The Academic Love Affair

Eliza Woolf wonders how the lure of the professorial career seduces so many unemployed or underemployed Ph.D.s.
June 4, 2010

I recently asked a number of my Ph.D. friends, all of whom are either long-term adjuncts, visiting professors, or postdoctoral fellows currently searching for tenure-track employment, the following questions: What drew you initially to the ivory tower? What, if anything, is keeping you there? For those of you who refuse to leave academe voluntarily, what would be the last straw?

Here is a sample of the responses:

“I wanted to achieve the highest level of education possible and was interested in becoming a (teaching) professor. I wanted to work in a field where intellectualism and education were revered. I stay in academe now because I love teaching and I still love having a job that allows me to read widely, pursue my intellectual curiosities, and share what I learn with others. I still love books more than money; I’d only leave now if it became absolutely necessary in terms of personal finances.”

“Initially? No idea; I kind of fell into it. I had experience working 9-5, and I didn’t (and don’t) want to go back to that. I had also worked freelance, and the insecurity of that was worse than anything I’ve encountered in academe. For me at the moment, academe is a sweet life.”

“I love studying and learning new things and felt that ‘real world’ jobs would put my mind to sleep. An inability to publish anything would be the last straw for me.”

“Initial Draw: subject matter (History). Professionally: Travel, flexible schedule, long vacations, summers off, and an ability to teach and learn whatever interested me. Keeping me here: Too many to list, but in short—I love teaching, love to attend conferences and work on my own scholarship, and am patient and realize it is a process. I’ve also established a vast network of connections at local institutions and have secured relatively constant adjunct work/visiting professor positions ... I’m in it for the long haul and have never really applied for anything outside the academy.”

“A deep love of learning: I wanted to be the god of my subject, the one with all the answers! I still love learning and now love teaching too. But one more year of complete poverty could push me over the edge.”

Is it just me or is there a pattern here? Although one respondent freely admits that she simply fell into the sweet bosom of academe, the rest were lured in at the outset by a tender, profound, and deeply intimate feeling: L-O-V-E.

An insatiable love for learning apparently propelled many of my friends and others onto academic career paths, and the continual rewards of scholarship and teaching have kept them there. What is it about the academic life that sparks such a primitive, basic human emotion in grad students and Ph.D.s? Is seduction meant to be so one-sided and effortless on the part of the beloved?

I know quite a few people in nonacademic positions — most of my immediate and extended family members are accountants, for example — and have never heard any of them refer to their fields and/or jobs with such ardent desire. Love never even factored into the equation. They either thought about supply and demand and went with something pragmatic, or found themselves in stressful, mediocre, or difficult but ultimately rewarding corporate positions after failing to land their original, idealized (corporate) dream job.

Perhaps a passion for lifelong learning and self-improvement, rather than the mere naiveté of youth, is the underlying secret to the ongoing draw of Ph.D. programs across the country. The respondents quoted above are not first-year grad students; they’ve been around the block and know what’s at stake at this point. In life it is difficult to avoid the dullness and drudgery of a job — any job. Work routines are sometimes tedious; career-related tasks can feel less rewarding over time, particularly when one is not receiving sufficient financial compensation.

Yet when asked, 9 out of 10 Ph.D.s admitted that if they had to start their careers all over again, they would still get a Ph.D., with or without a tenure-track job at the end of the process. I repeat: in full awareness of the anguish and poverty ahead, they would choose to do it again.

Would you, dear and candid reader? Would I?

Reading the responses actually took me by surprise. I expected to find more bitterness from my fellow under- or unemployed Ph.D.s. Instead of the hurt, angry feelings of a scorned lover, I discovered acceptance and fortitude in the face of a love largely unrequited. Simply put, this was love for love’s sake (with the added bonus of books).

But what about money, health insurance, job security, 401Ks, geographic stability, regular bill payments, house and car ownership, and other essentially materialist things that make the world go round? Am I the only one who loves learning but still can’t sleep at night thinking about how much time, mental and emotional energy, and dollars I’ve invested in pursuit of the academic life thus far? Where is the inner peace that my fellow sufferers have managed to find? I don’t even own a bicycle.

When romantic relationships come to an end, as the vast majority inevitably must, I’ve never been one to say: "I have no regrets." I usually regret quite a bit, frankly — sometimes the entire relationship itself. I don’t like to think of my life in terms of wasted efforts, but I do so all the same. I wonder about other possibilities and paths not taken; regrets gnaw at me. Even my nightly dreams are frequently haunted by what-ifs and would/should-have-been scenarios.

The same applies to my youthful decision to bind myself wholeheartedly to the ivory tower. Although my long-term, monogamous, and often unsettling relationship with academe has not yet (and may never) come to an end, I still think in terms of a failed romantic liaison at times. This recurring negativity exists although I’ve done relatively well since graduating with a humanities Ph.D. I’ve won fellowships, published articles, spoken at conferences all over the world, received invitations to interview for visiting professorships and tenure-track jobs, and secured a book contract with an academic press. Finding a permanent position in my field may remain an insurmountable obstacle for years to come, but I’ve certainly not been mistreated by my lover along the way.

While most of my not-yet-tenure-track peers remain committed to academe, however, I’m still unsure about this relationship. Is it healthy? Is it overly narrow and limiting? Should I confine myself inside the ivory tower when I know a rich and diverse life of the mind exists outside its walls as well? Do I want to place my passion and hopes elsewhere? (Can I really do any better?)

Try as I might, I don’t have a clear mind or a Zen outlook on academe or on intimate relationships or human existence for that matter. I have moments of serenity and acceptance about life, the universe, and everything — including academic employment — but the constant background hum of tormenting thoughts and financial worries soon drowns out these instances. Perhaps my mind would remain troubled even in the midst of a thriving, permanent, well-compensated relationship with academe. Perhaps my mind is the problem.

Blaise Pascal, the great French mathematician and philosopher, once noted that the connection between mind and heart is strong and deep-seated. "Clarity of mind means clarity of passion, too; this is why a great and clear mind loves ardently and sees distinctly what it loves," he wrote.

Until I come to know my own mind, and see clearly what I love about the ivory tower and why, I will no doubt remain trapped in my own mental purgatory. Tenure-track job or no tenure-track job, I will continue to wonder if another lover’s arms might have more to offer. Granted, I remain pretty firmly ensconced in academe’s bosom for now, but I’m not sure if I owe my steadfastness primarily to habit and determination or to that most vital, fiery, and undeniable human emotion: L-O-V-E.


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