Career unhappiness

I’ve been reading a lot of “Quit Lit” recently and I am seriously contemplating quitting my own academic job.  This (hopefully still) anonymous blog is the only place I have written this down, or even admitted it beyond my immediate family members.

One piece of academic “quit lit” included this PhD comics cartoon:

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My life so far looks an awful lot like that top “Life plan”.  I met my husband in college, and we got married 1 year after I started grad school, when I was 22.  I finished my PhD at age 27, and had my first child at that same age (the only thing significantly off the timeline, it that I did it earlier).  I started my “academic dream job” (tenure track, R1 university) at age 29, and also bought a house at that time.  I haven’t published any books but I do have a few high-impact papers under my belt, and I could plausibly win a prestigious career award in my mid-to-late 30s.  Im well on my way to tenure, I have graduate students, and I’ve been fairly successful with grants and funding.  So why do I think about quitting nearly every day?

The reasons are many and varied, and it’s hard to point to just one thing.  I guess the best summation is a combination of exhaustion and loss of passion for my research and teaching.  When I sit down at my desk, I am not eager to begin working.  It’s hard to remember when I was last really interested in a research problem.  I think I’ve just been faking it for a number of years, at least since the end of my Ph.D.  I teach because I have to, not because I want to.  I am nervous in front of a classroom (though I hide it well – too well, because people don’t believe me when I say I am nervous) and I struggle with anxiety about all things large and small.  I worry constantly that students are judging my appearance and competence, and I am mortified when I make mistakes in front of the class (as I inevitably occasionally do).

The pressure of the job is high.  I am not publishing enough papers, and I feel constant pressure to publish more.  But I hate everything about the publishing processes.  I recently had a paper rejected, a paper that it took me over a year to write because I hated the work and could hardly bare to look at it.  It was rejected with an invitation to resubmit – essentially, I was told to start over on something I barely finished because I hated it so much.  I have another project that is ready to be written up – a task I hate doing – but I don’t have the time to do it even if I wanted to.  That’s because first I need to find and fix an issue with some code my graduate student needs to use, something I’ve already spent weeks trying to do and getting nowhere.  I also need to read and review over 20 proposals because I agreed to serve on a proposal review panel for a government agency, something that every other professor tells me I “should” do.  This fall, I’m scheduled to teach two very difficult courses simultaneously, while keeping up with research, publishing, and advising.  It’s just gotten to a point where the pressure and stress levels are quite high, the to-do list very long and never ending, and I no longer really enjoy any of it.  The exception is advising, which I actually do enjoy, but less and less with time.  I’m starting to feel like my advising might actually be harming students, because I am of course leading them down the same path I have followed that has made me so unhappy.

I still believe in the power of science to help society in a general sense.  I even still believe in the usefulness of my own research, and I love talking about the topic because it is pretty cool stuff.  But science is incremental, and I know that my entire branch of research (which is rather new) may turn out to be mostly useless.  It also might turn out to be a huge breakthrough, but scientists in my field are unlikely to know which is true for decades.  This is not a criticism of my field, or of science, because the reality is that promising research avenues often turn out to be duds, and it’s often impossible to know that without decades of research.  To stick with something that might be a bust, and is really really difficult to do, for decades requires a fierce love that I fear I just don’t have.

For now I am staying for a few reasons.  Yes, I am unhappy, but I know nothing else.  Will I be happier outside of academia?  Will I even find a job?  I have no idea.  My family relies in my income, and for now, my job is secure.  If I leave, I’ll be letting down a lot of people.  My colleagues will be rather upset, because in the current university climate, they know they will not be approved to do another search, so the faculty line will die with me (this is academic lingo which essentially means if I quit they won’t be allowed to replace me, and will have to get along with one less faculty member).  The person I feel the worst about letting down is my Ph.D. advisor.  I see him as a 3rd parent of sorts (he is about the age of my parents) and I know he’s proud and happy that I became a professor, which is what he wanted for me.  A handful of other students of his have also gone on to become professors, but I was the first in over a decade and still the most recent.

In 2 weeks, I’m traveling to serve on this proposal review panel.  The location happens to be just a few miles from where I did my Ph.D., and I plan to visit with my old advisor.  I will likely discuss my career issues with him at that time.  I hope that gives me more clarity.  For now I feel stressed out, confused, scared, and most of all, increasingly unhappy where I am.

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Liberal elitism and fear of being different

I haven’t written here in a while, not since the 2016 US Presidential election. I was originally a Bernie supporter and then later a Hillary supporter, and I, like many others, felt immense fear at the election of Donald Trump. On election night I sat in bed shaking uncontrollably as it became clear Trump would win. I was terrified but less surprised than most because I had been following FiveThirtyEight’s election coverage for weeks, and they gave Trump roughly a 30% chance of winning.

Trump’s presidency makes me afraid for many, many reasons, not least of which is the fact that he’ll undo the precarious progress made in addressing climate change – progress that was already too little too late. I also fear his clearly bigoted, sexist, Islamophobic, homophobic rhetoric. But the reason I want to write about here is my autistic daughter. Remember when Trump mocked (or did a bad impression of, if you are a Trump supporter) New York Times reporter Serge F. Kovaleski? Mr. Kovaleski has a physical disability that does not affect his brain. Imagine how Mr. Trump or one of his loyal supporters might treat someone with Autism then. I fear that in this new world, people will feel more prejudiced towards those with autism and similar disabilities, as well as more comfortable saying and doing rude things to them, because we no longer need to be “politically correct” or worry about the hurting the “special snowflakes.”

