Monday, April 16, 2012

On Bitterness

I got some traffic this weekend from a job and career advice site unrelated to academia. I appreciate the traffic, and I'm happy to have the blog linked from more general career advice sites rather than simply from other postacademic sites.

However, I was somewhat disappointed to see that at the referring link, the author of the piece noted that when looking at my blog - as well as 100 Reasons and PINYC's and a few others - readers should "glean the advice [and] leave the bitterness."

I admit, this quote rubbed me the wrong way - both on behalf of us bloggers and our readers.

Not because our blogs aren't bitter (in places). Of course they are! We're recovering academics. As others have noted, it's not altogether dissimilar to being a recovering addict or from leaving a cult. We're reorienting our entire lives and mindsets away from an institution that we've become totally immersed in, and a lifestyle that we've grown to believe is the only lifestyle and career worth living.

I wasn't disappointed at being called bitter. But I was disappointed to see the bitterness billed as something that was inappropriate or that others shouldn't be feeling. In my opinion, it is completely appropriate and natural for you to be bitter and hurt and angry when you find yourself leaving academia. 

We're recovering from being sold a bill of goods from our advisors and mentors and departments that turned out to be totally false. We're navigating a career transition completely on our own, after years of being told that our advisors and departments were "training" us and were in the business of making sure we got settled happily into new careers. But as it turned out? There were few good jobs to be had ... and "training" and "advising" were only there for us as long as we were willing to keep playing the academic game. If we left, we were S.O.L.

Is it okay to be bitter about that? I think so.

Then, to add to the indignity of being treated like that by the institution and industry we've immersed ourselves in for nearly a decade, we have to contend with the comments and judgements from the people we're leaving behind in academia:
~"Don't you just want to give the market one more chance? If you get another publication, surely you'll get a job next year or the year after that."
 ~"Why don't you adjunct for a year and see if the market looks better next year? ...What? You won't make enough money? How dare you! We don't talk about money in academia!!!"
 ~"Are you really sure you want to leave? All nonacademic jobs are awful, just like the one job I had while I was in college. You're gonna regret it. Academia is the best job in the world. Everything else is soul-sucking and awful."

Anyone who judges us for being bitter? You try transitioning careers with absolutely no help from anyone, and try doing it while almost everyone in your life is questioning and second-guessing your decisions and motives and everything else. I guarantee, you'd be a little bitter.

And you know what? It's okay to feel that way. It's a normal part of coping. And since nearly anyone who links to my site from that career advice article is going to be an ABD or Ph.D. who is contemplating leaving academia, they're probably going to be a little bit bitter as well. Because they're likely realizing for the first time that they were sold a bill of goods that was false.

"Just work hard and publish and teach more and you'll get a good job!" ... is a lie.

"All of our good students get good academic jobs!" ... is a lie.

"Anyone who winds up dropping out of grad school or leaving academia just couldn't cut it. They weren't smart or dedicated enough." ... is a lie.

"As long as you love your (academic) job, it won't matter where you're living!" ... is a lie.

"Your department is here to help you land a good job, no matter what that might be or how long it might take!" ... is a lie.

"The academic job market is recovering!" ... is a lie.

"A whole bunch of tenured professors are going to be retiring soon, so there will be a slew of new academic jobs coming out any day now!" ... is a lie.

It's all a pile of lies, piled upon other lies, piled upon falsehoods and misrepresentations or (at best) willful ignorance of what academia has become.

And if you read here because you've realized that you have to look elsewhere for employment after always thinking that academia was your ticket to happiness and success, it's okay to be bitter.

Because you got screwed by academia. Yep, I said it.

Rather than realizing how much the academic system was changing and deciding to give grad students a more realistic view of the job situation and a wider range of career training, grad departments keep perpetuating the lie that anyone can get an academic job (and that everyone will love one). And it's okay to be angry about that.

And it's okay to be bitter and angry that you were one of the people who fell for the lie. Because your grad department should have known better. But instead, they keep admitting full cohorts of new students - often naive 21 and 22-year-olds who've never done anything but go to school, and who are so excited to keep learning and writing and reading - and to get paid for it!!!

And it's okay to be bitter and angry that you never were allowed to think critically about academia while you were in it. The socialization to academic culture quickly sets in, and before you know it aren't able to view academia objectively, to recognize when you don't like the work anymore (since "everyone is miserable!).

