Re: Ask The Mineshaft: Escape From Academe Edition

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Assuming this is a relatively technical field, I can't imagine not wanting to jump to a startup. The energy and excitement of startup work are tremendous, the financial upside is terrific, and you learn the skills and get the connections to possibly one day take your own research in a commercial direction.

Of course, I haven't gotten very far at all in academia, so maybe I'm underinformed about the delicious pleasures contained therein.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 11:49 AM
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There isn't really a decision here, is there? Assuming, with Sifu, that this is a technical field, maybe you wouldn't have much teaching to do at a research school, but your worry about tedious projects doesn't seem that significant given that, first, you're looking at 5-10 years of tactical (tenure-oriented, I assume) research anyway, and second, you think you'll be able to influence this company's direction.


Posted by: ben w-lfs-n | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 11:53 AM
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I can't imagine not wanting to jump to a startup. The energy and excitement of startup work are tremendous, the financial upside is terrific, and you learn the skills and get the connections to possibly one day take your own research in a commercial direction.

The financial upside for one year, maybe two, right?


Posted by: Cryptic Ned | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 11:54 AM
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Depends what happens to the startup. If it gets bought, or is otherwise successful, you can be very well placed.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 11:55 AM
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4 cont'd: assuming I understand 3 correctly.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 11:56 AM
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Yes. "tenure track" implies a completely different and also-compelling financial upside.


Posted by: Cryptic Ned | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 11:57 AM
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Depending on your field, it's much easier to find a job in academia after you've worked in the private sector than the other way around. I know lawyers, for instance, who jumped into being law professors after successful runs as defense attorneys; but I don't know any law professors who became successful defense attorneys after years in academia. Same thing with computer engineers: in fact, my brother says that people with Ph.D.s and time in academia are discriminated against in many firms, because they tend to be loner know-it-alls who never successfully integrate themselves into the workplace.

Of course, if you're in English, you're plum-fucked if you go in the private sector. Once you step off that particular treadmill, there's no getting back on.


Posted by: SEK | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 11:58 AM
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Granted that you don't want to teach and that the academic opportunities you see are slim, this looks like a no-brainer to me. You'll be ab;le to use your education instead of starting a restaurant or becoming some kind of bureaucrat or whatever your other alternatives are. And going back into academia isn't necessarily impossible, though you have to recognize that it might not be possible.

The bio PhD types I know of in industry (3 -4 guys) make more money for less work than the academic guys. They like their work at least OK.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 12:04 PM
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My understanding is that all English departments at any level are toxic. (Not you, dear reader! You're an outlier).


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 12:07 PM
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I've heard much the same about everything except law school. Apparently law schools love us English Ph.D.s.


Posted by: SEK | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 12:10 PM
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Same thing with computer engineers: in fact, my brother says that people with Ph.D.s and time in academia are discriminated against in many firms, because they tend to be loner know-it-alls who never successfully integrate themselves into the workplace.

Google loves to hire PhDs. Having a PhD in computer science from Stanford is probably the single best way to get yourself hired at Google, since they view it as a valuable pre-screener and are terrific homers.


Posted by: snarkout | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 12:28 PM
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I'm an ex-academic and have, ummm, thought about this one a lot. The answer to your question is somewhat discipline specific and it would have helped if you'd given a little more info about yours. I'm assuming you're a hard or social scientist and not caught up in the whole humanities mess, it doesn't sound like it. Anyway, I'll say a few things based on your letter and then a quick note on my own experience.

The tone of the letter sounds like you really want to leave academia, and I think that feeling is probably the best guide for you. You have a lot of experience with academia and if you consistently feel this tepid and qualified about really wanting to do it then that's a bad sign.

The statement that your research in academia will have to be "done very tactically" is particularly telling. The major point of academic research is intellectual freedom. If you don't feel like you're getting it then why are you there?

Also, being overly tactical about your research agenda is a sign of intellectual remove from your discipline. People who thrive in academia are caught up in a research agenda and don't have to constantly question whether that agenda is right for the discipline -- either because they are so excited about their direction that they really don't care, or because their research coming out of grad school is naturally aligned with where the discipline is going.

Saying that you're not interested in teaching also argues against sticking with academics. Teaching is one of the things unique to academia that you can't get anywhere else. If you don't want it, then you don't so much need to be an academic.

I would assume that if you go to industry then that will be the end of your academic career for good. That's not necessarily 100% true, but more often than not it is and the assumption will help you get more clarity about what you really want.

Finally, it's bad to make this kind of decision based on thinking you'll finally enjoy yourself as an academic once you get tenure 5 or 10 years from now. That's a good way to waste a lot of years. You have a lot of experience in this area and you should already know whether you enjoy academic research. Don't get caught up in chasing tenure; if you don't like academia before you get tenure then you probably won't like it after.

In terms of my own experience: leaving academia was a good decision for me personally and I actually should have done it much earlier than I did. It's a big, interesting world out there with lots of opportunities. But at the same time, that's based on my particular personality, which is not that well suited to the university, not on the nature of academia itself. Being a truly succcessful academic is one of the very best jobs there is. The intellectual freedom is superior to any other setting that has similar pay and job security. Most academic disciplines offer a lot of relevance and at often a better chance to have lasting real-world influence than other fields do. Academia is one of the central institutions in American life and not a removed ivory tower.


