Thursday, September 15, 2011

A Call to Subversion

Last week I stopped in to see my advisor. It's how he verifies that we are still alive and "working" on our dissertations rather than running off to become cat herders in the Himalayas. Someone mentioned such a fictitious job in a Versatile Ph.D. post and I thought that it might actually be good career prep for anyone going into academic administration. Anyway, I stopped in to verify that I was, in fact, not dead yet.

He seemed a bit testy that day. We used to be friends, before he became an Advisor with a capital "A." The past gives me a good view on his moods. So, I left with a "hi" and sympathetic smile for the frazzled grad students sharing his office suite and wandered down to one of the labs to see who I could distract there.

In one of the labs was the subject of this particular post. She was doing some digital errands rather than running stats for her dissertation proposal. We started chatting. Clearly, she was not above procrastination. We got around to the subject of my leaving academia. I say it whenever I'm not afeared of losing my head just so I can get used to it.

This grad student suddenly looked around the room very quickly. Upon verifying that no other grad student was within hearing range, she turned back to me. In a low whisper, very conspiratorially, she said that she's been thinking of leaving academia too. She doesn't want to make all the sacrifices necessary to be a professor. She said this in a whisper, not out of shame, but out of fear. She was worried that if word got out, the snakes would slither out of the department pit and swallow her whole, anaconda-style.

I did the only reasonable thing for a person in my position, I told her what little I knew. I told her of a place I had heard of, outside academia. It had jobs, that paid living wages, with benefits. A place where you could have a life outside work. A place where you were not alone and isolated in a cutthroat world of competition, of unnecessary cutthroat competition. I told her of the good folks in the digital world who left breadcrumbs and glowing billboards along the road out. Of the career counselors who can show the way and all those who were on the other side, cheering us on.

I don't know what she did. I haven't seen her since. Hopefully, she went looking for other paths beyond the faculty-sanctioned ones. Whether she takes one or not, no harm can come from knowing of their existence. If I find out, I'll let you know.

The whole exchange got me thinking: is this the way it has to be? I know there are articles out there. Blogs galore. An entire site has been created just to support the networking of Ph.D.'s who wish to leave academia. And yet, so few grad students know they have options. I didn't and I've been here for going on 9 years. I know no one in the post-academic sphere wants to keep these options a secret. Fairly certain in fact that if they could afford to do so, these options and resources would be posted on billboards all around every university in the country. And yet, so few know.

I don't think the problem is the universities. The career center at mine goes out of its way to get word to the grad students. I'm blaming this problem on entrenched traditional views and the all powerful koolaid. I picture it as a glowing, radioactive lime green punch with rehydrated pineapple slices in it, if you're curious. I think someone should spike it.

So, is this how word must spread? Through whispers in empty labs? In parking lots? Running between meetings/classes/office hours? Do you think it's whispered over partitions in libraries' grad study rooms? Do you think people anonymously place career fair fliers in grad student mailboxes? I hope so.

I have read posts from people who hope to change the system from within. Who, upon realizing just how broken the system was, refused to run from it. I wish them the best of luck. But such change will not endure long, will not be possible, until the realities of academic life and post-academic options can be discussed openly. Until they can be talked about out loud, loudly, in public, without faculty dismissing, denying, or deriding them. Until they can be written about, in black and white, with the author's real name attached. When the author of such statements need no longer fear for their tenure, or their degree. It cannot be only a few brave souls either. It must be a majority willing to acknowledge that academia is not a utopia, that there are other options out there for Ph.D.'s and hold these options in equal esteem with professorships. Then change, true long-term change, will stand a chance.

So this is my call to subversion: whisper to each other when you must. Talk, shout, raise billboards when you can. Write it. Get the word out when you're able. And maybe, some day, all grad students will know they have options - and grad school may no longer engender such despair. And please, someone, spike the punch!

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