Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Academic Life is Good

Agree or disagree? (see below)

I happen to agree. Not to minimize anyone's stress in their academic job or to discount the anxieties that come with the pressure to get grants, publish papers, advise students, teach teach teach, travel, answer endless surveys from administrators who want to know about our quality of life but whose response seems to be to make life more difficult, and so on, BUT a reader writes:

.. from talking to male and female colleagues with kids, and having my daughter recently myself I find the idea that Academia is (more than other careers) hostile to family life to be hugely overblown. 
How many other jobs can you basically decide to set your schedule to be whatever hours you want, or even to work from home much of the time (I know several faculty members who have done this when they had young children and remain successful)? 

What other job lets you take 3 months in the summer to work on your own with few other obligations (some faculty I know work from home 4/5 days during the week in the summer)?  

What other career gives you 6 months to work from home or even another state if you want to, with no other work obligations, every 5-7 years (I know faculty who have taken a sabbatical basically to raise their infants)? 

And all of this while you are doing work you love that is intellectually stimulating, allows a standard of living well above average (and job security to rival a government job - even better at present!), and is physically safe.  

I am sick and tired of the privilege I see coming from academics.  Some people have to actually work for a living.  They work their bodies to death, and their minds to jelly because they have to.  We are lucky.  So, Damn, Lucky.  

What we need to do now, is convince more women of this and stop scaring people away with this idea that Academic science is some kind of hell that will destroy your life, your soul, and your family and any sane person would stay away...  I think maybe some people have selective memories...  It certainly doesn't seem to match with what you've described of your home life, or really that of any academic I've met. 


GMP said...

I agree. Academia has its stresses and pressures, but is a great job in terms of flexibility, pay, and job security, not to mention being your own boss and working around smart young people. Every so often, I compare my life with that of non-academics, and I remind myself how good I've got it and how lucky I am to have this job.

Anonymous said...

Agree. Once you have a faculty job, all of this is true, but getting there? Its a hell and surely goes against women since they can not afford any of these, plus they get below poverty level wages. The current way of doing science (read specially biomedical science, but I have seen it in Chemistry as well) where you need to put in long hours at bench, churn data, spend money from your pocket for babysitter. And finally your PI has an absolute control your career so if he only remembers your kids and your big belly while being pregnant and none of your hard work makes it even more difficult.

Anonymous said...

I agree that it is good, but I disagree with the perception that may be left by your reader about all the "free time". Personally, my summers are busier than the academic year, with meetings, proposal review panels, field work, etc. It's typical for me to have to fly twice a month during the year and 3-4 times a month during the summer. Also, while time is flexible, we work far more than 40 hours a week in most cases. Personally, I spend most weekends at work at least one day, taking turns with my husband playing with our kids in the office building. It's a fantastic career, but I think that we do students a disservice if we don't make them aware of the high stress levels that go along with grant writing, advising and supporting graduate students, let alone tenure.

Anonymous said...

Maybe it's great after you get a tenure-track job. But many of those perks are not relevant pre-tenure-track. "Academic life" as a grad student or post-doc with a family is very, very difficult. Having worked outside academia before I began, and being able to compare the pluses and minuses of each, I would say that industry provides better for families than pre-tenure-track academia.

Anonymous said...

Faculty jobs with tenure are good jobs, though the flexible hours remain long. I have one of these jobs and consider myself highly privileged.

Unfortunately, the majority of faculty jobs now are contingent jobs, with low pay, poor benefits, and no job security. Read the statistics from the AAUP—tenure track faculty are now the minority of faculty, and tenured faculty a vanishing minority.

mathgirl said...

I agree with this life description after you get a tenure-track job with nice conditions, but not everybody with a PhD gets there.

Also, you never stop working. This career is not for people who need to unplug at some point.

More generally, it's very hard to find a good balance both in the job (research, teaching, service) and outside (family life, friends, etc). While I personally enjoy everything (yes, even the service), I stress about how to distribute my time among them. Granted: I don't know how this works in a "real job"...

Monisha said...