Posted by: PerfectlyGoddamnDelightful | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 12:30 PM
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If you're hanging your future self-measure of success and happiness on the ability to jump from a post-doc to a top tenure-track position and you don't like teaching and aren't thrilled about your research projects, jump while the jumpin's good.


Posted by: Cala | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 12:36 PM
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13 says everything I said in 12 in less than one-tenth the space.


Posted by: PerfectlyGoddamnDelightful | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 12:45 PM
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Teaching is one of the things unique to academia that you can't get anywhere else. If you don't want it, then you don't so much need to be an academic.

That seems a little strong. Many of the academics I know don't really want to teach; they're in it for the research. But they're generally very happy with their jobs.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 12:49 PM
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People who thrive in academia are caught up in a research agenda and don't have to constantly question whether that agenda is right for the discipline -- either because they are so excited about their direction that they really don't care, or because their research coming out of grad school is naturally aligned with where the discipline is going.

I decided not to go to grad school at all 3 to 5 times in my life, between 1967 and 2003, and this was the decider. The things academics were excited about were never the things I was excited about, the people who like academia were very unlike me, and (above all) a lot of the people I knew in academia were playing the tactical game and not enjoying it much. I wonder what proportion of full-time tenure-track or tenured research academics at any given time actually do love what they're doing. My guess is that it's no more than half, maybe a third. teaching academics, probably about the same. I speak from substantial ignorance.

But at the same time, that's based on my particular personality, which is not that well suited to the university, not on the nature of academia itself.

Unfortunately for his career, PGD is not an Aspergy zombie with dynamite networking skills. He's a big disappointment to his mother.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 12:57 PM
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an Aspergy zombie with dynamite networking skills

This perfectly, perfectly described one of my advisors. Two of them, come to think of it, but one was the good Aspergy zombie and the other was the bad Aspergy zombie.


Posted by: Jackmormon | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 1:00 PM
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Did you ever seem them in a room together? Could you see their images in a mirror?

My sister-in-law who was burned by her PhD program (3-5 years of cheap labor and no PhD) had two Turkish teachers, Good Attila and Bad Attila. Even Good Attila you didn't want to mess with.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 1:03 PM
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Good Attila, I think.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 1:04 PM
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Google loves to hire PhDs. Having a PhD in computer science from Stanford is probably the single best way to get yourself hired at Google, since they view it as a valuable pre-screener and are terrific homers.

There are a very few, very large, companies where having a PhD in CS is a valuable thing. (Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft, probably Sun, maybe Oracle.) For the most part, though, a CS degree is just a necessary but not sufficient component of being an actual working developer (and it's not even necessary in all cases).

I'll never forget one of the interns at my last job (who was going for a master's in CS at the time) looking at me blankly when I asked what source control system he was using for his school projects.


Posted by: Josh | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 1:06 PM
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Now I suppose I've hurt PGD's feelings, after he was so nice to me. He put so much effort into zombification, aspergification, and network-fu, and the memory of his failure is bitter even today, I'm sure. Damn.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 1:07 PM
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I never tried the mirror test. They were both freakish, freakish individuals, and had both left the university by the time I was trying actually to settle down and write a dissertation.


Posted by: Jackmormon | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 1:08 PM
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I've occasionally contemplated setting up a subversion repository for my papers-in-progress, but it seems more trouble than it's worth.


Posted by: ben w-lfs-n | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 1:08 PM
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Google does love their Ph.D.s.

But even in the general case, there's a lot of pretty interesting research going on in industry. There are a lot of boring jobs as well, but if you're motivated enough to get the Ph.D. and flexible enough to adapt to the non-academic setting, there's no reason to think you'd end up stuck in one of them.

(all of this assumes that the Ph.D. is in a technical field)


Posted by: water moccasin | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 1:08 PM
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On another thread I was told that a lot of companies, for example consulting companies (whatever they are), hire PhDs for their library research skills, verbal skills and writing ability, and work ethic. People who like research and are good at it are rare.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 1:09 PM
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The tone of the letter sounds like you really want to leave academia, and I think that feeling is probably the best guide for you. You have a lot of experience with academia and if you consistently feel this tepid and qualified about really wanting to do it then that's a bad sign.

This is probably the single most significant thing. I went through the same thing; you spend some time then asking yourself whether it's simply fear over what feels like the insecurity and unlikelihood of finding something enjoyable enough in the academy in the absence of contortions; eventually I couldn't ignore my internal protesting voice.

God knows I love(d) my field, but as the questioner notes, the prospect of another 5-10 years of struggle to (possibly!) achieve some security in it was too much.


Posted by: parsimon | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 1:13 PM
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I don't think the poster said s/he didn't like teaching--just that he was in it for the research too & wouldn't be interested in a teaching college. My husband is like this too: enjoys the teaching he does, but would probably opt for policy or private sector over pure teaching, except maybe at a really good college that treated its faculty very well.

As far as the rest: it sounds like a pretty good opportunity & more likely than not to be better than the alternatives but it's hard to give useful advice w/o knowing specifics.

My husband is tenure track at a decent salary at an okay school. Based on the stories you hear, he's one of the lucky ones--though he went to a very good program & his field has a relative good job market (post docs are rare); most of his grad school friends are luckier. But he's often pretty frustrated. Still, he doesn't regret taking that route.


