The Double Loss When Someone Departs Academia


Erin Bartram was revising a manuscript when she received an email informing her that her “last (and best) hope for a tenure-track job this year had evaporated.”

After a few years on the job market, she has decided to call it quits, and shares her thoughts about that in a post at her blog. While Bartram has a PhD in history, her experiences and reflections are relevant to other disciplines, and her focus is not just on the losses that the failure to secure permanent academic employment has on her and others in her position, but also on those who remain in academia.

I was sad and upset, but I didn’t even start to grieve for several weeks, not because I hadn’t processed it, but because I didn’t feel I had the right to grieve. After all, I knew the odds of getting a tenure-track job were low, and I knew that they were lower still because I didn’t go to an elite program. And after all, wasn’t this ultimately my failure? If I’d been smarter, or published more, or worked harder, or had a better elevator pitch—if my brain had just been better, maybe this wouldn’t have happened. But it had happened, and if I were ultimately to blame for it, what right did I have to grieve?

Despite the abundance of quit-lit out there, we’re still not, as a community of scholars, doing a great job dealing with this thing that happens to us all the time. The genre is almost universally written by those leaving, not those left behind, a reflection of the way we insulate ourselves from grappling with what it means for dozens, hundreds, thousands of our colleagues to leave the field.

Quit-lit exists to soothe the person leaving, or provide them with an outlet for their sorrow or rage, or to allow them to make an argument about what needs to change. Those left behind, or, as we usually think of them, those who “succeeded”, don’t often write about what it means to lose friends and colleagues. To do so would be to acknowledge not only the magnitude of the loss but also that it was a loss at all. If we don’t see the loss of all of these scholars as an actual loss to the field, let alone as the loss of so many years of people’s lives, is it any wonder I felt I had no right to grieve? Why should I be sad about what has happened when the field itself won’t be?

Those who remain in academia tell those who are departing that they can “still be part of the conversation” or remind them of “all the amazing skills they have,” but much of this is said just to make everyone feel better:

We don’t want to face how much knowledge that colleague has in their head that’s just going to be lost to those who remain, and even worse, we don’t want to face how much knowledge that colleague has in their head that’s going to be utterly useless in the rest of their lives.

And there is more to the loss than unused knowledge and wasted skills:

Most of all, though, I don’t know how to come to terms with the fact that I’ll probably never see most of my colleagues again. I won’t get to work with so many of you that I’d hoped to work with. I won’t even ever get to meet some of you. My friends.

Those who the departed leave behind in academia tend to ignore these losses:

We have, as a profession and as people, found ways of dealing with it that largely erase the people we lose, erase their pain and grief, and erase our own.

The whole post is here.

(via Nathan Ballantyne)

Francisco de Goya, “Saturn Devouring His Son”

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Jack Woods
Jack Woods
3 years ago

This is absolutely wonderful. I think, and find articulated here better than I ever could, that sometimes it’s forgotten, in a hail of ”hey, our graduates go on to do lots of things”, that the main goal for lots of people is to be in the profession and that seeing that opportunity lapse can be incredibly tragic. Report

Thinker
Thinker
3 years ago

I hope this doesn’t come across as boorish (though I recognize that it may despite my intentions), but I think the loss of friends, colleagues, and community aspect of this is indicative of a problem we have as academics: that we, by and large, lack friends and community outside of our academic discipline.

There’s a lot of talk about how bad it is for the profession (and also the public) that we don’t engage with people outside of the academy, but what about how bad it is for *us*, not as a profession but as individuals? Report

R
R
Reply to  Thinker
3 years ago

Many of us want to be part of a community of intellectuals that understands what we’re talking about and that might care about similar things. Much of that community exists in the academy. We can still be a part of other communities, but these typically do not play the same role that an academic community might.
Report

Thinker
Thinker
Reply to  R
3 years ago

But what academic communities provide is not *all* that is worthwhile. I think a lot of academics act as if it were the case (which certainly doesn’t help with public perception, by the way), but I think they’re mistaken and regretfully so.

