• November 24, 2014

And if You Just Don't Go?

Beyond the Ivory Tower Illustration Careers

Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

"I was one of those liberal-arts majors," the guide says, nonchalantly swinging his walking stick, "Didn't know what to do with myself. So I cobbled together all the money I could find. Took a flight to Egypt. Met some folks and got an offer to work on gathering medicinal plants. Learned a lot. Went on to work on reforestation projects. Did some work for FEMA along the way. Some theater, of course. And then there was my experience in Biosphere 2. Quite interesting, that. And finally starting my own eco-tourism company."

Listening to the guide, I am dazzled. Why did I not opt for the interesting life?

In recent months, several articles in The Chronicle have explored how and why students decide to attend graduate school, even as the academic job market, which has been stagnating for well over 40 years, collapses further. As a Ph.D. in history who left academe, I frequently end up answering questions from students who are either considering graduate school or searching for their first job outside academe. And I am increasingly troubled by the advice many academics provide to their students.

In his recent column, "Making a Reasonable Choice," Thomas H. Benton argued that undergraduate advisers lack reliable, up-to-date information about graduate school and the odds facing prospective Ph.D.'s of finding a tenure-track job. I agree. But I would also argue that advisers and their students fail to understand the complexity of the nonacademic job market, too. That lack of understanding plays a significant role in a student's decision to pursue the "life of the mind" in academe.

Undergraduates overwhelmingly make the "choice" to attend graduate school within a vacuum. Most 21-year-olds, having spent their entire lives inside educational institutions, know little to nothing about careers. They know (or believe they know) about the careers of a schoolteacher and a professor. Television has exposed them to a few other careers—lawyers, doctors, and unscrupulous business types—but that limited exposure is highly misleading. (Hollywood also highlights the careers of terrorist and jewel thief, but few undergraduates see those as viable options.)

So when a student decides to attend graduate school, she sees limited options. She is a humanities grad, so medical school is out for her, and she doesn't want to become a lawyer. With the naïve but admirable idealism of a 21-year-old, she recoils at the idea of becoming a businesswoman. She has never managed a household budget or worried about health insurance, so money is irrelevant to her (it is so irrelevant that she does not even understand that her financial needs will change over time). And because she has succeeded at everything she has ever done in school, discussions of the poor job market in academe do not deter her. It all boils down to one belief: A life of the mind cannot exist outside academe.

Her professors, most of whom entered graduate school in their 20s, reinforce that belief. A professor who left the nonacademic work force early on generally does not understand the arc or diversity of professional careers. Living in a college town (a company town), he knows few nonacademic professionals. No surprise, then, that he often advocates graduate school.

When I decided to do the unthinkable and leave a tenure-track job for a nonacademic career, I did multiple informational interviews. Many of the bright people with whom I spoke had not gone to graduate school. Did they live the life of the mind? Had their minds atrophied since leaving college? Were they filled with regret that they had not gone to graduate school?

I spoke first with a childhood friend, John, who had only a bachelor's degree from Harvard University. While I was in graduate school, he was acquiring new skills, learning to manage a corporate division, and working on innovative projects around the world. Like me, he spent two years living in London. However, he lived there as an employee of a multinational company earning a good income while I was a dissertator eking out a precarious living with grants.

John spoke to me about the museums we both love in London. Unlike me, he had had money to travel across Europe in the mid-1990s. His work had taken him to a several former Soviet-bloc countries. He spoke knowledgeably about writers he had discovered while traveling. His comments on his reading were thought-provoking, shaped not only by his experiences working and interacting with Poles and Hungarians but also by his eagerness to read broadly and to struggle with the complex political issues of the day. (His job actually required that he read about, learn, and understand such issues.)

I uneasily compared John's experiences with my own. I had interacted only with academics while in London. Although most of them were British, their worldview, as academics, was very similar to my own. A limited budget restricted my travel. While I enjoyed many of London's delights, poverty often prevented me from indulging in things with a price tag. Although I love theater, for example, I saw only one play when I was there because I wanted to stretch my fellowship money to the utmost (I also worried that it was unethical to use the money for my personal enjoyment). I salivated over London's bookstores, surreptitiously reading books but buying few.