Posted by: Katherine | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 1:16 PM
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Even in biology (a viable commercial field) embittered postdocs are thick on the ground. What a vicious system!


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 1:22 PM
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Let me offer a contrary opinion from someone who is still tenure-track in science. A little bit of insecurity about whether you can do the job, and, more importantly, whether it's worth it is normal and not necessarily a sign that you shouldn't do academia. I had those concerns, and I love what I'm doing (though there are of course aspects that aren't as much fun). And everyone is right: leaving for industry is the death of an academic career.

On the other hand, you don't like teaching, you're not excited about the research, and maybe I've misread you, but you seem to be under some crazy illusion that you'll work more hours in industry than academia just because they're paying you more, which couldn't be further from the truth. It really sounds like you only want to do academia if it's easy (i.e. no teaching, best schools, best students, free grant money falling from the sky)

Finally, I'll tell you a thing that surprises most people who enter academia. If you went to a top school and you are a top candidate and you end up at a lesser but still respectable school, you will find yourself frustrated by the abilities and work ethic of your students.


Posted by: F | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 1:27 PM
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"Assuming this is a relatively technical field, I can't imagine not wanting to jump to a startup. The energy and excitement of startup work are tremendous, the financial upside is terrific, and you learn the skills and get the connections to possibly one day take your own research in a commercial direction."

We should keep in mind the fate of 60-90% of startups is an early demise (say, within 5-10 years of launch). To some folks, that is a feature, not a bug.

Might be best to have a private sector job and a consulting position (part time spot) with a non-taxable group (e.g., a college, research unit, or university) to hedge the bet, help find and test ideas, etc.

Tenure seems like an over-rated goal, distorting top folks toward academics, a bit like the mortgage deduction drives herds into home ownership (diminishing ability to move around for jobs).


Posted by: cfw | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 1:30 PM
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For top folks, tenure isn't the goal. It's either a genuine passion for the field, or it's fame. Tenure is only a goal to those who want to slack off after they get it.


Posted by: F | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 1:32 PM
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As a recently-hatched PhD currently on the market himself, I feel your pain. Here is my take.

If you're "not really interested in a teaching oriented position," that's okay. Teaching isn't for everyone. However, since even a research-oriented university will require you to teach, I'd suggest you jump to that start up gig. College campuses are chock full of academics who are not really interested in teaching. And it shows. Remember, it's not just about you. The students deserve someone who wants to teach them. If that's not you, I think you've answered your own question.


Posted by: Rob_in_Hawaii | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 1:38 PM
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Several comments:

(1) the people who talk about startups, and how you might do well, are too positive. The chance that startup will enrich you, as opposed to merely employ you, is small. That said, the salaries at many small companies aren't bad, and almost always blow away academia.

(2) The comment by (12?) is exactly right: if you're not so thrilled with teaching, and you feel you'll be whoring yourself out to get tenure, well, why do it?

I'm an ex-academic myself, and made the jump at age 30. It wasn't hard, but for different reasons than you describe. the things I thought were important weren't thus judged by my field. So I left. if you're doing this academic thing b/c it's a good career, then you don't belong there. I'd claim that one should only become an academic if one -knows- one will be unfulfilled in life if one does anything else.

Note well that academia is getting more and more like industry: even tenured professors are put under pressure to get grants and publish.

Overall comment: it's a hard, hard road, being an academic, until you get tenure. You can end up investing 10yr in a career that -vaporizes-. Me, I'm glad I did something where, whatever happens, I have a marketable resume and serious savings. That's very, very different from peers of mine whom I respect -immensely-. So it's a hard road.

Be sure you really, really want it.


Posted by: Mortimer Snerd | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 1:44 PM
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Meh, who knows what you should do. I suppose you're doing this to test your gut by looking at people's experiences and rationales.

I have met folks in engineering schools who've been in industry and returned to academia, though a lot were at places like Bell Labs and PARC. I've also known of a linguist who spent some time at a software start-up but returned to her first love.

There are low points in an academic career, and a thin job market is certainly one of them. Not having a job will really color your feelings about everything, including your research.

But what are you going to do? Continue in the same post-doc? Apply for yet another? Why not try the start-up and go on the academic market again next year? If schools are too snotty to consider you, go make a bunch of money. If you have corporate life, apply for another post-doc, you could probably get back on that ugly track after just a year.


Posted by: spaz | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 2:06 PM
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In my own experience, this was a tough moment: a concrete job opportunity outside academe being weighed against an uncertain conclusion of the search for a faculty job. I knew there were lots of academic jobs I didn't want (in teaching-focused colleges, in religious institutions, in broad regions of the country), and it was really easy for me to focus on all of these negatives when I had a pretty good alternate on the table.

In the end I decided that I was letting fear of the unknown drive me away from a field I'd invested an awful lot of time into, and that I wasn't ready to go out through that one-way door. So I stuck with academe and was lucky. I got a good job and then a great job. But I'm pretty sure things would have gone OK if I had jumped, too. I know lots of people who did, and most are doing pretty interesting things now.


Posted by: astronomer | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 2:08 PM
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For top folks, tenure isn't the goal. It's either a genuine passion for the field, or it's fame. Tenure is only a goal to those who want to slack off after they get it.