And it's okay to be bitter and angry that the reality of the academic job market was hidden from you - that the entire system is shifting toward temporary and adjunct work, and that even the best students are often failing to get good jobs. Students who get crappy temporary jobs are praised from the rafters as if they've just landed a T-T post at Yale. Students who land awesome jobs outside of academia disappear down the memory hole of their grad department, so that current students never have any models for jobs outside of academia that they could shoot for. This is misleading and cruel, and it's okay to be bitter about it.

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The truth is that both Type 1 and Type 2 leavers should be bitter (for awhile) about academia.

For Type 1's, we are told forever and ever that academia is the Best! Job! Ever! and that anyone who doesn't like it is an idiot who just couldn't cut it and has no ambition. So if you suddenly find yourself not liking the work anymore, you have to deal with the fact that you've been told for years that people like you are idiots ... and that many people around you still believe it - and will therefore believe that about you. It's okay to be a little bit angry and bitter about that for awhile.

And if you're a Type 2 leaver who has devoted years and years of your life to loving your subject and to achieving all of the important milestones that were "guaranteed to land you a job" (publishing in top journals, writing a book, teaching classes at top universities) ... only to be offered nothing better than an adjunct position that pays less than $20k per year while you commute to three different campuses? When you reach that moment when you see that the entire academic system was built on a pile of falsehoods and exaggerations and that you can't make a living wage doing what you love? It's okay to be angry and bitter about that.

Now, don't get me wrong - you can't let the bitterness consume you. And you can't let it go on forever. But it won't ... as long as you let yourself feel it and process it initially.

I do still occasionally have my moments of frustration and bitterness against academia - but it normally only crops up when I hear about how one of my grad student friends has been treated badly by the system or when I read something frustrating about academia or job searching (like the article that linked to me!). The postacademic rants I've been posting - as I've mentioned - were all written a year ago, when the wounds were still raw and my anger was still fresh. I haven't even seen my therapist (who helped me through the bulk of the post-academic stuff) since sometime in December, and haven't felt the need to. These days, I mainly just go to work and go home and spend time with my family and friends, and barely give academia a thought.

The personal anger and everyday bitterness is gone - it does disappear eventually. However, I do still feel anger on behalf of all of the students who are toiling away in grad school, particularly in the humanities ... with no idea of what they're facing upon graduation because no one is telling them. 

I am still bitter on their behalf, and I won't apologize for it. Nor will I apologize for being personally bitter for awhile after I left. Nor should you, if you do leave.

Career counselors may not understand it. Your friends and family who give you advice may not understand it. People who have never been to grad school will definitely not understand it.

But the culture of academia is unique, and the socialization is strong, and the self-directed sense of shame and anger when you aren't successful is real.

And when the bubble finally bursts and you see the system for what it is? You will be frustrated. You will be sad and angry and you will cry and you will yell and yes ... you will be bitter for awhile.

But that's okay. It's okay to be frustrated and bitter at the crappy bill of goods that you were sold. Let yourself feel it before you let it go. Otherwise, it'll eat you up inside.

In this country, we often act like any display of emotions is wrong. Numb yourself! Don't let yourself feel anger or frustration or sadness or anything else unpositive! Hell, there's an entire pharmaceutical industry that earns millions by telling us that we should mask our emotions rather than feeling them.*

I call bullshit on that. If you're feeling sad or angry or upset - especially about something as significant as a career transition or realizing that your entire career trajectory was built on a house of lies and that you never stood a chance of getting the type of job your advisors promised you that you would get?

It's okay to be bitter. Shaking it off and just concentrating on what job comes next isn't necessarily the best advice. And while I appreciate career advice sites linking to me, I do not appreciate the advice that doing emotional work over a career transition is something that you should avoid.

If you're feeling emotions like sadness or anger or bitterness, chances are that there's a good reason. And if you don't deal with them? They're probably going to rear up at some point in the future. Best to deal with them now, so you can clear your head and figure out what comes next without the cloud of bitterness and anger hanging over your head.

So if you're here looking for career advice but you're also feeling bitterness and anger toward your Ph.D.-granting institution or toward grad school or academia in general? Don't listen to the people who tell you to suppress that and just move on immediately. The grief and anger is a real thing and it deserves some attention.

You're doing fine, and it's normal to be upset/angry/bitter, and you're going to be okay.

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*Huge disclaimer here: I'm not talking about people with clinical depression or panic disorders or anything like that. I'm talking about things like the proposal that grief following the loss of a loved one be reclassified as actual depression requiring medication. That is ridiculous.

17 comments:

  1. Good post. Negative emotions are a natural reaction to negative situations. Discontent is often what gets people to take action to change something, whether it's a personal change like leaving academe or a large social movement. It's all good and well to be positive and optimistic and hopeful, but having that kind of Pollyannaish outlook inside academe prevents you from seeing the trap you've got yourself stuck in and can undermine your efforts to get out or even just work on a Plan B while you're still in.