Compared with John's life, my own felt narrow and constricted. I loved spending time in archives, and the material I read had transported me to the 18th-century Britain that I love. But John was, and is, an equally passionate reader. And his comments on what he read, informed by the dizzying range of his experiences, meant that he had never stopped growing intellectually.

That should have been no surprise. I am the only member of my family who possesses a Ph.D. Throughout my academic career, I never met people who read as voraciously as my own family members. My older sister, a former Rhodes scholar, lives in a house overflowing with the history books she and I love. Her analyses of historical problems, shaped by her experiences as a federal prosecutor, were radically different from but just as nuanced as those of my fellow academics.

In my informational interviews, I found myself having discussions similar to those I had with my sister. Whether speaking with a researcher at a health-care foundation or with a Congressional aide, I engaged in different—and sometimes more challenging—discussions about the value of history than I had in academe.

These were people who read, and knew, history, using it to inform their work on an almost daily basis. I still remember sitting on the edge of a seat in the office of a health-care analyst, excitedly discussing the history of health-care reform. Drawing on her in-depth understanding of both the historical literature and current issues, she provided a cogent and more comprehensive analysis of health-care reform than I had ever developed as an academic historian of medicine.

For me, questions about health-care reform and its tangled history had always been theoretical and abstract. Now I was seeing complexities I had never known because I was suddenly interacting with people who thought about the history of health-care reform and understood, from practical experience, the inherent complexities in developing reforms.

Reading an essay by Alex Pang, whom I had known as a postdoctoral fellow, made me catch my breath. A historian of science, Alex discussed how leaving academe had led him to realize that nonhistorians can and do provide thought-provoking analyses of historic problems. Sometimes, Alex wryly noted, being outside academe actually made their analyses better.

I found his essay reassuring. It meant that, although I was leaving higher education, I would still grow intellectually. My experiences since leaving bear that out. Because I live in a large city, as opposed to the small college towns where I was a professor, I live in a world of museums, lectures, public seminars, extraordinary bookstores, fantastic archives, and libraries. I live in a place that has racial as well as ethnic diversity. All of those factors encourage me to think about historical problems in a rigorous albeit different fashion from how I saw them in academe.

The people I have met in the nonacademic world share my enthusiasms. I belong to a book group founded, much to my delight, by reporters who work or worked at NPR as well as many experts from other federal agencies. Our discussions are just as wide ranging and thought provoking as the ones I had in academe.

I live where a lot of archives are—which makes research easier than it was in academe. I write and publish. My new book, researched and written completely outside academe, was just published by Johns Hopkins University Press.

Since leaving academe, I have continued to endorse the belief that being an intellectual entails analyzing and understanding issues from multiple angles. I hope that in advising their undergraduates, academics will encourage their students to share that view. More important, I hope faculty members will encourage students to do informational interviews and extensive research on career options—before entering a Ph.D. program, which is, after all, only one path to the life of the mind.

Alexandra M. Lord is a historian in a federal agency and runs Beyond Academe, a Web site for historians seeking work outside academe. She is also the author of "Condom Nation: The U.S. Government's Sex Education Campaign From World War I to the Internet" (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010).

Comments

1. sahara - May 19, 2010 at 09:56 am

Thank you, Dr. Lord, for this wonderfully articulated commentary. My journey has been the same kind of experience (PhD in a different humanities field), and life has been intellectually rich and rewarding outside academe. Yet, I appreciate that those who taught me made it possible for me to continue having this interesting intellectual life.

2. richardtaborgreene - May 19, 2010 at 01:54 pm

Life is good everywhere once one extracts oneself from the huge civilizational machineries for status marking. And money opens important doors in big cities.

However the world of work is by and large less than intellectually stimulating just as the world of academe is less than robustly capable of solving anything. The world of academe makes mind wimps--people wimpy because their first 9 responses to everything is mind mind mind. The world of work makes body wimps---people wimpy because their first 9 responses to everything is to paper it over with some crowd popular buzzword or two.

In truth, any ONE culture or commitment makes one a tool of wider people and contexts. Any one wider context makes one an envy-filled fool watching others do important things.

There are NO satisfying roles in life in the sense of not hurting. Life hurts (Lew Rawls) period---stop bellyaching about it.