Completely true. Tenure-motivation in itself not a good sign. Slacking off after tenure does not necessarily make for a particularly happy life. The happiest people feel useful and engaged.

Now hn.I suppose I've hurt PGD's feelings, after he was so nice to me. He put so much effort into zombification, aspergification, and network-fu, and the memory of his failure is bitter even today, I'm sure. Damn.

Come on, John, I think you're projecting a little from your own bitterness about academia. Academia has its problems like anywhere, but from my experience academics are as psychologically healthy as people working in other settings. And I've had and continue to have a pretty nice and interesting life, certainly career-wise.

I'm the sort of person who likes a lot of variation and maybe is happiest switching jobs every few years anyway. I suppose I regret I don't have the sort of incredible intellectual chops and focus that let you do that within academia -- become a superstar and then move in and out of high-level consulting, government, industry jobs at will. But that's like my regret that I don't have the skills to be a good NBA or major league baseball player. Which would be even better.


Posted by: PGD | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 2:12 PM
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But I'm pretty sure things would have gone OK if I had jumped, too.

This is a good point. If the questioner's as likely to get an academic job as he thinks he is, he's choosing between two Cadillacs and picking the color. (If he's not, academia is an Edsel.)


Posted by: Cala | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 2:16 PM
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The questioner hasn't given enough information to know whether he's at the end of his rope, or whether this is just a tempting possibility. Sounds like the latter; things usually have to get a lot worse before jumping ship entirely is in order. Most academics I know who've already done a couple of years of post-doc are in it for a longer haul.

That said, it is also a question of personality, as PGD says: if ambition is your game, you stick with the existing track, try to become a superstar. If it's not, career changes don't sound so bad.


Posted by: parsimon | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 2:26 PM
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Tenure is only a goal to those who want to slack off after they get it.

I forgot to add: which is why it should be abolished. Whatever academic freedom motivations there may have been originally are unimportant now. And if you slack off after tenure, your job changes radically (you usually teach much more, and are unable to fund any research).


Posted by: F | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 2:33 PM
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I'll also put in a minor plug for research in the private sector. One of the cool things about research positions at companies is support staff. Since they're paying a higher salary for your expertise, they'd rather pay for a programmer or lab tech to help work on your projects and finish them up faster, as opposed to academia where you end up with a doctorate student trying to teach themselves techniques while taking time for their own projects. It's nifty, but that also depends a lot on the firm you're working for. At a really small, more start-up type company, you're much less likely to have those resources and will be expected to pull more stuff together yourself.


And this, though not directly related, seems totally true:

If you went to a top school and you are a top candidate and you end up at a lesser but still respectable school, you will find yourself frustrated by the abilities and work ethic of your students.

I'm somewhat surprised that more professors who really want to teach and don't get a job at the very top tier schools don't decide to teach for a very elite high school instead of a second tier college. The research opportunities may be much worse, but if you want to teach, the student pool will almost certainly be much better and you could get a lot of freedom with the curriculum.


Posted by: Po-Mo Polymath | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 2:35 PM
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Since a related concern has eaten the last 5 months of my life, I consider it well worth coming out of commenting retirement/sullen lurking to say: get the fuck out now.

With one exception. If you have a research program in mind that actually means something to you, such that you will not be happy without knowing the answers to your questions, well, then maybe think about it some more. Otherwise, get the fuck out now.


Posted by: cerebrocrat | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 3:03 PM
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Whoah! Cerebrocrat! Hooray! We have you now.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 3:07 PM
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"For top folks, tenure isn't the goal. It's either a genuine passion for the field, or it's fame. Tenure is only a goal to those who want to slack off after they get it."

This looks to me like the sort of clueless remark someone who is independently wealthy would make.


Posted by: James B. Shearer | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 3:12 PM
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I retract my casual aspersions on PGD's zombificity. No real harm was intended. And his reference to my supposed bitterness was of course a jocular one. No one could be less bitter than I am.

I'm somewhat surprised that more professors who really want to teach and don't get a job at the very top tier schools don't decide to teach for a very elite high school instead of a second tier college.

For a variety of reasons, all bad as far as I am concerned, high school teaching and college teaching have been almost completely separated. Educationists think of teaching as a technical specialization, and PhDs cannot teach without further credentialization. HS teaching usually doesn't pay well anyway, far too much of the teacher's job is bureaucratic, and administrators often have no idea what good teaching is and often pester teachers unnecessarily.

This is not to say that every PhD would be a good HS teacher, or that getting some specialized training might not be a good idea for them. But lots and lots of impeccably-credentialed HS education specialists are crappy teachers anyway.

When you read European intellectual history you often find out about fully-competent scholars teaching at the HS level. That seldom happens in the US.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 3:14 PM
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Fortunately for many of us, there is more to academic research than being "top folks". I say fortunately not just because I am hoping for a research career, despite the offbeat nature of my research program, but also because I am grateful to be able to read and build on the excellent work of many scholars who are not at "top" schools, getting "top" grants, or anything of the sort.


Posted by: redfoxtailshrub | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 3:17 PM
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Here, if you're having doubts about getting the fuck out, read this and your resolve will be strengthened.

42: thank you kindly, but I'll be slinking back into the shadows, eating live fish and grumbling obsessively to myself, shortly.