I agree that these perks are primarily connected to tenure-line faculty positions, and the preparation/training phase is alot less straightforward. Once in the tenure-line, i think we who love the work can easily lose sight of the fact that the long hours and many pieces of our job are self-chosen - i observe many levels of intensity in my colleagues (a good, R1 state institution) and for some, those levels go up and down in ways that correspond to family needs quite well. so yes - you can work very hard in academia, including hard enough to be miserable, but the original comment about how it is quite a bit easier than in other jobs is on point. we often have a choice.

Anonymous said...

I think this also depends on your University. As a non-faculty PhD staff member at a Large Public University, I find that the academic environment here is very anti-family. That may largely have to do with a few specific faculty members, but I have found this environment to be extremely family UNfriendly.

Anonymous said...

I think it might even be department dependent. I am at a large public university but my department has been great. I had a kid pre-tenure and it was no problem, everyone was supportive. I work hard but have great flexibility, so I agree with the 'academic life is good' statement as it applies to my own life.

Certainly things were harder and more stressful pre-tenure but I would say that even then I appreciated the flexibility of this career.

Anonymous said...

I agree- I love being a professor, but don't say only others "actually work for a living." Just because we work mostly with our minds doesn't mean it's not work. Many manual labor jobs have less stress, pay better, and can even provide fulfillment/ a sense of accomplishment (I come from a blue collar family, so I also know many jobs involve low pay for long hours and awful experiences too). My relatives couldn't do my job, and I couldn't do theirs.

Anonymous said...

Wow, LW here - I'm honored...!

I'm honestly amazed there's this much agreement considering how much the general talk seems to say that academic life being hostile to family is "the reason" why women aren't represented proportionally in science.

Anonymous said...

Once you get tenure, sure, it's a great job, rewarding intellectually if not financially. But academics don't actually work for a living? Excuse me?

Anonymous said...

I partially agree. But it seems important to point out how much variability there is between universities.

At my current university, people have to apply for sabbatical with a detailed explanation of what will be done with the sabbatical, and it is very much frowned upon to take it because of how much that messes up teaching schedules and service responsibility. Most people who take sabbatical from teaching still have extensive service work unless they've managed to leave the country. And many of us are stuck staying locally due to partner and family issues.

At my current university, there is next to no support for having children. You take FMLA and then you come back to work, even mid-semester.

Amy said...

I was just thinking this same thing yesterday as I took off in the middle of the day to go on a field trip with my daughter's class. And, while these "benefits" primarily kick in once a person has secured a tenure track job, there is some flexibility in the trainee years if necessary. But I don't think you can expect a job at this level without paying your dues first (compare to law, medicine, etc.).

Reading this post and the comments, though, I'm wondering why the idea that academia is not compatible with family and therefore the reason so many women don't pursue academic careers is such a common viewpoint when the experiences of so many argue against it. Is it because the "top" institutions at which most of us train really are unfriendly environments (in my field the vast majority of faculty come through a handful of top programs)? Is it because the cautionary tale of the scientist who put off having a family until it was too late is too terrifying? (We all know at least one person who wishes they had children but for whatever reason does not.) Is it because those of us who have successfully (whatever that means) combined a family with an academic career don't spend enough time shouting about our joy from the rooftops?

alonamarie said...

As someone who worked in industry before returning to do a PhD, I think we also underestimate what's required to succeed in industry. Excelling in industry is not a 40 h/week job either. To do well, you have to work smart and work hard.

To me, the attraction of academia is that you have more control over what you work on. If you're going to work hard, it's less onerous if it's something you're interested in. Many can find that interesting thing in industry, but some have trouble finding motivating problems within a money-making company setting.

Anonymous said...

Partially agree. I was thinking of how to explain the effects of the shutdown on scientists. Academics seem horrified that some scientists aren't being paid, but to the rest of the working (U.S.) world, that's no different than being laid off. It's better, actually, since civil servants know their job will still be there when they return. However, as others have pointed out, many of the perks are reserved to tenured faculty.

Geologist said...

As in all things, a person's joy in their career is highly variable. Academia, when one is successful and makes it to the tenured position, can be fabulous. It can also be absolutely horrible. It all depends on your individual situation - your university, your department, your colleagues, and how you react to adversity. Similarly, careers in Industry offer similar pros and cons.

As just one example, In my field, industry offers ***substantially ***** more money. HUGE difference. So if money is something you personally really value, then academia isn't the best choice. If you value being able to answer scientific questions of your choosing, then academia is the best choice.

