Monday, August 22, 2005

Academic Melancholy

Two articles from the Chronicle of Higher Education's "Careers" section recently caught my eye: the first, cleverly titled "'But I Have No Skills'", addresses the apprehension and obstacles (real and imagined) faced by PhD's on the nonacademic job market. The second, also co-authored by Rebecca Bryant, is from March. Titled "A PhD and a Failure," it likewise addresses doctoral students' anxieties at the prospect of not landing a tenure-track academic position.

While Bryant's more recent article is more practically-minded -- reassuring academics that they do, indeed, possess valuable job skills outside of teaching and research, and offering advice on how to write a resume that reflects that -- the earlier report examines more closely the melancholy of graduate students in the academy. Here are some numbers:

1) Approximately 50% of PhD candidates leave without taking the degree.
2) Only 58% of those who do earn a PhD have a tenure-track job within 10 years of graduation.
3) Of these, less than a fifth find jobs at top research universities.
4) 54% of graduate students report being so depressed that they find it difficult to function.
5) 10% of graduate students seriously consider suicide. 1 in 200 attempt suicide.

Bryant and her co-author M.P. Kajitani attribute much of these latter statistics to typical anomie (perhaps especially typical in the academy, where feelings of loneliness and strained personal and professional relationships seem to be pretty endemic) but also to the academy-specific pressure placed by faculty at large research universities on their doctoral candidates to likewise find similar jobs at similar institutions. The sparseness of those jobs, along with the continued personal and professional pressures placed before, during, and after obtaining them, makes that proposition extraordinarily difficult.

So in effect, these economic pressures get played out in the psyches of graduate students. It doesn't help that many graduate students are sensitive, brooding loners with a heavy need for social and personal affirmation to begin with -- after all, that's the psychosocial engine that's gotten us this far on the educational achievement scale already. Pump us full of distancing and hypercritical jargon and push us into a subfield niche where only a half-dozen people within the academy genuinely care about what we're doing, and we'll likely alienate the few friends we have left.

It's fair to say that I've been seriously depressed for the better part of the past year. There are many reasons for this, some of which have only a tangential relationship to the academy. But one of the things that happens -- or at least has happened to me -- is that I've begun, however subconsciously at first, to blame the academy for everything wrong in my life: lack of money, lack of time, lack of interest in my surroundings, and especially isolation and distance from my friends and family. I've taken to saying that when I began graduate school at Chicago, I was ready to be a knight for knowledge, to sacrifice myself at the altar of scholarship. As I get older and more cynical about the academy, I'm no longer sure about that choice -- which in turn makes me uncertain about many other choices I made subsequently.

It is very difficult not to take things personally. I recently turned in two long-overdue papers, papers which my apathy made very tough to finish, and which I only was able to complete when a hard, funding-threatening deadline gave me the excuse I needed to crank them out in a few days. Still, when I received an A- on each of the two papers -- the graduate school equivalent of "good try" -- I was disappointed, most of all with myself, that I'd let things get this far. As much as I tried to tell myself that two papers mattered very little in the grand scheme of things, it was tough to let it go, even things I cared little about.

So where am I going with this? Strange as it may seem, I find Bryant and Kajitani's statistics comforting. They give me, if only for a moment, some reassurance that it is not personal, that it is in fact economic pressures at work in my psyche and only secondarily my own self-destructive activities at work. And more morbidly -- that I have no reason to kill my own career, since the market might do that anyway. Sometimes, to see the self as an aftereffect, as something less than substantial, is entirely freeing.

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