August 11, 2004


may be posted here

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at August 11, 2004 02:26 PM

Does this mean you're back, is it a glitch, are you opening up a forum for general discussion?

Posted by: Kate Nepveu at August 11, 2004 04:43 PM

ia, i hope the real world is treating you well. someday you'll have to let us all know how that transition is going. best wishes to you.

Posted by: meanregression at August 12, 2004 02:51 PM

Hmmm... I seem to have stumbled across a party long over, and one I would have enjoyed immensely! Poking through the upended chairs, dirty ashtrays and legions of empties, I can't help but wonder - does anybody still stop by these parts?

Having survived a transition from exactly the kinds of self-lacerating misery IA described so acutely into a kind of work that's fairly gratifying, less demanding, and much better paid than anything I likely would have experienced in academia if I had landed that mythical tenure track job - I gotta little story for ya. With a happy ending no less!

Any takers?

Posted by: michael in pdx at August 13, 2004 06:04 PM

I'm interested. Let's hear it!

Posted by: cwd at August 13, 2004 06:40 PM

You are much missed, IA. With so many friends, I hope you return, in whatever guise. It is hard to lay flowers and wreathes on the grave of a living person. Why not post a parable, or a text, at least, to let us know how you are doing?

Posted by: The Happy Tutor at August 14, 2004 04:30 PM

Posts 6 through 10 are comment spammers.

Posted by: cwd at August 15, 2004 11:21 AM


We're waiting for that story...

Posted by: Music Box at August 17, 2004 10:29 AM

I still get a referral or two every day from this site. Apparently people are still reading and using the blogroll (I'm not even in a particularly noteworthy place). I think that's goood.

Posted by: Adam Kotsko at August 18, 2004 08:50 PM

Adam -- me too. And, yes, Michael, I'd like to hear your story too!

Posted by: Rana at August 18, 2004 09:13 PM

WTF? (to the above)

If you're checking in IA, I hope you're well ... Miss ya'.

Posted by: Chris at August 23, 2004 11:38 PM

Ah, sorry about the lapse there - got very busy and more or less forgot about the note I'd posted here.

I started to write "I'll try to make this brief" but discovered I can't actually do that. Very short version: after finishing a PhD in political theory and spending several years in an abortive attempt to latch on in the professoriat, I left academia four years ago for fairly gratifying, better-paid work - and much higher self-esteem! - and hardly ever find myself looking back.

If you aren't interested in the early part of the trajectory, feel free to skip straight to the next post.

I was a blue-collar kid from the sticks who went to a first-rate liberal arts college, fell in love with the hothouse intellectual environment I encountered there, and resolved at about 18 years old to become a professor. I ended up in a second- or third- tier graduate program at a fairly big state school on the East Coast, which was pretty much an unmitigated disaster for me professionally.

I spent seven years in New England laboring over my studies, starting a family (3 kids by the time I was 25 - don't try this at home, folks), serving as a TA, and (of course) working second and third jobs as necessary. The worst part about my graduate school experience was the shabby treatment I experienced at the hands of my professors. Almost without exception, they were utterly clueless about the reality of the job market, indifferent to our (or at least my) fate as graduates of the program, and so socially inept they wouldn't have been much help if they had tried.

But like a good working class boy, I finished that degree (the only one in my cohort to finish within 7 years, which tells you a little about the rate of attrition), and went on the market in the mid 90s, only to find.... practically no jobs. I hurt myself by specializing in an obscure corner of the least marketable subfield in political science, and while I'll spare you my reasoning at the time, it's fair to say it might have made some difference if I'd not been so stubbornly hostile to the demands of the Evil Capitalist Market.

For a variety of reasons, I moved back to Oregon & set about hunting for teaching work, eventually winning a couple of one-year appointments back to back at different schools. Then a funny thing happened - I got an interview for a job. A actual teaching job!

This turned out to be a huge turning point. The interview was at a state school with large classes and no graduate program - say hello to classes of 75-100 with no TAs! (The irony here was that my interviewers claimed to be enthusiastic about my focus on teaching writing, which was clearly going to be untenable with that many students). Worse yet, in the kind of classic budget maneuver I'm sure you're all familiar with, this position came open when someone who'd been there since the Pleistocene retired, and the Dean had yanked the tenure-track line from the department. The Chair was "very hopeful" that it would be converted back to a tenure track appointment, but no one could make anything like a promise.