I truly believe my daughter has a lot to contribute to this world. She is delayed in language, and certainly has issues with communication and social interaction. She has sensory meltdowns. But she is also brilliant and is already, at age 2.5, surprising adults with her intelligence and her ability to put ideas together in novel ways. I can’t wait to see what she can do as an adult, because I expect her to be a very out-of-the-box thinker, and people like her have the potential to create big change. But only if society will accept them, only if people will listen instead of dismiss her and make fun of her differences. I’m not asking people to give her lots of special treatment, only to consider my daughter and people like her worthy of being listened to, not made fun of, and yes, treated a bit differently (as much as is required to be polite – for example, not making snide comments about strange sensory behavior in public). It’s not a big request, or at least it wasn’t, but it’s starting to feel less and less likely in a Trump world. I am afraid for her because she is different and being different is now, more than ever, very scary.

I’m also afraid for myself because I am one of the “liberal elites” who is “out of touch” in my “ivory tower.” So I want to use this space to explain that point of view a little bit. I am a scientist and a professor at a flagship state university in the midwest. I spend about half of my time doing scientific research, including training and mentoring the next generation of scientists. I spend the other half of my time teaching, including teaching undergraduate courses and doing public outreach such as radio and magazine interviews, and public lectures and demos at science museums. The research I do is aimed at better understanding certain natural hazards, mainly earthquakes. The end goal, if my career is a successful one, is to make advances in understanding earthquake physics that directly inform earthquake hazard forecasts. These forecasts tell engineers and emergency planners how much shaking to plan for in the event of an earthquake and whether or not to plan for the possibility of a large tsunami. Though I will never (I think) be on the ground pulling survivors from the ruble after a large quake, I nevertheless hope and expect my work to contribute to saving thousands or even millions of lives. But scientific progress is often slow and incremental, and only occasionally flashy enough to make the news. So while it might seem like I, and people like me, are disconnected from the concerns of “regular” people, the reality is I’m working very hard on a project that takes a lot of smart people working hard for a very long time, but our end goal is and always has been saving lives.

I think most “ivory tower” academics could similarly argue that their work is aimed at either saving or improving lives. Even theoretical physicists, because advances in theoretical physics eventually lead, down the line, to life changing inventions (for example, the microwave oven). I hate when people ask theoretical physicists what the practical applications of their work are, because we couldn’t possibly know the practical applications of physics we haven’t even discovered yet. But the biggest, best advances come discovering new physics, even though no one could have told you what they would be ahead of time. Even people in the humanities are largely concerned with saving or improving human lives (I don’t want to spend tons of space here giving examples, and others are more qualified than I am to give humanities examples, but I am confident you can find them if you look). Climate scientists are another great example – they are literally trying to give us the information we need to save the environment, our cities, and many human lives but many in power refuse to listen and many scientists are personally attacked and threatened for it.

As academics, our jobs are very stressful. At best, we get our first permanent jobs around age 30 (referring to a tenure track assistant professorship, optimistic scenario) with the option to fire us unless we hit very difficult targets in 5-7 years. These jobs don’t pay a super high wage, either. In fact academics at the very best universities, many of whom are visionaries in their fields, can’t afford to own homes within communting distance (this is true for Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Oxford, and CalTech to name a few). For state universities like mine, our salaries are public information. I challenge anyone who thinks professors are very highly paid to take a look. We’re (almost) all PhDs, and in private industry, most PhDs are hired with six figure salaries. At my university, new assistant professors are hired in the $50-75k range, and only more senior professors (age 55+ usually) make over $100k. Certainly most of us do OK to well money-wise, but we’re not exactly swimming in wealth and we worked really hard to get where we are. These salaries may seem pretty high to someone in the working class, and I’m not trying to complain that I am paid too little (I’m fine with what I am paid). Rather, I am trying to challenge the notion that academics are among the super elite in terms of income. Most of us are solidly middle to upper-middle class. And that’s only counting those of us who actually got tenure-track or tenured jobs. Many, many more never landed those dream jobs and spend years or even decades serving as very poorly paid adjuncts with no job security whatsoever. (To be fair, these numbers assume no “summer salary”, meaning these numbers are 9 month salaries. Professors can obtain research grants and pay themselves for the summer months, but usually are only paid for 1 or 2 of them. And it’s a myth that we don’t have university work to do over the summer, we all do things like prepare our course materials, advise students, and serve on committees, we’re just not paid to do it. Many, if not most, new professors go without any summer support for the first few years.) For more info on salaries at a variety of universities, see https://data.chronicle.com/.

We’re all intelligent people, and with some exceptions, we’re well-meaning people. We chose to devote our lives to academic study and teaching not because it’s easy, and certainly not because we get paid a ton of money, but because we thought it was important. We do it because we believe we are making significant contributions to society, and because we enjoy the work (largely due to the feeling of making important contributions). So when people dismiss us as “out of touch” and “liberal elites” who don’t care about the “regular people” it’s very disheartening.

When people complain about jobs opportunities shrinking, pay going down, etc., I know those are real concerns that Mr. Trump tapped into with his campaign. I know these problems are real in part because we have them in academia too. Getting a tenure-track job now is more difficult than ever, and in real dollars (adjusted for inflation and local cost of living) academic salaries in many places have gone down. The competition for jobs is so tough that people with truly exceptional qualifications (e.g PhD from Harvard, published 10+ original scientific papers, some highly cited by others) have a hard time landing one of these $60k/year gigs. Many of the academic jobs are increasingly going to immigrants, too, many of whom come to the U.S. on student visas as undergraduate or graduate students. (For the record I am in no way anti-immigration, nor do I have any problem with foreigners getting academic jobs in the U.S., because I think we should hire the best regardless of origin, I am just trying to draw the parallel between the situation in academics and the situation of working class whites). So no, we’re not as out of touch as many people think. Rather, we experience the same issues of increased competition and decreased job opportunities. We’re all in this together, and people really need to stop seeing professors as out of touch liberal elites, because we’re anything but.