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07/02/2016

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E

Thoughtful post, Marcus.

Maybe an odd question, but do you also have more traditional worries concerning savings and retirement, especially considering how long it takes academics to get themselves on a stable financial path?

another side

Marcus,
I am worried by your headline: "academia: a life of worry." I worked in a different field, far removed from the academic world, and worries were there just as well. The worry you are seeing in graduate students and junior faculty members may well be a function of the stage they are in their lives. They are entering adulthood, with all its rights and responsibilities. I am a much happier person working in academia than I was in my first career. It draws on aspects of my self that I value highly, and it is rewarding helping young people (18-22 year olds) through the transition they are going through.

Marcus Arvan

Hi another side: I totally get your point, and tried to be clear in the post itself that many areas of life--and many careers--contain great worries as well. I also tried to be clear that, despite its risks and costs, a career in academic speaks to many things I value, as well, particularly a sense of meaningful work, creativity, helping students, etc. The point of the post, rather, was to combat the view [which in my experience is common among students and people outside of academia] that, because we have "summers" and "winter breaks" off, our lives are relatively free from worry. My experience, as explained, has been just the opposite. But, I will update the title, as you suggest.

Marcus Arvan

Hi E: Thanks for your kind comment and question [not an odd one at all - on the contrary, a very good one!].

I did indeed have those traditional financial worries, though I have them much less so now. When I finished my PhD, I had a LOT of student and consumer debt and no savings or investments, none of which I was proud of. And yes, my first several years out of grad school, financial worries abounded. Fortunately, I have a very conscientious spouse who helped me to develop sound financial habits [owning a cheap car, not going to Starbucks, making breakfast, lunch, and dinner at home]. Although I once considered my debt load an impossible hurdle, the sound financial habits my spouse drilled into me enabled us to get entirely out of debt, and I began saving and investing a few years ago--as much as possible per year.

Long story short, although the financial risks of academia are serious [e.g. the horrible job-market, getting started saving/investing late, etc.], and I did indeed get a late start with saving and investing, my experience is that the best way for grappling with financial worries effectively as an academic is to START making sound daily, weekly, and annual decisions with whatever money one has as soon as one can. I never thought I could get out of debt, but my spouse was right: it was my OWN habits with money that made the mountain seem insurmountable. Once I finally got it into my thick skull that my habits needed to change, my ability to get out of debt, save, and invest--and avoid financial worry--changed dramatically for the better, despite my not making a ton of money.

skeptic

I would agree that academia is a very stressful discipline. Your identity is so wrapped up in your work, and whether your work gets anywhere is so dependent on the judgments of others. If your identity is dependent on the judgment of others, you have a lot to worry about.

I ended up having a psychological breakdown a few years out of my PhD trying to publish and attain a good job. I am now on medication.

I think to be an academic you have to be a very tough person, and perhaps kind of mad given the job market. It's not a rational decision, that's for sure.

Joe

This might sound far too quick as a rebuttal, but it's worth thinking about: worry is, by and large, the flip side of care. We worry about things because we care about them intrinsically, or as means to things we do care about intrinsically. A life without worries is a life without projects, achievements, challenges or growth. Perhaps a life lived "without a care" is the life that best suits some people. But I suspect that those people are far less common than we think.

Sara L. Uckelman

For those who classify themselves as worriers, how often do you sit down and ask yourself why you worry, or what you get out of worrying? I mean this as a genuine, non-snarky question, because at one point a few years ago -- around the time my daughter was born -- I noticed that I simply did not have the time or mental energy to devote to worrying, and it, for the most part, fell of the radar. I can look at things and objectively see that they might be things that I should be worrying about, but the most I can summon is an "eh." (Or rather, now that we live in the UK, I have whole-heartedly adapted the CBA attitude: Can't Be Arsed.) And you know what? Things still seem to be ticking along pretty much the same as before, when I did worry. Now, worry is often not rationally manipulable, so even if you did take stock of why you worry and what you get out of doing so and decided the answers were "for no good reason" and "nothing", this isn't necessarily going to lead to your being able to stop worrying! But we're philosophers, we should be able to rationally assess reasons for actions, and sometimes I feel like a lot of the worriers I now amongst philosophers don't do this.

That being said, I think I have to object to Joe's characterization of worry as being intimately linked to care. There are many things that I care about tremendously -- family, friends, students, hobbies, academic projects. It is partly because I care about them so much that I find it inefficient to waste my time on worry. I'd rather DO things, instead.

recent grad

Just a data point re: sound financial habits:

I went to grad school in a city that wasn't super expensive but which was still above the national average. My stipend varied from year to year, but it averaged less than 20k. *I saved tens of thousands of dollars by following the habits Marcus mentioned.* I know this isn't possible for everyone. I have no kids, for instance, and no debt. So I've been very fortunate. But I do want to emphasize that one can save money even in grad school. By doing so, I was shielded from some of the worry associated with the job market. For example, I didn't need to adjunct four or five classes to make ends meet. So I urge people to be financially responsible in grad school. It does make a big difference.

