Saturday, October 13, 2012

The lies we tell ourselves

I have been reflecting lately on what it is that makes wanna be academics cling to the idea that if we just ... (insert whatever academic activity you like) ... then all our dreams of a full time permanent job will come true. I think I am mulling over the same general theme that JC at "From Grad School to Happiness" ( calls "magical thinking".

Now that I am out of the whole hoopla that perpetuates some of the more demented myths around academic job hunting, I can see with a cold detachment how wanna be academics develop a kind of Munchausen syndrome when it comes to thinking about their career prospects. It's a really complicated psychological trick that enables so many people to put up with terrible circumstances in the hope that all those years invested in their career goals won't turn out to be a total waste of time*.

(*please remember that "by total waste of time" I of course mean "profoundly edifying yet with no meaningful improvement in one's employment prospects". It's just easier to use the short-hand version.)

I have heard of some of the most outrageous circumstances that people in unsecured academic employment will put up with. And thinking back on my life up until this year, I realise I have been pretty much guilty of doing the same thing. In general, it all boils down to not being able to earn a viable living and convincing yourself that it's ok that you don't because one day - ONE DAY - you will get a "proper" job.

The question is: how many years are you going to keep convincing yourself that this is an acceptable way to live?

Part of the complex pyschology of all of this is that you will have also bought into the idea that it takes time and sacrifice to get one of those jobs. Repeated failure to get a job will have been reinforced by your networks which say "oh, the next one will be yours, keep ...!". This of course enables anyone who diviates from this trap to be classified as not committed or serious enough to be an academic. Which is clearly not true. It also enables those within the trap to make the most ridiculously complicated justifications for why what happened to their no longer academic colleagues won't happen to them. In effect, they will do anything within their power to ignore the very obvious evidence in front of them about their actual job prospects.

As I am sure everyone who has decided that enough is enough has discovered, when dealing with those "on the inside" so to speak, you will find yourself being told why you should jump back in. And I am sure I don't need to say - just IGNORE THEM. Don't be seduced by the rantings of the delusional. You've made the break and you're on the road to normality. While your post-academic life might not be rosy all the time, it is DEFINITELY better than living the compromised existence that you were.

It can be hard to not feel judged or defensive about the choices that you have made when faced with the absolute certainty of someone who has not yet been able to accept the truth that you have, but don't get sucked in to justifying yourself - it's your life - to someone who is still living a lie. You will never convince them of the truth.

My tip in these situations is to instead grab an adult beverage of your choice and then ask them about their research: that way you can occupy your mind with more interesting things while sipping your beverage and letting them spout some nonsensical words for a while. Then, depending on your level of general appreciation of the said individual, when you notice them running out of puff, you can either say "Oh, how interesting - good luck with your next grant application" and hope that they stop talking about academic stuff or "What do you think about the recent funding cuts to higher eduction...?" and watch them turn green as they are forced to come up withe more convoluted explanations of how they will survive. Then get another drink.


  1. A wonderful post indeed. Especially poignant is your question that one must ask: 'How many years are you going to convince yourself....' I say fine if the young and energised hopeful academics want to give the whole thing its fair shot, but there is a point, a decided time frame perhaps, where one should consider what other options, viable ones too, are there that will help you achieve some of the things you want in life. Hear hear, pass me a sexy adult alcoholic beverage and let's cheers to that!

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. oh - I just deleted my own comment! that must look strange...

      All I wanted to say was: "Cheers!"

  2. The last paragraph especially makes me smile. I recently spent an entire evening with an academic friend who took it upon himself to try to convince me that every possible plan I had in mind was not going to work, that the outside world was just as bad as academia (his working conditions are a lot worse than mine so he can't very well say the outside world is worse), and that I would never find a job that I liked/found satisfying/enjoyed because that's just how employment works. A few days later, he admitted he wanted to leave academia and felt he had to challenge me because my plans seemed so convincing. It took more than two pints to survive that evening and I will not go for a repeat until he's left academia! As in addiction, just because he says he wants to quit doesn't mean he's going to do anything about it for a very long time . . .

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting on my blog, btw.

    1. Definitely more than 2 pints for those conversations. It's very difficult to be around some of those people. I find though that it's much easier to see just how hard they are convincing themselves from the "other side". And no, not all employment sucks. I don't buy that line.

  3. This is a really terrific post. That's really all I have to say right now, but just ... terrific, terrific post. :)