Some academic work/life balance anecdotes

I’m still working on that job application, and the meeting with the career counselor was, unlike the last meeting where I had no idea what I was trying to accomplish, actually very helpful.

But I thought I’d share a few anecdotes from my time in grad school. A lot of great stuff has been written in the post-ac blogosphere on the subject of the work/life balance problems in academia. For me, this issue was probably as big as the job market doom in pushing me out of the academic door.

So, a few stories. I recently heard from a friend in my department about someone we’ll call Professor X. Professor X has taken it upon hirself numerous times to advise students, some of whom are hir advisees and some of whom are not, about their relationships (romantic, not professional). On one occasion, there was a grad student, we’ll call hir Grad Student Z, who got into the program. The next year, Grad Student Z’s longtime partner, Grad Student A, got into the program (meh, these pseudonyms are getting confusing). Professor X, not Grad Student Z’s advisor, took Grad Student Z aside to suggest that hir partner attend another program. Professor X described hir own grad school experience, in which zie and hir partner purposefully went to different programs in different cities so that they would not be a distraction to each other during their time in grad school (as though anyone trying to get into grad school can have hir pick of programs). And then they both got academic jobs and lived happily ever after!! So zie highly recommended that Grad Student Z and Grad Student A follow this brilliant plan so that they too could get jobs.

No. Let’s go back to Freshman Logic 101 here – the stuff that we try to teach students in comp classes. Correlation does not equal causality. The fact that one couple chose to live in different cities while in grad school so that they could be extra focused and serious does not necessarily have anything to do with the fact that they found jobs. They found jobs years ago, and there are other life circumstances (cough: privilege) that may have helped them to get academic jobs. In any case, it is not like this is the one surefire thing that will get you a job if everything else fails. Aside from the obvious overreach in telling someone that zie shouldn’t live with hir partner, the fact that there’s a sort of concealed threat there that living with one’s partner will lead to job market failure is especially crappy.

The recent story I heard about Professor X was that zie had told several of hir advisees upon their entrance into the program that if they were in relationships, they should end them, because they wouldn’t have time for relationships in grad school. I’m sticking with these gender-neutral pronouns for the sake of anonymity, but let’s just say that the gender dynamics in these cases were very problematic. So living apart from your significant other isn’t even enough – you just shouldn’t have one at all! Having human relationships proves that you are not really serious about finding a job!

Fortunately, as far as I know, none of these people followed this advice. But perhaps as disturbing as the fact that the advice was given at all, when I brought up these stories to some other students in the program, fully expecting them to feel as outraged as I was, their response was something like, “Ahaha, that Professor X! Isn’t zie so crazy and funny!” Er, no. It is not funny to tell vulnerable people freaked out by impending unemployment that drastically isolating themselves will increase their odds of success on the job market. There is nothing cute about such behavior – it is downright crazy and inappropriate.

There is another professor in the department, Professor Q. Professor Q has, on several occasions, heard about the outside pursuits/hobbies of students in the program. When Professor Q has had meetings with these students in which these hobbies have come up, zie has told them that they must give up these outside pursuits as they proceed through the program if they want to have a good chance on the job market. In one of these cases, this advice was enough to push a student to leave the program after hir first year – which, given what I’ve heard from this student since zie left, was probably a good thing, as zie seems to be happy with what zie is doing now. In another case, a student had recently had some non-academic writing published, which is what prompted the advice.

Universityoflies’ post on that Graduate Study for the 21st Century book offers some pretty good responses to this kind of thinking- the idea that taking off any time to do anything other than academic work will be the one and only reason why you didn’t get an academic job. Not the abysmal job “market”. What makes me crazy is the suggestion that you must give up anything else you might love, anything that might be important to your identity, in order to have a chance on the job market. And what if you don’t get a job, or decide several years in that you don’t want an academic career as much as you thought you did? By this point you have lost touch with all of the other things you once found interesting because you’ve been pouring your heart and soul into that academic career. It is going to be a lot harder to move in a different direction, to learn to understand your identity as something other than an academic, if you’ve literally given up everything else that you ever cared about. Again, as with the relationship advice, it’s not ok to give freaked out grad students this kind of advice. If these professors would face up to the realities of the academic job “market” their students are facing, they might be able to offer them some advice that would actually be helpful – like to diversify their skills and have some kind of back-up plan if the academic career doesn’t work out.

Fortunately for me, I never worked with any of these professors, but the fact that they were going about doling out this advice still scared me. I’m pretty sure my advisor forgot about my existence when I wasn’t sitting directly in front of hir, and we never had conversations about my personal life, which was just fine by me. But hearing that other people were having to deal with this still made me very angry – and even though I am out now, going over all of it has me seething with rage all over again! I realize that work/life balance is not always a field of daisies in the “real” work world either, but I don’t know of any of my non-academic friends who have been told to give up their relationships and hobbies by their bosses if they want to advance in their career. Not cool, academia.

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4 thoughts on “Some academic work/life balance anecdotes

  1. Hey thanks for the link 🙂

    I am so horrified by that anecdote btw. Not surprised, just horrified. So then, according to this professor’s ideas about how an ideal grad student should be living, you have absofuckinglutely NO outside resources or support. Maybe the whole thing is designed to isolate you on purpose, so that way when the professor takes advantage of you or steals your shit or tries to make the sex with you in a supply closet, you feel so completely alone in the universe that you just go with it and let them do whatever the hell they want to you.

    Pure unadulterated academia is more important than love? Than family? Than having a life???? OH THE RAGE.

    I’m so glad to hear that your adviser isn’t one of these jokers… and I feel so bad for anyone who is so scared or green that they follow this advice.

    • Yeah, this professor is pretty extreme – there’s another story in which zie told some first-year students in one of hir classes that if they were doing things right in grad school, they should be sleep-deprived, with bloodshot eyes and plenty of acne. I guess that describes my exam-prep state pretty accurately, but it was not a healthy place I would’ve liked to stay for 6+ years.

      But back to the point, I’ve heard enough people joke about how it’s easier not to have a relationship in academia that it seems like this is at least a semi-common view – and I think I remember a post JC wrote awhile back about someone who was living apart from their partner/family to have more time for work. No job is worth those kinds of sacrifices, but working for ~15-25k a year with really terrible career prospects? Argh, the insanity.

  2. I really enjoyed this post, thanks – I am currently trying to claw my way back into the things I enjoyed and to repair the relationships I had before I took up full time work in academia. In grad school, I still had time for a life (one of the benefits of the UK system) but once I entered into academic employment here in Britain, I pretty much had to give up everything outside work. I would never, ever tell one of my PhD students to give up relationships and/or outside interests, btw. In fact, the treatment of grad students is one of the primary things about the profession that I simply cannot tolerate anymore.

    • Yeah, not every professor in my department would have given such advice! And I spent some time doing a kind of independent study at a UK university before starting my PhD program in the US. I knew mostly grad students while I was there, who did seem to have more of a life than is possible in US programs (well, except for those doing science, who seemed to be in the lab just about all the time!).

      And yes, grad school is rough on all kinds of relationships, including ones with non-academic friends, which your comment made me think of. I’ve also been trying to catch back up with a lot of people I lost touch with while I was consumed with grad school work. I really regret neglecting these friendships, as I think part of what makes academia seem so scary to leave is being mostly surrounded by other academics – which makes it hard to imagine having a different kind of life. Good luck with your own transition!

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