On 8 April 2018, the online Chronicle of Higher Education published Erin Bartram’s “Why Your Advice for Ph.D.s Leaving Academe Might Be Making Things Worse.” In the piece, Bartram summarizes responses to her earlier piece regarding leaving academia (about which more here) before moving into explications of two points she recommends to those who will give advice to they who depart academia: know that the advice is of limited use, and know that the advisee is not fully known to the adviser. Although Bartram goes to some length to explain her assertions, they still come off as a rather sharp rebuke to perhaps well-meaning but generally inept academics whose own circumstances are as assured as their advisees’ are not.
I’ve noted several times that I have more or less done as Bartram is doing; I have long since given up on landing a full-time, tenure-line–or even continuing non-tenure-track–academic job (although, as I’ve also noted, I still pick up contingent work as a useful supplement to my income–but I am under no illusion that it will be a permanent thing). I am perhaps a bit ahead of her in finding steady work outside academe, though it was not an easy thing to do; I put in nearly 200 job applications before landing my current position, which is one of those nonprofit jobs that “look like a dream” to Bartram, and I was very much in the position to take any job that would have me. (Not many would, else I’d not have had to put in nearly 200 applications to find one.) And I would not presume to say that the challenges I have faced are the same as those she has faced and is facing. Even so, I find much of interest in her article–although my experience with getting advice when exiting academia has generally been from the other side of things. That is, what I’ve gotten has been from embedded support structures and those outside academia.
That I have support structures in place is a boon, I know, and I am not unmindful of how lucky I am to have it in place. But that does not mean I was not immensely frustrated with it at many points while I tried to make my pivot to the world outside the ivory tower. And that frustration derived in large part from those outside academia, in stable jobs that they have had for years, giving advice that rang of limited knowledge of current circumstances and of particulars of my situation. It is difficult, after all, not to find it vexatious to be told to send out more job applications when, in the space of a month, I’d send out more applications than some of the people who gave me advice, well-meaning and acting from love though they were, have in lives decades longer than my own. It is not an easy thing to be told by another to be open to taking all kinds of jobs and to be told by that same person the next day–or even later in the same conversation–not to look at lesser work (as though the cost-benefit analysis hadn’t been done and done and done, and as though better jobs called back–not that lesser jobs did any better). And it is a challenge, indeed, to face with equanimity being told not to give up when many years and a mid- to high-three-digit job-application count are already on record, bespeaking a dogged determination in the face of no after no after no.
A common definition of insanity comes to mind. So does the idea of knocking at doors until knuckles bleed and the bones begin to fragment.
I suppose the point I’m making about Bartram’s essay–which, again, I enjoyed reading and found useful–is that what she discusses is far from confined to the academy. It’s a useful thing to note for more than one reason. Aside from being a reminder–as if one is needed–that the job market sucks from most angles, among others, it serves as a reminder that the ivory tower stands embodied in the world. Perhaps if it is able to resolve its problems, it might help make a start on those the rest of the planet faces.