Thursday, June 01, 2006


Oh, the good old days:

I remember the weird mixed feelings I had when I really truly made up my mind to leave academia. On the one hand, a career path that I was truly prepared for, with the right qualifications, training, and for a graduate student, publication record. On the other hand, employment?

The job market is not the only or even the main reason I left academia after finishing my PhD. It also wasn't the other classic reason that people leave: crash-and-burnout, exhaustion after years on the strong/fragile/strong ego treadmill and no real income to match it. The truth is that I left because I wanted to make something that people would actually use. The very best linguistics dissertations I can think of are read by maybe a couple hundred people over many years. Maybe it's different in other fields, but I doubt it. I consider myself very fortunate now: I have a job that I like, using my background but pushing me to learn new stuff all the time, and I make stuff that people will actually use. It's pretty cool.

But a few years ago, I wouldn't have read past the first four words of the above clause: I have a job. It would have been enough. And that's the unfortunate reality of the situation even for people who don't feel stifled by the fact that they aren't making stuff that people will really use. It's even more unfortunately the reality of the situation even for those rare academics who do find a way to make stuff that people will really use. There are a lot of smart, hard-working, and depressed graduate students who will never get academic jobs. And a troubling proportion of those students are not employable in any non-academic profession, making them smart, possibly hard-working, depressed ex-graduate students who can't get jobs. With no income and no marketable skills, no connections outside academia, and Everest-sized expectations for themselves. See also: strong/fragile/strong ego treadmills, etc, etc.

I wonder at the sense of civic responsibility graduate departments feel with respect to their students. In my department, there was some amount of lip service paid to alternative career paths. But the fact is that except for a very few students in a very few industries, graduates who leave the nest to make their way in industry don't improve department ratings. They don't have talented undergraduates who can in turn become talented graduates at the ol' alma mater. But most of all, they don't have mentorship. After all, they have professors who did end up with academic jobs.

One thing they do offer, however, and this is really underutilized by most graduate departments, is a contact in the Real World. An alumni network of PhDs who 1. made it through their programs and still chose to leave academia and 2. have jobs that are reasonably applicable to their graduate students can offer the kind of mentorship that most of us never had. They offer internships. They offer vision into alternative career choices. Most of all, they offer jobs for graduates, and jobs where those graduates might be reasonably happy, productive, and successful.


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