That said, even if one leaves academia it doesn’t mean that they can’t keep in touch with other scholars whom they’ve befriended. Of course one won’t be immersed in academia the way one had been, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still talk philosophy with old friends over email and even in person on occasion. Philosophical conversation isn’t lost forever. Moreover, it may even be found in talking with non-academics (this of course depends on what one is interested in talking about; if you want to talk about some very obscure brand of metaphysics you might be shit out of luck compared to if your interests lie in ethics, political philosophy, existentialism/phenomenology, philosophy of religion, etc.). In my experience, people are pretty perceptive and while conversations are different than they are with scholars, that doesn’t mean that they can’t be engaging and insightful. Though I think another popular attitude among academics is that academics have some sort of monopoly on intelligence, rationality, knowledge, insight, etc., and so to those individuals it might seem like all hope for engaging conversation is lost in the event of leaving the academy. Report

Namey McNamename
Namey McNamename
3 years ago

I think this piece charts an interesting dynamic (though this isn’t the bit Justin mentions).
It was once the case that people thought the following:
(1) Philosopher, historian, etc = Professor of philosophy, history, etc.
We took it to be a victory when the community of academically-trained, but not academically-employed folks changed (1) to
(2) You can be a philosopher, historian, etc without being a professor.
Bartram has been roundly praised for writing a piece in which she challenges (2) with
(3) I only want to be a philosopher, historian, etc as a professor.*
And, on top of it, the proponent of (3) (in this case, Bartram) doesn’t want to hear it from the proponent of (2). (2)’s reassurances that (3) can still contribute to philosophy, history, etc. are rejected with “Why should I?”
Though I’ve seen no push back to this piece from proponents of (2), I imagine there must be some out there who think Bartram and other proponents of (3) are ingrates. If you were around in the bad old days of (1) and fought for (2) you might take (3)’s “Why should I?” as a slap in the face. For, back in the bad old days of (1), “Why should I?” simply wasn’t an option. I imagine some proponents of (2) are also thinking, “well, you were never a _real_ philosopher, historian, etc if you’ll only contribute to the scholarly community if you’re a professor.”

*Though she writes, “I got a PhD in history because I wanted to be a historian,” what she means is “I got a PhD in history because I wanted to be a history professor.” That she uses the first phrase to express the second suggests that Bartram is not only challenging (2) but, in fact, embracing (1). Report

JT
JT
Reply to  Namey McNamename
3 years ago

“Yeah, this is a highly emotional piece of writing and paints with a broad brush and you might disagree with a lot of the ways I’ve characterized academia.
No, I don’t care that you disagree. My feelings, thank heavens, are not subject to peer-review.”

Seems apt.Report

undergrad considering academia
undergrad considering academia
Reply to  Namey McNamename
3 years ago

I was wondering about the same point, although I wasn’t aware that people ever fought for 2 (could you elaborate? presumably one had always been able to write books etc.).

I thought of a few reasons you can have to not engage with academia once you’re where she’s at:

a) it’s way too hard to apply yourself to this task when you need to get your life straight and acquire a new sense of identity
b) it’s way too hurtful and reminding of the what a failure you believe you are
c) l guess almost no one ever wished to be that specialized of a scholar as academia demands you to be, and why do that unless you get paid handsomely and have a chance somewhere down the line to study and write about stuff that matters
d) you’re not really contributing to human knowledge but to a very small, insignificant and excluding academic conversation (if it is really even a conversation and not people just waiting for their turn to talk), from which you have just been spat out and are now even less likely to be a part of, even if you were motivated enough to try your hardest.
h) which all boils down to the feeling of throwing yourself on the floor begging to be allowed back into an abusive relationship.

and then I panicked.Report

HistoryandPhilosophy
HistoryandPhilosophy
Reply to  undergrad considering academia
3 years ago

In terms of 2), this may be more field dependent to history. There are tens of thousands of places outside academia and outside schools where individuals practice history: museums, historic sites, archives, historical societies, historic preservationists, historical archaeologists, etc. For a shockingly long time, history professors looked down on such people as “amateurs” and “dabblers” and did not take them seriously. There has been a fight for them to get recognition as historians in their own right. There is now an entire subfield called “public history.” As moving as Bartram’s piece is, it unfortunately equates “being a historian” to “being a history professor at an R1 university.”Report

Brea
Brea
Reply to  Namey McNamename
3 years ago

You’ve seen no push back because it’s not the time nor the place to formalize and critique. Report

Joshua Reagan
Joshua Reagan
Reply to  Brea
3 years ago

Why not?Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Joshua Reagan
3 years ago

Speaking personally, because the context of an obviously very personal expression of sadness isn’t good for a cold dispassionate discussion of the graduate pipeline and the academic job market (especially as there are lots of other opportunities to have that cold dispassionate discussion on this blog and elsewhere).Report

Joshua Reagan
Joshua Reagan
Reply to  David Wallace
3 years ago

If we were talking directly to Dr. Bartram directly I think your response would make sense. I wouldn’t want to hurt her feelings. But we’re not talking to her directly, we’re talking about her publicly posted message.