Having numerous deep discussions with my friends and colleagues in careers other than academia, I have found that the bullying and sexism that I and others around me have experienced in academia are far worse than in other careers - mostly because in our experiences my university and department have never been willing to enact any safeguards or actions to protect people - whereas there are mechanisms set up to do so in other careers in government or industry.

It isn't that these things don't happen in other careers, it is that in my experience, academia allows for terrible things to occur and the system is not set up to protect people. I do think this varies greatly among universities though, so once again, experiences will differ greatly.

So, yes, I do agree with the letter on this blog, but it isn't always perfect. Nothing really is. What is important though is to go into a career with your eyes open, so that you are as fully informed as you can be about your choice so that hopefully, you make the best choice for YOU.

And for those of us in a system that we are not happy about, my goal is to try and make it better for the next generation. I have days where I"m utterly defeated, but I have to just get up and start at it again.

In the end, I'm very happy with my choice in academia, but when I made this choice, I didn't have a good idea of what I was getting into, nor did I understand what other options I had. I am doing my best to help my students see the wider picture and I encourage them to talk to people in other career choices so they hear from many different people/experiences/options before they make their choice.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree - academics can be terrible whiners :-)

Even pre-tenure, academic positions are a pretty good deal relative to comparable professional positions (e.g. PhDs who go into industry/startup). The hours can be long in both cases, travel can be rough, and stress is part of any professional position. I think there's a lot more day-to-day flexibility in academic positions, but also more loneliness and stress about long-term direction. Many industry positions are more engaging on a day to day level, but with less flexibility and control over long-term direction. Industry pay is better, but TT faculty and staff tend to have pretty good benefits, esp retirement.

I think university admin/staff positions are often good as well, especially with regard to stability.

If you work for a company, you can get laid off, or your division get shut down or sold, or the company go bust pretty much any time. _Compared to most companies_, universities actually have pretty stable finances and jobs.

I do think the situation is much less good for students who want to start a family during their PhD, compared to e.g. students who go into industry after their MS and start a family. It's not clear how to fix this: The biological clock ticks, but it's just not a great idea to have kids before you're done with school and get a job.

I also think indefinite adjunct positions are a problem. On the other hand, I doubt other temp jobs are better and if someone can't turn an adjunct position into a long term one in some reasonable timeframe, maybe it is better to take the hint. (I don't feel sorry for 40-year-old barristas waiting for their big break in acting/poetry/concept art either, so perhaps I am evil.)

Anonymous said...

People like to complain to the extent that often when the situation improves they redefine the normal up so they can carry on complaining.

To actually get an honest opinion nothing works like setting up a system in which there is a big incentive to be honest to oneself. In my field this is provided by the fact that most professors could walk into a company and double their salary. They (we) don't. Why? because being a tenured professor is grrrrrrrreat!

Yes, it has its sucky parts (which job doesn't) and there are things we could (we should) do better, but it still beats most industry jobs out there any day of the week and twice on Sunday

Anonymous said...

I was largely in agreement until " Some people have to actually work for a living. They work their bodies to death, and their minds to jelly because they have to."

The insinuation that we do not "work for a living" is hurtful and inaccurate.

I have suffered a (thankfully minor as far as these things go) long-term disability from my work, and I (and I suspect most of you) work my mind to jelly every day.

I am still sympathetic to the message (many jobs involve the same or more work for far less pay, recognition, security, flexibility, etc), that we are extremely lucky to be where we are, and that we academics whine too much, but find it difficult to get past that particularly disrespectful paragraph that somehow casts what we do as not "real" or "worthwhile".

NewProf said...

I think much like any career, it depends on where you work and who your colleagues are. Working at a small liberal arts college with a small endowment, I think my standard of living is maybe average, but certainly not above! I certainly don't have extra money to take a vacation any time soon...The time flexibility is certainly there though.

Anonymous said...

