Wednesday, January 11, 2006

A word about academic depression

I was looking at an article on the Chronicle of Higher Education website, "A PhD and a failure." The authors were well-intentioned for sure. Indeed they are both career counseling professionals for graduate students and alumni. But the way they wrote about depression during the job search seemed to miss a bit of the point.

I will relate a little bit of my own feelings, because I suspect others may share some of them. First off, I don't feel like a failure, not exactly. The point they make is that many PhDs or ABDs feel like failures if they don't land tenure-track jobs, and that they more highly prize jobs at top research institutions. Perhaps there is a heirarchy. As an officer of the Graduate Student's Association, I had sat on several university committees as the grad representative; and surely I heard my share of, "well, let's remember folks, we're not a teaching institution, we're here for research," and the like. Yes, there is some division. And yes, at the moment, I see myself landing a job at a doctoral-granting institution, because I would like to have advanced graduate students to work with.

But I'm not entirely partial to that, and I fully recognize that my eventual degree of satisfaction will be determined by a variety of factors, and the research/teaching balance, and level of students are only two of those factors. I welcome the new classifications of institutions by the Carnegie Foundation as one move toward helping us all reevaluate these factors.

But here's the deal. I don't feel like a failure if I don't land a tenure-track job at one of my top choice institutions. Rather, I am saddened by the failure of the system. I'm depressed by the lack of value society assigns to those of us who excel at teaching and research, who most shine in an academic setting. It's not that I value what I do any less; it's that I fear I live in a world where what I do, and what I do well, and what I believe is truly worthwhile, is simply not acknowledged.

Partly it's the system, for sure. A simple case of supply vs. demand. If there are too many available PhDs for the available jobs, then many of us will remain out of work, or otherwise employed. So, partly an overabundance of graduates may be at fault. But so is (and here is the clincher) the devaluing of education and research by society. Adjuncts are overworked and underpaid because there are not enough people hired, because there is not enough funding given to the system to hire a sufficient quantity of highly-qualified individuals to prepare a generation of students for the future, and help to guide our thinking through research activities toward new ideas.

I am depressed not because I think I have failed, but because I have not yet succeeded in a world that may not support the very things I am best at, and which I truly believe will benefit it.

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