7 Hard Truths and a Few Lies

Jennifer Snodgrass shares some of the negative realities of academic life that people often avoid discussing, while offering some advice for dealing with them along the way.

November 18, 2021
 
 
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It’s that time of year again: it’s the time when undergraduate students send emails asking for reference letters for graduate programs. It’s the time when my graduate students sit on the couch in my office and ask, “Do I have what it takes to make it in the field?” It’s the time when I reflect on the same exact moment in my own academic journey.

While so much of the advice that my earliest mentors gave me has molded me into the academic I am today, in hindsight, I realize they didn’t tell me the whole story. In fact, none of them relayed to me some of the negative realities in academe that no one really wants to talk about. My former students, including those in D.M.A. (doctorate of musical arts) and Ph.D. programs or with academic appointments, have told me what they wish they had known. So, 20 years after crossing that stage to be hooded with my own Ph.D., I’m beginning to share some of these less-than-desirable truths with my own students and junior faculty, with the sincere hope that they will encounter as few of them as possible in their own journey. I’m also offering some honest advice for dealing with those truths.

Truth No. 1: More than likely, your first job won’t be on the tenure track, in a location you love or at a large research institution. “You got this—you have so much to offer. You will get so many job offers.” I heard this over and over in my last years of graduate school and, sadly, it’s just not true. I applied to more than 40 full-time faculty positions in a number of states, none of which were my ideal location. For many of my colleagues, this is the one truth they want to share with graduate students and junior faculty. The job market is difficult, and nothing is going to fall into your lap. Networking is important, having publications is essential, strong teaching evaluations matter, but nothing will guarantee the five members of the search committee will see you as “the one.” Meanwhile, you could apply for the same exact job the following year and get an offer just because the makeup of the search committee has changed.

Honest advice: Don’t limit yourself. Apply at large research institutions, but consider the smaller colleges in good locations, as well. It is much easier to get a job if you have one, and it’s OK to change institutions after a few years. Moreover, what you think you may want or what your dissertation committee deems “correct” might not be the best fit for you at all. If you can’t completely reject the possibility of a certain position, apply anyway.

Truth No. 2: You might be hired because of your innovative thoughts, but be aware that most faculty members will resent change. Graduate students and junior faculty bring to our campuses the most current research and pedagogical approaches, along with the lack of the jadedness of how it was “all better 30 years ago.” In a job interview, people often applaud innovation, and the committee might tell you that your newest discoveries are why you made the short list. So, as you attend your first faculty meeting, you might raise your hand in excitement to share how you want to change the environment or integrate new literature.

But beware—this small act could hurt your chances of making allies in the department for years to come. Innovation can be threatening and create unrest with longtime faculty members. As one colleague advised me, “When you’re different and take a different path, you are seen as dangerous and strange. It’s important to find an academic community that is committed to what you are and works with integrity and purpose.”

Honest advice: Take small, baby steps. Change takes time. Understand your environment and respect what’s been done in the past while you identify supportive colleagues and present data to slowly integrate change. You have years to prove yourself, and meaningful change requires dialogue and evidence—both of which take time.

Truth No. 3: You will spend a significant amount of time in meetings and working on administrative tasks. Each year, I determine the percentage of time I spend on teaching, service and research. My teaching load is between nine and 11 hours each semester, but even with that, I estimate teaching is about 35 percent of my job. My other percentages are heavily weighted in research (30 percent) and service (35 percent). In fact, on average, I would say I easily spend 10 to 15 hours every week working on administrative tasks that have little to do with my teaching or research.

No one ever advised me about the service component during my time in graduate school. Even as a full professor, I find myself on two universitywide committees, two departmental committees and several committees within my professional organizations. I am in meetings or preparing for meetings several hours each week and spend many more hours answering administrative emails.

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Honest advice: Say no. It’s OK to turn down the occasional invitation for service, even as a tenure-track faculty member. If possible, try to find service opportunities that match your own mission and purpose. Administrative tasks are time-consuming and can quickly eat away your teaching preparation and research time. Establish research hours when you cannot attend meetings, set hours for grading and meeting with students that cannot be scheduled for administrative work, and add time in your day for self-care.

Truth No. 4: Impostor syndrome never really goes away. When I passed my dissertation defense, my adviser said something like, “You truly are the expert in this field.” Why is it, then, that 20 years later, I feel even less of an expert? Academe is an environment where you are constantly having to prove yourself, whether that be obtaining a tenure-track job, securing tenure and promotion, or validating why you are still relevant in the classroom or in the lab after decades on the campus. At all levels, impostor syndrome creeps up on you. Believe it or not, most faculty members have thought 1) I am not that brilliant and/or 2) I never deserved my advanced degree in the first place.

Honest advice: First, realize that posts on social media or a conversation at your national conference do not tell the whole story. Second, find a trusted group, including family and friends, that you can go to for validation. Finally, don’t be intimidated by people who pretend they are better than everyone else. Work deliberately against becoming one of them.

Truth No. 5: Egos are huge. People may turn on you, disappoint you and surprise you. Unfortunately, some people you initially trust will say or do anything to validate themselves while tearing you down. In my first academic job, an administrator asked me to write a lengthy document about our newly designed curriculum. He soon presented it at a conference and to other people in the statewide system. The only difference between my copy and his? He had put his name down as the author and removed mine.