Sounds good in theory, if only those "flexible hours" were also 40-50 hours a week total. Unless you learn how to forgo sleep, or you don't really have any hobbies or interests outside of science, or you have a maid and don't need to spend any time cooking or cleaning and you don't have kids, you aren't going to have much free time as an academic scientist. So, to me, right now, deciding whether to pursue a tenure track job is deciding if I want my life to be mostly about science or for science to just be a part of my life. When life has so many interesting things to offer outside of the lab I find it challenging to devote most of my life's time and effort into science alone. From what I know, this is my only life and, as much as I love science, I want to experience more while I'm still breathing.

I always break it down to this: does science have room for people who love science but don't want it to be their only love? Or does science only want science fanatics to study science. For me, most of the women I know who don't chose tenure track positions do it because of this reason, because, for them, the love of science is not strong enough to make up for the time and energy dedication needed to pursue a professorship. If science doesn't care about losing people like us then fine, you may disproportionately lose women in the pipeline but keep your standards high. I think people like us have valuable work to do and share with the community so I would argue science should accept diversity of devotion as well as diversity of gender, race, background, etc.

Heide Estes said...

Yes, there's a lot of flexibility, but there's also incredible rigitdity when it comes to meeting classes and certain kinds of meetings. And working at home is a great privilege, but that doesn't mean it's not work; working home around raising children means getting up at 4 a.m. or working until 1 a.m. or some combination of the two. That some people use (abuse?) sabbaticals for taking care of infant children doesn't mean that others don't work like crazy during them. Yes, faculty standard of living is good, and job security is good, but I have no idea how I'll be paying for college for my one offspring; remuneration is paltry in comparison to what people in most other professional fields make.

Anonymous said...

Academic research historically has been a terrific career. You work long hours but can do so in an area that you have real passion for, together with colleagues and students that share your interests. Unfortunately these days, as a tenured faculty member, I find I get to do fairly little science and not as much time as I would like training my excellent students and postdocs. The regulatory burden is intolerable, way beyond what is reasonable, and of course, writing grants and bringing in dollars has trumped every other activity. The pleasure of mentoring students is marred by distress that even the really strong students may or may not be able to find the jobs that they are looking for. I feel very lucky that I have a job, so in that sense it is good, but academic research has lost the deep scholarly focus that brought many of us to science in the first place.

Anonymous said...

I love science, I love my job as a professor at a big university, and I have other interests. I have a family and hobbies and travel. My pay is not as high as it would be in industry but it is high enough so that I have a nice house, go on fun vacations and I will be able to send my kid to college when the time comes. Just as I need to be careful about not making this a generalization about science professor jobs for all, so do people who portray this life as one of unending sacrifice and singleminded focus for low pay. There seems to be great variety and I have been lucky but I am absolutely not a rare case (except in that there aren't a lot of other women in my department). Many of us make a good salary and have a nice life while being a professor in a STEM field at a major research university. Academic life can be good!

Walt Lessun said...

Despite budget cuts and the usual bureaucratic inefficiencies, campus life is good. Off campus [public, rural community college], however, I'm seeing more anti-intellectualism, more anti-teacher and more anti-government sentiments from the community I serve. As a result, I drink at home rather than out where the abuse resides.

Asphericity said...

Regarding the kids issue, I'm surprised no one has mentioned the "Do Babies Matter?" study by Mary Ann Mason at Berkeley. Among other things, Mason found that having children positively affects men's academic careers but negatively affects women's. I think the perception that it's easy to have kids while working in academia because of flexible schedules doesn't take into account the long-term picture.

I find academia fulfilling (full disclosure: female, tenured, no kids). But it is by no means easy, nor is it the right choice for everyone. I try to be honest with my students about its pros and cons. I also think that the fact that we have it pretty good overall doesn't mean it's inappropriate for us to complain about the inequities and other negative aspects of academia. Nor should it prevent us from discussing how to change the culture to make the academic "good life" more accessible to a wider variety of people.

Anonymous said...

I agree, but I think this hugely depends on the University, the Department, the Dept Chair, and the person in question, too.

When I started, under a VERY unsupportive chair, I was miserable, made to feel I should be physically present in my office 9-5 or pay the consequences. Later (but still pre-tenure) under a very supportive chair, that pressure went away. I was valued for my work, regardless of where or when it was done.

For the University, I'm at a place that offers a full year of paid maternity leave and expects you to use it. That definitely helps ease pressures on those starting a family.