Posted by: cerebrocrat | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 3:17 PM
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Unlike me, Cerebrocrat does seem a teentsy bit bitter. Too bitter even to grumble much at Unfogged. That's bitter.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 3:19 PM
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(That said, I think that the prospect of a research career outside of academia sounds great and hugely inviting. Gather your research where you may!)


Posted by: redfoxtailshrub | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 3:19 PM
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I should also say that I generally discourage people from getting into academia, and think the link in 46 is on the button. It's just that all this talk about the perfect, unblemished aspirations of "top" researchers is getting my goat.


Posted by: redfoxtailshrub | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 3:22 PM
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You need a goat to do research?


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 3:23 PM
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Not just a goat, a perfect, unblemished goat who is willing to top. It's a demanding field!


Posted by: redfoxtailshrub | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 3:24 PM
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Can the goat wear makeup?


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 3:27 PM
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Well, since it's unblemished, obviously it doesn't need to. But if it enjoys using makeup for self expression, why not?


Posted by: redfoxtailshrub | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 3:28 PM
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It feels so weird to kiss a goat if it's wearing makeup, though.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 3:29 PM
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I didn't see this was posted until now. From a couple of comments, it looks like more information would be useful.

First off I like teaching. When I said I don't want to end up in a teaching oriented academic job, I mean just that. I have friends teaching 2/2 or 2/3 and doing lots of research and others teaching 4/4 (plus summer, sometimes) and doing little or none. Some of those teaching full time have intentionally gone to a teaching oriented school. Some are nominally research staff. Practically though, the vast majority of their time is spent teaching. And that's fine, it just isn't for me.

Also, I do technical/scientific work. It's not like law or business or some bits of engineering where the best path to a top tier faculty position may be through a (successful) private career.


Also, about tenure. I don't see it as a goal at all, rather as an unavoidable process. But it's a process that can derail what you would really like to be doing. It can involve a lot of politics if you are unlucky, and you may have to whore your research to particular grants because you can't afford a fumble at this stage.

To summarize my problems with an academic track: Every one tells me I'm a very good teacher (if inexperiences). Students request me, and ask me to do the courses they need next year. I like teaching as long as it is a component of what I do. I don't like teaching very large classes, and I don't like teaching uninterested students (who does). I do better with top tier students, but I suspect everyone does. I know I will resent it if teaching takes over my entire time. I have some real talent as a researcher, but I'm difficult to fit in to many departments in my field, because I work at the edges of it. It's quite a conservative field that way. I'm not snobby about where the research is done --- but I do want a position that emphasizes research. Both these factors narrow things down a lot. I'm probably not willing to move absolutely anywhere, but I'm fairly flexible.


Posted by: More Information | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 3:29 PM
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One more thing: I've stayed in as long as I have because it's fun, and I'm good at it. The system has been very, very generous to me also. I'm just not sure that in the current climate the next 5-10 years are going to stay fun (and the last 6-10 hasn't been, entirely) so I'm considering options.

The problem is, it may very well be a one-way door.


Posted by: More Information | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 3:31 PM
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The system has been very, very generous to me also

So much for anonymity.


Posted by: ben w-lfs-n | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 3:33 PM
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I'm hoping to get tenure so that I can stop worrying about jobs/finances and really focus on my research. (My hope is to have suffered a psychotic break by age 40, so that John Emerson can enjoy having been proven right.)


Posted by: Adam Kotsko | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 3:34 PM
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More Information, when you imagine yourself as a successful academic, what do you see yourself enjoying about that life? And more importantly, when do you see yourself enjoying it? Ten years down the road?


Posted by: Cala | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 3:34 PM
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37: For what it's worth, I'm fairly certain. One department offered to create a position for me if I wanted it (I didn't, for complicated reasons). I've got the right sort of national profile awards etc. that may not mean much to the "top" schools but seem to mean a lot to some places.

I like your choosing between the colors analogy. In truth, that's sort of how I'd think about it except for the detail that you may have to stick with that color for the rest of your career.


Posted by: More Information | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 3:35 PM
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59: The perfect academic job (which is close to the perfect job) gives me this. Freedom to choose interesting things to work on. Access to good students and colleagues to work with. Some travel to catch up with what others are doing. Working with people who are good at what they do and care about it. Teaching people with the same characteristics.

When do I see myself enjoying it? Until recently, I've enjoyed it very much. This last year or so has been an eye opener into grant politics, summer salary grubbing, departmental wrangling, jobs that looked good on paper, but were not, the list goes on. It has made me wonder if I'm really going to be happy keeping at this, or not.


Posted by: More Information | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 3:40 PM
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54 - It's the beard.


Posted by: snarkout | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 3:46 PM
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62: the goat has a wife?


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 3:47 PM
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A goat-wife is not a goat's wife.


Posted by: Gonerill | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 3:49 PM
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Adam, Nietzsche's secret was self-medication with things like chloral hydrate. Chloral Hydrate is a Schedule IV controled substance, however, and is no longer used for any medical purpose to my knowledge.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 3:49 PM
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58 sounds about right.


Posted by: More Information | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 3:53 PM
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Cerebrocrat's link in 46 warms the cockles of my embittered heart.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 3:53 PM
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61: I don't want to say something as cliched as 'the perfect is the enemy of the good', but it sounds like your perfect job starts after you get tenure. So the question is whether the annoyances of how long it takes you to get tenure outweigh the fun you'll have then.