    Screw anyone who dismisses our bitterness. We have a right to it and good reasons behind it.

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    1. Thanks. I was a little put off by how angry that one little throwaway line in the article made me. I thought about it for all of yesterday and most of this morning before finally realizing why it made me angry - dammit, yes I was (am) bitter. But it is well-warranted and it is OKAY to feel that way.

      Oddly, I wasn't even that upset about what it implied of me. I was more upset when I pictured someone doing a late night desperation Google search (like the "I hate academia" ones that lead people here), and finding that article, which condescendingly tells them to "not be bitter."

      What a bunch of Pollyannaish nonsense that is. Having your entire life course and career path crash and burn around you SUCKS. It's survivable and we'll ultimately be better off, but acting like we should just skip through the transition with no negative emotions is a really unfair thing to tell people. We academics already blame ourselves for everything ... there's no need to add on another layer of blame and self-flagellation by telling people they should just "shake off" their emotions. Grrr.

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  2. I am an eighth-year doctoral student who has had near misses on the job market two years in a row now. My second year on the market I have been, as my advisors termed it, "dark" or "bitter." I was told multiple times to fix my "attitude problem" (by which they meant to stop vehemently advising the undergrads I taught against going to grad school in the social sciences and humanities and to stop commenting to younger students about the realities of the job market). Frankly, I feel being told to stop being bitter is like forbidding homeless people from begging on the streets; it's an attempt to hide real endemic problems from the more comfortable because they don't want to recognize and act on their reality.

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    1. I can't even tell you how upset I am to hear that your advisors were chastising you for advising students to not go to grad school. There's a point at which the whole thing stops being just "staying positive" and "encouraging people to follow their dreams" ... and becomes "willfully encouraging people down a path littered with landmines." Good on you for staying dark and bitter and keeping others from going down the same path. That's one thing I'm trying to do with this blog as well.

      And also, I think your homeless people analogy is right on. Seriously. Take the problem out of sight, and we can pretend it's not really happening!

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  3. Thank you for this important entry. I agree that it is essential that there be more explicit discussion of the negative aspects of the academic system because there isn't enough discussion of it within the system itself. I also think it is important to recognize what you don't like about what you are doing because how else will you find happiness if you can't recognize what makes you unhappy? And that recognition necessitates spending time with the bitterness. Pinpointing exactly what you no longer want will not come right away, it is a process especially when you've lived such a long time convinced that academia is the only career path for you.

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    1. Yes, exactly. When I first left academia, I immediately started applying for jobs that were closely related to my academic work - research, teaching jobs, etc.

      It was only after I was forced to take a slowdown for a couple of months in the fall for reasons unrelated to employment that I realized that I wanted something else. If I hadn't given myself the mental headspace to think about what I'd been through and what I loved and hated about my life and my work, I never would have realized what I actually wanted to prioritize in my life.

      And I can definitely testify that this does NOT happen overnight. It takes time, and you have to give yourself time to process everything.

      As time goes on, I really do think that the comparisons of academia to a cult are spot-on.

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  4. JC,

    As an unapologetically indignant post-academic, I just wanted to join the growing chorus of praise to thank you for your blog – and, especially, for this post in particular. Although I’ve been reading your blog for a few months now, I have a feeling that I might have come across the very site that you’re referring to in your latest post, and I share your sentiments on this point 100%.

    I quit fairly early on in my burgeoning academic “career,” and I’m still pretty fresh out of the gate since leaving (less than six months, to be precise). I have absolutely no regrets, and I am happier now than I’ve been in years. However, it’s hard not to be bitter for the four long years that I spent working for an institution that used me as cheap labor as a TA and adjunct. And that’s not to mention the very steep price that academia expects of its membership: you have to put most of your adult life on hold until you do, theoretically, accomplish the impossible and land that tenure-track job. How can you not be angry for making such a huge sacrifice, and then getting very little or no gain in return?

    I’ve gotten the “don’t be bitter” line from a lot of non-academic types over the course of my job search, and while I acknowledge that it has some value in certain contexts, I find that it also has a very sinister ring to it. Look at the job market in the US, for instance: it’s contracted to such a point that people are willing to hang on to dear life for jobs that they hate, aren’t getting paid enough for, or aren’t appreciated in rather than face the (very real) consequences of economic uncertainty. Openly “complaining” about work conditions or thinking about that point of no return is not an option for the vast majority of people – after all, no one wants to be out of a job, or be thought of as “that guy” who doesn’t fit in or get along with coworkers/bosses. This just reinforces a very dangerous “put-up-or-shut-up” culture for employers (that they can now get away with), and that simply makes work force exploitation that much easier. I think this will ring true for many academics, too.