These issues are particularly salient for many of us. I myself am in my last year of graduate school, and it’s likely that I will never have an academic job. Getting such a job was my original aim, and I’m disappointed about the fact that this probably won’t happen. Still, I think that a dispassionate discussion of “Namey’s” points could be interesting.Report

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
Reply to  Namey McNamename
3 years ago

To Namey McNamename (Love the handle!) It is not you *can’t* contribute to history or philosophy without being a professor. There are gifted historians, usually writers of ‘popular’ history, who are not professors. There are even a few non-professors who do something similar with respect to philosophy. BUT although this is not impossible it *is* very hard, and those that succeed in such endeavours often have some other profession to fall back on or come from a privileged background. I greatly enjoyed Charles Spencer’s book on Blenheim, but Spencer is an earl, a successful journalist, the brother of a princess and a descendant of his principle subject (the Duke of Marlborough), all of which made it possible for him to embark on the book in reasonable expectation of financial reward and without the fear destitution if the project fell through. I’m a big fan of the historian john Julius Norwch, but Norwich is a viscount and a star performer on Radio 4 panel games. I have got a fair amount of fun out the histories of Lady Antonia Fraser (though I don’t think she is a good as the other two) but there again it’s *Lady* Antonia, the daughter of a noted author and political figure (*Lord* Longford) and of another distinguished biographer (in this case of Wellington) *Lady* Longford. (Fraser is also a successful writer of detective stories.) I’m just beginning Grand Hotel Abyss which is a sort of philosophical group biography of the Frankfurt School. It too looks pretty good to me but though its author, Stuart Jeffries is not (so far as I can tell) an aristocrat like the others, he was already a highly successful journalist when he embarked upon the book. So unless Bartram is the child of privilege or a success in some other profession she is unlikely to have either the leisure, the dosh or the access-privileges to make a significant contribution to History. And much the same goes for the many would -be philosophers who are extruded form the profession on a regular basis. Such peoples have every right to be sad. Report

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
Reply to  Charles Pigden
3 years ago

Again I am cursed by the typo god. That should have been

I have got a fair amount of fun out *of* the histories of Lady Antonia Fraser..

and

Such *people* have every right to be sadReport

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
Reply to  Charles Pigden
3 years ago

Also “It is not you can’t” should be “It is not *that* you can’t”. Report

Derek Bowman
Reply to  Namey McNamename
3 years ago

Namey McNamename:
As Charles Pigden points out, there is no conflict between (2) and (3), since ‘don’t want to’ =/= can’t.

But I also think your formulations miss an important element in Bartram’s essay. I take it if anyone is an advocate of (2) in philosophy I am – use the link at my name to see some of the non-professor philosophers I’ve interviewed. A few of those people still occasionally produce or engage with traditional academic scholarship. But many of them are philosophers without being professors AND without contributing scholarly publications. I don’t know whether there are historians who think of ‘history’ as a kind of activity or lifestyle independent of their scholarly research activities. Perhaps that would include continuing to read history, talking about it to others, using it as a lens with which to view current events, etc. Nothing Bartram says involves rejecting being a historian in that sense.

What she’s rejecting is contributing to the enterprise of producing academic scholarship in history. She’s not saying it can’t be done, she’s saying she rejects that. And her reason for rejecting it is a concern that she’d be effectively sacrificing her own energy and resources to produce goods for an academic community that does not value her contributions. Not that they don’t value it in the sense of appreciating it – that they don’t value it in the sense of being willing to actually support and compensate that work. Report

Namey McNamename
Namey McNamename
Reply to  Derek Bowman
3 years ago

“Not that they don’t value it in the sense of appreciating it – that they don’t value it in the sense of being willing to actually support and compensate that work.”

This is a good point that I didn’t properly appreciate in Bartram’s piece. Report

LuckyOne
LuckyOne
3 years ago

If history is anything like philosophy, she should be happy that’s she’s getting out of academia, even if not by choice. I believe that our profession–philosophy–is broken in so many respects that it’s a bad career choice for just about everyone. And I say this as one of the lucky ones with an R1 job! The reasons are this:

1) The pay is mediocre. Starting Assistant Professor salaries are regularly in the $50ks. This can be hard to live on even in low cost areas and given generous benefit packages. Plus, new APs are older than they used to be–all of my friends are in their 30s–and it is a challenge to, say, start a family on such an income.

