Monday, May 23, 2005

 

Alternate Paths

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about ways that people I know (or have reached through this blog) have found ways to get around the awful entry-level job market in academia. A few examples:

- a bio/chem. postdoc who picked up web design on the side, and used that skill to become indispensable to her principal investigator. Instead of half a job, she now has one and a half.

- a struggling assistant prof. in the social sciences who took some time to study programming language, and is now designing his own program to change the kind of data that can be gathered and analyzed. He has already drawn the attention of his state government, even as his home department continues to dicker.

- a tenured historian of ideas at Mediocre State who has accepted a high-level administrative position at an Australian university. His marching orders are to step up recruitment of students from China who don’t want to bother hacking their way through the worsening thicket of US immigration laws.

- an English Ph.D. with a J.D. (same person!) who adjuncted her way through New England, catching on as a visiting prof in the Mid-Atlantic. Her chemical engineer Ph.D. partner managed to navigate his way to tenure at You’ve Heard Of It New England University by deftly dancing around an idiot dean.

Of course, my own story (social science doctorate; adjunct at proprietary; move to full-time faculty and then administration at same proprietary; move to admin. position at community college) is similarly oddball.

I think that what all of these share (besides luck) is a combination of tenacity and a willingness to adapt. The first step is letting go of the idea that anything short of the Golden Path (grad school to assistant-prof-at-good-university to recruited-by-Ivy) represents failure. It doesn’t. The grad-school ethic that says it’s better to adjunct at Ivy U. than to make a living at Forgettable College is just plain wrong.

There’s just too much talent being wasted out there. As one correspondent noted, academia is coming to resemble the competitiveness of the music industry, but without the payoff.

Your thoughts?

Comments:
I'm in my 30's and currently attending community college. I've always dreamed of working in the academy and this post reminds me that there are avenues even for someone with my eclectic background. Personally, I think it would make me a better professor/administrator since I would have a better understanding of where students were coming from.
 
I ws very tempted to apply for a dean job, and Senior Colleague at Better than an Ivy even suggested it as a way of padding my CV while I beefed up my publications, because apparently in some parts of the world, Deanship is actually a valid alternate step to more senior faculty positions. There was a lot of support though, from Doktorvater and SC, as well as many colleagues. But the search was cancelled, so I'll never know. I do think that CC deanship might be far too stressful, considering the ridiculously small amount of time off.
 
Please 'scuse awkward grammar -- lost a sentence somewhere ...
 
I just came back from a colloquium where I got nervous about being from a community college. however, my research was fine and well received and later, over meals, we get to talking. I'm not even full-time permanent at my school (which sometimes causes me great pain, but usually I've managed to find the really good reasons to stay) and my conditions are often equally conducive to a fulfilling scholarly life as some of the folks I talked to. we have research money (pooled and underutilized so I get more than some of the tt folk at other schools). teaching 4/4 is not so different - turns out a lot of folks are doing that. and, of course, being in a union school helps since the pay is decent.

my real difference in the past year or so is in attitude. I enjoy what I do, I choose to do a lot of research and conferences and some publishing, and I'm pleased with the location since it works very well for 3 other people in my family.
 
"my real difference in the past year or so is in attitude. I enjoy what I do, I choose to do..."

That's the key, IMO. There is something in the academic culture that encourages what our host has called being a "good girl"...wait for others to give you what you deserve, and don't try risky or innovative career strategies.

That is a recipe for frustration and failure, and to hell with it. Figure out what you want, choose the best path to getting you there (including a path that leads you out of academia, if it comes to that), and go. And if the traditionalists sneer, so be it.
 
"coming to resemble the music industry but w/o the payoffs"?

What about the salaries of the C. Wests, and the book revenues of the Carl Sagans and Steven Levitts?

Maybe not quite the same order of magnitude of Mick Jagger (late of the London School of Economics), but still not too shabby from my lowly perspective...
 
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