Marcus Arvan

recent grad: Thanks for sharing your data point!

My experience, although it happened after grad school, was very similar. With just a few simple changes in spending habits, I went from "barely able to pay the bills" to paying down tens of thousands of dollars of debt per year [and, more recently, to investing savings].

Although it may seem astonishing how simple changes of habit can make such a difference, I find it helpful to illustrate with some simple math. Suppose one cuts out [1] a $300 monthly car payment [for a very cheap car owned outright], [2] $75 monthly savings on car insurance due to having a cheaper car, [3] a $7 per morning Starbucks habit [for homemade breakfast, which is a negligible cost], [4] a $10 per day lunch expenditure [for homemade lunch], and [5] and $10-15 per day dinner expenditure.

Although this obviously simplifies a great deal [homemade breakfast, lunch, and dinner still cost something--though I'd say at least 75% less than take-out], here is the simple math of savings:

$300 x 12 = $3600 [annual car savings]
$75 x 12 = $900 [annual car insurance savings]
$7 x 365 = $2555, round to ~$2000 [breakfast savings]
$10 x 365 = $3650, round down to ~$3000 [lunch savings]
$15 x 365 = $5475, round down to ~$2500 [dinner savings-dinner is the biggest homecooked meal]

That's $12,000 annual savings right there--and ALL it took was five simple changes of habit. And of course there are all kinds of other ways to save too [couponing, only buying what is on sale/2-for-1 at the supermarket, etc.].

Anon

I do believe that 2 and 3 could be vastly improved with only a little work by the faculty in grad schools, and doing so would also do a lot to address the anxiety of the academic life in general. My own program was very laid back at one time, but a lot of the faculty thought students weren't graduating soon enough or working hard enough so they took it upon themselves to create and environment of fear, competition, and stress by simultaneously letting in a much larger class than they really needed and by making a point of cutting the funding of some grad students who hadn't finished soon enough for their liking or weren't making progress quickly enough. Now I don't think the faculty who pushed for this were simply sadists: They told themselves that they were doing this for our own good by toughening us up for the job market or getting us ready for the hyper competition of academia. But it created this environment where everyone constantly worried about their status relative to everyone else and whether we'd have funding for next year. That kind of stress and that sort of constant ranking yourself against others are both poisonous, but they're habits of mind my grad school experience instilled and they've been hard to shake. I'll admit I'm a worrier by nature, but a lot of my own anxiety stems from habits of mind that grad school inculcated or at least reinforced. I very much doubt that my own experience is unique. If anything I think what's unique is that my own department wasn't like that when I got there (we had a lot of personnel changes in a short time for various reasons, which really changed the character of the department) so I have more of a perspective on just how messed up the standard graduate school experience is.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Sara: In my experience, many of us worriers do indeed ask ourselves why we worry, and what we get out of it. Many of us also recognize that perhaps we worry more than we ought to. But, as you say, worry often does not seem rationally manipulable. One often finds oneself worrying "despite oneself." One can try to talk oneself out of worry--but, for all that, they tend to reemerge.

I do think it is interesting, though, that you note your career worries faded away once you had a child. I have heard other people say similar things--that having a child "gave them perspective." But, I cannot help but wonder whether, in many of those cases, one just finds new things to worry about: namely, the welfare of one's children, etc. [I don't mean to imply that's the case. But, having friends and family members who are relatively new parents, my sense is that pervasive concern/worry about one's children seems common].

Marcus Arvan

Hi Joe: Interesting point! Oftentimes, in my own case, I do feel like worry can be a great motivator. And indeed, perhaps worry is part of the human condition in that regard [viz. we worry about things because we care, and caring/worrying can spur us to dedicate ourselves to our projects].

Still, for all that, it can be difficult to grapple with constant worry--and, in my experience, many of the academics I know didn't know how much their lives would be plagued with worry until they were pretty far along in the discipline. For these reasons, I think it can be worth conveying these experiences to those thinking of pursuing a career in academia.