As one colleague shared with me, “Some faculty members are seeking professional and emotional validation more than advocating for their students’ development.” I’ve had faculty colleagues question my research with phrases such as “She finished her dissertation too quickly for it to be real research” or “She must have slept her way through the administration to get grant funding.” Hard work and passion for the field just aren’t as exciting of a story when jealousy is involved.

Be prepared for others, even people you admire, to disappoint you. One of the more shocking moments in my career came when I saw a tenured scholar rip down a student poster at a conference because he wanted his work to be the first thing that attendees saw when they came to the session. The graduate student’s poster was ruined, and as chair of that session, I was at a loss on how to fix the situation. Unfortunately, the sense of entitlement is rampant in academe and may be a large part of the disappointing behaviors you may witness.

Honest advice: Cling tight to those you trust and work to find relationships outside academe. Run away from those who are jealous of you or seek to tear you down for their own validation. You cannot change their minds or win them over. You will be let down by the smaller moments: faculty members who don’t answer emails, graduate students who decide to quit the program, co-authors who never finish promised manuscripts and colleagues who simply quit after tenure is received. These moments will happen, but only allow yourself the briefest amount of time to focus on the disappointment you feel and then move ahead.

Truth No. 6: People may ask you to compromise your integrity. No mentor or workshop prepared me for the dishonesty I’ve encountered among both faculty members and administrators. In some instances, you will be told an untruth disguised in flattery to get you to say or do something. In other ways, the dishonesty will come from other faculty who try to steer you in the wrong direction to keep you from achieving personal success.

Many years ago, a large technology corporation visited my classroom. A dean and advancement office asked me to pretend that I had been researching and publishing with another department in hopes the corporation would donate additional funds to the university. They reminded me that I did not have tenure and had to go along with the plan. But I never agreed to participate, and, in the end, the technology corporation saw through it all.

Honest advice: The higher you go in academe, the more of this type of situation you might encounter. Do not confuse flattery with support. Choose integrity every single time. Honesty wins, and a lack of integrity usually becomes evident to everyone involved.

Truth No. 7: Abuse toward students—sexual, physical, mental and verbal—can be found lurking in the hallways. The Me Too movement has certainly helped to bring this truth into the public conversation, but sadly, abuse toward students still exists. As a graduate student, I was invited over to a faculty member’s house for wine and a movie under the pretense that we would be working on my research. After an hour or so, it was obvious that this invitation was not about research. Fortunately, a phone call from a friend allowed me to leave before the already uncomfortable environment escalated.

My story is so like others I have heard, almost word for word. In just the past five years, I have mentored both female and male students who were propositioned by members of their dissertation committee. When they refused to reciprocate sexual advances, they were told their research and career depended on it. Unfortunately, when those graduate students followed procedures to report the incident, their institutions did little, if anything, to remedy the situation.

And the abuse isn’t just sexual—physical, mental and verbal abuse also occur in the student/faculty relationship. I have watched graduate students be reduced to puddles while a senior faculty member belittled them with words like “stupid,” “loser,” “incompetent” and “a waste of time.” It was just a few years ago that a female graduate student confided in me that someone on her dissertation committee slapped her in the face.

Honest advice: If you are a mentor to students, share resources regarding possible abuse well before they need to be shared. If you are the victim of an abusive relationship, find a supportive friend or faculty member to accompany you to the appropriate office so you can report it. This is a tough battle, and even a university official might try to talk you out of telling your story. Remember, you are not alone. And through your bravery, you will play an important part in changing the environment for the better.

A Few Lies

Over the years, I’ve also collected several lies that people have told junior faculty and graduate students:

  • You’ll only be the best if you only focus on yourself. Quit socializing.
  • You don’t have time to take care of your mind. Get over it; someone is waiting to take your spot.
  • You can’t have a family life and be taken seriously as a faculty member.
  • You don’t have time to sleep/eat/exercise. You can do that in a few years after you graduate/after you get tenure.

Honest advice: The lifestyle that is promoted in graduate school, and many times the professoriate, is often simply not sustainable. If we, as faculty, embrace this lifestyle as something our graduate students should aspire to, we are only hurting ourselves and the future of our field. Advocate for and model behavior that enhances human well-being as well as success as a scholar.

A Call to Action

Would I do it all over again? Am I glad I became an academic? Absolutely. I love my job as a mentor, scholar, administrator and teacher. The moments in my classroom and lab continually make me think, and I am forever learning. Yet I also know that I could have saved myself years of anxiety, disappointment, self-doubt and frustration if I had gone into academe knowing more about what I might encounter. I was taught so much about research deadlines, how to create a syllabus and appropriate scholarship, but not about how to live a successful life as an academic. So now, I am keeping it real for those new scholars coming along.

At the same time, I also plan to keep working to change some of these uncomfortable truths. As full professors, we must look out for our graduate students and junior faculty. We must listen to their concerns and share the realities. We must also recognize that we do hold some power on our campuses. And it is up to us if we choose to use that power and status to be part of the solution, not the problem.

Bio

Jennifer Snodgrass is professor of music theory at Appalachian State University.

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