June 28, 2003

Getting to Yes?

The title of this entry makes me sound like a used-car salesman, I know. But after reading some recent posts on Frogs and Ravens and Invisible Adjunct I find that it's relevant.

To summarize briefly, a lot of folks are angry. They have labored for years to earn a Ph.D. and they now find there is no market for their skills. Unable to enter the profession that they love and that they have spent years preparing for, they are disillusioned, demoralized, and despondent. They feel they have wasted several years of their life and are now hopelessly behind in trying to find employment that people of far less education are qualified to do.

-- Kevin Walzer, The Power of Positive Thinking

Kevin Walzer recommends the power of positive thinking. This deserves a reply, but for the moment real life intervenes. Response to follow.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at June 28, 2003 11:19 AM

It is a good post, and Kevin works really hard to not join the "happy-happy-joy-joy" crowd. It's still a bit hard to believe his reassurances if you're in the middle of the anger/denial/grief stage, but when I'm calmer I think I'll appreciate what he has to say.

Posted by: Rana at June 28, 2003 02:43 PM

it's not so clear to me that walzer's remarks
*do* deserve a reply. it's full of lies
like "It takes exactly the same kind of attitude
to get a job in the business world" (as it does
to stick with a Ph.D. program): why then
did he have to learn to interview well and so on
by his own account? furthermore, happytalk like
"You're a formidable talent" sits oddly next to
"I'm nothing special". already more attention
than the piece deserves; moving on.

anyhow, my own particular brand
of life-poisoning bitterness
is somewhat different than seems usual here:
grad school was wildly worth it and i only wish
it could have gone on for twice as long.
i even landed a tenure-track job
(though by the standards of my ex-department
a disappointment: a four-year school).
looked like a pretty good way to spend my life
till they fired me ("didn't renew my contract")
and i ended up adjuncting for a living.
which itself wouldn't necessarily be so bad
if i only didn't have to appease lazy timeservers
with no idea of what mathematics even is
in working with what i somehow persist in
thinking of as "my" students. etcetera etcetera.
vive l'adjunct invisible!

Posted by: vlorbik at June 28, 2003 03:32 PM

I can't get through. Don't know if it's his site or my Dial-up From Hell, but I can get other sites.

After reading Rana and IA, I'm just guessing, then, that he's treating it as an individual problem (or group of them), offering solutions, and explaining that the alternatives to academia aren't that bad. Anyone who ever does social criticism ends up having to deal with this response again and again.

The social problem is that we seem to have something like 15 people playing musical chairs with only three chairs. Individual strategies for victory do not address the larger problem.

This problem has been around for anywhere from 15-30 years and is getting worse. It amounts to a kind of exploitation and fraud.

I actually agree with all the accused happy-face people about the immediate case. IA and Rana should look outside the academy and might do very well there. Again, that doesn't solve the social problem.

An additional problem is an apparent trend toward degradation of the profession -- adjunctifying tenured positions when retirements take place.

As a rule, too, people usually go into academia because there's something they like about it that they don't find in the business world. So even if R & IA find a challenging, well-paying jobs, there's been something lost.

A further problem which most interests me is: "What happens to the humanities?" Someone on another thread suggested euthanasia. I guess I wouldn't go that far.

Posted by: zizka at June 28, 2003 04:10 PM

This is sort of tangential, but one of the things that he mentions, and that is often brought up is that people who leave academia have "fallen behind" and have "wasted time" and will be competing with people who would have been their students. I agree that this is humiliating, but in the end who cares? There is always this metaphor of a race and people falling behind. Everybody reaches the end of the race in time, and there is no good reason to want to get there first. If you spend 5 years playing minor-league baseball, waste four years in the Peace Corps or the Marines, good for you. I know you hate to hear this, but it will make you a better person. Ever heard of a mid-life crisis? It comes when you reach about the age of 40 and realize that this is pretty much all you will ever be other than that you will eventually have less hair or saggier boobs or possibly both.

