I want to preface this post by saying that on balance I enjoy my job more days than not, and that I feel very lucky to have the job I do. Indeed, I would add that I find my work very meaningful. I write on topics I care about, make arguments I believe in, often can't wait to get to the park in the morning to start writing, and feel lucky to be an educator in a world so desperately in need of it. All that being said, I think it is important to be honest--particularly to those who might consider going to grad school--what our lives as academics are actually like: the costs, risks, benefits, etc.
- The consistently horrific job-market, in which there are not nearly enough jobs for qualified PhDs.
- The significant probability of attrition from grad school. i.e. not finishing one's PhD even after 7-10 years.
- Recent findings on the mental health toll grad school takes on many students.
Long story short, we all know--and should presumably tell anyone interested in grad school in philosophy--that grad school carries immense risks indeed. But, are these the only risks? In my experience, not by a long shot. Another, less-discussed issue is the long-term toll that a career in academia can take on one's psyche, even for those who finish the degree, get permanent jobs, etc. I think these long-term tolls are worth discussing because, at least in my experience, many people [e.g. undergraduates, grad students, people outside of academia, etc.] seem to dramatically underestimate them.
This morning I got to thinking about worry--that is, just how much a career in academia seems to be, for many people, myself included, a life of near-constant worry. I got to thinking about this because I am at a study date with some PhD students in another field [long-time readers may recall that my spouse is a PhD candidate at another university in another field]. I have known many of these students since they entered their program--and the changes I have seen many of them go through ring disturbingly true to my own experience. Their [highly-ranked] program is incredibly well-run, and their graduates generally very successful--and yet, time and again, I have seen students who started out as gregarious, happy-go-lucky people descend into an increasing morass of worry: worry about whether they were measuring up to faculty expectations; worry about whether they are the "worst student in the program"; worry about comprehensive exams; worry about not publishing; worry about the revise-and-resubmit they just received; worry about the job market; etc. In brief, I see a life of near-constant worry. And it is very, very familiar.
When I reflect on the past two decades of my life--most of which have been in academia--the story is the same, only far longer. First, there was worrying about grad school applications and the GRE. Then, once I was in grad school, there was worrying about whether I belonged in my program; whether my program's faculty thought I was terrible; whether I would ever pass my exams; whether I would ever come up with a viable dissertation; whether I would ever finish my dissertation; and yes, whether I would fail out of my program with a great amount of student debt and no degree to show for it. But that was only the start. Then there was worrying about the job-market for seven years. Once I got my first temporary job, there was worrying about whether I would still have a job the next year; worrying that I wasn't publishing enough; worrying that I wasn't publishing in good enough journals; etc. Then there was worrying about my student evaluations every semester, worrying whether I would get any interviews; when I got interviews, worrying about the interviews themselves; when I got on-campus interviews, worrying about the visits; after the interviews, worrying about whether I would get the job [which, on several occasions, was no]. Finally, after many years, I got a permanent job. But, did the worrying stop there? No. I do worry less than I once did, that's for sure; I no longer have to worry like I once did whether I will have a job next year, whether I will not be able to give my spouse and family any semblance of career or financial stability, etc. But now there are new worries: worries I won't get tenure; that I'm not doing a good enough job at various things; worries that I am not taking on enough at my university; worries that I am taking on too much; worries that a book I poured my heart and soul into for years will get terrible reviews; worries that I am being a bad husband/son by worrying all the time; etc.
Does all of this sound terrible? Notice that I am only giving one side of the story here. I'm focusing on a particular negative--worry--setting aside many positives [which I mentioned above: doing something that feels meaningful, being an educator, etc.]. There are also, in my experience, some [relatively rare?] people whose careers in academia do not appear to be beset with constant worry [I have known a few spectacularly successful academics for whom everything seemed to go right, and who always seemed supremely confident--though, again in my experience, they seem to be few]. I also don't want to overstate things. Many parts of life appear to give rise to persistent worry. For instance, I've heard more than a few parents [including my own] say that they constantly worry about their children--whether their toddlers are developing on schedule, whether their kids are doing well in school, falling in with the wrong crowd; and, when their children are adults, whether their adult lives are going well. I also hear from people who work in other industries--I have friends and relatives who work in the energy industry, apparel industry, music industry, photography, etc.--that their lives are full of worry too. And, of course, these are all "first world problems." Worrying about one's career prospects is one thing. Many other people in the world have far worse worries: worries about hunger, war, massacre, etc. In too many ways to count, those of us who merely have our children and careers to worry about are the lucky ones. But, for all that, the worries we have are a reality--a reality, I think, that we should honestly convey to anyone who's considering a career in academia. A career in academia, for all its risks, can have considerable benefits [some of which I mentioned above]. But, for all that, its risks are not merely confined to a terrible job-market, grad school difficulties. It is also, for some of us, a life of worry. And anyone considering it as a career should, in my view, know that heading in.