Then it hit me: the worst case scenario here wasn't moving to the middle of nowhere, Great Plains, USA and not getting into a tenure track after a year or two. The worse case scenario might be moving to Nowhere... and GETTING tenure. Because I'd be stuck there forever.

By this time, I was divorced from my first wife, and was in a new serious relationship. And my new partner wanted no part of living in a slaughterhouse town an hour from what passes in those parts for civilization. And I'm not THAT snooty about place, but living in a wonderful city already made it that much harder to trade easily for something that just didn't look and feel like my kinda place.

But given that this was my sole bite in 4-5 years on the job market (and I wasn't ultimately offered the job), that brought up a very big question: if not this, then what?

Posted by: michael in pdx at August 24, 2004 07:01 PM

Well, like any liberal arts grad, I had grown to believe that if I couldn't be a professor, I couldn't do anything else. Actually, since I've been comfortable with computers since about 1979 and can write a proper English sentence, I knew I wouldn't starve, but I drew a huge blank when I imagined "alternate careers."

Luckily, in the lean years chasing adjunct work up and down the Willamette Valley, one of my day jobs landed me in a clerical position supporting a Public Administration program at a local college, and I began to meet interesting folks who had more-or-less interesting jobs in government. It wasn't something I'd given much thought to (I doubt many kids say "I want to be a bureaucrat when I grow up!"), but when my big job interview on the Front Range led me to think "OK, what is Plan B?" I trotted down to City Hall for information interviews with some of the folks I had met through this job.

I was pretty nervous about this. I'm not the most extroverted person, and I wasn't sure how I'd be received. It doesn't make a lot of sense, but I'm often embarrassed about having a PhD when I talk to non-academic types. But doing information interviews, I discovered a couple of things that were very powerful:

1) people were generally happy to talk to me, share their experiences, and encouraged me to think that I could do the kind of work they did. Many folks actually had wildly varied career paths and had done several very disparate kinds of work before turning to government. More than one had gone at least partway down the same academic road but managed to change directions.

2) this is just an extension of #1, but it deserves emphasis: some really smart, really interesting and yet down-to-earth people work in local government. I found lots of people I would enjoy working with or for, and this made changing careers much more attractive.

3) I DID have transferable skills that I hadn't recognized as such. I took utterly for granted my ability to access information & research complicated obscure things very efficiently, and my ability to analyze and recapitulate in a clearer, more organized way a huge volume of information on a topic. And I can communicate well to a variety of audiences in person and in writing, which seems like nothing to crow about, until you get out in the world and meet people with six-figure salaries who simply struggle with that.

The way I summed all this up for myself finally: if I can help 18 year-olds figure out what Aristotle's Politics means, I can probably be of some use helping people figure out how to apply the Oregon Revised Statutes or Part 24 of the Code of Federal Regulations to their work.

I'm not trying to summarize my resume in the paragraph before last, but pointing out that if you're reading this now, all of the above probably applies to you: if you've survived a few years of grad school, you do have tremendous skills that will make you competitive in the large job market.

And I think this was the big epiphany for me - as a fish-out-of-water working class kid, I was pretty panicked about failing in my first career choice. My idea of job security was basically: "a job where it's real hard to get fired!" Then I realized, and this may sound hokey, but it's undeniably true, especially nowadays: you carry your own job security around with you in your skills, experience, temperament, and the network of friends who are willing to vouch for you on those 3 scores.

I have a lot less career anxiety now, because I've learned that I really do have important skills that are relatively scarce.

Now the question IA raised about could I have developed those skills at less cost and aggravation without going to grad school? Yeah, I think definitely that's true, but no help to me to know it now! It just makes me resent my student loans all the more.

And for many of the same reasons IA & others put forth here, I would emphatically discourage sparky young people from going to graduate school. Reading this board, I kept thinking that aspiring to become a professor these days is almost like trying to be a concert violinist or a ballet dancer, or a professional athlete. Only a tiny handful of people will ever make a living doing it, it's manifestly irrational to choose it as a career path, and you have to be the kind of obsessive, driven personality that scoffs at that cost-benefit analysis to keep at it. So discourage everybody, I'd half-seriously suggest, and only the full-tilt wingnuts that just HAVE to devote their life to studying Milton will push past that discouragement and keep plugging.