Yes, you will make less money over the course of your life, than if you had majored in marketing as an undergrad, but you are not the type of person to let that bother you too much or you would not be in this spot. I have the advantage of being in a field (Asian history) where a lot of my buddies ended up leaving academia and making big bucks elsewhere. None of them regret having "wasted time." Honest to god they are more interesting than the people they work with and better for it.

Posted by: Ssuma at June 28, 2003 05:10 PM

"I agree that this is humiliating, but in the end who cares?"

Right. Well, in the end I suppose there is very little to care about that has anything to do with jobs, money and career. But even conceding that in the grand scheme of things and when placed in, say, global perspective, it's really not such a big deal, at the moment I have to say that I am selfish enough to care about my own admittedly narrow and insignificant case.

I feel that my life has been, it not ruined, then seriously blighted by the fruitless pursuit over a number of years of something that has led to nowhere. And it's not just the money, and not even primarily the money. It's really the psychic and emotional investment, and the resultant deficit in self-esteem, to name just one outcome that cannot be measured in financial terms. And I care enough to not wish this on anyone else, which is why I urge people to not pursue a PhD in the humanities.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at June 28, 2003 06:41 PM

"Ever heard of a mid-life crisis? It comes when you reach about the age of 40 and realize that this is pretty much all you will ever be other than that you will eventually have less hair or saggier boobs or possibly both."

Thanks for this bit of "wisdom." At 42, and in much the same spot as IA, I take some comfort in the fact that I've not yet grown man-boobs--all those hours at the gym are paying off! And my hair, while thinner than when I was 23, is more or less hanging in there.

As for the rest, I agree, this is indeed pretty much all I am ever going to be. But alas, as a result of my chosen "profession," I don't think I'm going to be able to afford the trappings of the classic mid-life crisis.

Maybe I'll go out tonight and have a beer and watch the 20-something women and call it at that.

Posted by: Chris at June 28, 2003 07:02 PM

Hey, IA? We care about you too. All our words -- even the ones that turn out to feel wrong to you -- come from wanting you to get through this.

Occasionally, when I think back, all I can find to say to myself is "a lot of people have wasted a lot more of their lives for a lot less." At those moments, that's the best I can do.

I don't have them too often these days, which is all the comfort I can offer just now.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at June 28, 2003 07:16 PM

Well, it does feel like sort of a waste when a lot of things that I feel are important in my life were put off in order to go to grad school. Can we say travel? Owning a home? Having a family? Having enough money in savings that being unemployed wouldn't look like a time to panic? If I'm going to be making sacrifices of this order, it'd be nice to know that there'd be some sort of payback down the line.

Posted by: Rana at June 28, 2003 07:35 PM

"A further problem which most interests me is: 'What happens to the humanities?' Someone on another thread suggested euthanasia. I guess I wouldn't go that far."

As usual, Zizka, you serve as a model of moderation and self-restraint. :)

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at June 28, 2003 09:17 PM

I cannot get through to the Kevin Walzer post either. The comments you quote seem to be accurate account of the emotions in ending up in a dead end in the humanities.

Then to end up unemployed with PhD doing a bit of casual teaching say a few hours a week. (This in Australia)

The self-eesteem goes and all the emotional investment for the 7-10 years.

But Kevin is right. If that is the situation and all your training informs you why it is so and is not not going to get better, then you have to make a big decision.

Cos its death.

In such situations you have to affirm who you are. You either go outside in the snow and tell your family and friends you'll be a while; you hang for grim death and hope that something in acdemia turns up; or you do something different.

If the last one then the positive thinking (there are different interpretations of that) comes into its own.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson at June 29, 2003 09:24 AM

walzer's post at
is evidently up and running again.
he's updated it at
among other things, he dismisses
my remark about the lies of the earlier post
with contempt; remarkably, he appears to believe
that he knows more than i do about my own
work history and other qualifications.
i tried posting a comment at his actual site
but it didn't take. just as well.