3. 11159859 - May 19, 2010 at 04:10 pm


I agree with Dr. Lord, but I am uneasy. Certainly, the Ph.D is not the only route to an intellectual life. But she was propelled into the position she enjoys by her Ph.D. Her life was not alternate to academe. She was launched into what seems to me a very satisfying life by academe. She's right in what she says, but she says it from a shaky platform. She's an advertisement for the Ph.D.

Many people in academe realize they are in an ivory tower. She has taken the ivory tower with her. How could she not?

4. sophiaw1 - May 19, 2010 at 04:34 pm

I very much admire Dr. Lord and all she does to help PhDs find jobs outside of the academy, but she needs to stop assuming that all jobless PhDs were duped into graduate school.

When I applied to PhD programs I got glowing recommendations, but from every professor who wrote me a letter I also got a frank warning about the state of the job market. I encouraged them to be honest with me. I proceeded with my applications not because I wanted to go to graduate school to read great books or to go museums. I wanted to go to graduate school in history, because I wanted to write books and articles that contributed to the scholarly dialogue in my intended field and to expose undergraduates to the value of having some understanding of the past. That was it.

Even before graduating from high school I had seen enough Woody Allen movies to entertain the fantasy that I could someday go to college, get a job, move to New York, and find all sorts of fascinating people conversing with Marshall McLuhan en route to a movie. Perhaps had Dr. Lord widened her horizons before grad school she might have had the same delusion and saved herself a lot of time, money, and trouble in Madison.

The problem is that there are not enough jobs in academia, not that PhDs are ignorant of other career paths.

God made me many things, ignorant was not one of them.

I may never get a job in academia. I know that. I've always known that. But with that knowledge does not mean that I covet other people's jobs or other people's incomes or that I am utterly unaware of my other options. I made my choices and, for good or for bad, they are mine. Perhaps Dr. Lord was in it for the museum visits and the absurd notion that financial sacrifices would not have to be made, but she does not speak for me.

I'll take my PhD and a job in anything I can get over a BA from Harvard and some extra cash for museum trips.

5. gmongell - May 19, 2010 at 09:17 pm

Dr. Lord,
It was good to read your piece. My perspective is that of a student who just graduated (May 17th) with a BS in chemical engineering from the University of Rochester. I am comtinuing studies in the fall as a masters student, and have spoken to many professors about post-masters plans. I wholly agreee that non-academia is often considered failure to these professionals. It is comforting to know that it is possible to live "the life of the mind" outside academia. I think it is a jump that many students take almost heuristically. I plan to continue searching for stimulating non-academia opportunities!

Regards!

6. 11242283 - May 20, 2010 at 08:23 am

Well jeez -- of course the likelihood of a fulfilling, intellectual job outside of academe is likely a) if you have the socio-economic status of a Harvard BA or b) if you are a former Rhodes scholar. People who come from families where ideas matter often wind up caring about ideas even if they don't go on for post-graduate education.

Lord undermines her own argument -- that academics don't believe (or know) that satisfying intellectual jobs can be found outside academe by the glaring obviousness of what most of us can count on: the evidence of the lives of our siblings and college friends. None of my 4 siblings got a Ph.D. but all are totally engaged in satisfyingly intellectual careers -- same is true for many of my college and even high school friends (although I grew up in a fairly cosmopolitan suburb of a major city with good schools and an above average median income).

What's not so obvious and not such an easy nut to crack is what we do for first generation college students. Clearly not all can or should go on for post-graduate work but it's also really easy for them to fall back into "the neigborhood". Many of my students (at a regional comprehensive) never leave the area after graduation. They make lives here. And "here" is hard for those who care about ideas. Here is not all that wealthy and lacking in opportunities for those with a passion for ideas (unless they have higher degrees). Never would I send one of these kids to grad school just to "get out" but trying to reassure them that in the kind of low/middle management job that they are likely to score that there is lots of room for intellectual growth is not that easy. I have the evidence of a couple decades of sending our grads out into the local economy that this is so.

In other words, the commentary, while well intended, argued from a rather narrow band.

7. janice_h - May 20, 2010 at 08:48 pm

There is growing need for a public intellectual life beyond the academy, and many attempts to answer this need. An interesting website, which I personally like a lot, is http://www.pandalous.com which like Mr. Pang comments assumes everyone may have valuable things to say about no matter which topic, and rejects the idea of pure specialization.