That wasn't me, clearly.

Ok, so that was a rather long-winded prelude. What the heck do I do now, and how did I get into that, and what do I wanna be if/when I grow up? Stay tuned.

Posted by: michael in pdx at August 24, 2004 07:31 PM

Thank you for contributing your experiences! I too am in political science (albeit in a slightly more marketable subfield than political theory), and I have managed to land a tenure track job in a part of the country where I really don't want to be for the rest of my life. (There are other aspects to academe I dislike as well, but that's beside the point). I think I'm good for another 2 or 3 years in academe, and then it's time for something else. I would go back on the academic job market, but I think that would just be pounding the same square peg into the same round hole in a different place with different scenery.
Like you, I am considering government work (mostly at the state and federal levels). As one political scientist to another, my question to you is this: is it necessary to go back to school to get an MPA (assuming public policy wasn't one's subfield in the first place) in order to get a job in government? Any insight you have would be greatly appreciated. Thank you!

[Note to IA: When you get an opportunity, would you please delete the comment spam in comment #10? It's bugging the hell out of me. Thank you!]

Posted by: Gollum at August 25, 2004 12:00 AM

My idea of job security was basically: "a job where it's real hard to get fired!"

Isn't this pretty much true of government positions?

Posted by: ben wolfson at August 25, 2004 04:39 PM

gollum: "is it necessary to go back to school to get an MPA?"

I would say definitely not, but your mileage may vary. Talk to folks where you're at, who do the kind of work you think you might be interested in. More likely, once you're in a job you could go back to school and get an MPA if it seemed helpful (and your employer would likely pay for it).

ben: job security = real hard to get fired! - "Isn't this pretty much true of government positions?"

Um, historically yes, especially if you're in a union position. I'm in a "management" position myself (although I don't manage anyone) and could be asked to clear out my desk at the drop of a hat.

The larger issue of course is not that defensive notion of security, but what can an intellectually-inclined person find to do that might pay real money? And in that sense, it's an important shift in perspective to finding security in yourself by more accurately assessing what you offer potential employers.

To offer an extreme example: Kobe Bryant's job security is not his new long term contract with the Lakers, but the fact that he can play basketball as well as any other person on the planet (or more accurately: that he attracts fans and therefore revenue in various forms as well as any person on the planet). As long as he's physically intact and not in custody in Colorado, someone somewhere is going to pay him a lot of money to do that.

Well, you're probably not Kobe. But you probably can do two or three things that 98% of the rest of the population struggles with.

Posted by: michael in pdx at August 25, 2004 05:46 PM

I got lucky. After deciding to seriously explore Plan B, I started doing info interviews with people in a variety of different organizations at all levels of government. And I just happened to luck into a terrific opportunity in a suburban County government that hadn't even occurred to me to consider at first. It was a terrific opportunity because I was working in the County Administrator's office and got to experience a really first-rate organization from the bridge, so to speak. And more importantly, I got to work on a variety of very different projects and interact with people all around the region on different projects.

Two years ago, that position ended (it was an unusual limited-term position) and I again got very lucky, talking my way into managing two federal entitlement grant programs for a suburban city of about 90,000.

I should be clear: the "luck" (in both cases) was that a position that was a good fit came open just when I was looking, and that I had a personal contact in each case that got me a serious look from people doing the hiring.

In both cases, I didn't have experience that was clearly directly relevant, and had to basically talk my way in, based on skills that were transferable. But it wasn't that hard to sell smart people on the idea that a smart person can quickly learn the nuts-and-bolts, and I think the extra dimension of being an intellectually curious, "ideas" person was attractive to my prospective bosses in both cases. My current boss has told me that was really one of the clinching factors when they were weighing hiring me against someone who had more relevant experience.

Remember when I suggested job security was basically demonstrated skills + your network of people who speak well of you? Well, in both my last job and this one I've been paid essentially to dramatically enhance both of those things. And paid well: considerably more than an assistant professor could expect.

