How to Be Happy in Academe

January 7, 2009 at 2:46 pm Leave a comment


Recently a young male professor in philosophy astonished me when he turned down a tenure-track job offer at a small, rural public university and then decided to leave academe. If he couldn’t get a great job at a research university, he told me, or at least a job in a great city, he would change fields.

Another junior acquaintance in philosophy, a single woman approaching 30, confessed to me recently that she might quit her tenure-track job at a private college in a large city, a job she has had only for a year and that she obtained after a series of one-year appointments. Her major complaints? Her school has old buildings, average students, and lousy computer support, and her department doesn’t organize socials like her department in graduate school did.

Those discussions made me realize that today’s young academics might need to lower their expectations, especially in light of the country’s current economic woes. But judging by my experience, that mental adjustment could lead to rich opportunities. My struggle to establish a career in philosophy turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me.

In 1970 I graduated from the College of William and Mary and entered the University of Rochester’s graduate program in analytic philosophy, which then hoped to join the top 10 in the country. But in the 1970s, there was a record number of Ph.D.’s in the humanities, and jobs had become harder to get. At Rochester, my fellow graduate students and I were led to believe that we could get hired at Princeton or, if not there, at least Columbia. When someone took a job at Colgate, we felt sorry for her.

But Rochester never made it to the top 10, and as its students failed to get great jobs or even any job, nearly everyone in my entering class quit; of the eight of us, I think I’m the only one who went on to have a career in philosophy. But first I transferred to New York University, whose philosophy program was not then selective, but whose offerings suited me better.

In philosophy at NYU, no one felt entitled to a job, much less a good job. For two years before and after graduation, I taught as an adjunct professor at Brookdale Community College, in New Jersey, and St. Francis College and LaGuardia Community College, both in New York. One year I taught 12 courses. To make ends meet, during the summers I also managed a pool and taught swimming lessons at apartments in Riverdale, N.Y. I envied professors who had an office in which to talk to students, who knew they would be teaching the following year, and who didn’t need to kowtow to the person who decided which adjuncts taught each semester. I looked for a full-time job at the American Philosophical Association annual meetings, sometimes doing 10 interviews in three days, but I never got an on-campus interview.

So in addition to teaching, I started selling real estate in Brooklyn Heights, N.Y., working for a man who, before he quit to become a broker, had been a philosophy graduate student at Cornell. During the first year, I made good money, and I soon started to emotionally detach myself from the idea of having a career in philosophy. Then, when the APA met in Manhattan in December 1975, I had a bit of luck. A former professor at William and Mary had been hired to start a new department at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He had only a two-quarter job to offer, and no guarantee of anything after that.

I got the job, but then I had to decide whether to take it. It was a big risk: I would be leaving a budding career in real estate, a good apartment, and friends, and six months later I might have no job at all and be stuck in Alabama.

But what the heck — this was what I had wanted for years. So a week later I quit real estate, packed a rented station wagon, and moved to Birmingham with my future wife, a native New Yorker. We both feared moving to Alabama, especially after our New York friends made constant jokes about outhouses and the Ku Klux Klan.

In April 1975, 21-year-old Karen Ann Quinlan had lapsed into a vegetative state from which doctors agreed she would never recover. That winter her parents won a lawsuit upholding their legal right to disconnect her respirator and end her life. The ensuing public debate caught the attention of my new university’s medical dean, and he created a tenure-track job in bioethics. I got that job, too, and then had another big decision: whether to jump into a new area, one for which I didn’t feel prepared. But I wanted a life in academe, so I took the job.

A physician-mentor correctly thought it vital that I prepare for my new job by learning as much as possible about medicine. So I started making rounds in oncology every day, hoping to understand how doctors deal with decisions at the end of a patient’s life. Those rounds depressed me, and hearing my stories of suffering patients, my colleagues in the philosophy department felt sorry for me. Indeed, I felt a little sorry for myself and wished I could have a nice, safe, traditional philosophy job.

The study of bioethics subsequently took off, and I soon enjoyed being part of it. Because graduate programs almost never train students for new fields, recent graduates should take the initiative by exploring those areas as they emerge. The rewards might convince them that although the world may not have offered them the job they expected, that might not be such a bad thing.

And no, Birmingham wasn’t Manhattan or San Francisco, where some of my classmates from William and Mary moved to become cab drivers, waitresses, and bartenders. But over the past decades, Birmingham has soared: It has transcended its racist past; its medical center has flourished; and its suburbs now contain good bookstores and three Indian restaurants. We can get The New York Times delivered at home and cable TV with 200 stations.

I’m not saying I didn’t work hard. But as I look back, my major feeling, after teaching for years as an adjunct and working 80-hour weeks in real estate, is great satisfaction in having any job at all in philosophy. Because for many years, I never expected to get one — and even after I did, I kept looking over my shoulder at the shadow of what might have been.

I now believe that too many graduate students feel entitled to a great job. That attitude sets them up to fail. Some of the graduate students I knew at NYU’s philosophy department, then a program of slight stature, eventually forged careers because they endured — they moved, they compromised, they published, they would not give up. They had the right attitude.

Some colleagues from elite Ivy League programs who say they are “stuck here in Alabama” feel as if life has passed them by, that they missed the boat because they never got a job at Yale or Berkeley. Maybe the current economic downturn, which is already affecting universities, will make those young professors more thankful for their tenure-track jobs, no matter how imperfect.

To be happy as a professor, you don’t need to teach in buildings that win architectural awards. You don’t need a two-course-a-semester load to publish (I published during my first years in Birmingham, despite teaching nine or 10 courses a year). You don’t need your university to give you a dedicated blog site or IT personnel to support your home computer. You need a tenure-track job, and then you need to work hard at the three things we are expected to do: teach students who want to learn, publish about things you care about, and be a good academic citizen through service to your institution and field. That’s the deal. If it doesn’t sound good enough, then maybe you should try bartending in San Francisco. And when you do, lots of adjuncts will apply for your job.

Gregory Pence is a professor of philosophy at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He is author of Classic Cases in Medical Ethics (McGraw-Hill, 2008, fifth edition).
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 55, Issue 18, Page B20

Follow up comments at the Leiter Reports.


Entry filed under: education, Grad school.

Delivering a 30-second elevator speech on my work “Defending Scholarships but not all Scholars”

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