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You are a Star Athlete

I find it useful to compare the life of an early career academic to the life of a professional athlete. Imagine a basketball player. They excel in high school, play at the D-1 college level, go undrafted in the NBA/WNBA draft, and then go play in the G-League or outside of the United States while they try to break into the NBA or WNBA. This is analogous to an academic kicking butt as an undergraduate, going to a PhD program and getting their PhD, but not getting a TT job over the first few years on the market, and instead working some NTT positions while they try to land a TT job.

The casual, only-watches-the-NBA-Finals person would say that the player playing in, for example, Turkey is "trash" or "no good". Meanwhile, if this casual fan played a pickup game against this player, the player would destroy them. The casual fan would be lucky to get a shot off, let alone score once. The casual fan's perspective is warped, unjustified, and not worth taking seriously. Similarly, the non-academic has no idea how 'good' you are at philosophy, history, etc. They have no idea how much work went into you just being able to support yourself through academic work. They are like the casual sports fan sitting on the couch pounding potato chips calling a bench NBA player a "bum" or saying that WNBA players aren't real athletes. Imagine such a person whenever your family member's comments are getting to you because that is who they are.

-a five-year NTT'er who got a TT job

Ba humbug

I deeply empathize with OP's experience, as it is quite similar to my own. I admire OP for interpreting such questions charitably, as a case of non-academics simply not understanding what life in academia is like, but I can't help but wonder how many of these questions (in my own life and the OP's) are really coming from a place of simple ignorance, as opposed, say, to willful ignorance or even antipathy towards academia as "not real work". I don't know OP's background, but in my own experience, a lot of these types of questions seem to come from a certain "we need more welders and fewer philosophers" (Ted Cruz) type of attitude. Part of the reason they seem to be motivated by more than simple ignorance is how often they are repeated by the same person, i.e., they know the answer (unless they have truly terrible memories), but the question is not really about the answer, it's about making a point. One example from my own life: every time I visit my father (several times a year), he asks how long until I'm done with my PhD. Even though the answer has never changed (I'm about a year ahead of schedule in a six-year program), and I remind him that the average length of time to completion for a humanities PhD is something like seven years, he acts surprised and usually follows with a comment like "you'll be almost 40 by the time you get out of school and get a real job." Like OP, I find this especially frustrating because I work very hard at my job, and by all objective academic standards am doing quite well for where I am in my career. There seems to be a willful refusal to acknowledge the obvious difference between an undergrad paying to take classes, and a last-year PhD candidate making about 30K a year, doing research, teaching courses, etc.

The cases of being asked the same questions by the same people over and over again, even when they don't obviously come from some such agenda, are, at a minimum, baffling. I can't tell you how many family members ask me every year if I have loads of free time now that the class I teach is over for the semester, usually connected with an expression of disappointment that I won't be able to come to all the holiday events the family has planned over the holiday break once I tell them (again) that the holiday break is literally my busiest time of year. I would like to interpret these questions charitably, but is it really that hard to understand that PhD students and professors do loads more than just teach?

Thanks OP and Marcus for opening up a space to vent. The space between the semesters is definitely the hardest for me. You're grading from the last semester, preparing lesson plans for the next, dealing with the loads of applications for various things this time of year, etc., but at the same time my kids are out of school and there's the guilt of not spending more time with family and the lack of understanding from many family members that no, I don't have a month off to just hang out. Ok, rant over.

Anon Postdoc

I'm fortunate not to have family of this kind I have to deal with myself, but perhaps the following will help someone: Don't tell people you are on the job market as though you don't have a job. Emphasise how you already have a job (a postdoc, a permanent non-TT, a paid PhD place, or whatever) but you are out there looking for a better one at the same time.

There are a lot of people with normal (usual caveats) jobs who are doing that: lots of people work 40 hours a week in their office job at company A while also applying for better jobs at companies B and C, or trying to get a promotion at A. Lots of builders work as contractors on a short term basis while trying to get a permanent job with a large building firm. That is basically the situation you are in.

Perhaps this is just a variation on the Star Athlete story, but maybe it will be easier for some people to empathise with (since the Star Athlete story might invite the idea that those people who didn't get drafted straight away should just give up).

Also, I know you as an individual can't really make a big difference to this, but North American's might take a leaf out of the book of Europe, Australia and the UK and stop calling it "school". School finished for me when I was 18, then I went to university. And it's not grad school, it's doing a PhD. I think the terminological distinction does actually help people conceptually distinguish them and respect the later stages as something more serious.


