Why I Am Not An Academic

It seemed very likely that I would become an academic. As an undergraduate, I excelled at my subject, despite the interruptions of unplanned pregnancy, maternity leave, and then motherhood. My tutors mentored me, and instilled a substantial amount of self-confidence in me. I had qualms about the way my subject – English Literature – was studied and taught, but I knew more about university administration than any other undergraduate I knew, and believed that I could work within the existing structures to forge my own little reformed patch of the discipline along with the other good brains I knew. I got funding for my masters from the notoriously picky AHRB (now the AHRC) and I performed well on that as well. I loved being in seminars and attending papers. I made allies and fought vigorously over the points I believed in.

Belief was a very powerful part of it: I had (and partly retain) a Shelleyan fervour for good writing, the feeling that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, and that literary criticism was vital to the understanding of culture. Literary criticism ought to stand alongside the other arts and sciences, firm in its own methods and aims – not borrowing undigested fistfuls of doctrine from other subjects, not treating “theory” as a set of truths (the literary misuse of theories by using them to shape readings of the subjects under study, rather than adapting the theory according to its performance when tested, is one of the hardest things to swallow about academic culture). I wanted to write beautifully about beautiful things. I wanted to teach. I wanted to be well known and respected in my field. I was very, very ambitious. I was also very hard on myself: I used to joke to my boyfriend (now my husband) that the only way I’d ever be completely happy with my work was if Vladimir Nabokov popped up to scribble “bonus, bonus” and a butterfly on the bottom of my essay. (Lectures On Literature represented the kind of attentive, exhaustive close reading that seemed to me the only true way of understanding what is written: the injunction to treat fiction as a new world and explore it according to its own rules still strikes me as the best advice a reader could take.)

I decided to move on from my beloved University of Sheffield and study for a doctorate at one of the big institutions. I was pregnant with my second child at this time. I knew that the employment market for new PhDs was hell of competitive, and I wanted the extra cachet of an old university – having seen the way my own department hired, this was a strictly pragmatic approach. I wanted access to the best resources, of course. And I wanted to show myself that I was good enough – in this sense, simply winning the place was the consummation of what I’d been working for. Exhausted by my bump, and tired by the solitary nature of dissertation writing, my zeal began to fade. Worldliness ticked over into cynicism. My supervisor here was of the traditional, distant sort. Although he was thoroughly nice, he was also frustratingly clueless and hard to get hold of. His supervision was sparse and vague, and I tolerated it because I didn’t know how to go about challenging it. I was privately irreverent about his work, but basically awed. Anyway, I was feeling only tenuously attached to academic life, and was often grateful not to be chased too hard.

When it unravelled, it did so very very fast (by academic standards of time, anyway). I rushed my upgrade. My supervisor seemed confident that it was only a formality. I failed my upgrade. My supervisor told me that I should mostly disregard the assessors’ comments, as I wouldn’t have them the second time round. He raised his eyebrows at my domestic situation, called me “the definition of a child bride”, and asked if “the happy journalist” was the father of both my chldren. I left, mortified, and revised my work according to his advice. I got the same assessors again: the secretary said, “yes, it’s standard practice, to allow you to respond to their criticisms.” I decided I would never speak to my supervisor again. I failed a second time and that, very roughly, is that for me and academia. I feel like Titus fleeing Gormeghast: depressed at the institution, but inextricably part of it. (I ought to note that, while I obviously didn’t get the best of the system, I had a lot to distract me from work, and the produce of my time on the doctorate is depressingly slim.) I still think that my academic friends are some of the brightest people I know, doing some of the best work that can be done. I really wish – sometimes – that I was still doing it with them.

7 thoughts on “Why I Am Not An Academic

  1. I think that you should wait until life gives you more time (children older etc) and go for it again. It seems such a waste that you shouldn’t be an academic as it just feels to me that that is truly what you want to do and what you excel at. I have found that as I get older I really know what I want to do and have more oomph just to get on and do it!

  2. I went through a similar situation. I attended graduate school in the US while raising a hyperactive child. The reason I didn’t write my dissertation is that I ran out of funds. I couldn’t put off working any more.

  3. Your supervisor sounds like an absolute reliC. Asking if your children had the same father? Pathetic. Speaking of the AHRC, said institution are apparently now receiving far less of their funding, as a result of low completion rates in postgraduate courses. Due, I’d imagine, to experiences like yours.

  4. So much of what you’ve written resonates with me, Sarah. I’ve also always wanted to ‘write beautifully, about beautiful things’. You’ve put that into words in a way that I’ve never been able to.

    My experience of academia has been quite like yours, I think: frustrating, belittling, and, in my case, annoying in that the be-all-and-end-all of academia was ‘publications’; where people could lie, take credit where it wasn’t due/coast along on something that they had little to do with. I’ve always enjoyed writing, which is why I’ve enjoyed academia, but I’ve never managed to get it together on a commercial scale. Also, there’s a huge difference between ‘academic’ writing (ie for a closed audience), and ‘journalistic’ writing. If I was you, then I would focus on the latter. You have a lot of talent, girlie!

  5. My goodness. I actually laughed when I read the full version of the child bride story, I was so shocked. Maybe you should be an independent academic.

  6. I had no idea that your academic career came to such a frustrating end, Sarah. Though I can see that your case is singular in its unfolding of prejudice and parochialism in your institution, I can say from experience that it’s certainly not indistinct from experiences of academic life in another institution had by my fellow students and myself.

    The upgrade for one thing was an unnecessary trial for my peers, inclusive of bewildering criticism and personal sleights. Yet also supervision as a whole was often the point of some serious negative speculation, leading a significant minority of the PhD set to question their decisions to study under such previously exalted academics and to despair at the non-existent personal integrity of people who were initially encouraging us to consider them colleagues.

    You’re definitely not alone. I for one have moved institution, and will be starting at Sheffield again this academic year under departmental funding, having given up my AHRC award. And one of my cohort’s future at my previous institution is due to be decided upon this Wednesday after previously failing her upgrade.

    Although the calling is by no means a warranty of future career stability and happiness I hope you might reconsider in time and return to academia. Having said that, there are so many other fulfilling ways of spending your life, including ones that Shelley would likely recommend above the ivory tower.

  7. I came to your blog via Glosswatch. One of the many reasons I read Glosswitch’s blog regularly is because she has a PhD but isn’t an academic. I’m submitting my PhD in a few weeks (also literature). In a perfect world I’d carry on with my research. I love finding out brand new things, I enjoy writing and I would seriously love to get my teeth into the whole issue of impact (though I confess teaching rarely lights up my world). I know the odds of my being able to do this. They’re really quite bad so I’m getting on with thinking about publishing the odd article in between earning money, starting a pension and a family. As recent articles in the Guardian and the THE make clear, I’m not alone and, especially at this pretty stressful time, it’s properly depressing (and I don’t use that word lightly). I would absolutely love to see an article, or a series of articles, focusing on people who have PhDs but are happy in careers outside academia.

    I’ll be reading your blog alongside Glosswatch, thanks!

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