The Career Move That Dare Not Speak Its Name
by Josh Parsons
My sister works in advertising, an industry where high-pressure workplaces are at least as common as they are in academia, and remuneration is better. A few years ago she decided that her current employer was asking too many hours of her for the pay she was getting. It wasn’t that what they were asking of her was scandalous or unfair (at least by the standards of the industry); just that it was incompatible with her living the life she wanted to live. So she handed in her notice and approached other employers in the same industry, and got a new job more to her liking in a few months. She didn’t even have to leave Sydney, where her family is based, to do it.
Can you imagine that happening in academia? Maybe in the sciences, but in philosophy, in the humanities? I can’t—and that’s why for a long time I’ve stuck at my high-pressure job, which (obviously, to me, and everyone around me) doesn’t provide the kind of work-life balance that I want. My employer isn’t behaving scandalously or unfairly: it’s just that the local cost of living has massively outstripped academic salaries and university-wide pressures mean that everyone in my position is asked to work very long hours during term-time. It’s a type of position that suits more junior academics who want to prioritise their careers for a few years, and then move on, and that’s just not the kind of job I want—for one thing I’ve already done that.
I asked a number of my mentors and advisors in the profession what to do, and they all advised me that it would be best to sit tight, circulate rumours that I was “moveable”, and wait for a better offer to roll in. So I did, and I got a bit of interest, but no actual offers, from other universities in the UK. I’m grateful to my friends who put my name forward for those things, but on sober reflection, this was the wrong advice. It’s not very pleasant to keep doing a difficult job while plotting to leave it; and the practice of circulating your name and waiting for offers, and then receiving none, can be (even) more dispiriting than “going on the market” in a conventional way.
They also advised me to definitely not do what my sister did. That, they told me, would be career suicide—would be perceived (not by them, of course, but by others) as “leaving the profession”, or as lack of commitment. I’ve now come around to the view that (1) this perception is very much exaggerated; (2) well-meaning people perpetuate it by giving that kind of advice; and (3) who cares? It’s a fool’s game to be an academic because you like getting the approval of your peers! (Because academics, and philosophers in particular, are so good at giving approval). As we all know, the only sensible reason to be an academic is because you like doing it. So the only sensible thing to do if your job becomes a cross that you must bear, rather than a vocation, is to ditch it. That is showing commitment to academia—as opposed to a misguided fetish for academic employment.
Now I can imagine someone hastily reading the previous paragraph and storing for later gossip “Ah, Parsons has announced that he’s leaving the profession”. (If that’s you, read it again). I’m leaving my job. I expect that this will mean that I have more, rather than less, time for academia, because I’ll be in a better position to enjoy teaching and research, wherever I end up doing them. I plan to make my career fit my life, instead of the other way around—I’m going to move to somewhere I want to live, and where I can afford to have the lifestyle I want on an academic salary. I’ll ask the local university if they’ll have me, and if they don’t, it’ll be their loss, not mine. I’m under no illusions about the risk of not getting a university post under these conditions. But that’s a risk I’m prepared to take—better that than the certainly of living and working under circumstances I don’t like—and it shouldn’t be thought of as “leaving academia”.
Since no piece of writing by a philosopher is complete without an “objections and replies” section, I now anticipate some reactions you may have to this, and what I would say in reply:
(1) “First-world problems! How can you be upset about not being able to afford to buy a house when there is real poverty in the world…” Right: being a middle-class professional and feeling that your job is insufficiently rewarding is indeed a first-world problem. I’m talking about the solution to that problem, which is quitting the job. The result can hardly be that I spend less time working to end world poverty.
(2) “You’re very lucky that you are established enough to be able to choose where to live and let the jobs come to you. Spare a thought for more junior academics who do not yet have a strong track record of publication, and have temporary jobs with even higher teaching loads.” Yes; I’m lucky and privileged. But both are relative scales—no matter where you are as an academic, there are some people who have been more successful than you so far, and some people who have been less successful. It’s never feels qualitatively different, it never feels that you have finally arrived. Everyone who has a PhD is a highly qualified and intellectually capable person. We’re all sufficiently qualified and capable to be sure of getting a job that will keep us in a fair bit of comfort. No-one in the world is established enough as an academic to choose which city they will live in and be sure of getting a university position there.
Any academic who is dissatisfied with their job, be it permanent or temporary, is in relevantly the same position. The only reason it might seem otherwise is if you thought that a permanent academic job is an end in itself, and as someone who currently has one, I can tell you it’s not.
(3) “Isn’t this just awfully self-involved of you? Why do you think anyone cares about your life decisions?” Well, if you’ve read this far in, I must at least have been moderately entertaining. But seriously, there is an issue here that people need to speak up about. There is quite a lot of discussion and good career advice available on the web for junior academics. But there is very little advice around for mid-career academics—it’s a culture of silence, as if every associate professor, every senior lecturer in the world was perfectly satisfied with their job. If I’d read something like this piece a couple of years earlier, I’d be a happier man now, and I think, I know one or two people out there who, reading this, may feel enabled to make the same decision I have.
Imagine if we all just stopped believing that the only way to be an academic is to be constantly employed by a university. There—wouldn’t that make people’s lives a lot better? Let’s just do that.
[Editorial note: Josh Parsons died on April 11, 2017.]