sure that leaving academia would not destroy our lives or anything. And it’s true, people in midlife leave their career stream to start something entirely different, sometimes by choice, sometimes not by choice. But it’s important not to minimize how excruciatingly painful and scary those shifts can be, especially when you have to give up something you don’t want to give up. Especially when you know, as a woman, you are part of the group who almost always gives up profession (we know so many couples who match the statistics – t-t husband and adjunct/instructor/ gave-up-on-academia wife). And it makes perfect sense to me that someone like Mary Anne can be confident in the choices she and her family made and STILL be bitter. It’s hard not to be bitter when your “choices” are mediated not only by limited job possibilities (which as CPP points out is just part of the structure we signed up for) but by racism, sexism, and homophobia. It’s a system designed to keep out or minimize the presence of people of color, women, and queer folks, and it works partially because that’s how all society is structured in the US and partially because universities are not aggressive enough to try and change their own cultures.


  13. @FrauTech: “Having kids means you sacrifice for your kids.” Ok, yes. But when push comes to shove, it makes me angry to be asked to sacrifice for my kids (even though I am very family-focused), because I know my husband is not asked to sacrifice for them in the same way. He is a feminist, so we don’t have the internal pressure, but generally out there in the world, when somebody starts talking about sacrificing for family, it’s women who are doing the sacrificing. And that makes me angry. And it makes me not want to give one inch.


  14. Hi all–sorry to be out of it yesterday, but as many of you may have noticed, the blog was down frequently yesterday afternoon and evening.

    All of you make good points–Perpetua’s, Mary Anne’s, and Tom’s comments emphasize how complicated the “math” of location-job satisfaction-personal happiness gets when there are two people to consider. I thought John and Nadia’s story was an affirming story about their determination to find the best combination of circumstances for both of them.

    I agree with thefrogprincess and Mary Anne that the ethnicity/racial angle is critical here. While I know plenty of white scholars who are dissatisfied with their locations (and not just out of bicoastal snobbery, but out of concerns for spousal employment and climate for childrearing), the fact is that it’s a hell of a lot easier for white academics to “pass” in rural Red states. (I know from personal experience, friends! I’ve got the cowgirl boots now to prove it.) Moreover, it’s also a lot easier to date white people in these places–as thefrogprincess suggests, white people are a lot less likely to remain single forever than their nonwhite peers.

    Another angle of the story that strikes me as important is the fact that John and Nadia both decided to leave academia, which seems different from the situation that anon. and Perpetua describe. It seems like John and Nadia have a mutual-support team in abandoning academia, whereas Perpetua suggests that there’s more pressure on her to abandon her career, although she’s the one with the objectively “better” job. So the stakes for long-term relationship happiness seem higher when it’s only one partner who’s giving up academia–ironically, because you’d think that the stability of holding onto at least one job would make it easier for the other person to quit. But, hearing John’s and Nadia’s story really makes me wonder about that.


  15. @Perpetua Because I got my TT job first, because living apart with a child is off the table for us, because my husband has a PhD probably portable to industry, because my degree is in a fine arts/humanities field, because my adviser, friends, many colleagues, and dean are all family friendly and feminists… my husband seems to be getting pushed out of the academy. There are other problems not worth getting into, but suffice it to say he’s gotten an interview at a top-20 program where the search committee is chaired by a woman AND his eff-ing grad adviser mentioned his family status in the recommendation letter.

    @Historiann I just got cowboy boots too!


  16. Well it was always clear to me that it was more than a 40-50 hour a week job, and I *was* warned by professors in graduate school about what professors really did all day:
    research, publish, figure out administrative things, figure out how to teach, teach, grade. And I was warned I probably wouldn’t get a job in CA/NY.

    But my professors did NOT know what most professor jobs were like, they had only ever experienced jobs in places like Princeton, Berkeley, Ann Arbor, Madison, and so on. So they didn’t give me a realistic picture of things and I am not sure this was really their fault.


  17. P.S. It’s a great piece! And yes, sensible. And yes, it’s weird how people think you are crazy if you leave academia for any reason. (I could comment on that extensively but I need to comment on student essays right now.)

    The only weird thing I found in the piece was how “Nadia” thought being a professor would be less work than 9-5. How did she miss that piece of info — and did graduate school take up less time than 9-5 (was she fully funded and not teaching, is it possible for it to be less than 9-5 then … maybe so …)?


  18. I wonder if the 9-5 thing was just badly expressed- in that as a PostGrad, I knew that academics worked a lot of hours, but I also thought they had a degree of flexibility in their schedules. So, as a student, if I need to take a morning off mid-week to do something, or wanted to work from home for a few days, then that was fine as I could always make up the hours in the evening (or rather I worked so many hours that I felt no guilt about taking time off during the day). What is not clear until you have a job is that between service and teaching, you often have to be around campus during the day, and it becomes more and more difficult to find time in your schedule to take a morning off, or to work for home for a few days. So, you not only have to work a lot of hours, your flexibility (the pay-off for the long hours) becomes increasingly non-existant.


  19. FA–yes, that’s how I read Nadia’s comments. My schedule is flexible, but what that means is that yes, I can take a yoga class at 4:30 in the afternoon, but I must be “flexible” in getting up at 4 a.m. to write for 2 hours before the rest of the household wakes up. (I’m sure there are those who plan it out better, but that’s what I did a few mornings a week for a whole semester so that I could finish my book revisions.)

    And then, when you factor in the fact that John worked on a small college campus where more face time was expected, PLUS the burden put on nonwhite scholars to show up for events, cheerlead, and help the college look “diverse,” that’s a lot of time in which he wasn’t working on his class preps and grading or on his research.


  20. And yes, it’s weird how people think you are crazy if you leave academia for any reason.

    Heh. Where I work, we would admire your courage.


  21. Small, late note… on the 9-5 thing. I think part of it is that it’s often easier in grad school to not think of it as a 9-5 job, because it isn’t (esp. if you don’t have kids).

    You may work crazy total hours but when you do it is REALLY up to you — you can binge and then sleep in for two days; you can do 3/4 your work between 11PM and 4AM if that’s what works for you. But with a job and kids and the scheduling demands that puts on you, you have to get most if not all of your work done during normal working hours, and then you notice that (especially with vague, amorphous but very, very real research expectations) that you can’t actually get it all done in that time.

    My experience may not be typical, and I’m sure it reflects my social positioning in many ways, so this may not be true for everyone, but I have certainly experienced it that way — the nearly complete loss of weekends as work time has been one of the biggest adjustments to parenthood that I’ve had to make. But even without kids, the job structures your time in ways that grad school doesn’t, making the “job-ness” of academia much more apparent.


  22. I think that’s well put, JJO. Grad school wasn’t exactly an idyll for me, but I sure do miss all of that “me” time! Even people who aren’t raising children can find themselves needed to care for sick spouses and/or aging parents. It seems to be the experience of middle age for a lot of people I know (and sometimes people are caring for both their children and elders.)


  23. During my several years in grad school as a gay man in a small, conservative Southern town (and in a hard science field filled with stubborn, bigoted white men), I can certainly relate to John and Nadia’s plight. Thank you for linking to this story.


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