Posted by: vlorbik at June 30, 2003 08:59 AM


My response to your post was based on the information provided on your own vita at your blogsite. I saw lots of academic experience and lots of recent activity with adjunct union organizing, etc. I saw no significant, professional-level experience in the business world. If I've missed something I'll gladly stand corrected, but in the absence of such documentation I stand by my comments. I've worked for seven years in the business world, mostly in professional-level marketing and editing positions. I've also seen many Ph.D.s successfully transition out of academe to greener pastures elsewhere. As such, I have gained a little insight into the process. Dismissing my comments as "lies" itself reflects a good deal of contempt. How are they lies? Based on your expertise, what are the differences between the skill sets needed to succeed in the business world and the skill sets needed to succeed in academe?


Posted by: Kevin Walzer at June 30, 2003 10:11 AM

This site and its comments are great but I have to say that this may be the best thread-and-comments yet, from Kevin Walser's wise, honest (emphasis added) remarks to, in particular, the comments from ssuma, Dorothea and IA. I wish this blog had been in existence when I was going through my "transition."

Mid-life crisis: this is more of a male problem, really (I am male, FYI). I used to have a debate with a friend about whether the aborted academic career would intensify or lessen our future mid-life crises. I used to contend that it would make them more intense but now I have come around to agreeing with my friend: I am less likely to have any kind of intense mid-life crisis because of my aborted academic career. (I should e-mail this comment to my wife.)

I have a lesser chance of succumbing to regret because, partly, that I feel much more fortunate to be in the position I am in today and can easily see myself today if I had continued on as an academic. The picture is of someone seething with resentment and anger, impoverished, depressed about the future, irredeemably single and generally bitter about the world. I'm looking around at my real life right now and boy does it make me appreciate everything about it. Maybe that's another lesson.

Thanks everyone.

Posted by: JT at June 30, 2003 12:04 PM

Based on your expertise, what are the differences between the skill sets needed to succeed in the business world and the skill sets needed to succeed in academe?

you already said it yourself when you mentioned
having had to learn how to present yourself.
that's the heart of the matter. of *course*
i can do lots of the jobs "business" people do
-- and better than most of the people doing 'em.
i just can't pass the interview.
you convienently didn't mention it on your site
when you claim i'm bullshitting
but i pointed out two places in your post
where you'd contradicted yourself.
let the reader judge. we're finished talking.
or is

Posted by: vlorbik at June 30, 2003 12:10 PM

Vlorbik, I appreciate your passion and your perspective, but I have to ask you to keep things reasonably civil. Thanks!

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at June 30, 2003 12:18 PM


1. I didn't contradict myself. In the context of business--where my competition has far less education and managing projects that are as complex as a dissertation--my skill sets are far above average. The same goes for other Ph.D.s. In the context of said Ph.D.s, I am nothing special. In short, the point is that *ANY* Ph.D. can successfully make the transition. You misread the contextual background of my argument.

2. I don't consider job interviewing to be a part of a skill set. When I say skill set, I'm talking about things like analytical thinking, ability to work independently, communications skills, ability to master complex subjects quickly, etc. These are things that cannot be developed overnight. Mastery of these skills allows a Ph.D. to move quickly out of an entry-level business job in many cases. By contrast, interviewing involves learning how to map your academic skill set to a business audience. It is, at most, a very minor subset of communication skills. It *can* be learned overnight, or at least with a little trial and error. When I said I had to learn how to interview, I was referring to a more fundamental attitude adjustment about my career direction; once I firmly committed to a business career and was no longer hesitating because of my academic job search, that made a major difference.



Posted by: Kevin Walzer at June 30, 2003 12:36 PM

vlorbik: I believe you are letting yourself off too easily. In fact, undergraduates getting the plum jobs out of college, in engineering, accounting, finance or other technical work, have vastly more applicable knowledge than you do, judging from what you've said about your background. Undergrads who are trying to land less technical jobs (in sales, for instance) often have just as tough a time as those fleeing graduate programs.

Posted by: JT at June 30, 2003 02:05 PM