In fact, it's almost certain that I couldn't afford to go back to teaching now. One thing that was never clear to me till I left academia is just how poorly paid academics are outside the engineering/science fields. Now I know that a full Professor makes more than I might make even a few years from now (depending on where my career goes), but I'm not too sure the academy is still "making" full Profs in any measurable quantity. And it's far from clear that I would have lasted that long.

But I'm focusing too much on less-important things. The real question is how do I like the world I'm in now, and do I miss academia?

Posted by: michael in pdx at August 25, 2004 06:07 PM

Well, how DO you like the world you're in now, and DO you miss academia?

Posted by: Gollum at August 25, 2004 07:53 PM

Sorry about the lag in responding, but I'm not likely to find time for the next "installment" today. Thanks for the words of encouragement, and tune in tomorrow.

Short answers = a) quite a lot, by and large, and b) not nearly as much as you'd think.

Posted by: michael in pdx at August 26, 2004 06:44 PM

I'd say that one of the toughest things about Academics is that the pay is so low. One of the guys I work with left the practice of law, got a job teaching, did well, and then realized he couldn't survive and went back to law. Now he's happy as well, so the trip was good for him.

Anyway, I enjoyed Michael's essay.

I'm curious, did you find blue collar roots a bad credential? I grew up in trailer parks, and I never found that a problem in law, but it seems to be in academic areas.

Posted by: Steve Marsh at August 26, 2004 10:48 PM

Well, even though I have a really nice position at a university in central Europe (beautiful area, excellent facilities, nice colleagues, interested and talented students, etc.), I am still looking for a job in North America (the salary is rather low here and I'd also like to move back to be closer to friends and family).

If I don't find one this year---the third cycle since I started applying with Ph.D. in hand---I may surrender the academic career and try to ply my wares elsewhere.

Since I have the Ph.D. (with all the related skills that I've developed) as well as near-native fluency in a useful but not widely-spoken language and other skills and knowledge, I may go for government foreign service work.

The point I'd like to make, though, is that even though I wouldn't need the doctorate to do work in foreign service, diplomacy, or some such, I am rather proud of the accomplishment that it represents and how I was truly a changed person after going through the process of earning the degree. It gave me a lot of confidence that I was able actually to come up with some interesting and original ideas and complete such a huge project.

So as for me, no, I would not regret getting the degree, even if I had immediately gone into another line of work. I have to admit that I find the "poor me, look at all those years I utterly wasted; blast those professors who wrote me the reference letters for grad school!" line a bit defeatist. I mean, look at IA: here is a person who is intelligent, witty, kind, good-hearted, hard-working, dedicated, etc. So she didn't get a job in academe---too bad for academe! I mean that. She's moving on to greener pastures. I disagree with the idea that the humanities Ph.D. is unmarketable and that getting a degree is a waste of time, money, and energy if one doesn't write the dissertation with I. Beddah Danyu at Cutting Edge Research Institute and then slide effortlessly into the tenure-track position at Snutie University.

(I do think, though, that we need to educate some prospective real-world employers not to be frightened by the imperiousness of the degree---in a sense, it's just another credential.)

None of the above excuses the profession from its abominable practices and their "let them eat cake" mentality or absolves them of responsibility for the current states of affairs, but they have much less of a grip on us than they would have us believe. Grad school in the humanities needn't be a life-crushing experience. And when it is, then we pick up the pieces and move on. I'm saying that your have more power over the situation than you think. But not if you see an academic career as the only solution.

Posted by: Music Box at August 27, 2004 05:24 AM

re: regret?

I wouldn't say I regret spending seven years in grad school and getting my degree. I don't stew over the time and effort, and I had soem wonderful times and met some wonderful people during those years. I do regret the student loans, but I'm not sure exactly what alternatives I had, given my family situation at the time.

The last two comments make an interesting pair on one point: I don't generally take a lot of pride in my degree. As I said before, I tend rather to be a little embarrassed by it, and I think that has a lot to do with my class background. Reg'lar folks don't put much stock in book learnin' and members of my family tend to look at me funny because I spent so much time in school. But the roots of that difference from the people I grew up around go deep - I was always carrying a book around as a kid, and people knew I wasn't like them.

If I can muster up a feeling of pride around the degree, it's mostly about the persistence to see it through.