8. paulderb - May 20, 2010 at 10:47 pm

When I left teaching for business, my password at work was "wemmick," for the Dickens character who lives a split life. But my PhD in CompLit served me in many more ways than to provide such solitary amusements. Few people at work had read much, and so it was completely refreshing to converse about unmediated thoughts, without the who's-smarter wrapper that had marked and marred so many academic conversations. In addition, the can-do atmosphere of business was--again-- refreshing. Remarkable how negative and toxic the academic aura is. It's as if the atmosphere of idealism has to dispense, with each breath, an air of disappointment, too.
And yet I was sad to hear "academic" used as a synonym for "pointless" in the business world. And I yearned for people who wanted to stretch a thought past this year's big project plan. Now, having come from business back into school administration, I find the hostility to my expatriation to be sort of amusing. And I am convinced that with so much emigration and immigration between the worlds, that we will soon see that the division is not only un-helpful, but false.

9. tcli5026 - May 21, 2010 at 06:09 pm

This type of article makes my blood boil. The author paints with a mile-wide brush implying that nearly all professors: (1) "fail to understand the complexity of the nonacademic job market (i.e., that we don't have any sense of the "real world"); and (2) are obsessed with pursuing a "life of the mind."

First, and just as an anecdotal example, most professors I know are engaged in constant fieldwork, meeting and interviewing all sorts of people in all sorts of professions--and in the process, learning about (and learning to appreciate) the complexities of the "real world." Of course, the author is focused on history and English professors, who perhaps are more focused on archival research, and therefore a bit more insulated from the real world. I would venture to say, though, that there a innumerable "exceptions" even in these disciplines.

Second, the whole "life of the mind" thing is hogwash for those of us (and probably for much of the professoriate) working in the trenches of academe. I teach at a comprehensive public university where my academic life is centered around preparing lectures, teaching, grading, advising, sitting on myriad committees, and so on. This is hardly intellectually ennobling work: to the contrary, it is "mind-breaking." And, as I said, when I have time for my own research and writing, I'm out--sometimes figuratively and sometimes literally--in the "real world."

Third, yes I'm sure there are professors who think it "unimaginable" to leave the hallowed walls of academia, but for many of us it is only because there are few, better job options available (the one nice thing about an academic career is that we do what we were trained to do, we are--for the most part--our own bosses, and we have a great deal of flexibility in our work schedules).

Dr. Lord needs to expand her own horizons: her circle of academic friends seems terribly rarified. (And, while she's at it, she should also try not extrapolating from a few exceptional examples--a Harvard B.A. and a Rhodes scholar--if she wants to make to "prove" her case.) She might also be better served if she talked to students at comprehensive universities: she will find that very, very few make decisions in a "vacuum."

10. blowback - May 24, 2010 at 11:41 pm

I fully share #10's outrage here. One must begin to question what precisely stands behind Lord's point of view here and her failure to fully fill in her past should make us wonder how honest or not she is in fact being. Have the editors actually fact checked her story? When she states that she left an tenure track position behind was this before or after she was up for review. Was she denied tenure which may explain her remarks here more clearly and the fact that she fails to explain what led her to leave her tenure track position should give us pause. She also fails to provide us with any important details like where did she earn her Ph.D? One can assume from her suggestions that we are to assume that it was more than likely from an Ivy League University. Because no one leaves an hard to get tenure track position in the Humanities unless they have something very secure to go into. Therefore, though her tone is to mock those Ph.D's left behind and to distort that all Ph.D's are spoiled, limited, stupid, narrow minded, etc, she seems to lack the intelligence to recognize that she is the one who is privileged and narrow minded. Tell me Dr. Lord how did you really get your position at a "federal agency"? You somehow seem to imply that the transition you have made is open to all. When in fact it is open to only a few. In fact we can assume that Dr. Lord got her position form the same old network of privilge and influence that will allow people like Dr. Lord to get whatever she wants whether it is a tenure track position until she does not want it anymore or a wonderful federal position until she can use her privilge to get something else. I am very thankful that she left behind her tenure track position or was forced out of it because the last thing we need in higher education are more tenured people like Dr. Lord. She could be nothing but a horror to her students at least based upon the thinking she reveals here. And to the editors of this publication who seem to exploit the plight of Ph.D's by repeating these same stories every few months but fail to link any of these discussions together so what we end up with are the same cliches being repeated without much insight--we must all say shame on you. Are you so lacking in professional standards that you think you can do anything to just drive traffic to your site. Are these the high jouranlistic standards that you strive to uphold here? What we need on this topic is some intelligent insight which is what we never get. Why? Look at the linked articles on the home page. Attacking Ph.D's has become the new sport for those who have nothing to add but their own sense of leverage. And indeed is not this the real reason for Dr.Lord's article and for the publication of it? Let us stop pretending, as we often do in this nation, that education is the means by which the powerless can escape their powerlessness. Dr. Lord is more than willing to throw back at the powerless her privilege and position. The fact that she thinks she can express such attitudes in public is a testament to her own self-centeredness. But again that is precisely how the well positioned always behave. I suggest that she step outside DC into a reality that her position has clearly isolated her from. Not that she gives much indication that she has any interest to confront anything beyond what her privileged life has already given her.