I also recognize that my own personality, which tends toward irreverence, helps, too. I am comfortable breaking "rules" by telling others that I can't attend a meeting at 4 pm because that's "kid time" for me. And now that I have moderate success (good track record with pubs and grants), I feel even freer to be up front about what I will and wont do (which hopefully paves a way for those who come along after me).

I don't have a lot of free time, but I do spend my time doing what I love; I'm my own boss; and I (mostly) set my own schedule. Can't beat that - at least for me.

Anonymous said...

I am super-busy in the summer with research, advising students, travel etc. but I absolutely love it. It's not "free time", but there is something "freeing" about it. Then after a stimulating summer of getting things done, I am ready for the new academic year. I love all the different parts of the academic year, the rhythms of it, ending in the bittersweet end-of-year rituals with graduation for some. This is a seriously great job, being a professor. -- STEM-field woman, research university, married/one kid

Anonymous said...

The problem is that there is an incredible variance in what can be considered "academic life".
Of course being at a great institution, with a huge salary and many satisfactions is great.
However, what is the proportion of professors working in a great place?
Also, as several people mentioned, there is a ruthless selection, and very few make it to the top of the pile.
It's like saying that playing in the NBA is great: you get payed a ton of money for playing. However, many kids try, and few succeed.

Anonymous said...

Thanks very much to your reader for a very important viewpoint. I know I sometimes lose track of this, after 30 years in this business, but its very true. My father worked as a janitor and then drove a forklift, often with a second job, and my mom worked as a "bookkeeper" and handled all of the family life obligations. They had hard jobs. I had a taste of this myself working as a nursing home orderly in high school and summers in college. As faculty, we're very lucky to be able to do something we usually love and generally get paid well for it.

Work/life balance is a challenge. It truly is. But we do need to sometimes put it in perspective--thanks!

Mark P

Female Computer Scientist said...

What's that joke? As an academic, your schedule is totally flexible - you can work whatever 90 hours per week you like.

When you're junior, the job is not particularly hostile to family life, it's just generally hostile to all life. But these days so are most white collar jobs. What's painfully unique about academic jobs is that there are more people constantly interrupting you and wanting face-time than in industry.

For introverted people, which many academics are, this constant need for attention day in and day out is probably the most exhausting part. And for junior faculty, learning the skills to deal with the constant attention demands is perhaps the hardest part of the job.

Anonymous said...

Causing quite a stir undoubtedly.

Nobody doubts that being a tenured professor at a large research university entails some kind of joy and life fulfillment -- that's why hordes of underpaid PhDs and postdocs are bashing their heads in on the laboratory walls of your institution at any hour of the day.

We all strive for that personal freedom, the lifelong scientific engagement, and even the tenured prof's remuneration.

Problem is, you're reporting to us from the gardens of Eden.
We're all stuck in a hell of incredibly low pay, zero job security whatsoever, unpaid work at tenured prof's discretion ... the list is endless and must have been mentioned in the comments multiple times over.

You probably did your PhD research sometime in the 80s (??) and for all we poor 2010s souls know the academic landscape has shifted dramatically since then.

Enjoy your tenure and the position you rose to -- I am certain you deserve of it.
For most of us 10s your career path is completely Utopian, no matter the effort and resilience we put into trying to fight our way up the academic career ladder.

Anonymous said...

... and for all we poor 2010s souls know the academic landscape has shifted dramatically since then.

Yes, that's right, it's better now, at least in some fields. Back in the 1990s there were even fewer tenure track positions available in my STEM subfield. In the past 10 years all of my PhD students who wanted academic jobs (tenure-track) have gotten them. I am sorry it is so difficult for your generation in your field.

Anonymous said...

In my field this is provided by the fact that most professors could walk into a company and double their salary. They (we) don't. Why? because being a tenured professor is grrrrrrrreat!

Having written the above, I should point out in the interest of fairness that the number of people leaving for industry, while still very low (like 1-2%) is noticeably up from a decade ago.

Anonymous said...

Is anyone else confused? Tenured professors are supposed to be grateful for their secure jobs (we are) but our jobs are very stressful and difficult especially for women because of the long hours and possible incompatibility with family life, not to mention the sexism and harassment in some fields with few women. There is great flexibility though and a lot of us are happy about that. Some professors have very low salaries. Others do well or at least well enough. I guess the moral of the story is that you can't generalize and that people have the right to complain about things that are unfair and need fixing even if there are others who would like to have those jobs.

