Goodbye to All That – Why I Left the Academic Life

East Pyne Princeton University Princeton, New Jersey photo: Mahlon Lovett (2000)
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There’s been a rollicking debate in the generally non-rollicking and pretty small world of academics, political types and journalists about why academics are so obscure and boring and why they won’t get in the game and start contributing and carrying their weight in our country’s public debates. That was the framing at least of the Times piece by Nick Kristof which (though iffy in itself) kicked off the conversation off. Here’s one response, for instance, from Daniel Drezner, a very publicly outspoken academic, who was in the curious position of having the publisher of his main outlet, Foreign Policy, not only agree with Kristof’s thesis but further crap on academics who try to write for a popular audience as “opaque, abstract, incremental, [and] dull” and goes on to say he’s going to stop publishing them anymore.

As a general matter, I think Drezner and a bunch of other generally youngish academics are right in their pushback when they say that contrary to Kristof’s claims, academics are actually a lot more involved in public debates today than they have been in a while. And a lot of that is because of the Internet and the paths to contact with the larger public has made possible. Think about Juan Cole. A vast contribution to the public conversation about the Middle East, entirely because of the Internet. There’s really little precedent in recent decades for anything like him in his area of study. And there are many other academics who have made public names for themselves via online writing, though in many cases writing themselves out of the academy in the process of doing so. If they manage both, it’s most likely they have tenure, which likely puts them well into their thirties or beyond.

As I thought about this though, I couldn’t help but see it through the particular prism of the decisions I made in my own life which cut pretty hard to the core of this discussion.

I was supposed to be a history professor. And a good bit of my decision to leave grew out of my growing sense of the deeply conventional, channeled nature of the profession, one in which I found paradoxically little outlet for creativity or novelty.

This wasn’t an idea I just came to when I was thinking about what to do after college.

Sometime in high school I zeroed in on history and, because the college I went to allowed you to, I actually declared to have my application evaluated as a potential history major. Through college, with some very momentary exceptions, I never seriously considered doing anything else but getting a doctorate in history and making a career as a professional historian. And after one year out of college – a course chosen entirely because I knew I needed my better late college grades on my transcript to be able to get into a good program – I enrolled in the history program at Brown University.

Brown wasn’t the very best program in the country. There were three or four other programs that had a claim on that title. But it was one of the very best. And I had the additional advantage that I was there to study with a man who was and is unquestionably and rightly one of the most renowned academic historians of his generation, Gordon S. Wood.

Before going any further, I should state explicitly that my situation was significantly different from that of most of the people who are having this debate. If you study the Middle East or macro-economics or international relations or public policy, your input should be pretty germane to many public questions. If you specialize in English settlers in New England in the mid-17th century, your knowledge is distinctly less relevant.

Still, things got off to a very good start. In fact, going into my preliminary exams toward the end of my second year in the program, I was doing quite well. Already I had a journal article scheduled for publication in a respected peer-reviewed journal, coming out of my first year in the program. I made the cut on year one and then passed my exams at the end of the year. Then I hit something like a brick wall. It was like an anti-epiphany and though I’m not certain I think it hit me the night I was out celebrating having passed my prelims. Like a shock, I just thought to myself: “This isn’t enough.”

It’s difficult for me to convey the degree of personal crisis this triggered about my future since I had been planning on this path for going on a decade. I simply hadn’t considered anything else. The trigger, I think, was paradoxically that I was doing quite well. As long as you’re trying to climb some new rung or fighting to prove yourself, it’s pretty easy not to step back and question the whole premise of what you’re doing. Of course, I’d only survived my first year or two of grad school and had the lucky break to get an article published. But I felt like I was doing about as well as I could at that point, enough to let me think about how what I was doing would unfold into the future. And when I looked I just felt, as I said, “this isn’t enough.”

The key for me was that I realized that I wanted to do something like what I’m doing today. Obviously, I couldn’t imagine quite how things turned out. (It was only around that time that I saw the first, primitive web browser, Mosaic – coded, as it happens, by a guy who many years later would become a very minor – in terms of percentage stake – but greatly appreciated investor in this company, Marc Andreessen.) But I wanted to write about the great issues of the day, about politics and the culture at large. I was pretty sure I had something to say and I wanted to be part of that world.

The only problem was I had no idea how to do it. And I also wasn’t sure I had the courage to cut my ties to my plan for my own life. I toyed and more than toyed with the idea of going to law school for the not very good reason that I knew that Mike Kinsley and a number of other writer and pundit types had taken that path into the profession. I did the whole test prep thing; took the LSAT; filled out the applications and at the very last moment decided not to apply to any of them because I realized that I was already half way to one degree that had no clear relation to what I now realized I actually wanted to do. So why was I going to start another?

But even though I was realizing I’d probably just chosen the wrong career, it is important to understand that every incentive in academic life is geared against engagement with the world outside of academics. There’s no other way to put it. This has perhaps changed slightly in the intervening 15 or 20 years – with the Internet being a major part of that. But I suspect that’s more people acting in spite of these incentives and reacting to the increasingly straitened job opportunities in the profession.

