THE Scholarly Web

Weekly transmissions from the blogosphere

August 18, 2011

It is often assumed that a career in academia is a vocation, and that those who are called will answer, regardless of the disincentives they may face.

But does the argument hold true? In a posting on The Thesis Whisperer, Inger Mewburn, research Fellow in the School of Graduate Research at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, considers the lot of today's postgraduate students, who would usually be seen as the academics of the future.

"It seems research students are happy with the quality of the education they are getting, and most like their supervisors, but many are unhappy about universities as places to be," she writes. "I wondered...if the problem of research student unhappiness is that university life just fails to live up to our expectations."

Dr Mewburn recalls her own feelings at the start of her career: "I assumed 'The University' was a charmed place to work; a happy community of scholars living in an intellectual meritocracy," she says. "But it broke my heart when I first applied for a lecturer's job, some four years after I started working as a casual tutor. I was shocked when I was passed over in favour of the research assistant of an influential professor.

"To my mind I was the better teacher, which made this decision deeply unfair. I said as much to another staff member, who gave me a little talk about the difference between nepotism and patronage and the importance of cultivating contacts."

Dr Mewburn says, "The university is like a bad boyfriend: sooner or later it is going to break your heart."

"I went on to be rejected four more times before I had to face up to the sad truth. Just like a bad boyfriend, the university was happy to go on dates with me, but was not willing to commit to a long-term relationship," she writes.

"It's an unhappy truth that a research-heavy CV is the tight leather trousers of the university employment dance. Teaching ability is like a good personality - you are grateful for it after you have known the person for a while, but it won't make you take them home from the disco."

A similar theme is explored in a guest post on Worst Professor Ever, a blog run by Amanda Krauss, former assistant professor of Classics at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, US.

The poster, named only as The Byronic Man, describes falling out of love with academia and choosing not to dedicate his life to the profession.

What prompted his change of heart? He recalls his experiences as an undergraduate, at the hands of a professor "who openly loathed students and resented being forced to teach at all...He told us that it 'sickened' him that our votes counted as much as his."

Despite such discouragement, he says he has not been able to relinquish his fascination with academia entirely: "It'd be a good ending, I suppose, if I said that was that, never looked at academia again. But the truth is I teach the occasional college class and some high-school classes (which pays less, earns less respect, but wow, really is more satisfying). Truth is I've even explored going back to the PhD...Because that Platonic ideal, it just doesn't die. Some people - they never learn."

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