'Ba humbug':

Let me suggest one of those charitable interpretations you seek. Maybe your family is expressing (perhaps awkwardly and unhelpfully) concern for you and the professional choices you've made, and trying to nudge you onto what they see as a better path.

By way of comparison, we've all known people in bad relationships, destined to fail. Yet we 'cannot' simply say, 'Why are you still with her? Can't you see she's awful, and terrible for you? You'd be so much better if you moved on!' Even if that's all true, it's not socially acceptable to say so, it's unhelpful, and it will probably just cause a big fight. So instead one makes oblique, passive-aggressive comments to try to get the person to come to this conclusion for him or herself. I'm not saying this is a good way to express concern. Just that it is common.

Something similar may be going on here. Your family may be wondering: Why are you doing this to yourself? Do you even like the people you work with? Why are you making so little money? Aren't you being exploited for your labor? Is there even going to be a permanent job available to you at the end of all of this? Will it be any good? And you can't even take time off at the holidays to see your family--what's up with that? You're smart--wouldn't you and your family be better off if you did something else?

In this way, their questions are not motivated by ignorance or lack of care, but just the opposite.

Greg Stoutenburg

I stopped telling people "I teach philosophy" when I was probably in my first year of graduate school, because the conversation would invariably go awry: from requests to interpret dreams to indications that I can diagnose mental illnesses, it was clear that no one knew what "I teach philosophy" meant.

Even in 2022, most high school graduates don't go to college. And a higher percentage of graduates go to college now than ever did before now. So it's highly unlikely that someone without insider knowledge - which is, percentage-wise, hardly anyone - will understand specifics of academic appointments.

I'd take the tack suggested by Anon Postdoc and answer questions about work by saying that you do have a job, and find a way of glossing over what it is.

I never ended up in a TT position. My job title is Product Analyst. If someone asks what I do for work, I certainly don't unpack the meaning of "Product Analyst" (whatever that is): I'll just tell them that I look at how users engage with my company's software tool to try to make the user experience better.

When we teach, we do a lot of contextualizing for students, based on what we expect them to be able to understand. We can do the same at parties, with friends, with family, with strangers, etc.

Works Less Hard Than You

Unconstructive criticisms typically involve two elements:

(1) A testable descriptive claim, e.g. "You don't have a job," "You're fat," "You're not working hard."

(2) A normative and untestable claim, e.g. "You are a waste of space," "You're a bad person," "You're worthless."

A lot of people respond to criticism by defending themselves against (1), such as by citing evidence to the contrary or challenging evidence that the critic provides.

However, in my experience, the trick to drawing the sting out of such criticisms is to separate these two. Rhetorically, this is almost always devastating. For example, you can focus on the truth in the criticisms:

"Yes, you wouldn't believe how much I'm struggling on the job market!"

"Yes, I'd really like to lose weight!"

"It's true that I could be working harder."

Such a response implicitly separates (1) and (2). Since (2) only has plausibility insofar as it is confused with claims like (1), this undermines your critic's entire position. It also implicitly rejects their attempt to take a stance of normative judgement towards you: they have a right to their factual opinion (which may or may not be mistaken) but they have no right to sit in judgement on you or anybody else. Human beings have the capacity to sometimes judge actions, objects, and even beauty contests, but not people.

After you reject their assumption of a normative authority, they will normally either back down or amplify. If they amplify, you can pull the same trick again, until the absurdity of what they are doing is apparent even to themselves. Try as they might, a critic will never be able to derive the normative claim from any descriptive "facts" they might cite. (Is this evidence for Hume versus Searle?)

It's also useful to separate a desire for approval from a need for approval. You might want your family, friends, or even Ted Cruz to approve of your career, but you don't need it for anything fundamentally important. And while "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me" is not quite true, it is true that you have to give credibility to the other person's normative authority in order for their disapproval to hurt you, and in many cases this is a bad idea.


Full empathy with OP's post. There was a stint a while back while I was in my postdoc where at my in-law's thanksgiving, folks would make a game of going around and taking turns guessing what it was that I did ("Robots?" "Ethics student?" "Logic guy?" -- full disclosure, my SO got much the same light-teasing treatment, as they're also an academic and they come from a family with many siblings and a tendency towards light teasing).