So I settled back down to the business of teaching my classes and finding a dissertation topic with the vague idea that I’d be something like what Kristof has in mind: a professor who also writes for a public audience about the big issues of the day.

But with all of this upheaval in my own plans for my life I started seeing what was now my nominal chosen profession in a new light. It just seemed too confining than anything I could ever manage. One of the things Kristof misses but Joshua Rothman gets in this piece in The New Yorker are all the professional pressures that militate against what Kristof seems to imagine is simply a matter of a better attitude or more effort. The paradoxical incentives for conformity, hyper-specialization, ever-narrowing job prospects, the sheer smallness – judged in terms of numbers of people – of the whole enterprise. These are each related and mutually reinforcing.

Once when I was trying to figure out what I was doing I headed up to Wood’s office to discuss it with him. Wood was generous and kind and always encouraging to me but rather distant as an advisor. At one point in our conversation, he laid it on the line. “You need to decide whether you’ll be satisfied with writing for an audience of two or maybe three hundred people.”

Clearly, the correct answer to this was “yes.” And as Wood said it, then and now I have the sense he thought posing it in this way would get me back on track with a focus on the scholarly community we were a part of. But hearing it so starkly, in my mind my response was something more like, “Holy Crap, no way! That’s definitely nowhere near enough people. And worse yet, I know some of those people. And I definitely don’t want to write for them.”

More and more graduate school – both my program and the folks from other schools who I’d meet at conferences – struck me as a sort of institutionalized depression. Much has changed and stayed the same since the mid-90s. But consider the sociology of graduate education in the humanities. To get into a strong Phd program you need to be fairly bright and, even more important, you need strong academic credentials. At least then, those attributes gave you a pretty good shot at a life of at least some and maybe a lot of financial comfort and stability. Law school, medical school, consulting, business or other opportunities.

In this case, you’re spending at least 5 or 6 years in school with the distinct possibility you’ll never get a full-time tenure track position. Think about it, the better part of your twenties for the chance to get a job. If you do get a job it will likely be somewhere you’ve never lived or wanted to live and your main goal will be working like crazy to build up enough publishing capital to move on to some other more desirable position. Many end up piecing together various contract gigs with little prospect of finding a permanent job with a future, benefits or anything. Needless to say, this can be a bit depressing. And all the while folks are seeing their college peers getting their first adult incomes in various professions or business or whatever else.

Perhaps unsurprisingly this can generate some pretty toxic intra-group dynamics. And the negativity this involves, I think, pervades a lot of academic life.

Clearly, if it’s absolutely what you want to do, you do it. But if there’s any doubt, why put yourself through that? As it happens my two best friends from graduate school both ended up with great and very prestigious positions. Mostly that was because they are both extremely bright, dedicated historians. But they also had good timing – graduating during the minor hiring renaissance of the late 90s.

For my part, for a while I figured I’d be one of those professors who professors and also writes magazine articles and columns. But eventually I realized that would mean I would end up mediocre at both. So I scrapped that idea and committed myself to making a career as a writer. After various false starts I was blessed, through a totally fortuitous set of circumstances, to be taken under the wing of the novelist and journalist James Carroll who among other things helped me land my first job in journalism. That was in 1998. The volume of work forced me to set the dissertation aside but kept myself enrolled for the next four years before finally carving out time in 2002 and 2003 to finish it and get the degree.

I was about to turn 34 and I could feel like logic and probabilities of the situation about to turn definitively against me. It barely made sense that going on five years into another profession I’d really shift the car into neutral and start back to work on something so unrelated to the life I was living. If I didn’t do it then I never would. And I could not leave it unfinished.

I should say here if it’s not already obvious that this is at least as much about me as the academic profession. At the end of the day it just wasn’t for me. If we’re lucky we know ourselves better as we get older. In retrospect, the idea that I would ever operate well in that sort of confining institutional setting simply made no sense.

For myself I wouldn’t change a thing. I learned a huge amount in graduate school about how to think and also how to write. I feel like I use what I learned every day in doing what I do today. Journalism provides very few incentives for going really deep into a topic or, more importantly, a discipline of thinking to think critically about you know and don’t. In some ways, I’ve barely changed. I rarely read anything but history and almost never about anything that happened in the last century or two.

Because I’ve achieved some prominence in life, I’m sometimes contacted by academic professional organizations to find out more about what I do as an example that there are other things graduating PhDs can do beside jump and dance for an assistant professorship. For me, as I said, it’s all perfect. But really, why would you spend that kind of time getting a degree if in any real sense you weren’t going to use it? It would be hard for me to justify that to someone else unless they simply really wanted to spend 5 or 6 years studying history (or whatever else). For my part, I did enjoy it. But I realized I’d enjoy being a professor much, much less.

All the incentives of academic life drive against having the time, the need and in many cases the ability to communicate with a larger public. In some cases, that’s as it should be. In others, it’s about the straitened nature of academic life, specialization driven by bad job prospects, an over-abundance of Phds, and a deep, deep conventionality driven by risk aversion rooted in all of the above.

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