2) The gender and racial discrimination is abhorrent. Anyone who’s been involved in searches in the past few years knows how much advantage women enjoy on the market. One need only look at the thin CVs of some recent hires (especially at elite departments) for evidence of this. I know lots of people, male and female, who object (not least because this violates the Civil Rights Act), but they are afraid to speak up.

3) Although things have improved in recent years, women in philosophy still have to deal with harassment.

4) The community is unhealthy. Depression and anxiety abound. And, at least for me, a big part of how I feel turns on how those around me are feeling.

5) Really, there isn’t a sense of community. In my department, nobody comes into the office anymore. There’s no one to bounce ideas off of; nobody to go to lunch with; no sense of solidarity. It’s lonely, even by academic standards.

6) Most of the research being produced is dull. I get e-mail summaries of new articles in JP, PR, Nous, PPR, etc., and 90% of them have me nodding off before I finish the abstract. I can’t remember the last conference talk I went to that really got me excited about philosophy.

7) I know not everyone agrees, but I really don’t like the importance placed on connections and pedigree in our discipline.Report

Brea
Brea
Reply to  LuckyOne
3 years ago

“she should be happy that’s she’s getting out of academia”

Yeah, well, she’s not and it’s okay that she’s upset about it. No list of reasons takes away the pain of a dream coming to an end. Report

Untenured
Untenured
Reply to  LuckyOne
3 years ago

As someone who is probably leaving academia this year, partially against his will, I tell myself these things all the time. It softens the blow. It doesn’t change the fact that I am a trained philosopher, and that this training took up a good chunk of my life to the point where it constitutes the a large portion of my identity. In a few months, this part of me will disappear, or perhaps become latent. Staring into that void is, well, shitty, and it’s hard to describe in a way that the ones left behind will understand. I think Bartram did it though.Report

IGS
IGS
Reply to  LuckyOne
3 years ago

LuckyOne, perhaps if you consider the reasons that you don’t tender your resignation despite these aspects of job, you will better be able to empathize with someone who is not in your shoes?Report

JCM
JCM
Reply to  LuckyOne
3 years ago

Y’know, non-academic jobs aren’t exactly beds of roses either. Schoolteachers are disgracefully overworked (and you would have to retrain to get into that line of work, which is expensive); private tutors can’t charge nearly enough to match academic salaries and that sector is being casualised, and so job security is becoming non-existent and the pay is dropping to subsistence; office work is mind-numbingly dull; the arts are even more competitive than academia, and have even less room for radical unorthodoxy…

I speak only of the jobs that I, with my particular training, have tried my hand at since leaving academia. It’s been a miserable time. It would have been less miserable if I’d trained in philosophy of numbers or science of some description, but many of us haven’t. It would have been vastly more miserable if I wasn’t able to rely on significant financial support from my family.

We live in a society systematically set against the flourishing of workers who don’t directly and irreplaceably advance capitalists’ interests. Academics have it pretty good, despite all.Report

JCM
JCM
Reply to  JCM
3 years ago

I should add I also tried third-sector and political things. These are also incredibly competitive. The important thing about *anything* being highly competitive is that you need to spend several years training or interning or volunteering in order to be in a position where you can win the competition. But I’ve already spent all my resources–savings, patience, youth, energy–trying to win the competition of academia. It probably hasn’t worked out, but it was a blessing that I had the ability to make a good shot at *even one* competition. I don’t expect a second chance to do work that’s fulfilling.Report

D.C.
D.C.
Reply to  LuckyOne
3 years ago

Have you tried other careers? I really do think many academics have the most ridiculously idealistic views of other mental work careers.Report

Erik H
Erik H
Reply to  D.C.
3 years ago

I speak only of the jobs that I, with my particular training, have tried my hand at since leaving academia. It’s been a miserable time. It would have been less miserable if I’d trained in philosophy of numbers or science of some description, but many of us haven’t.
Can’t that change? Can’t you work in philosophy to help other folks make better choices?

We live in a society systematically set against the flourishing of workers who don’t directly and irreplaceably advance capitalists’ interests.
If you can’t get anyone to hire you or to buy what you produce, you’re not really a “worker” in the capitalist sense. You’re more like an artist who makes paintings that nobody wants to own: your art is a leisure activity that you can’t afford. It just so happens that you chose “investing time/money to acquire an un-valued knowledge of philosophy” over “investing time/money to produce un-valued paintings” but the effect is the same.Report

J. Silentio
J. Silentio
3 years ago

After reading her account, I did wonder about her credentials, and whether the “publish or perish” culture in academia played any significant role here.