At the same time, a warning of sorts: it doesn't necessarily get better. I am now lucky enough to have a TT job, and lo-and-behold this year I got asked "how's school going?" At this point, I don't take any offence. Having a TT job teaching philosophy inures me to plenty of ill will (heck, I get paid to read and write, it's a pretty good deal). If you're in the position where your family (extended or otherwise) is asking these kinds of questions, then I'm not sure if having a run-of-the-mill TT job would sate them. Then again, that's their loss.


Small correction: The welders and philosophers comment was Rubio's. And Rubio later took it back.

Not a competition, but

I received an offer that's a really good fit to me. My in laws started criticising the climate, demographic composition, and the population size of the destination. They also cited QS saying that it's a poorly ranked university. All in front of my 3 year old child, urging me to quit and apply for public service jobs. And now my child has started saying that she doesn't want to live in a cold and rainy town. I'm just glad that I will move away from them and never have to move back.

Ba Humbug

@AnonMidLevel: One does want to interpret friends and family charitably when they seem churlish or even downright disrespectful, but charitability (at least for me) requires a minimal plausibility, so thank you for that plausible charitable interpretation.

@Billy: thanks for the correction. And kudos to Rubio for being willing to change his mind and amend his comment.


@Not a competition — Congrats on the good-fit offer! That's wonderful, and anyone who doesn't recognize that can, uh, kick rocks I guess.

@Works Less Hard — Your delivery of this sort of thing must be different from mine in some way I can't quite imagine, because my experience with this sort of thing is that people who confuse factual and normative claims in the way you describe typically just won't notice that you're choosing to affirm only the factual claim (— and what if it's false?) and will simply assume that you're capitulating to everything they said (and plenty they didn't). — (Also, there's a long tangent here I'm going to avoid, but "You're fat" coming from an unfriendly interlocutor is typically a normative claim whose descriptive truth is pretty much entirely beside the point, *and* imho it's probably not worth wasting your energy on engaging with that sort of thing, unless your response is simply a rhetorical "so what.")


@OP — I'm not sure how helpful this will be, but I'm honestly not inclined to interpret that sort of thing charitably. Maybe my experience has been idiosyncratic, but so far pretty much anyone I've talked to about my job assumes that being a "professor" is just one equally prestigious job (the possible exception being that professors at Ivy Leagues and the like are even more impressive), and are confused or even disturbed when I tell them pretty much anything about the job market and career trajectory for academics. If someone said those sorts of things to me (currently a VAP at a "good institution") I would take them to be not only ignorant but actually at least sort of unnecessarily and intentionally mean, since most people would have to make an effort to learn some things about the field that they didn't already know in order to put you down like that.

Of course, I suppose if your own description to them of what you do is something like "I'm a bottom-rung precariously-employed early-career wannabe" rather than "I am a professor at [institution]," they may just be picking that up and running with it in a way they mistakenly think is harmless. But if they're just ragging on you unprovoked, I don't see why we should take up an attitude of benevolently pitying their ignorance or something.

OP holiday hater

OP here. Thanks, everyone, for some good commiseration and further points. I really appreciate your hearing me out as I complain :)

@Ba humbug, you are quite right that the charitable interpretation might not be the truest or best one. @Not a competition, absolutely, it is good to remember (1) that getting TT jobs doesn't solve this problem (it is not a problem that can be solved, I suppose), and (2) some circles of family and friends can be far, far crueler than mine.

@RH, you make a lot of good points, but I would say (in my experience at least) that it is wrong to take the default mode of response to professordom from non-professors to be one of awe and reverence. Certainly some respond this way (I've noticed and appreciated this), but this will depend very much on the audience. My friends and family are exurban working class non-academics, and are not at all impressed--I mean, not in the slightest, not even a little bit--by my status as a college professor at a good university. I can't emphasize their disregard for such a vocation enough. Taking up the "more welders, less [sic] philosophers" view (even while in many cases being politically opposed to people like Rubio), they cannot distinguish between college philosophy professor and people like college student and/or non-college teachers, by which I mean a teacher at a daycare center or something like that. And these they implicitly view with utter disdain, as trifling wastes of time that entail a refusal to join the "real world" (whatever that means). So while *some kinds of people* will view professor as a title with prestige, this is far from a universal experience, and in my experience is the vast minority among those I tend to deal with around the holidays. But in any case, I appreciate your good points nonetheless and that is well taken.

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