And the nice thing about the company you looking at jumping to is that you'd get to work on projects that interest you and have better (so it seems) short-term returns. (Money can't buy happiness, so they say, but it sure fucking helps.)

Something else perhaps to think about: all jobs have annoying bits and annoying politics. This will be true of your start-up, too. I think you're in a good position to jump if you want to jump, but as you've said more, I'm concerned that this is a reaction to... hmm, the honeymoon being over, or a string of annoyances?


Posted by: Cala | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 3:59 PM
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This looks to me like the sort of clueless remark someone who is independently wealthy would make.

Then I must be one hell of a chameleon. Perhaps you missed the part where I am still in the tenure track.

The perfect academic job (which is close to the perfect job) gives me this. Freedom to choose interesting things to work on. Access to good students and colleagues to work with. Some travel to catch up with what others are doing. Working with people who are good at what they do and care about it. Teaching people with the same characteristics.

Freedom is relative. You'll have more in academia, but you still have to get money and publish, and this will constrain your freedom. You'll find some of this description in some academic jobs, and you'll find less of it in others. Like all things, there are good and bad situations, and the bad ones really suck.

When do I see myself enjoying it? Until recently, I've enjoyed it very much. This last year or so has been an eye opener into grant politics, summer salary grubbing, departmental wrangling, jobs that looked good on paper, but were not, the list goes on. It has made me wonder if I'm really going to be happy keeping at this, or not.

Yes, this is life as an academic. It looks like you've seen the real deal, and if you think you'll hate it, get out. Of course, there are entirely different politics involved in other careers.


Posted by: F | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 4:03 PM
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Get out.


Posted by: baa | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 4:12 PM
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68: Thanks, I'll have to think about that.

I had the good fortune to study and teach at a couple of exceptional schools. This may have given me a false sense of how things were for most people. So the honeymoon is definitely over.

I don't thing that is all that is going on, though. Part of the problem is the direction that funding is going, it's getting worse, and there is no sign of a turnaround on that. Not just the total level of funding, but the emphasis on large projects. This emphasizes networking as much as technical merit, and squeezes out a lot of interesting small projects. As a junior researcher, you are in a fork between associating yourself with BIGNAME's grants and losing your own direction (and maybe attribution you deserve) or fighting for a little corner of your own with perhaps devastating consequences if you don't find a grant. If you're taking on extra teaching to cover soft salary and have no money to support graduate students, you're doubly hindered. Institutions are becoming so dependent on your overhead that the push to find funding is taking over.

I know one chaired professor who seems obsessed with it. I've literally never had a conversation with him (to be fair, he's in a different department and we don't talk that much) where funding didn't come up. And this is a guy who ought to be insulated from it. I know plenty of people who spend at least as much time writing proposals as doing actual research. That balance seems a bit off.


Another thing is that I've happily lead a fairly nomadic life, but I'm getting a bit tired of picking up every few years and moving far away to a city full of unknowns, and leaving all my friends behind. Now I'm realistically looking at doing this again, to another place I know I won't want to stay long, and then another in a couple of years. At best. Make that three more times if I do another post-doc. I'm beginning to resent that aspect.

If I didn't like the work and the teaching so much most of the time, I would have been gone long ago. I made better money before I went to grad school than after, let alone during, so I had no illusions about it that way.


Posted by: More Information | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 4:13 PM
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Thanks for 46, cereb. It's the kick in the pants that should force me to actually put together my résumé this afternoon, which is the reason I came to this café in the first place. Your discontentment is especially hard to discount because, IIRC, you're in my field.


Posted by: Otto von Bisquick | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 4:16 PM
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And your take on funding is also really astute. People who should be insulated are being hit hard. And it's because they emphasize the big projects over the small. I don't know if or when that will change, but you are correct that it's pretty bad right now. I spend far more time writing proposals than doing research.


Posted by: F | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 4:19 PM
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Like all things, there are good and bad situations, and the bad ones really suck.

This is really key, I think. It's the variability that worries me.

I still believe that there are some academic jobs that are just about perfect for me. I don't have any illusions left about departmental politics, service work, comittee work, late night marking, grant proposals, ..., all the bits and pieces. Even with all that, some positions would be perfect for me. And lets face it, most all jobs have aspects like this. That's why they pay you rather than the other way around.

Over the last few years though, I've watched some very good people get hurt. People ending up in jobs I would never live with, because they feel they don't have any other choice. People with top degrees from top universities getting beaten up and spit out by the job market. Very bright, very motivated, very talented, very broken now. In many ways, the grad students I knew who weren't so good, the ones who headed off to Teaching-U right away intentionally are much happier, as a whole.

Watching all this, I'm not sure I want to go through that. So I'm at a bit or a crossroads.


Posted by: More Information | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 4:19 PM
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Thanks everyone for your comments. They're a real help while I mull things over. Nothing is going to happen immediately, anyway...


Posted by: More Information | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 4:31 PM
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74: Different field, but watched a friend go through a similar situation. Talented enough to compete for the tippy-top jobs, but just a little too inexperienced to land them. Trouble was, he was talented enough that the smaller schools who were looking for teachers saw him as a researcher and dismissed him as not likely to end up there. And while he did find a solid tenure-track job, there were a couple of months of feeling like everyone's second choice for prom.