Old Biddy said...

Anonymous said...

... and for all we poor 2010s souls know the academic landscape has shifted dramatically since then.

I'm sure it varies from field to field, but it's too easy to fall into the trap that previous generations had it so much easier. I don't think it's true in my field. It was never a magical easy cakewalk. Even my graduate advisor started out in industry due to the lack of jobs and then returned to academics a few years later. I graduated in the mid 90's, when both industry jobs and faculty positions were hard to come by. It was common for people to do two postdocs, even with a really good track record. It was also much harder to get a faculty job as a woman as it appears to be now. I went into industry (startup) and returned to academics 13 years later in a staff position. Now that I'm back, it doesn't seem that life as a grad student is all that much different, and, quite frankly, looking for jobs is always going to be stressful.
Anyway, having been on both sides of the fence, I do appreciate the greater flexibility now and the increased intellectual freedom. I like being able to watch the students as they develop as scientists and contribute to their development. However, I enjoyed my time in industry as well.
One thing I miss from industry is having lots of peers working in similar areas as me.

Unknown said...

There are shades of grey.

I agree with FemaleScienceProfessor that academics are lucky to have far better jobs than most Americans have. Still, that doesn't make academia an easy place to be a mother.

FemaleScienceProfessor writes: "from talking to male and female colleagues with kids, and having my daughter recently myself I find the idea that Academia is (more than other careers) hostile to family life to be hugely overblown."

Talking to a few friends or colleagues doesn't provide the kind of random sample that's generally the basis of scientific inquiry. In our recent book Do Babies Matter? Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower, Mary Ann Mason, Marc Goulden, and I use nationally representative data from over 30,000 Ph.D. recipients to demonstrate that family and academia often don't play well together for women scholars.

Nick Wolfinger

Female Science Professor said...

Nick W: I hope that your real scientific inquiry involves careful reading comprehension and accurate quotations. I posted a letter from a reader, described it as such, and agreed with the general sentiments expressed (at least as applied to my own experience). It is not correct to include a quotation from this letter and say that I wrote it.

Anonymous said...

I am sure tenured professors are grateful for the job security and schedule flexibility. But most of us in the lower ranks, particularly the postdocs, pay heavily for our "flexibility ". The pay is low, the hours are long, your career is in many ways at the hands of your PI to whom you are an indentured slave. The PI presents your work and gets the grants to further their career. You get to continue toiling away in the lab, providing the data your PI demands under great of terminating your position if you don't produce fast enough (after all there is an over supply of new PhDs so you are easily replaced), and hoping your PI agrees to fund your next conference travel, trying to get a new job by competing with hundreds of other equally qualified applicants for every job opening of which there aren't that many to begin with, and as is often the case, not getting the job so you continue toiling away in your PI's lab for a pittance of a salary and possibly no health benefits. Sure we have "flexibility in working hours". You are free to work any 12-15 hours a day that you want. Unemployed people also have flexibility in their hours. Some times there are more important things than flexibility such as adequate compensation, health benefits and some semblance of job security beyond 6 months at a time.

Anonymous said...

>You probably did your PhD research sometime in the 80s (??) and for all we poor 2010s souls know the academic landscape has shifted dramatically since then.

LW here again... Actually... I'm a postdoc.

I still find that my hours are flexible and I'm treated and paid well. Maybe I'm just very lucky.

And even if I don't "make it" to a TT job at some fancy U, I will get a job somewhere that makes well above the median wage. I can still look forward to a much better quality of life than the average American and for that I'm grateful.

Anonymous said...

Clearly not all postdoc positions are the same. I had a lot of flexibility in my postdoc position. I got to create my own research projects and had support from my supervisor to do so. He did not present my work; I did. I was paid a decent salary with health care etc. and I felt respected in my field. None of us postdocs were "indentured" or anything close to that. My postdoc position led to better career opportunities. This is normal in my field but I know it is not in other fields, such as the so-called life sciences.

Lorand said...

