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Eight of Cups

Sun 7 Jul 2019 by mskala Tags used: , ,

Summer 2019 marks eleven years since I completed my PhD, and three since I decided to stop looking for an academic job. I want to write about that but it's hard to do so. I've written and thrown away many drafts of comments on my own experience, what was promised, what I found instead, and where I stand now.

One reason is it difficult to write about my issues with academia is that I don't have the right platform to do so. Whatever I post here will likely only ever be read by a few friends, family members, and enemies, and those are all people who because of their personal connections to me are incapable of separating my remarks from me personally. The only realistic way it will ever reach a significant number of strangers is if both my friends and their friends choose to share the link on social media; and even if I could successfully beg my friends to share (which, experience has shown, is not the case), I can't expect as much from anyone further removed.

The promise of the Net was that individuals with something to say could say it to the people who needed to hear it; but that has only ever worked for me in a few rare isolated cases where my take on some issue happened to be unusually resonant for someone else who was more famous. I've never had my own platform on the Net; at best, I've occasionally been invited onto others'. And knowing that makes it almost impossible to justify the psychic effort of writing difficult material for a new posting that will be ignored - or worse, reinterpreted as some kind of psychological thing specific to myself.

But the question of platform is relevant not only today as I struggle with the motivation to write about the past at all, but also to that past: a platform was one of the most important things the system promised to me, one of the things I thought I was paying for with fifteen years of low wages and non-existent life stability. One of the promises was that there was a level I could reach at which my ideas would really be taken seriously and have effect bigger than me or my immediate circle.

Another promise, of course, was that I could reach a level at which I'd no longer be having to search for a new job - and move, quite likely internationally - every year or two.

It is hard to overstate how destructive the temporary-job treadmill was both to my scientific work and my life as a whole. There is a bit of conventional wisdom making the rounds about the cost of meetings in software development. The story goes that people in conventional "business" disciplines manage their time in ten- or fifteen-minute blocks. You do something for a few minutes, then you go do something else, maybe you have a brief meeting with a colleague, then you continue your other work for the day. That meeting cost the company 15 minutes of your time.

But those in the creative side of the business - the game artists, the tech writers, the programmers - do not schedule time in 15-minute blocks. These people are doing work that requires extremely intense concentration. It takes hours to enter the special mental state needed to do creative work and it's not possible to context-switch away from it without going through the whole process to get back into the zone again later. People like this do not work in 15-minute increments, but in half- or whole-day increments because that's the nature of the work. So if you want to have a "quick" meeting with someone like that? Or worse, if you want to call them on the phone? Okay, you just cost the company at least half a day of that person's time, because that's how much it'll take them to recover from the interruption.

Academic research is kind of like that but also at times even worse: between sheer stress from the job search hindering my ability to work, and the literal time consumed by filling out forms and writing application documents, in the week that I have to submit a job application, I can't really do research work that week at all. Certainly not really good research work. So if I am on a two-year postdoc and I have to write 100 job applications to get my next job - which is an absurdly high number by any reasonable standard, but perfectly realistic in the 21st-Century market - then what kind of research productivity can I expect?

I always knew how destructive temporary jobs were, and I took each one more reluctantly than the last. When I finally went to Denmark for my last academic job it was on the solid understanding that it would at the very least have to be my last temporary academic job because my slim remaining hope of having a real life outside of work would not survive another. Another equally important threat, which took me much longer to recognize, was the destructive power of delay. They don't give you extra years at the end to make up for a late start; and because of the basically fixed amount of time it takes to climb through the ranks, the effect on lifetime achievement is that a year delay at the start means you lose what would otherwise have been your best later-career year. How many of the best years can you subtract from a career and still have something worth spending your life?

In the Summer of 2016 when I looked at my life and my career I realized that in 2016 I not only was still applying for the job I ought to have had in 2005, but I was still not getting interviews for it. The best-case scenario was no longer good enough. Even if I could magically get not only interviews but one of the jobs, that would only put me where I should have been eleven years earlier: an assistant professor facing many more years of grinding before I'd have anything much like the platform and the stability that were my reasons for embarking on this journey in the first place. No guarantee of eventual success, little time to make use of that status if ever acquired, and all the responsibility for my position attributed to me despite being outside my control. I saw no realistic expectation of ever catching up to where I ought to be, let alone receiving compensation for the delay in getting there. I couldn't even expect any recognition of a problem not personally specific to me.

The system has an obvious incentive to make the promises broken to me my problem instead of a systemic problem - such reassignment of blame allows the system to continue exploiting others - but even those outside the system seem to want, though it's less obvious why, to believe that when people spin out of the system it's the individual's fault instead of something wrong with the system. I don't know what their incentive would be. Maybe it just comes down to the larger-scale political issue: some people don't want to accept that any level of society ever owes individuals anything. Agreeing that in exchange for years of devotion to the profession I am owed, at the very least, a job I don't have to re-apply for every year, or even an interview in 2016 for the job I was fully qualified for in 2008, would mean agreeing that it is possible for social contracts to exist and for people to be owed things at all! And the idea of anyone ever really being owed anything on the strength of their own individual merit, not as part of an identity group, is an unpalatable proposition across the political spectrum. The Right hates social contracts and the Left hates individual merit.


As much as I expect this wasn't the goal of your post (as I have doubts that this problem is going ot be fixed in our lifetime, if ever), I still read it through to see if it'd vindicate my decision to leave academia after my first post-doc. It did -- though my experience of the job market in industry is bad enough that I still needed this vindication.
kiwano - 2019-07-08 07:58
i found your blog through your mastodon post. it just so happens that i am in the process of deciding whether to continue with my research career or to sell out for industry. anyway i just wanted to say thanks for writing this!
shimao - 2019-09-02 00:53
Is this in any way related to Turchin's doomsday theory of "overproduction of elites"? It ought to be made precisely clear to every doctoral student that not every one of them can possibly have a professorship, no matter how much they sacrifice.
sigs - 2020-12-07 03:31
Yes, I think there's a connection there. I see "elite overproduction" as referring most to the undergraduate level - promises are made and not kept about what people can expect by going, or especially by sending their children, to college at all, not just PhD programs. But it's basically the same issue at every level and it may be an even bigger problem at the undergraduate level because of the larger numbers of people affected. The whole society just can't be Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average.

However, I don't like the formulation of making it "precisely clear" that "not every one" can become a professor, for a few reasons. That grossly understates the magnitude of the problem - the system doesn't just fail to make it "clear" that there aren't enough positions and that getting them has little to do with merit; the system actively promises the contrary, especially on the meritocracy aspect. The percentage success rate on the academic research path isn't just less than 100%; it is more like 1%, not well summarized at all by the phrase "not every one." Also, that formulation involves more victim-blaming than I'm happy about because it kind of makes it sound like there may be some fault on the part of the students for believing the system's false promises. There is none. The change over time is important. In earlier generations there actually were enough academic positions - maybe not for everybody who would kind of like to have one, but at least for everybody who really did the work. Truisms about the success rate necessarily being less than 100% do not capture the fact that the prospects of success, and the relationship between success and earning it, have changed recently in a drastic way.

Finally, my point here is quite different from saying that promises shouldn't be made. I think, instead, that promises should be *kept*.
Matt - 2020-12-07 05:35

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