More Information, how would you rank your choices if everything works out perfectly? How would you rank them if they turn out as expected? How would you rank them if they both turn out badly?


Posted by: Cala | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 4:32 PM
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@76

That second choice for prom thing is all too common and pretty messed up. You have a bunch of schools who all are looking for the absolute best candidate only and no one else. And they rely on each others' judgment to figure out who's the best. And then you have a bunch of schools looking for someone good and they are afraid to compete with the big dogs. So I know many good people who slip through the cracks. While 25 different schools all make offers to the same one or two candidates, 25 good-but-not-the-best candidates get ignored by everyone.


Posted by: F | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 4:38 PM
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76/77: I've had that experience already. At a conference, a graduate student who came with us was being courted for a t-t position at a teaching school. I jokingly asked if I was chopped liver. She (the recruiter) quite seriously said that they'd never consider me, because they wouldn't believe I wanted the job permanently.

Cala: Thats an interesting way of looking at it.

best case -- academia wins. The best case industry scenario has me taking over technical direction in a few years though, so that's pretty good too.

expected case -- this is really tough. maybe a toss up. a slight edge to industry if the academic scenario involves too many moves (hard to estimate).

worst case -- Industry wins here. I don't think it can get as bad, and is much more recoverable if it goes badly.


Posted by: More Information | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 4:53 PM
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Tenure is only a goal to those who want to slack off after they get it.

And I can't wait.


Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 4:57 PM
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The idea of Heebie slacking terrifies me. My guess is that her slack will be audible up here all the way from Texas.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 5:01 PM
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I'm getting a bit tired of picking up every few years and moving far away to a city full of unknowns, and leaving all my friends behind.

This was the part that really killed me. I was sure, for so long, that I could buck up and get over the not-really-having-an-advisor part, if I weren't so convinced that a move to nowheresville, with nothing but my research and students to sustain me, wouldn't have me jumping out a window.


Posted by: Jackmormon | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 5:44 PM
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80: Summer vacation comes long before tenure, baby. I'm a genius at summers.


Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 5:47 PM
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There's also something pretty soul-crushing about realizing that that you're forever competing for first choice at the prom.


Posted by: parsimon | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 5:48 PM
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The Church of Slack has its world headquarters down there in Texas, I think. They've been in the slack doldrums for awhile and could use a slack pepper-upper, if you could handle that.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 5:53 PM
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But you can't have summer vacation until the prom has passed.


Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 5:53 PM
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I go with get out. academia is a curious place in which people who are fundamentally incredibly risk-averse (how do people get jobs? what do they do? what do I know how to do? oh, school, I'm good at that, right? I'll just keep going to school!) find themselves in an extraordinarily risky business. it'd be like people who are afraid of heights all signing on to a program that offered them an 8% chance of working on the first floor and a 92% chance of becoming a skydiving instructor.


Posted by: alameida | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 8:39 PM
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it'd be like people who are afraid of heights all signing on to a program that offered them an 8% chance of working on the first floor and a 92% chance of becoming a skydiving instructor.

No, it'd be like people who are afraid of heights signing on to a program where you have to ace a written or oral exam in skydiving theory to move upstairs on each of the first 25 floors, then you write a thesis on the finer points of skydiving, then someone comes and throws you out a window.


Posted by: Gonerill | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 8:57 PM
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86 is impossible, and yet true.


Posted by: Walt Someguy | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 9:02 PM
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My Dad basically was in this position in 1982. He stayed in postdoc-like positions for six more years, waiting and waiting for the tenure-track Chemistry gig to arrive. Then he got completely fed up and went off to Big Pharma, where he flourished. He regrets not having left academia sooner.

Being a philosopher in a fairly similar position myself now (dissertation defense in two weeks, with hopes of hearing back about whether I got either of two cool academic jobs during the next month) I envy those who can pursue their academic interests in the private sector, and I'm thinking go for it.


Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 9:08 PM
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By the way, cerebrocrat, thanks for sending me the fish pain papers. I read them and found Rose's view convincing.


Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 9:10 PM
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By the way, cerebrocrat, thanks for sending me the fish pain papers. I read them and found Rose's view convincing.


Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 9:10 PM
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Industrial philosophy has a big future, but it's not here yet. Once the industrial applications of trolley car problems have been perfected, you'll be able to write your own ticket.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 9:11 PM
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Gah, that link in 46. Stuff like that, along with the Big Pharma job bloodbath is why something like law enforcement is looking pretty good.


Posted by: gswift | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 9:11 PM
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Tenure is only a goal to those who want to slack off after they get it.

Yeah, baby. I say jump. If you have the chance to make money and you aren't interminably lazy and you like what you're going to do, then jump. You can almost always come back to academia. On the other hand, if the money isn't a sure thing and/or you've got a good gig that you enjoy, then stay where you are. Slacking isn't that bad.


Posted by: Populuxe | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 9:12 PM
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Jesus, Kaufman was talking about police work. Crime and Punishment are our only growth industries.

(Hyperbole! Not "only".)


