I just spent the last three days in East Tennessee in a house with a bunch of my grad school friends (some of whom make up the tens of people who read this blog on the regular!) It was a great experience, and actually got me thinking a lot about the changes in higher education.
We earned our PhDs or left grad school in the period roughly between 2004 and 2008. Some of us are tenured and tenure-track faculty at various universities. Just as many of us are working at universities in another capacity or teaching at the high school level (like yours truly.) Back in say, 2006, when I graduated, I doubt any of us would have predicted any of this. A lot of this had to do with the infamous academic job market, but not in the ways you might think. A lot of the folks who are no longer university faculty were once tenure track professors (like me), or were offered but turned down tenure track jobs. (I am glad to say that while many of us worked for a time as contingent faculty, none of us tried to make a life out of adjuncting.)
It wasn't so much that getting a job was impossible, it was that those jobs were often incompatible with our lives. I am not the only person in my circle who opted out of being faculty to either solve the "two body problem" or (relatedly) live in a place I actually wanted to live in. I had long agreed with the wisdom that academia requires its adherents to be a kind of clergy, whose work is to be a calling demanding great personal sacrifice, rather than just another professional career. Seeing us all gathered together this weekend was a very visceral reminder that so many in my generation of PhDs have not followed the path they worked so hard to forge in grad school.
Until I fell in love with my wife, I was willing to accept the calling and try to make myself happy with the consolation that I was a scholar, even if it meant living in places far from friends and family where I did not truly want to be. Once my life had different priorities, it was inevitable that my academic career was going to end. That's the case for a lot of other people, too, both in and outside of my circle of friends.
While I and my non-professor friends are contributing a lot in our current jobs and get personal fulfillment from them, I can't help but to think of how much scholarly potential was and is wasted by a system completely inadequate to human needs. Of course, as far as the department we graduated from is concerned, those of us who are no longer professors might as well not even exist. And so for those just emerging from my alma mater with their doctoral diplomas fresh in their hands, the cycle continues.