Like I said, I myself derive a great deal of meaning from what I do as a philosopher--and am very thankful for the career I have. Still, I think I would be remiss in counseling someone about grad school without giving them a fuller picture of what an academic career is actually like for those of us who have pursued it as a career.

recent grad

Thanks for the post, Marcus! In response to the idea that grad school involves worries just like any other career, consider that:

Only 50% of PhD students finish their degree: http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/07/why-do-so-many-graduate-students-quit/490094/

Whereas about 96% of med students finish their degree:
https://www.aamc.org/download/379220/data/may2014aib-graduationratesandattritionfactorsforusmedschools.pdf

This makes it *appear* that something unusual is going on in PhD programs-at least warranting further analysis. Glad to see the conversation being had!

patrick arnold

I want to use the comments in this post to voice a complaint about the blog itself. Don't get me wrong, I've benefited immensely from the posts and comments here, and thank all of the contributors for their posts. However, I also feel that this blog reinforces a divide in “academic” philosophy between those who land a TT job and those who don't. There's this perception—created by both the winners and the “losers”--that getting a TT teaching job is the end-game of getting (or trying to get) a PhD, that ending up in a non-academic career is somehow a step away from the profession—or, to build on the original post, something to constantly worry about. The reality is, many people who pursue a PhD in philosophy end up in another field altogether (some by choice), and those in power in the profession have to decide whether to consider them philosophers, or a problem to fix in the market.

For instance, consider the “real jobs in philosophy” series on this blog. I absolutely love the posts in the series, and have known some of the contributors personally. Yet many—maybe a majority—of those of us who pursue a PhD do not get such jobs as are featured in that series. It's odd, I think, to call it “real jobs in philosophy.” Are adjunct jobs not real? Is going to law school instead of five years on the market not getting a real job in philosophy? Does Elisa Hurley, who was a professor at Western Ontario and now runs Public Responsibility in Medicine and Research, not have a real job in philosophy? Does Stephanie Wykstra, who had a teaching job but left for Innovations for Poverty Action, not have a real job in philosophy? The list goes on and on.

This blog describes itself as “A safe and supportive forum for early-career philosophers.” Well, maybe you don't want to call them “real” early career philosophers. But a large number of those who work through a PhD program—and either finish or don't—do not end up in TT jobs. Many adjunct for a while but most end up in non-academic jobs. And you can either represent this group, or treat them like the plan-B, the depressing statistics, the risk you try to avoid, or just the group that you're thankful you're not.

Lots of people are calling for change in the profession—change in admissions, change in hiring, etc. Maybe we can start the change by working to represent the many in the profession who do not end up in the “real jobs for philosophers," and changing the way we talk about them.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Patrick: I appreciate the feedback, and will try to do my part to both include the kind of perspectives you mention, and not reinforce the divide between those who land TT jobs and those who don't. That being said, I'm not sure your criticism is entirely fair, and would like to invite you and others to take a more active part in the blog in advancing the issues you mention. Allow me to explain.

I have written a number of posts about how I think our discipline--particularly grad programs, but also the APA, etc.--should do a much better job preparing students for nonacademic jobs, as well as supporting and including nonacademic philosophers in the profession. Further, when it comes to the "real jobs in philosophy" series, Helen and I placed very wide calls for submissions, making it clear that we were interested in featuring as many different types of jobs in philosophy as possible--including adjuncts and individuals who work outside of academia. Unfortunately, only *one* adjunct [who also works outside of academia] answered the call and, despite repeatedly reminding the person in question, they never composed their post. Finally, I have--on a number of different occasions--reminded readers that this is intended to be a group blog for early career philosophers--that is, for grad students, adjuncts, postdocs, non-tenured professors, and people with degrees in philosophy who may or may not be working in the academic profession. Unfortunately, despite emphasizing this many times--and even encouraging people to become pseudonymous contributors--it has proven very difficult to actually get people to blog.

In short, while I think you may be right that the blog could better include the perspectives of adjuncts, philosophers outside of academia, etc., I do not think it is entirely fair to suggest that we have not tried to include multiple perspectives--including the perspective of adjuncts and early-career philosophers outside of academia. The real problem, at least as I see it, is that we haven't been able to get more grad students, adjuncts, early-career philosophers outside of academia, etc., to actually blog for us. But again, it hasn't been for lack of trying. I have continually reached out to all kinds of philosophers to contribute, and yet, even when they sign up to become contributors, most of the time they never compose any posts.

I will be very honest here, as I have before: this has long been my single biggest disappointment with this blog. It was never intended to be "my blog" or the blog of a few consistent contributors. I find it disappointing that there are appear to be so many early-career philosophers--both in academia and without--who have serious concerns about the profession, but who [despite my best efforts] do not choose to become active contributors here. The Cocoon is a place where early-career philosophers of all backgrounds can stand up, in a safe and supportive environment, to discuss and lobby for their own perspectives and concerns. And yet, for whatever reason, there are very few people who take advantage of the opportunity. Which, again, is disappointing to me. Things in this world rarely change unless and until people stand up to make their voices heard.

As such, if indeed you believe the blog could better address the perspectives of adjuncts, non-academic philosophers, etc.--and again, I am sympathetic with your concerns--I invite you, and others like you, to become contributors.

Just a Guy

Great post Marcus. This meant something to be while weighing some important decisions.

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