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 9:13 PM
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I dunno I hear things are pretty bleak in the philosophy mines. Tough, dirty, dangerous work, and not enough of it either, what with foreigners flooding into the business.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 9:14 PM
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Tough, dirty, dangerous work, and not enough of it either, what with foreigners flooding into the business.

And the tools you have to work with! Every other distinction put in your hand is a distinction without a difference, and no damn use at all on the rock face.


Posted by: Gonerill | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 9:16 PM
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96 to Emerson. I didn't include a comment number because I'm pretty sure he's not talking to me.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 9:19 PM
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97: half the time you can't even be sure the rock face is there!


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 9:20 PM
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Crime and Punishment are our only growth industries.

Heh. Seriously, a lot of departments are having trouble getting enough good candidates. In Salt Lake, you start at about 38k, and get steady raises over 8 years until you're at about 60k. Not huge money, but this a relatively affordable place to live. And obviously you get paid better with promotions up the chain. The retirement is 50 percent of your salary starting at 20 years, and maxes at 70 percent at 30 years.


Posted by: gswift | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 9:22 PM
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99: You're supposed to just assume a rock face. That's the kind of thing philosophers are hired for. You surely don't think it is to make things clearer and more understandable?


Posted by: JP Stormcrow | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 9:26 PM
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No hard feelings, Sifu, but if you do it again, I'll do it again.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 9:27 PM
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You're supposed to just assume a rock face. That's the kind of thing philosophers are hired for.

Philosophers are hired precisely so as to have someone around who does not assume the existence of the rock face. You are thinking of economists.


Posted by: Gonerill | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 9:32 PM
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So what are sociologists hired for?


Posted by: teofilo | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 9:33 PM
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102: well, yeah.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 9:34 PM
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First we must ask ourselves if there is indeed a rock face before us; and if so, whether we know that there's a rock face before us; and if we do know, how we know that there's a rock face before us.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 9:35 PM
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But perhaps the rock face is our own creation; can we know that the other miners see the same rock face? Perhaps the rock face is a deeply personal, momentary figment of our own reality!


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 9:37 PM
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So what are sociologists hired for?

There is a subtle yet deep error in this question.


Posted by: Gonerill | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 9:39 PM
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I suspected as much.


Posted by: teofilo | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 9:40 PM
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108: So, what, are sociologists hired?

Fore!


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 9:40 PM
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Quit golfing and get back to work, Sifu. There's sociology to be done.


Posted by: teofilo | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 9:40 PM
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Imagine a world in which a rock face is a rock face from midnight to noon, but a fock race from noon to midnight. Suppose that a rock fact is at the wheel of a runaway trolley car at 11:59 am. A fat man is asleep on the trolley tracks at a place which the trolley car will reach at exactly 12:00 noon.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 9:42 PM
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Trolley problems are so 1980s.


Posted by: Gonerill | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 9:43 PM
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And They Called Him Rock Face: The Autobiography of A Trolley Sitter


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 9:44 PM
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I didn't think there was anything left to be said on academic jobs, but 86 is brilliant.


Posted by: PerfectlyGoddamnDelightful | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 10:01 PM
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Isolation may have been what finally led me to leave grad school, but I think that if I were any good at teaching, instead of mediocre and extremely stressed out by it, I'd probably be finishing up my dissertation and on the job market right now. I regret that I can't really do much, or any, humanities type research outside of the academic world, but there are other jobs that involve types of research using similar skills that I can try to get. My career interests were also changing quite a bit as grad school went on and it started to seem like I'd mistaken a hobby for a possible career. I suppose one of the nice things about humanities stuff is that you can make some of those interests hobbies in a way that scientists unable to fund their own basement labs cannot.

I don't regret my decision to leave - although the first few months, before I picked up what I'm doing now,* were not particularly happy - but it's too soon to tell how things will turn out.

*Which I was pleasantly surprised to get, but which is ending soon, leaving me facing a job market without knowing what to apply for or whether to go back "home" to California.


Posted by: eb | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 10:18 PM
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I suppose one of the nice things about humanities stuff is that you can make some of those interests hobbies in a way that scientists unable to fund their own basement labs cannot.

This is nice, and it's one of the many reasons that, no matter what Ari Kelman says, I will not go into academia.


Posted by: teofilo | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 10:22 PM
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Honestly teo I think you should go to school with Ari. Those guys are great, and it's close enough to the SFBA. Fun opportunity, ditch and live in SF before the opportunity costs get too high: good times. You should do it.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 10:26 PM
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Crime and Punishment are our only growth industries.

Also: war, peacekeeping, cherry orchards, nose jobs, overcoats, and gigantic equestrian statues.


Posted by: eb | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 10:31 PM
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Honestly teo I think you should go to school with Ari.

Suggestion noted.


Posted by: teofilo | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 10:51 PM
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Part of it was when my dissertation adviser died three months into the search. (True) But while that filled me with ambivalence aplenty, it was just a growing feeling of dread as I applied for job after job in places that I just couldn't imagine myself being.

I've been tremendously lucky in that my research is more widely read and I have more publising opportunities and opportunities to influence the course of the field where I am now than if I'd just gone to the liberal arts college wherever. And I think I'm doing some good.

The one thing I miss is teaching. I miss it every day. That is the most fun I'll ever have at work.


Posted by: benton | Link to this comment | 02-24-08 10:58 PM
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