This is one of those questions that I find it almost impossible to answer in a satisfying way. On one hand, at a visceral level I absolutely agree with the writer. (Except for the part about having summers off, which doesn't' describe any academic I've ever met.)

Having grown up with a working-class, single parent, I continue to be astonished at just how fantastic my professional life actually is. As a grad student, I made more as an RA than anyone in my immediate family ever has. The very idea that you can spend years getting a free education and receiving a (more or less) living wage as compensation for thinking about interesting things and playing with toys is astonishing. It's everything the early socialists promised us. (If only for the lucky few.) Except for the anxiety of job searches, the life of a postdoc was even better.

As very new faculty, my job is orders of magnitude more fun than that of anyone in my family. I get paid four times as much, receive amazing benefits, have a flexible schedule, enjoy all the travel I could want, and spend my day with interesting peers. As jobs go, "get paid a salary in the global 1% with no real boss and freedom to do more or less whatever you want" is an absolutely amazing deal. It's no surprise it's in high demand. In fact, I know of no job I'd rather have. And, if I could think of one, I now have the resources to quit and go chase after it.

For me, academia has been the equivalent of Willie-Wonka's golden ticket. (With full acknowledgment of all the randomness and luck that metaphor implies.) It's hard to listen to other ticket-holders complain about their hardships without rolling my eyes.

On the other hand, it's true that compared to other jobs within the professional classes, academia makes incredibly harsh demands. The hours are endless, the pay can't compare to what one can make in industry, and winner-take-all opportunities leave a lot of scarred contestants with little to show for decades of sacrifice. It would be criminal to ignore the mushrooming adjunct workforce, who suffer all the hardships of tenure track faculty but enjoy few of their benefits. The excuse that their position is temporary and ought to be thought of as a stepping stone falls flat when confronted with the vanishing number of job openings and the structural dependence of the modern university of contingent labour.

While it's true those adjuncts have a better lot in life than my mom (to say nothing of her mom, or the man who empties my office waste basket) it's also true that what they all have to put up with at work is unforgivable and shouldn't be tolerated by anybody. "Better than most" is not substitute for "good enough."

What's more, there are powerful and ugly forces that make an academic career ladder hardest for people who don't happen to be straight, white men, or at least reasonably gifted at fencing with them on their own turf. Whether any particular sub-field is better or worse than the world at large isn't nearly as important as acknowledging out how much easier some of us find navigating the academic world. That's a real problem, and one that deserved discussion, even if you happen to believe that less-privileged academics are better off than their non-academic peers.

The best I can come up with is the rather lame statement that both views are correct: my life as an academic is overwhelmingly better than that of most people in the world, and I'm grateful every day for it. But, the life of the average academic isn't nearly as good as it ought to be, given the abundance of resources our civilization posses and the social benefits that academic brings to their communities.

Anonymous said...

Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower, Mary Ann Mason, Marc Goulden, and I use nationally representative data from over 30,000 Ph.D. recipients to demonstrate that family and academia often don't play well together for women scholars.

Nick Wolfinger

This comment from Nick fails to address the main point of the LW: yes academia and kids do not mix, but is it any worse than in industry? I've worked in industry and maternity leaves are generally much shorter than in academia and the ability to work from home much rarer.

To be clear: I am not saying that academia is some sort of perfect set up for women to have kids. What I'm saying (along with many others, I think) is that as bad as academia is, industry is generally even worse.

Anonymous said...

A reality check when comparing the life of a faculty member (or even a graduate student or postdoc in biomedical sciences) to those of the 'average American", and talking about "poverty level wages":

Median household income in the US for a family of four in 2011 $50.502

The median income per household member (including all working and non-working members above the age of 14) was $26,036 in 2006

Annual median wage in 2010 = $26,364

Poverty line (15% of families live in poverty)
Household of one person $11,490
Household of four = $23,550

Mark P

Strung out cyclist said...

Academia sucks. Anyone who thinks otherwise either hasn't tried it or is living in a fantasy world...

Anonymous said...

I think this description of a faculty job is a bit naive. It is true that we have flexible hours, which is great for someone raising a family, but it is like comparing the CEO of a company with average workers. He/she does have more flexibility, but he needs to work long hours and too much stress.

Anonymous said...

