Women In Academia

Women in Academia: Taking One for the Team?

It’s near the end of the academic year, and there’s been a lot of discussion about people’s career goals. Many people come in expecting to find work as academics, but as the employment prospects dim and interests change, more people are choosing jobs outside of academia. Sometimes, external factors make that a hard choice.

That exploration of job prospects and interests that put us outside of academia is great. It really, really is. Not everyone should be a professor. It is a valuable and worthwhile profession, but it is not the only valuable and worthwhile profession. Government work, consulting, working at a community college, working with a non-profit, going into business, writing, whatever you want, there are so many good options out there. None of them is inherently more worthwhile than any other.

We all know this logically, but it can be hard to convince ourselves of this when we’re still in academia.

There’s no pretty way to say this: when you’re in academia, it often feels as if staying in academia is the only way to be deemed successful. Anything less, any job outside of the ivory tower, no matter what it is or how much cache it holds, is seen as a bit of a failure. There is an underlying, unfair belief that people who leave academia are the ones that couldn’t cut it. This weighs especially heavily on people in underrepresented groups.

There’s sort of a double-whammy here. First, we often feel as if we must prove ourselves worthy. Between showing people that we’re not just here to fill quotas and that our work is important and intellectually rigorous, there’s already a lot of pressure. It’s easy to succumb to the quiet but persistent voices that tell us we don’t really belong.

Second, if we do not continue with academia, then we feel as if we are tacitly reinforcing the status quo. There’s a feeling that since there are fewer professors who look like us, it is our job to step up to the plate and stick with academia not just for ourselves but to change the demographics and provide mentoring and guidance for those who follow us. There’s a sense of duty there.

It’s difficult trying to navigate that messy web of emotion (if only I could put it in a glass case, right?), and I definitely don’t have it all figured out. Ideally, perfectly, we’d only do stuff we want to do. If you want to be a professor, awesome! If you don’t want to be a professor, also awesome! No one should feel like they’re obligated to represent their group. No one should be a spokesperson against their will. I know that that choice isn’t always there though. There are times when I have done something simply to prove to others that I could do it; I didn’t see any other option. To be fair, I am a bit of an ornery broad, and I get off on making the naysayers eat crow. It’s not sustainable though: surprisingly, rage and bitterness are not enough fuel to motivate my whole life.

Personally in the end, I generally fall on the side of “do whatever speaks to you, and don’t let external guilt get you down and force you into a life you’re not really comfortable living.” In the end the biggest “fuck you” to that mentality that I can think of is to do whatever makes me happiest.

4 replies on “Women in Academia: Taking One for the Team?”

My favorite thing I’ve read here, I have re-read a few times now. 100% correct, our “success” is measured by our decision to remain in the profession. You are so right that women and women of color are also expected to have a martyr-mission spirit about our place in the academy. Often, when discussing leaving academia, the gender/ethnic guilt is brought up by a well-meaning colleague. We, somehow, owe it to women or POC to remain in a job that we don’t like because we have to show them that they can also have this job (that they might not like or want either). I hate that claim, though it had a hold on me for a long long time. We do not ask men or whites forgo job opportunities they might enjoy for the sake of someone else. We ask minorities and women to solve sexism and racism by sticking around in unwelcoming environments instead of asking men and whites to stop being racist and sexist! It is not at all empowering to tell women and POC that their job choices are actually limited because of their sex/race/ethnicity. Martyrdom is over rated. Having a lifestyle that suits you is under rated. Thanks a million for this post. You kick ass.

I think an important point that is tangential to your post is to make up your own mind. So often advisors have a “plan” for their students. This plan almost always includes a tenure-track job at a research university. If this is not what you want, you have to be clear (even if not with your advisor) with yourself what you want. Many of the decisions made later in grad school can affect your ability to be placed in a position that fits your desires. For example, if you want to work at a small liberal arts college or even a community college, you might focus on teaching and winning teaching awards, while those who want research placements can focus on grants, etc. Make decisions that are best for your own goals, NOT those goals of your advisors or other grad students.

I feel like working at a community college is still being in academia. You’re teaching, publishing, and interacting with other academics all the time. It might seem like a big step down in the sciences, where your dream would be a big research school, maybe, and in some ways it’s not ideal in any discipline, because you mainly teach into courses (or in my case all composition and no literature), but for most of us early on that’s what we’d be doing anyway.

I left academia a year ago, but stayed in science (government job). Even though I’m on more money and fewer hours, I still feel like my friends in academia think I have a second-tier job somehow. And I do miss a lot about it – flexibility, freedom, etc – but at the end of the day, it’s a better job than the one I had or honestly was in the running for if I stayed in academia.

So yes, just some anecdotal evidence that you don’t have to stay in academia to keep doing what you love and enjoy your work!

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