S. Worthen (owlfish) wrote,
S. Worthen

Arguments for and against an academic career

(This post is dedicated to hilly02 and tammabanana. With thanks to Conor who recommended the book.)

At the recommendation of a fellow PhD student, I acquired a copy of The Chicago Guide to Your Academic Career this weekend, and have only gotten as far as reading the first chapter. The first chapter, however, deals with why one should NOT pursue an academic career. It points out - quite rightly - that bright students are often encouraged to go to graduate school and continue on in school, and having done a PhD are gently pushed towards the job market. Many of them do it because they haven't yet decided what else to do, and staying in school can avoid the decision. But in the end, they have ended up with a career despite attempts not to.

I feel as if this is happening to me, to a certain extent. I think I would be happy teaching, and I would like to leave my options open, and I'm quiet content pursuing a PhD. None of this necessarily means, however, that I have consciously decided that my career will be as a professor/lecturer at a university. Part of me still likes to think that my dream job hasn't been invented yet, and thus how could I know what it is?

At the same time, however, I obviously have at least some degree of aptitude for the profession of academic, or I would not have made it this far. Time management is something a good academic needs and which I'm not particularly good at, but I'm strong enough in other useful attributes to make up for that to a large degree. I strongly suspect - and indeed, anticipate - that I will finish this degree. However, even having done a PhD, that doesn't mean I have to have an academic career. Think of Carly Fiorino, CEO of Hewlett Packard. She has a PhD in Medieval History and is now CEO of HP.

PhDs don't always open doors, however, In many cases, having one may mean you're overqualified for a job you later decide you actually want, and it can work against the prospects of getting that job. Or so I've read in many sources, including The Chicago Guide. Also, plenty of people don't finish their PhD - this is neither a pro or a con really. It's better to figure out as early as possible that you don't want to waste 4-7 years of your life doing something you really didn't want to be doing. If you're a coursework addict, an MA might be worth doing, but not a PhD. And certainly don't do a PhD since you think other people expect it of you.

If you have no better reason, do it because it sounds like a lot of fun. Do it because you want to be an academic or some other job for which it's a requirement. Do it if you want to be well-trained in research projects, and like working on large projects with minimal support and guidance from other people.

Having given you all this advice, much of which was gotten second-hand, I should point out that I don't think I made a mistake in choosing to do a PhD. If you want to give it a go, go for it. Just keep in mind that you're not stuck in academia. You can always choose to go do something else instead. Honestly. The same applies to any career.

Although, for now at least, I'm fairly content with where I'm heading, I am still figuring out what to do with my life. I wish you luck in figuring out what to do with yours.

About a month ago, a group of blogs rather avidly discussed the pros and cons of academia, although more from the prospect of whether or not working in academia at all is a good thing. If you're interested in pursuing the subject, Mama Musings (also here) and Caveat Lector are some of the very many who weighed in on this particular issue. They each link to some of the others.

Timothy Burke also has an essay on "Should you go to Grad School?" - although it's particularly targeted at undergrads.)

There are, of course, many other books on graduate school. I don't know the genre. Here's the link for Amazon and The Chicago Guide to Your Academic Career if you're interested in pursuing other options via the commercial method.

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