    Anyway, I can’t deny that I’m still plenty angry at this stage in the game, but it was that anger and frustration that got me out of academia in the first place. What’s more, I’m convinced that this same energy is helping me stay on target for the next step in my career path. I think Barbara Ehrenreich summed it up very well: excessive positive thinking is, essentially, a denial of actual circumstances. And if you want to solve a problem, how can it possibly be in your best interest to deny reality?

    Very long soapbox speech aside, thanks again, JC, for acting as a beacon of sanity. I really appreciate your insights and your down-to-earth attitude about leaving the ivory tower. It’s made my own transition a lot easier, I can say that much!

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    1. This is such a terrific comment - I don't even think I can add much to it.

      First, I think that the "don't be bitter" comment - not to mention the general "don't ever criticize your salary or labor conditions" norm that exists in academia definitely helps contribute to the continued bad working conditions in academia unless you're a t-t faculty member.

      And I'm incredibly happy to see you bring out the Barbara Ehrenreich argument. It's an excellent side note to what we're discussing here. Of course you don't want to let bitterness and anger get the best of you ... as I said above, you can't let it get excessive or go on forever.

      But refusing to even acknowledge the emotions? That is not healthy, and it will not help you deal with your life. You have to feel the bad with the good. You have to.

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  5. Dear JC,
    Thank you for this blog posting. It reads as if it’s a rebuttal to some judgmental statements that I saw about the blog "100 Reasons NOT to Go to Graduate School" on a blog by a tenured academic, a few weeks ago. This tenured academic/author appeared to think that those of us who are disillusioned by life within ivory tower, the abuse of adjuncts, etc..were really just losers and we shouldn't bother attending graduate school if we intended to complain about the fact that the system was broken. Sometimes it helps having a place where people can talk about how awful things are. ..Her blog post made me really angry since she obviously didn't understand that the system is broken. I think that what was really bothering this blogger and the other commentators on her blog was that those who write on the blog "100 Reasons..." were commiserating about how awful the system has become and that perhaps those academics teaching in the system ought to be aware of the system is broken and that their graduate students realize that they need to know how to work outside it, what skills to they have, that they have to finish their degrees with as little debt as possible and be aware that the job market is dire. Adjuncting is dire but I dare say that this academic blogger and her readers don’t care about this or the fact that people at grad school, people finishing PhDs, and adjuncts are disillusioned based on her comments. She was clearly cross that the blog “100 Reasons….” even existed. I think that this blogger, the tenured academic, just doesn’t want to know since she’s benefitting from the fact that the system is broken.

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  6. Hurrah hurrah for this great post. There are so many difficult emotions to deal with during and after the very long PhD slog and one of them is the frustration around the lack of support by mentors and others already secure in the game. I have lost count of how many times I've been told things like, 'This is just the way things are in academia', 'You have to be totally committed and passionate about it', 'The whole process of PhD study, completion and job success are the testing ground of academia, a way of weeding out the ones who can't cut it', etc. So, it's no wonder that you will feel lots of bitterness and sadness after so many years of putting all of your heart and soul into it, sacrificing large parts of your social and home life for the academic life. When you've decided enough is enough, it's pretty natural to feel this way. I will never forget my experience when I had an appointment with a career's advisor at the university where I did my PhD - they offer a free service up to 3 years afterwards. The minute I sat down to discuss why I was there, I felt this overwhelming emotion come over me and I started crying, sobbing actually. It was embarrassing, but I thought, maybe this is good for her to see what post PhDs like me go through when deciding to transition. The bitterness is completely natural, understandable and we should allow ourselves to feel it and express it. Of course, we can hold back when we find ourselves in a future interview where those feelings are not appropriate. Lovely post. Keep them coming!

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  7. It's been two years since I completed my PhD, and while my anger at the experience is no longer pressing, I am surprised by the lingering bitterness, and the unexpected moments when it surges to the surface. Your post made me smile, though, which tells me I've come a long way in understanding it. Thank you for writing. Your blog made my night.

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  8. Thanks for this post. Though I am finishing my PhD, I have long held interests outside of academia, and jobs/positions outside of the academy --- as well as a local journalist, I am a ski rep; I have also been a media arts curator and DJ. I follow my passions.

    And following one's passions, indeed, seems to be detrimental to academics who have never done anything else. I have been asked "why I have taken a break from academia" in choosing to extend my PhD, as if academia is the only choice available --- not only as a career option, but as a LIFE option.