11. ebennett64 - May 25, 2010 at 06:00 am

Having just finished my PhD last year from a respectable but non-Ivy league place, I appreciate Dr. Lord's insight about the academic culture's emphasis on the tenure-track. In my field, in the current economy, the number of jobs posted is down per annum from (approximately) over 300 to less than 60. There were far, far more graduates than jobs (and have been for many years). Despite this, there was among my professors and colleagues, a firm (and delusional) belief that if you are persistent and patient enough you will land that coveted job. And my field demands competence in statistical data analysis! What bugs me most is the insular and ongoing judgment that if you don't get the job, you are somehow at fault. Coupled with that is the disdain for any non-tenure-track job, the fact that adjunct teaching wages are slave wages, and the fact that the generation looking down upon us is the generation who passively sat by while the tenure-track jobs turned to adjunct jobs. Thank you flower children of the sixties.

12. csgirl - May 25, 2010 at 11:12 am

"Took a flight to Egypt. Met some folks and got an offer to work on gathering medicinal plants. Learned a lot. Went on to work on reforestation projects. Did some work for FEMA along the way. Some theater, of course. And then there was my experience in Biosphere 2. Quite interesting, that. And finally starting my own eco-tourism company."

Um, the author must move in different circles than I do. I have never known anyone who was lucky enough to do things like this, and still make enough to live on.

I've moved back and forth between industry and academia over the course of my career(I am in computer science, so it is pretty easy). What I have seen is that most work in both worlds is pretty mind-numbing. Academia requires more hours for lower pay, but not having to report to a Dilbertian boss has its charms, and the schedule is more flexible. Overall, though, most people in and out of academia don't get to live the life of a priviledged dilettante, as the person quoted above appears to be.

13. supertatie - May 26, 2010 at 08:11 am

Dear blowback:
My goodness - hostile much? You miss the entire point of Dr. Lord's piece, and your reference in your own post to "the powerless" makes your own views crystal clear.

Dr. Lord refutes the notion that people like you spend you entire career indoctrinating - that the world is filled with "the powerful" and "the powerless," and that Ph.D.s can spend their careers in academia denouncing the powerful (paid, incidentally and shamelessly, by the "powerful's" taxes or the "powerful's" donations). Oh, how brave! How praiseworthy!

Lord's point is that there is a world outside of academe, and yes, it is filled with excitement and wonder and experiences. And yes, even if you have neither a Ph.D. nor a degree from an Ivy League institution - as I can attest, since I have neither.

My experience is the inverse of Dr. Lord's - I went into the private sector first, and planned to stay there, and I ended up sort of falling into a one-year visitorship teaching law, which turned into a tenure track position. 19 years later, I am still in higher education. Because I have already lived outside of the ivory tower, I know what she writes about the world beyond is true. And because I have spent two decades within it, I know that what she writes about academe is also true - even if she left before she got tenure. (Your arguments against her credibility also reveal the very bias she describes that you apparently resent: if she claimed the sun rose in the east, would that statement be less true because she wasn't going to get tenure?)

