Monday, August 26, 2013

An Amateur Ethnography of My Grad School Tribe

I haven't been writing for the last few days because I was down in South Carolina at a friend's wedding.  Some of my grad school friends were there, and I saw some more in North Carolina and Virginia on the way home.  I was very fortunate to fall in with a great group of people in grad school at Big Ten University who made my time there some of the best years of my life.  Somewhere on the New Jersey Turnpike today, I realized that an analysis of our experiences might help illuminate the problems facing young(ish) scholars today.

There are eight people in the cohort I am analyzing, counting myself.  Seven of us have PhDs, and another is going to be defending this semester.  Six of the eight have degrees in history, one in English, and one in computer science.  Five of us are still employed in academia, although we all were professors at some point.  I have left to be a private school teacher, another is doing political advocacy and studying to be a social worker, and another works as a researcher.  Of the five in academia, three are tenured/tenure track, and two are in full-time contingent positions with a measure of job security.  Of the three who are in tenurable positions, one works at a regional state university with onerous workloads, another at a SLAC, and another at a SLAC with a research-friendly workload.  Essentially, only one of eight of us got the kind of job that our grad school mentors prepared us for.

Since I don't want to single any of my friends out (some of whom read this blog regularly), I'll just talk about our experiences and feelings collectively, based on the conversations I've had this weekend.  There are a few things that stick out.  In the first place, there is an almost universal feeling of letdown, as far as academia is concerned.  This even includes those who managed to get the brass ring of the tenure-track job.  Of the three people who are no longer in academia, two of us were well on our way to getting tenure, and decided to walk away.  Three of the five people who are still professors talked seriously with me about leaving the profession in the near future themselves.

These numbers might be explained by the general feeling that academic work is poorly paid, highly insecure, and forces those who take it to live in places that they don't really want to live in.  This last factor was an important one for all of those who left academia, and something that bears more conversation.  Academia is like the priesthood, in that the vast majority of scholars have little to no control over where they will be able to find full time work.  That's why I ended up in a wretched East Texas town, and many others I know are living in benighted rural burgs that they never would have chosen to live in if they had not been professors.  This is a major quality of life issue that grad school mentors tend to gloss over, because if more grads were aware of just how little freedom they would have to choose where they live, they wouldn't bother to finish their studies.

It was so great to see everyone again, but bittersweet to see so many people with so much to offer given so little opportunity and reward by the profession that they have sacrificed so much to be a part of.  If more folks out there would do an amateur ethnography of their grad school circle of friends, I bet they'll uncover some similar things.

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