Academic life in non-science fields is considerably different than the picture painted here. Tenure track jobs have never paid what our STEM colleagues got, and the hours have always been long. After I got tenure, some of my junior colleagues asked me how I was able to be so productive as a scholar, and I explained that I always kept the time block 10 to 2 for writing--10 pm to 2 am. Still, there were jobs, even if they weren't necessarily perfect ones.
These days, though, there simply aren't any tenure track positions to speak of. PhDs end up cobbling together a few adjunct positions at universities and junior colleges, teach five or six courses a semester, and make about the same as a barista.

Academic life used to be good, now it's largely an illusory goal in a lot of fields. Conferences in my field, sociolinguistics, have two attendees--grey-heads like me and terrific, bright grad students hoping for a job who disappear after a few years when the career never materializes.

Anonymous said...

Women drop out of science as postdocs. There are a lot of reasons why.

First- pregnancy is not conducive to lab work. EVERYTHING is a teratogen.

Second- many postdocs have their own funding and do not get the benefits of being an employee (including disability and FMLA) Luckily the NIH recently increased the family leave from 30 calendar days to 60. But, let's be honest, 60 days after giving birth many women haven't even physically recovered.

Third- Failures inherent in science are harder to accept when you realize you've worked your butt off for no reason AND abandoned your child (fine, overly dramatic, whatever)
From a faculty perspective, you have many projects (and postdocs), if a few fail, it's not the end of the world. For a post doc, if your project fails, YOU fail. You have nothing to show for your time in the lab (away from your child(ren)) and you have no career prospects either. THIS is when and why women drop out. Because collecting trunk blood and slicing rodent brains all day SUCKS compared to spending time with family. Especially if after a few weeks you find out that everything you just worked on is useless.

Fourth-- Sometimes you can be flexible, sometimes you really cannot. If you are running an experiment you cannot go pick up the baby from day care because he/she has pink eye. Or if you do, your project will fail (see above). A great solution is a nanny-- which costs A LOT of money, not exactly do-able on a postdoc salary but maybe reasonable as a tenured faculty.

If we want to see more successful female science professors, we need to make the road to tenure more family friendly.

Anonymous said...

If lab work being incompatible with family life is what was really keeping women out of TT jobs in science, we'd predict that there would be more female computer scientists/modelers/theorists/bioinformaticians.

In fact, it seems to be the case that women are overrepresented in experimental sciences compared to the theoretical/computational side.

There's a lot more going on than pregnancy and childcare being incompatible with lab work. I'd put my money on a sexist culture in certain fields that tends to turn people off (and onto other worthy pursuits instead, such as experimental science, humanities, social science, arts, medicine, etc).

Anonymous said...

I completely agree. People have told me OVER AND OVER that I will never succeed in my research career because I am a mother of a young child. (During interviews, using those words, and please trust me when I say that I am a highly qualified applicant.) They will say that I won't want to work as hard as I will have to to be successful and I will just give up. You know what? Research is soooo much more flexible than clinical medicine (the alternative career path everyone assumes I will opt into instead). I love the flexibility it gives me to do work on my own schedule. Yes I work kind of all the time, but it's MY work. My ideas. So awesome.

Anonymous said...

My Department is horridly unfriendly to women who want to have a family. Upon acknowledging I was pregnant, the Master's student in my lab was reassigned to another faculty's laboratory (within days) because "Pregnant women don't have time to properly advise research students". I feel obligated to steer female students who might want children to other careers. (tenure-track, physical sciences, public university)

Woman, Wife, Mother and a Professor said...

I think that it really depends on the university and your life situation. I am also a science prof who have been teaching at a small university in the smallest Canadian province for about 18 years. Although our teaching load is high, we are still expected to maintain a good research program and participate in committees. I don't mind the teaching so much because it usually happens from September to April, but research is stressing. Although it is true that we have a certain flexibility with our schedule, we still have to bring extra work at home. This means that you need to work late or during the weekends; time that you can spend with your children or partner. Sabbatical time is not a given for us. You still need to apply and hope that it will be given to you. We still have to work during this time and produce a report. So, if you take your sabbatical as a vacation time, you can be in trouble. I agree that academic life has good things, but I would never said that it's all good, especially when you have small children.