    I look forwards to finishing the PhD. I wish to continue my research, and I love teaching. But I hold no high hopes that academia is all there is, in part because my research is in political economy and philosophy of technology; a good deal of my work is on immaterial labour, temporary work, and precarity as systems of contemporary capitalism.

    In short what your post misses a bit is precisely the broader world-view you're looking for. Indeed, chances are if you are ABD or post-PhD it's not particularly about YOU; if you were in the '60s, you'd probably be hired tenure-track. It is, however, about the market, which is to say, about capitalism.

    Turn that bitterness to where it should be, and put the brainpower to work where it is needed--- in coming up with alternatives. Because it is not JUST academia, which is the point missing here, but the underlying economic and power systems which control academia, which is the culprit here. That universities are being turned into edufactories, propaganda bunkers, and corporate silos is not the fault of the "academic lie"; it's the fault of BODs and Senates and Presidents who have bought & sold academia on the market. It's system of capital that is the underlying cause of the current predicament that affects not only academia, but all labour in the 21st century.

    Which is another way of saying: don't expect the glorious outside of academia to be any better, unless you are willing to work for big oil, big pharma, advertising, or the military.*

    *Or a couple of other nice corporate conglomerates.

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    1. Thanks for the comment. I agree that it's not just academia in general that deserves the bitterness ... but that it's largely the corporatization of higher ed that deserves scorn.

      That being said, I do work outside of the academy now and I certainly don't find it to be "glorious." The outside world isn't overly meaningful ... it's just a job.

      But that's the thing. Academia frustrates and angers me because *no one acknowledges that it, too, is just a job.* I appreciate the outside world because it is honest about what it is. I do my job, complete my reports, and help my company grow. No one is feeding me lines about my job being a "calling" or being "so much more important and meaningful" than anything else.

      That's where academia makes me mad and leaves me bitter. Instead of acknowledging that higher ed is becoming an edu-factory, academic folks chastise those of us who want to leave for abandoning the "life of the mind" - as if the blame lies with us for not being able to cut it instead of with the system for changing on us. It's frustrating because we know that academia is no longer a meaningful dream job ... but no one else will acknowledge it.

      So yes, there is frustration with the system. But also, there is the frustration with the people who won't acknowledge that the system is changing and instead waste time telling us that *we're* the ones who deserve ridicule for leaving ... rather than placing it where it belongs, as you say - with the people who've turned higher ed into a factory system.

      And yes, that makes me bitter. But it's not because I think the outside world is some glorious dream world. I just want to work somewhere where people are honest about what they're doing.

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  10. I love this. I was having a conversation the other day about a former grad student in our department. (She's since gotten an academic job that she likes, but only after dealing with ridiculous political bullshit at our university for nearly ten years.) One person mentioned that this woman has incredibly high emotional intelligence. Another was incredulous, "Ms. Blackheart? She was always so negative though." The first responded that people with emotional intelligence who are put in fucked up situations are going to notice that it's fucked up and feel pretty terrible about it! Emotional intelligence doesn't mean being sweet and happy all of the time.

    People do seem to be uncomfortable with negativity in general. I told an acquaintance that I was pretty well sick of the semester and ready for it to end. I hate it, I own the hatred, it's no big deal. I just plug away until it's done, and then I move on. But my negative pronouncement made her visibly uncomfortable. She said she hoped I could find something to enjoy about it until it's over. Maybe I will, maybe I won't, but I'm fine either way.

    Part of me thinks that a lot of people are threatened by bitterness because they prefer to cope by trying not to think about the negative aspects of a situation.

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  11. Keep this blog in place and this post visible to search engines. I've been saying this for the last 4 years since my PhD. The last thing that my adviser said was that there was a "great cloud of bitterness" over me (for evening bringing up the fact that, a year after graduation, I was working 2 part-time jobs plus adjuncting and making less than I did when I was a PhD candidate). She wrote me off at that point, concluding that I was a loser. Right. It's taken me 3 years and change to get over losing my last connection to my former life. At the time, a former friend and colleague added, "Not everyone can cut it in academia." I began by agreeing and blaming myself. I have a book and 21 journal publications, an advanced degree, and years of teaching under my belt. But the best I could get was adjunct positions at community colleges. After the self-criticism and self-blame, I got angry. I'm still angry but doing better and searching for other things now. My point is that it's important for people to read about this, about the cult-like atmosphere of most graduate programs. If I'd discovered this blog years ago, I would have saved myself a lot of angst and depression.

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