Academic Rapunzels, or Leaving academia – but hitherto?

This article is about the emotional effect of leaving academia. There is little actual talk about emotions in the article. It is largely an optimistic-sounding story of a career in science communication after a PhD. But why is there so much effort to justify this career “turn” and why is it so heavily about rebranding, organizing, management, objectives, timescales? Why is the first of three main lessons that unemployment is not the same as failure? A society must be very confused if enough people in it genuinely believe that work – or rather paid employment – is the sole kernel of their identity, and that unemployment equals failure.

So while the article sounds like a happy ending to a previously stormy journey through the post-PhD career, it is actually an article about what is wrong with the academic system. It is about leaving research, but not really leaving it, and instead finding work in the fringes, or what I like to think of as the scaffolding of research. It’s an article about an academic system which tricks a lot of people into thinking they are welcome, and then kicks them out because there is not enough space (or funding) for them. There may not be enough room in the lab, the lab is a cut-throat business, only the very best make it. Yet there is always room for one more in the scaffolding! We can always do with more people to take care of the scientists! These academic caretakers are doing a valuable job, some are happy and find their skills well applied, others swallow their disappointment because they are making a living and are even close to what used to be their dream. But why are there so many administrators, communicators, managers, strategists, and so few researchers, or “students” – as academic authors used to like calling themselves in papers only a few decades ago? And why is it mainly women who take these timid career paths out-but-not-really-out of academia, while male PhD holders end up in industry jobs in larger numbers?

The article reminded me of those multiple, identical articles I’ve read about how to find work abroad as a trailing spouse. The authors are all women, and they all say that while real jobs are hard to come by, look how great it is that we now control our own schedule and can work on our own macbook in a hipster cafe. And when you look at their signatures, they are all “freelance writers” or “professional bloggers”. And they do that because that’s what they chose to do. They combine work with family because that’s what they chose to do. And have time to bake cookies (and keep applying for jobs and not getting them) because that’s what they like. I am being cynical, but the point is: when lots of people choose something, they are clearly being reasonable. Being a para-academic who hangs on like Rapunzel on her own hair from the fringes of the academic scaffolding, over the abyss of unemployment, is clearly one of the open paths, or at least a path less closed than its alternatives.

I have no answers – only questions and quibbles.


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3 thoughts on “Academic Rapunzels, or Leaving academia – but hitherto?

  1. While these are all good observations, what seems missing to me here, and in much other sociological reflection on these phenomena (e.g. Bourdieu’s analysis of the trajectories of people who, when they don’t get the academic careers they were trained for, have to convince themselves to be content with the lesser careers they get) is some acknowledgement that, since academia is so dysfunctional, not being an academic can actually be the better option. Could sociologists’ own investment in the game of academia be making it difficult for them to see this?

    • anelim says:

      Thanks for pointing out this bias – you are absolutely right. Academia operates behind a smoke screen of sorts. There are a lot of things sociologists can’t see (or even if they can see them, they can’t always keep in view). Case in point: while I saw your comment a few days ago and agreed with it, it is even easier for me to see this now that I’ve been an unemployed post-postdoc for 5 days! I notice the same among mathematicians and physicists, and much less among PhD-holder engineers. Could it be that if there are clearer and more multiple career options leading out of academia, people are more likely to acknowledge that these different trajectories are legitimate and worth taking? Would it be worth investing policy and money into building clearer career “tracks” traversing academia and various industries?

  2. Before we try to define career tracks, I think would help to know more about the actual trajectories of PhDs with different sorts of backgrounds and training. Yes, there are fields like engineering where certain paths from academia to industry are well-trodden and well-known, but this isn’t the case for the humanities and social sciences. Those of us who have left the traditional academic job market are no doubt constructing a wide variety of different idiosyncratic career paths in different niches that exist within, near, and outside academia. These surely depend not only on our PhDs, but also on other skills and experience that we may have, on our different needs (e.g. do we have a family to support, and are we willing and able to move to country X or city Y?), and on the different sorts of opportunities that exist in different places. A sociological study of a large number of post-academic PhDs could try to determine which trajectories are most feasible or most likely for an individual with a particular sort of background. Then perhaps we could start to talk about career tracks.

    Until someone does such a study, we could start in a more humble way by recording our own experiences, perhaps on blogs such as this one, and trying to start to make some comparisons in that way. I’d be very interested to hear about your experiences as a post-postdoc.

    To deal with the problem of the smoke screen, I think sociologists need to become more reflexive about the dispositions and conceptual schemas they’ve internalised through their participation in the field of sociology. Like any field, sociology requires its participants to have an emotional investment in the field, to take it for granted that what matters in sociology *really* matters. Without a reflexive understanding of this investment, it’s easy to forget that what matters to sociologists can seem perfectly arbitrary to someone outside the field.

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