Do I feel like coming from a blue collar background was a disadvantage? Not a crippling one, but it's definitely a cross-cultural challenge that we don't usually acknowledge. I literally entered a whole new world when I started college at 17, and had to start from scratch to figure out how it all works, without a lot of help at first.

Alfred Lubrano's book Limbo is an interesting take on some of these dynamics, and even though I'd quibble with a lot in his book it's very much worth reading.

Posted by: michael in pdx at August 27, 2004 06:07 PM

What should you look for in trying to find stimulating work outside academia?

One of the things I should have mentioned in my discussion of the information interviews that marked the start of my career change (lesson #4 as it were): not all organizations are equal, and not all jobs are equally appealing.

An obvious point, maybe, but I ended up going in directions I didn't anticipate because I found out that public organizations I thought would be great to work for wouldn't, and that jobs that would be fun weren't at all.

Two of the public jurisdictions closest to where I live have reputations of being "progressive" and I was keen to see if I could latch on with one of them. I discovered that one was stricken with a morale crisis nearly from top to bottom because of poor management, and the other had very good spots and very bad ones. I had interviews in departments I'd still be very happy to work in, and I had interviews where I knew within five minutes I didn't want to work there.

And the kind of work (obviously) matters. I thought at one point that being a Planner would be a great job; now I know a fair number of planners, and the majority of them do a monotonous, literally by-the-book kind of work that I would find intolerable. Some planners do get to do interesting, "visionary" things, but even still, I don't find myself envying them all that much.

So: it pays to explore very carefully. What do people think of the organization? Is it always showing up in the newspaper laying people off? Not a good sign, even if it's a common one (and it could happen for a variety of reasons - maybe state or federal cuts cause the layoff?). Is it run by a professional administrator people generally admire and respect, or a fractious and part-time elected body riven by petty rivalries and short on intellectual horsepower?

What are the people who work there now like? This is a KEY indicator - if the office is full of bright, sparky people with personalities, odds are it's a pretty good working situation. If it's full of grey, rumpled drones, it's probably because good people routinely flee the first chance they get.

I know I keep promising to comment on "What do I like about my work now?" but that's got to wait, again. I need to .... get back to work.

Posted by: michael in pdx at August 27, 2004 06:30 PM

Gee, dude. Sorry we midwesterners aren't sophisticated enough for you.

Posted by: Brian Ulrich at September 1, 2004 11:47 AM

Does anyone know of a site that carries on the same level and kind of comments IA did?


Posted by: Steve Marsh at September 6, 2004 10:57 AM

An adjuncts' union does make sense. College's
aren't going to spend money on teaching unless
they're forced to. Clearly the fulltimers unions do not protect adjuncts. This is something thats been talked about for many years. Maybe as things get worse, people will do something. Could you imagine an adjuncts' strike at any major university?

Posted by: Jerry at September 7, 2004 05:51 PM

Some of these comments appear to be spam.

Posted by: Brian Ulrich at September 13, 2004 01:06 PM

God, I detest, despise, loathe, hate SPAMMERS!!! (See comments 27-29 and 31 above). Whatever you do, don't do these jerks a favor by clicking on their "websites." They only post here so that Google will increase their PageRank (I think that's what it's called).

Posted by: cwd at September 23, 2004 01:08 PM

Wow, "cialis" that was so creative and original! (sarcasm)

I have to give you credit, though, because unlike other comment spammers, you actually know what this blog is about.

Posted by: cwd at September 30, 2004 08:41 AM

Greetings - I thought this anecdote might be of interest to the group. As a university student years ago, one of the courses I took was calculus. I happened to keep that book and price tag stayed stuck on the cover all this years, showing $15 [and no tax]. Then low behold my son takes calculus and gets the same author, title, same content but now in its 8th reincarnation. The cost was $110 plus tax. I thought the cost was exorbitant for such as area, then I remembered my 2nd edition version. Why 8 renditions over 25 years on a stereotypical area like that? We didn't move from oxcarts to jet aircraft in that period. This book was revised from a 6" by 8" to an 8x10" - and content rearranged but essentially the same material.

Now how did prices go up over 600%? Salaries didn't. So who is fooling whom here in publishing? - Bruce

Posted by: Bruce Miller at September 30, 2004 02:17 PM