Assuming her CV on her website is up-to-date, she has one published peer-reviewed article, and one forthcoming. (http://erinbartram.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/EMB-CV-February-2018.pdf)

I’m not trying to knock her here, but I can’t help but wonder whether that fact alone, given the current expectations on academics, played a role in her lack of success. Report

JCM
JCM
Reply to  J. Silentio
3 years ago

1) What do you know about the importance of journal articles in history relative to philosophy? (I know that they have a different significance–book contracts are more important, which she intimates she has–but not much more than that.)

2) Merit is not the only determining factor of someone’s scholarly competence. Obvious confounders include slow or capricious referees, journal fit, the quality of the advice and informal feedback you receive in preparing the article, and blind luck.

3) None of the general points of the post are affected by the particulars of this one scholar’s story.Report

JCM
JCM
Reply to  JCM
3 years ago

Sorry, typo: (2) should start: *Publications are* not the only determining factor of someone’s scholarly competence.Report

HistoryandPhilosophy
HistoryandPhilosophy
Reply to  J. Silentio
3 years ago

Journal articles in history are more difficult than in some other humanities fields. That doesn’t mean more complex or better, just difficult. Historians have to painstakingly assemble bits and pieces of evidence from countless diaries, letters, census records, wills, court documents, etc. to build an argument. Often these documents are scattered in dozens of places across multiple states, and many are not digitized yet. Sometimes they go through hundreds of a person’s letters just to find the few mentions they need. And there is always the fear that you’ve never done enough research — that you’ll publish an article, then someone will say “You clearly have never heard about so-and-so’s diary in the East Terwilliger Township historical society, and that person’s account completely undercuts your thesis.”

In history, for a R1, a peer reviewed article every year or two plus a book every five or six years, is perfectly fine.Report

Derek Bowman
Reply to  J. Silentio
3 years ago

J. Silentio:

Your comment misses the point. The problem isn’t an individual one – why didn’t Erin Bartram secure a tenure track job. The problem is systematic – it’s guaranteed that talented and highly trained historians will not secure permanent academic employment. No diagnosis of the qualification of an individual historian will change that. Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
3 years ago

I think the way that we continue to recruit as many grad students as we can when there are so few jobs for them is unconscionable. Tioo many get right through grad school without ever being told just how bad their chance are of landing work.Report

D.C.
D.C.
3 years ago

“Those who remain in academia tell those who are departing that they can “still be part of the conversation” or remind them of “all the amazing skills they have,” but much of this is said just to make everyone feel better”

I would suspect at least some of those people then turn around and reject manuscript submissions to the journal they edit because the submitter doesn’t have a full-time academic job.

I actually do think there are ways to let those who leave academia to remain part of the conversation, but that requires effort on the people who stay, and it seems that many of them have no desire to put in that effort or change the system of which they enjoy the benefits.
Report

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
3 years ago

Comments like the one “J. Silentio” made are as predictable as they are disgusting. When I read Bartram’s article one of the most painful things was seeing her inclination to beat herself up for not doing the right things. We like to pretend that academia is a meritocracy, but of course it isn’t. It probably can’t be. Now I’m not saying that incompetent people get jobs or that the people who do succeed aren’t good scholars and teachers. Rather my point is that in any competition where there are a huge number of qualified people and very few positions luck is going to play an outsized role in success. (There’s a lot of empirical research on this, which is nicely summarized in Robert Frank’s “Success and Luck”). There are so many good applicants and the differences between them so small and hard to quantify that pure luck will often (or perhaps even usually) be what makes the difference. We would be better off as a profession if we owned up to this. For one thing, we would show a lot more empathy for the unlucky like Bartram rather than kicking them precisely when they’re down. It would also keep us from beating ourselves up if we don’t succeed and it would prevent some of the uglier reactions people in the profession have when they have bad luck. I’m specifically thinking here of all the people who think that the only possible explanation for why they don’t have the job they “deserve” is that some sort of conspiracy against white men has perverted the otherwise perfectly functioning meritocracy they imagine the academic job market to have been. As the Book of Job makes clear the real danger of this sort of thinking is that it leads us to try to find some sort of “sin” that explains why someone is suffering rather than commiserating with them or offering them support as we ought to.Report