Why Do Academics Feel Trapped?

When I quit my job, I got a lot of reactions from my fellow academics — mostly from other tenured associate professors, but also from people who were at earlier stages of their careers. Not a single person in academia told me that I was making the wrong decision. But a surprising number told me, “I wish I could quit, too.”

The “I wish I could quit” response from academics is puzzling to me. If you’re an academic, you can quit. Quitting a job is one of the simplest things a person can do. Of course, the real issue is fear.

You might think that this fear would be mainly found in the humanities or other “impractical” areas where there’s no obvious post-academic career path. And indeed, I did get this response from a number of faculty in history, philosophy, and other departments that have bad reputations for being divorced from reality. But I was surprised that I got the same response from people in computer science, engineering, and other technical fields. Although it’s unusual to have a colleague in the private sector who has a PhD in philosophy, people with advanced degrees in computer science, physics, engineering, etc. are vastly more common. For example, at the startup where I work, there are five engineers (out of about forty total) with PhDs in the sciences (plus me, with my philosophy PhD).

It’s completely illogical for someone with a PhD to believe that a new college graduate is qualified to get a good job in the private sector, but the people who trained that student are not. It’s also completely illogical to think that people with PhDs have nothing to offer the private sector, when universities frequently create private businesses based on work done by their faculty — businesses in which the faculty often have leadership roles. If you step back from academia for a moment, it becomes clear how absurd it is that people with PhDs feel trapped in academia.

The problem is low self-esteem, and it has two distinct sources.

The first is the belief that one’s worth is determined by how much money a person can command in the labor market. People think of themselves as successful, intelligent, interesting, and even moral based on how much they are valued in the market. They blame themselves when they are treated poorly by the labor market. Failure to compete effectively in the marketplace is assumed to be a failure on the part of the individual. In fact, it’s often a symptom of systemic injustice or at least inefficiency in the market.

The symptoms of this bizarre belief are a lack of outrage and a resigned acceptance of whatever the market provides. When I was a faculty member, I was astounded by the lack of outrage over the terrible treatment of faculty and the incredible resources that were squandered by administrators on their own salaries and their own idiotic “pet projects”. Last year, for example, my former Dean received a twenty percent raise from his already very substantial six-figure salary, while faculty raises were virtually nonexistent, and graduate students were being threatened with having their health insurance taken away (and trust me when I say that my former Dean was not a superstar who added tons of value to the university). The salaries of faculty and administrators have been on two totally different trajectories for years, even as administrators incompetently drive universities into the ground. But faculty rarely object, assuming that they deserve only what the market gives them. And at this point in time, the market is very unkind to faculty and students.

The second source of their low self-esteem comes from how narrow their world becomes after having spent years in academia. When you are an academic, you are surrounded by other academics day in and day out. Merely by virtue of having received a PhD, or gotten a stable job, or having received tenure, you’re already much better off than the vast majority of people who attempt an academic career. You can’t help but think that you’re lucky to have any kind of academic position at all, when so many highly-qualified people can’t get one. So it’s almost offensive to suggest that you deserve even more, when there are thousands of people who would do anything for your job.

If academics could expand their horizons, it would become obvious that they are generally being treated terribly. We live in a society where it is normal for someone with a PhD to work as an adjunct instructor for wages that hover around the poverty line, with no health insurance, and no job security. The most fortunate who actually get one of the increasingly scarce tenure-track positions are seeing their teaching loads increase, their salaries decrease, and the protections of tenure eroded. But so long as they only compare their situation to that of other people in academia, they will think of themselves as lucky, and not — as is actually the case — simply the most well-off of a group that’s being treated unjustly by administrators and politicians.

It’s getting to be a truism that our economy demands people with advanced educations. This is quite true, and the economy rewards the most well-educated workers, even as other workers suffer. Keeping this fact in mind, it’s almost Orwellian that the very people who provide the educations, and who themselves have the highest levels of education, actually feel trapped.

The major impediment to a life outside academia isn’t a lack of “real-world skills” (whatever those are), or the right kind of education, or a lack of “practical” experience (whatever that is). Nor is it a lack of information about how to write a resume or interview for a job. Those obstacles are either imaginary, or they can be eliminated in an afternoon. The real impediment is low self-esteem caused by internalizing a perverse set of values.

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