In fact, I would argue that what Dr. Lord is espousing is that one can be empowered by working in the private sector, and that financial comfort is possible along with intellectual pursuits and creativity. It is precisely this that students - whether they get Ph.D.s or not - need to hear. I agree that most Ph.D.s probably go into the marketplace knowing how tough it is. What they DON'T know is that they don't have to be "starving artists" to have meaningful lives.

I teach entrepreneurship, and one of the most interesting attributes of successful entrepreneurs is the way in which they learn from failure, and move on. Learning to do that is enormously empowering.

YOUR view, on the other hand, and the views of so many academics like you - is that "failure" is always someone else's (the "powerful's") fault, and that it SHOULD breed resentment. And yet you all set up every single student - and faculty member - for abject failure by the absurd and rigid professional stratification that is reflected by your definitions of the "right" schools and the "right" degrees. Because EVERYTHING in your world remains tied to whatever school one attended, once that is done, a person's station in academia is irredeemably stamped. No matter what else they accomplish, or publish; no matter what accolades or acclaim they obtain, they know that their peers and colleagues will always whisper, "And to think he went to Ball State."

By contrast, out in the real world, people stop caring where you went to college, and care a lot more about whether you can get done what needs to be done.

A degree, a good job, a good paycheck, and the opportunity to enjoy life? All of this is available both to Ph.Ds and non-Ph.Ds beyond the ivory tower. What a concept!

14. coachhillary - May 26, 2010 at 09:25 am

I am appalled at some of the ad hominem arguments the various critiquers have leveled at Alexandra Lord here. From my vantage point of a person who has experienced life inside and outside the academy, I do think there is a misconception that you cannot live an intellectually fulfilling life outside of academe.

I agree with supertatie that "A degree, a good job, a good paycheck, and the opportunity to enjoy life? All of this is available both to Ph.Ds and non-Ph.Ds beyond the ivory tower." The biggest bitterness I have seen with those who stayed in academe all revolve around the lack of "a good paycheck." (Even outweighing bitterness over academic politics, which can loom large as well.)

Here's to enjoying one's intellectual life whether inside or outside the academy!

15. opus17 - May 26, 2010 at 12:49 pm

This article is self-aggrandizing, elitist nonsense. Of course one can enjoy an intellectually rich life outside of academe. Who would question that except someone with a Ph.D. who has the luxury of questioning Ph.D.s? Her friend John "had only a bachelor's degree from Harvard"? Poor John! Some of us don't have degrees at all, and you know what, we manage just fine. Even slobs like us can enjoy Schumann and Joyce and Caravaggio, and some of us even taught ourselves how to spot BS (that does not stand for Bachelor of Science) a mile away. It's a skill that comes in handy.




16. nordicexpat - May 26, 2010 at 03:01 pm

@blowback,
If you go to her website Beyond Academe, you will find an explanation for why she left academe (long story short, she didn't like, and I will quote, "living in a rural area, teaching at a relatively poor state university with a limited library" in Montana.

So it seems like she thinks it is possible to live the life of the mind outside academia. She just doesn't think it is possible to do so, well, anywhere other than in a handful of large metropolitian cities on one of the coasts, working in her field for a government agency, hanging out with reporters from NPR and experts from federal agencies. I don't mind her the life -- I know lots of people who would enjoy the lifestyle and the paycheck -- but is the air she breathes really any less rarified than any found in academia? And is this person really a model that the Chronicle should be promoting as an alternative to academia? It sounds to me like the odds of getting a life like hers is even more remote than getting a tenure-track job . . .

17. alexsoojungkimpang - May 26, 2010 at 05:44 pm

I'm the Alex Pang who wrote the article Lexi so kindly mentions. We knew each other when we were postdocs in the Bay Area in the early 1990s; she actually beat me for the tenure-track job she later left. Once she was off to Bozeman, I went to Davis for a couple years, then left academia. So perhaps I can speak to some of the criticism of her piece.

First of all, we both came out of graduate programs that took for granted that "intellectually interesting work" meant "tenure-track jobs." We were trained to be academics, and in ways large and small, were socialized to believe that 1) nothing but an academic job was good enough for us, and 2) we were unqualified for anything but being academics. Not a happy combination.

tcli5026, you're certainly right that there are academics who are cognizant of the world being an interesting place. You can find them in engineering programs, and in B-schools, or the service academies (which are more intellectually stimulating and self-challenging than most of us realize). Unfortunately, virtually none of them are historians or historians of science.

