Re-Post: Counting the Costs: On Pursuing Life in Academia (Skinner)

Sad Academic[I initially published this post around this date in 2014. My institutional affiliation has changed since then but everything else I say here remains true. Since it’s hiring season once again, I thought I would re-post it as it may be helpful for those in the cycle.]

This morning I received my program book for the annual SBL/AAR meetings in San Diego. The last time the meetings were held in San Diego was 2007, which consequently was the last time I was there. I was just days away from defending my dissertation and I was in town for a job interview—a job I didn’t get, by the way. Anyway, thinking about my last time in San Diego got me thinking about my own journey in academia, and it occurred to me that it’s that season once again for so many hope-filled academics. It’s the season when grad students, ABDs, freshly-minted PhDs, and in some cases, those who’ve been on the job market for years, set about preparing (literally) dozens of documents for hiring committees; you know, those notorious committees that (1) may not ask for an interview—which is understandable; (2) may not even look at your materials—which is somewhat less understandable; and (3) in many cases, won’t even acknowledge that they’ve received your materials, let alone that the job you were hoping for has been filled—which is inexcusable. I have been on the receiving end of all three of these (non) responses in my career, and I feel your pain. (BTW, if you have time, check out this pretty spot-on indictment of how unethical the hiring practices in our profession can be for people in this very situation I’m describing.)

As readers of this blog know, I am fortunate to have a full-time job teaching in higher education and in my area of specialization. I am also fortunate to teach in a part of the country that allows me to be relatively close to my extended family. In many ways, it’s like I have found one of Wonka’s golden tickets. Those closest to me will tell you that I genuinely love what I do, and as I have grown in my teaching, I have also had relative success in publishing my research. Still I find it possible to be very cynical about life in academia. So much of this is related to my own experiences. With so many of my own students requesting letters of recommendation for graduate school at the moment—some with an eye on landing a job in academia—I felt the need to get real for a moment. I’m speaking to my students in this post, but I invite you to listen in, if you’re interested. (I apologize in advance if I come across as Debbie Downer.)

Life in academia is not for the faint of heart. It is a path fraught with rejection at every turn. Each stage of the process brings more opportunities for rejection. Some think the rejection stops after you’ve landed a job, but actually there are more opportunities to experience the sting of a brush-off. Here’s a step-by-step breakdown of the untold possibilities for rejection, as I see them:

(1) Applying to doctoral programs: This is the first test we must all pass. I know several people who were not admitted to any doctoral programs during their first trip through the process. At least one of them currently has a doctorate from one of the best schools in the world, a full-time teaching post, and a monograph that has just been released. This sort of rejection is not the end of the road. Just know that it’s a possibility. Fortunately, I was admitted to the doctoral program of my choice, but there were other schools that said “no” to me. I shudder to think what would have happened had they all said, “no.” I was a young seminary graduate with a wife and small child. It might have been easy to give up on the dream and turn toward something more “practical,” more “gainful.” Applying to doctoral programs was my first hint that life in academia, along with being a highly competitive profession, has the potential to be a soul-crushing enterprise. (If after reading this bit of honesty you still choose to move forward, you should see Nijay’s comprehensive work on this subject.)

(2) Applying for jobs: This is clearly the most soul-crushing process of them all. I was on the job market for three full years after earning my Ph.D. If I’m being honest, I was applying to jobs for at least two years before I finished. After losing my job in 2009—another story for another day—I spent an entire academic year living in a three-bedroom house with my wife, three kids, and my in-laws. (How’s that for soul-crushing?) During those three to five years, I probably put out 50-60 applications (and killed several baby sequoias in the process). I had a dozen or so interviews and several on campus visits before I finally got a job. In one instance, I was CERTAIN there was going to be an offer in a week. Eight weeks later I was informed via email (yes, that’s right, an EMAIL) that the search committee was cancelling the job due to lack of funding. Can anyone say, rejection? (Just in case you think I’m alone, you can also see some of the details of Nijay’s employment journey here.)

(3) Presenting your research: I try to attend several professional meetings every year, and I have not missed an SBL meeting since 2005. I have given several papers at SBL and elsewhere, but I have had numerous proposals grounded on the tarmac before they could ever take flight. For instance, for four straight years I put in a proposal to read a paper in the Johannine Literature section, and for four straight years my proposals were shot down. To make it worse, each of those proposed papers went on to be published somewhere, but I could not get the Johannine Literature group to give it a sniff. Finally, this year, for the first time I will read a paper in the Johannine Literature section.

(4) Publishing your research: After surviving the gauntlet of rejection presented by the previous three stages, you now have arrived at the part of academic life that continues to offer you various and sundry opportunities to experience soul-crushing rejection. This is the part of the job that no one tells you about. Especially if you are in a “publish-or-perish” institution, you will find yourself face-to-face with the realities of this sort of rejection. Just this week I got word that an article I wrote over two years ago was finally accepted for publication. I had previously sent the article to three different journals. In all three instances, one reviewer liked it and the other wasn’t sure. Practically, this means that each time I submitted said article, it was rejected. After re-working it three times in response to previous reviewers’ comments, I was finally able to get it into a form that two outside readers found acceptable. Thankfully, each rejection served to make the article better, but each time it was “back to the drawing board.”

All of this is to say nothing of the processes of applying for grants, external funding, sabbaticals, promotion, etc. Academia is a profession in which you consistently put your fate in someone else’s hands, without the promise of anything in return. Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment….maybe a bunch of us are, but not everyone is going to be able to sustain such continued rejection and emerge unscathed. Sure, there are those anomalous individuals who get into every program to which they apply, earn the doctorate, get their dream job right out of the gate, and have everything they write accepted for presentation and/or publication. In my admittedly limited experience, however, those people are the rare exceptions rather than the rule.

To my current and former students I say: If, after all of this, you still want to go forward, I do understand. Life in academia is sometimes crazy, often beautiful, and always interesting, and I’m  not sure I would be this fulfilled doing anything else. Just be sure come in with your eyes open and continue to count the costs.

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