Over at Talking Philosophy, the blog associated with The Philosophers' Magazine, Mike LaBossiere has written a piece entitled, "Why You Should (Probably) Not Be a Professor." In brief, LaBossiere gives many of the standard warnings about the career (and life) risks involved in attempting an academic career: student debt, poor job prospects, low salaries, high workloads, etc. These are all good and important things to warn people about. Given the risks, one should be very careful about attempting a career in academic. One should enter into it with eyes wide open, knowing the risks and knowing the attritition and placement record of whatever graduate program one considers entering. That being said, in my experience when people like Bossiere warn people of the risks of a career in academia--and sometimes actively deter people from choosing it as a career path--I worry that they tend to focus overwhelming on the negatives. Indeed, I can't help but find it a bit curious that in my experience, people who warn others of the risks of being an academic tend to preface their remarks in a similar manner as Bossiere. Bossiere begins his post with the caveat, "While I like being a professor, I am obligated to give a warning to those considering this career path." I've heard many other people say similar things, and it always strikes me as strange. The person is admitting they like/love their job, but then they tell others not to pursue it! Yes, of course there are great risks to pursuing an academic career, just as there are risks in attempting to become a professional baseball player, dancer, or musician. But as in those cases, there can be great benefits too, benefits that should not be ignored or downplayed but (I fear) often are ignored and downplayed by those issue such stern warnings. So, allow me to catalog some of those benefits--at least some of the benefits I have experienced--and say a little bit about what I think should determine one's decision about whether or not to pursue an academic career, given the risks involved.
Let me begin by stating up-front what I think are good grounds for pursuing a career in academic, despite the risks. I think, provided one has a reasonable chance of success (i.e. one gets into a program with a good placement record, etc.), one should base one's choice on how much one loves philosophy and teaching--on how deeply they are a part of your person and values. I don't think it's a good idea to go into academia because you "want the life of a professor." The latter are the people who (I think) should heed the warnings that people like Bossiere give. For, no matter what, there's a serious chance you won't get what you want. You might not get that life--the life you imagined. I know I haven't. I have been through many serious ups and downs in my career. My career has gone nothing like I imagined it would. I have wondered many times whether I should have made a different decision. And if I had gone into this solely because I wanted the life of a professor, I think I would be miserable. I think I would regret my choice.
I don't regret my choice to pursue a career in academic, and for one overwhelming reason: I truly love it; it's who I am. I love philosophy, and I love teaching. I look forward to waking up every morning and writing. And I feel like I'm making a small but important difference in the world when I see students learn and grow. Not everything is rosy, of course. Just like a marriage--just like the rest of life--these things I love are not always easy. Sometimes they seem impossibly hard. There's frustration, disappointment, dashed hopes, etc.--and again, far more of these things than I ever expected. Through it all, there have been two things that have kept me going: love of philosophy, and feeling like I can make a small difference in the classroom. And so, I say, it should probably come down to that. If you're looking for money, summers off, the "life of a professor", I don't think I would advise it. The risks you won't get those things are too great, and much more likely than you are apt to think (we all tend to think we will be the exception, after all! It's other people who won't get jobs, not us!). Just as with pursuing a career as a professional athlete, musician, or artist, there's one reason to pursue a career in academia in spite of it all: because it's who you are in your bones--a philosopher, a teacher, a psychologist, a historian, etc.
Or so say I. What so you, my fellow Cocooners?