And yes, the "life of the mind" ideal does come up against some hard realities even in universities. This is what makes understanding that there are OTHER places in which intellectual life can be pursued-- and supported, respected, and rewarded-- important.

What Lexi is challenging is a particular mindset, one that she and I both shared for a long time. Is it elitist to climb down from the belief that academics live lives superior to everyone else, and to share the discovery that the world is as interesting as theories about the world? To quote Fezzick in "The Princess Bride," I don't think that words means what you think it means.

blowback, is it insulting to Ph.D.s to suggest that they can do more with their degrees, and with their knowledge and skills, than teach? That's not an insult. That's reality.

opus17, you and Lexi both agree that "one can enjoy an intellectually rich life outside of academe." Is it only self-aggrandizing elitism when she says it (or when I do)?

Gotta get kids, then work on an LOI for a new project and finish a book review. The life of the mind and all.

18. tardigrade - May 26, 2010 at 07:44 pm

"Is it only self-aggrandizing elitism when she says it (or when I do)?"

To me, it's the specific credentials and stories she dropped about the people she interacted with that seems elitist (and cloyingly so). (Note: It's the fact she dropped them, and the way she dropped them. If she hadn't, I'd see nothing particularly elitist about the article.)

I enjoyed the article for the first third to one-half before it became clear we have really different world-views. Theorists (idea-tinkerers) and intellectuals are worlds apart.

19. blowback - May 26, 2010 at 10:16 pm

Many of you seem to be missing the point. Dr. Lord makes it appear that one can easily transition to an non-academic position when all evidence as reported in the many related stories and articles published on this site in recent months and reported in other publications make it clear that it is very difficult if not impossible. If some of you actually researched the issue you would discover that even universities refuse to consider Ph.D's even for their own support positions. Dr. Lord fails to note when she was hired and how she was hired. How many Ph.D's do any of you think will be hired in this downturn? Since most Ph.D's in the Humanities often do not graduate until their 30's they are often too old to be considered for entry level positions and are therefore off the career track for most other jobs. I suggest some of you go back and review the responses given to "A Letter from a Graduate Student in the Humanities" 4 April 2010 in this publication. The issue is not as some of you claim whether it is possible to have an rich intellectual life of the mind outside of holding an academic position. The issue is whether one will be given an opportunity to have such a position and job. It is an insult to assume in the language that Dr. Lord and some of you use in confusing your good luck with the actual plight of many Ph.D's who work under conditions that offer little hope. And it is indeed self-centered that in the face of what has been widely reported in this publication and in front pages of the "New York Times" as a defining crisis in the Humanities to pretend that there are enough positions like those held by Dr. Lord for the rest of us. Let us be clear that Dr. Lord has a position at a federal agency that allows her to continue the research that she has trained for and hence the transition she had to make from an academic position to an non-academic position seems not to have been much of a transition at all. She holds a privileged position that few get to hold. Most Ph.D's seeking to transition out of university teaching will NOT have the same opportunities that Dr. Lord has had. If she and some of you were a bit more mindful of how difficult it has been for the rest of us then you would bring to the discussion something other than your own self-satisfaction of how life has given you all that you have wanted without the hardships and struggles that the rest of must endure day after day but which brings us no closer to what we have with equal hard work struggled for. That quality of understanding is what I assumed is the true mark of a Life of the Mind but clearly some of you think otherwise. And when Dr. Lord assumes the responsibilty to write an article on a subject I hope she does not expect that the rest of us have to hunt down her personal website or Facebook page because if that is the case then all this seems to have been a PR effort to get attention for her book(pub.2010) and not to bring some clear analysis to an issue that needs attention. What issue are the rest of you defending that the well positioned are now better positioned and so all is right with the world. No doubt Dr. Lord's book is a contribution to the important scholarship on the topic that she writes on but her experience in and out of the university is far removed from the frontlines of the debate over the plight of Ph.D's forced to work off the tenure track and with little hope of finding a new career outside the university.

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