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

Sad AcademicLast year, right around this time, I published the following post. Since it’s “application season” once again, I figured I would re-post for those who need either encouragement or sober warning…..

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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The Problem of Academic Freedom in Religious Higher Education (Skinner)

Consider No EvilEarlier this summer I wrote here on the blog about Dr. Brandon Withrow, a historian of Christianity who lost his faith while teaching at a faith-based institution. What made his situation unique is that he decided to be open about his loss of faith and leave his full-time position without causing a controversy. After reading his story, I contacted Brandon and had the privilege of Skyping with him about his journey and a host of other things. During the course of our conversation, I became aware of his most recent book (co-authored with Menachem Wecker), Consider No Evil: Two Faith Traditions and the Problem of Academic Freedom in Religious Higher Education (Eugene, OR: Cascade). Last week Brandon graciously sent along a copy of the book and I was so engrossed that I read it within the first two days. (By the way, this never happens. I am usually too busy to drop everything and read straight through ANY book.)

The book takes an in-depth look at some of the problems, pitfalls, and unique features of faith-based higher education here in the United States. The book is divided into four sections, each of which consists of a chapter from Withrow in which he discusses some element of Christian higher education followed by a chapter from Wecker, who then discusses Jewish higher education.

Part One is entitled, “Our Stories.” Here both authors give an in-depth look at their individual backgrounds as they relate to the subject matter of the book. (I should say that the book was written before Withrow lost his faith but surely while that evolution was taking place. It would be interesting to see what he might add to the book today.) Part Two is entitled, “Our Traditions” and discusses the rise of Christian and Jewish universities, respectively. Part Three, entitled “Our Limitations,” was simultaneously the most interesting and troublesome part of the book. I was especially interested in Chapter 5, “The Outrageous Idea of Christian Academic Freedom,” as it dealt with so many of the controversies that have led to the termination of professors here in the US in recent years. The fourth and final part of the book is entitled, “Our Solutions.” Frankly, I found this section to be somewhat depressing because the solutions mostly boil down to future job candidates being mindful of what they’re getting themselves into. In other words, sweeping reform among schools that have the power to make an unwarranted decision to fire a faculty member is unlikely.

Perhaps the most important (and also depressing) insight I gained from this book is the realization that, regardless of the motivation behind terminating a contract, faith-based schools will continue to have the freedom to do so with legal impunity, at least here in the United States. Over and over again, the authors make the point that the courts consider these matters to be religious in nature, and therefore refuse to rule against a school that has terminated a faculty member. This means that such schools can (legitimately or illegitimately) claim that the termination was over an issue of religious import, and the professor in question has no recourse.

I really enjoyed this book and will likely use it (especially Chapter 5) when helping students understand the slippery role of Biblical interpretation in many of the non-essential matters within the life of different denominational groups. I will also recommend this book to those young scholars who are considering pursuing a post at a religiously-affiliated school. There is much to be gained from thinking through the issues Withrow and Wecker point out in the course of their various discussions. We should be grateful for both their wisdom and their honesty.

Peer-Review, Biblical Studies, and the Web (Skinner)

Peer ReviewLast week I published a post in which I questioned the role of online publications in academic monographs. I had just reviewed a very well-written and substantive monograph in which there were a number of footnotes containing web-based discussions. I was genuinely asking for the insight of scholars and students in the field because, as I admitted, I am still ambivalent about the practice. There was some good discussion on the blog and even more on my social media feeds. Later, James McGrath took up the question and generated further discussion both on his blog and on Facebook. It was interesting to read many of the comments, especially from those with hang-ups about peer review; funny how that topic found its way into the conversation. After reflecting on the whole experience over the past week I wanted to share several observations:

(1) First, suspicion of the critical expertise of those within the academic discipline of Biblical Studies is alive and well. I have dealt with said suspicion for a long time among people of faith. The “my-reading-is-every-bit-as-good-as-your-reading” mentality persists among lifelong readers of the Bible without any particular expertise in the field. To a certain degree I understand this mentality, even if I reject it. However, it’s one thing to have no exposure to the critical discussions in a field of study and it’s completely different to have broad awareness of those issues (even if limited expertise). Against that backdrop, I was surprised at some (e.g., pastors, seminarians, grad students, etc.) who have at least a general awareness of the critical issues in our field who seemed to be suspicious of peer review. This leads me to my second observation.

(2) For better of worse, the web, and in particular, the blogosphere has become a democratized space where everyone’s view is regarded as equal and many voices, including those without credentials are given a credence they have neither earned nor deserve. Do a search among blogs with a focus on the Bible. They are ubiquitous and they run the gamut. You have seniors scholars whose opinions carry tremendous weight, blogs run by junior scholars still trying to establish their voice(s) in the field, and even still blogs that are run by pastors, recent seminary grads, current seminary students, and even undergraduates. Everyone loves to talk about the Bible and while not everyone’s take is rooted in what specialists might consider an “expert opinion,” the ability to push “publish” has created a scenario in which everyone’s opinion is treated as if on an equal plane. (For the record, I’m not frowning on any of these attempts at blogging or finding one’s voice. My concern is the all-too-common, “well that’s just your opinion” response.)

(3) By and large, those who appear to reject peer review or find it objectionable seem to be those who want a broad hearing for their ideas but aren’t willing or don’t regularly subject their work to peer review. Here’s a fact we cannot get around: not everyone interested in a given field of study can, is, or will be considered an expert in that field. Further,  not every idea is worthy of being considered or taken seriously.

Quite frankly, anyone (and I do mean ANYONE) can publish anything (and I do mean ANYTHING) on the internet. Peer review is not perfect. It is neither an exact science nor free from bias, but neither is it is completely arbitrary. While peer review may not guarantee quality in every case, it remains the necessary gate-keeping mechanism within academic biblical studies and should not be jettisoned. I’m frankly surprised we even need to have this conversation.

The Hiring Process, Paperwork, and the Paucity of Jobs (Skinner)

Phelps' Piece.ChronicleLast month I posted a piece in which I tried as honestly as possible, to reflect on some of the difficulties involved in seeking a position in higher ed. Today my colleague, Hollis Phelps, has an especially helpful (and I think, poignant) plea for an overhaul of the hiring process over at the Chronicle of Higher Education. Anyone who has applied to multiple jobs and been forced to generate a mountain of paperwork just to enter the initial stages of the search will appreciate his call for simplicity.