succumbing to peer pressure

Thursday, December 11, 2008


I have grown up in a seriously over-educated family. When (hopefully) I am hooded, I will be the eighth Dr. P, and the third generation. I'm cheating a little, including uncles and cousins, but it's the subset of the family that regularly shows up at reunions and weddings. Grandad's side is all PhDs; his brother produced mostly MDs. Grandad had a mostly traditional academic career - tenured professor, department chair, etc. - with a few interesting-sounding consulting gigs for the US govt (estimating the probability that space junk was junk or a Soviet spy satellite, for example). My aunt also went the academic route, doing a stent as tenured prof at Hahvahd, but also keeping a bustling resume of consulting gigs in the tech industry. Dad went straight industry and never looked back.

So although I pretty much always knew I was headed for graduate school, I never really equated that choice with staying in academia. Partly that's a product of my family and their professional choices, partly that's a product of my chosen field - I switched from math to stat specifically because I wanted to have the option of doing something other than teaching. And I keep going back and forth on the teaching thing - for most of my childhood I was going to grow up to be a teacher, then somewhere around high school I became interested in more industry-type things (I didn't know that at the time, but in hindsight, the kinds of things that interested me would be categorized as 'industry' or 'private-sector'). As an undergrad I became convinced that I would be a terrible teacher and was relieved that that was no longer my career goal. In grad school I got bitten by teaching bug (again), discovered that I don't actually suck at it, and have spent the past two years or so bouncing all over the hypothetical career map.

I always suspected that a traditional academic path wasn't for me, but that was based mostly on my sample size of two departments, both at major research universities, where I watched actual teaching get devalued more and more. As I kept falling more and more in love with teaching, I started have more conversations about other academic choices - going the liberal arts route and pretty much only teaching, digging around a lot more in the academic market and hoping to find the rare research university that valued both research and teaching...but at the end of the day, the more I thought about the five-year publish-or-perish dance, the more I thought that was not a path to happiness for me. I may very well end up doing the same things - writing grants, scrabbling for money, publications, etc., but there's something about the atmosphere of doing that on the tenure track that makes my heart seize up. Bless her, my advisor looked right at me and agreed.

All of this is to say that I've had a very positive experience with graduate school, and have found an environment much like undergrad, where I really felt free to wake up every morning wanting to be something else when I grew up and trying on different hats and keeping pathways open until I found the one that fit. This is a combination of several lucky coincidences - my family, my personality, my department generally and my advisor specifically. But reading the descriptions of others' experiences in academia over at BitchPhD just makes me sad. What are we doing to our youngest and brightest hopefuls?