Monday, March 05, 2007

Conversations with colleagues, or advice to the gradlorn

Dr. Crazy and Dr. Virago recently had good posts about their research and writing practices--talking about book contracts, research journals, and the like. I recently met informally (i.e., pleasantly, as in not in a committee meeting) with some colleagues, and we got to talking about this, among other things. Here are a few points distilled from our conversation.

  • First of all, we all agreed that you have to work pretty darned hard, especially before you have tenure. This isn't exactly a newsflash, but one of the things that came out of the conversation is that we all do this because we really love it. Okay, maybe that's also not a newsflash, but the "advice to the gradlorn" point is this: if you can't envision working on your research as a pleasure as well as a duty, you should rethink what you're doing and maybe get into another field.

    This isn't meant to be harsh; it's just that, like acting, getting a Ph.D. and a tenure-track job is about like landing a good part in a Broadway play, except with less fame and less money. (This, BTW, is why I found watching A Chorus Line when I was an adjunct so depressing that I vowed never to see it again.) The odds may be a little better, but as the MLA Newsletter recently reported "PhDs in the fields represented by the MLA appear to have about a 35% chance of getting tenure" (27)--if you get hired in the first place. My point isn't simply to repeat these dismal statistics; it's to repeat what another colleague said when she'd considered acting as a profession: her professor told them that if they could envision themselves doing something else, anything else, that they ought to get out while they could.

  • This first piece of advice led to the second one: you'll have to work hard after you graduate, too, so get over it. This issue of work came up because we had all talked to seniors (and even some people in grad school) who seem to have bought into the idea that being a college professor is like being a high school teacher, except with fewer hours in the classroom so you can kick back and mow your lawn on a Wednesday afternoon. We've all tried to disabuse students of this notion, but a few of them seem to cling to it.
  • I guess the third piece of advice we came up with is that if you do get a job or want to get through, you have to learn to "suck it up." That doesn't mean that you have to put up with harassment or discrimination, but if you're annoyed because someone doesn't do your copying fast enough or give you a classroom with windows or whatever, there's no point in whining about it (except on blogs, of course, the proper forum for all manner of complaints). This goes double if you're on the first year of a tenure-track appointment: there's no way you won't feel overworked and underappreciated, and yes, you'll be tired, but it does get easier over time. I once saw a grad student having a complete melt-down hissy fit about copying during which she screamed (yes, screamed) at the entire office staff for not having her stuff done on time. I'm guessing that, professional as they are, they never went out of their way to help her again, and I wouldn't blame them if they didn't.

    I didn't get to the research advice at all--next post, maybe.

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    Professor Zero said...

    "PhDs in the fields represented by the MLA appear to have about a 35% chance of getting tenure" (27)--if you get hired in the first place.

    I missed that. Do they really mean, only 35% of those who get tenure track jobs end up as tenured faculty?

    Bardiac said...

    Good advice! When I was a grad student, a new assistant professor told me that he thought he'd learned to work hard as a grad student, but that he worked way harder as an assistant professor. I believed him. And found the same thing for myself.

    Sisyphus said...

    Depressing and true. I actually started a "bitching journal" so that I wouldn't whine about the same research problems every single day to the same small group of colleagues and friends. But now! A blog lets me inflict my complaints upon the world! Mwahahaha!

    I wanted to be a professional musician when I was in high school, so I see where you're coming from with the Broadway analogy. Someday, though, when they cast the touring production of "Grad School: The Musical," I will be ready for my close-up.

    undine said...

    Oh, gosh, Professor Z, now I have to look up the *facts*! Here's the part leading up to the part I quoted: "The MLA survey showed that well over 20% of tenure-track faculty members leave the departments that originally hired them before they come up for tenure. Data from studies conducted by other groups suggest that fewer than 40% of the PhD recipients who make up the pool of applicants for tenure-track positions obtain such positions and go through the tenure process at the institutions where they are initially hired, and a somewhat larger number of modern language doctorate recipients--more than 40%--never obtain tenure-track appointments." This is from the executive summary of the big MLA report, so there should be more detail in the report itself. It doesn't say whether people leave before tenure because of negative reviews or whether they leave for better institutions, family reasons, etc.

    Bardiac, I think that's the hardest thing to believe--that after grad school you'll work even harder--but you're right: it's true.

    The "bitching journal" is a good idea, Sisyphus, and the blog is an even better one. If it's in blog form, it gets transformed into a "blogging community." (I love the idea of "Grad School: The Musical.")

    Professor Zero said...

    A friend of my parents actually did write and put on a musical about graduate school. This was in Berkeley in the 1950s. It was entitled "Credo in unum bookstore," and was set in a the bookstore where everyone moonlighted, shopped, gossipped, etc.

    Yes asst prof is much harder work than grad school and I don't think it lets up - it just changes, and is less new, and having tenure makes it less fraught.

    Thanks Undine for statistics, very interesting. I'm in that first 20%, I hated my first job and was at least mentally on the market within the first week.

    40% never get tenure track jobs - I guess that was why they kept telling us in graduate school that we couldn't expect to get jobs. I did not expect to get one - I fully expected to end up with a 'career' as a receptionist in a law firm or something, with a useless (but fun) PhD! Little did I know the adventures which awaited.

    I was so naive back then that I did not understand why, at on campus interviews, they showed you the library. I mean, I thought all universities had good libraries in nice buildings, so why go there if we were not going to have time to use it! Now, of course, I know ... they were showing me that they had a library they were not ashamed of.