Grad School Anxiety

When I started university in September of 2006 I was enamored with the institution of academia. In fact, I was all but certain that my future was going to be within that very institution. I was naive enough to think that I would keep my head up and persevere right through a doctorate and find myself researching, writing, and teaching in at a university. The dream was a pleasant one to entertain – writing books, delivering lectures, publishing papers, and devoting a career to studying the issues and subjects that had always interested me. Not only that, but I would constantly be in the midst of brilliant minds constantly working away at the big questions. It was all rather idiotic of me.

Gradually, I came to learn more and more about the world of academics and began to question whether it was really for me. Did I, first of all, have the stamina to get through at least three degrees? Did I have the additional stamina to fight my way to tenure, which required constant publishing that I might not be able to muster? (The New York Times has a great piece on the length of time it now takes to complete degrees.) All that publishing and teaching would likely also mean putting off other priorities. Family life probably wasn’t going to be an option, at least for some time. Did I even have anything meaningful to contribute as far as any of these “big questions” were concerned? And, of course, could I withstand or ever pay off the debt that I would accumulate in the process?

These were all questions I hadn’t asked myself in the early stages of my university career. I was too busy caught up in the delusion that I was on my way to becoming a respected scholar. This was before I stopped to realize that no one outside my department or discipline was ever likely to know my name or read my work. Slowly but surely, I grew skeptical about my career path. I suddenly wasn’t sure whether or not the “publish or perish” environment was right or me, or whether I even wanted to publish. I’m not sure what brought it on, but the thought of conferences of windbags blabbering on about their own research suddenly lost its appeal. I lost illusions of grand symposiums of ideas being exchanged when I learned that, at the end of the day, academics have jobs like everyone else and need to get ahead in their careers. I certainly don’t begrudge anyone that fact, but plodding away for years at work that dies out shortly after publication struck me as a rather bizarre way to spend a career.

The first horn of my dilemma, therefore, had to do with whether or not I wanted academia. I didn’t want to be the crusty old professor isolated in his ivory tower writing book after book, article after article, that would never make any meaningful impact upon the real world (another illusion that I once had). Surely, if this was the career I wanted, I could find a balance between research and teaching, the latter of which I came to think of as the most rewarding part of any professor’s career (see, I’m still naive and idealistic!). The second horn of the dilemma, however, was that academia did not necessarily want me.

Universities, it seems, are undergoing a process of “adjunctification,” in which tenure track jobs are decreasing every year in favour of part-time positions. Year by year, more instructional positions are being downloaded to part-time faculty or graduate assistants. Inside Higher Ed. has the raw data here in an article from May of last year. The article notes a steady decline of tenured positions as well as a decline in tenured faculty members in instructional positions:

The growth in these jobs — and the decline in tenure-track positions — was found in all sectors of higher education, but was most apparent at community colleges. However, one of the most notable shifts was at public four-year colleges and universities, where over the period studied, tenured and tenure-track faculty members went from being a slight majority to less than 40 percent of faculty members. At the end point of the AFT study, tenured and tenure-track faculty members do not make a majority of faculties in any sector.

“What was shocking to me, even though I think about this all the time, was that the percentage of tenure and tenure-track faculty has shrunk to almost a quarter,” said Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress, the AFT chapter at the City University of New York. “The deterioration of staffing has reached a crisis point when only a quarter are tenured or tenure-track.”

The report reflects American data, but it’s hard not to notice a similar trend in Canadian universities. Throughout my undergraduate career, I’ve had an increasing amount of instructors who were graduate students hired out as cheap labour to do the dirty work of teaching while the rarefied tenured faculty carried out their important research.

The academic world seems to amount to some sort of Catch-22. It’s increasingly difficult to find a tenured position that allows you to carry out original and creative research and teaching is left to the part-time plebs. Any balance between the two is likely to be incredibly rare. You’re either the crusty old publisher, or the part-timer struggling to peddle your wares wherever you can. Furthermore, this dynamic does not necessarily bode well for future scholars who don’t have the opportunity to study with the best in their field.

Professor Louis Menand, Professor of English at Harvard University, notes that this imbalance is not good for scholarship and is downright harmful to upcoming talent. He also notes the long, hard climb that many graduate students are facing to even find themselves in a secure position. Here is a portion of his video interview on the subject.

The predicament seems like it solves itself. The answer is simply to steer clear of a career path that will only lead to uncertainty. After all, I was already wondering if the cutthroat world of academia was for me. The increasing insecurity of the profession ought to solidify that decision it would seem. Nonetheless, I still love my field of study and want to maintain some sort of affiliation with it. The decision simply isn’t that easy, though I’m certainly considering many more factors than I ever did.

Despite all that I’ve said, in September of this year I will begin pursuing an MA at a great university in Ontario. The debt question is off the table thanks to the school’s generosity in scholarship money. Also, my degree is fortunately flexible and can be parlayed into law school, business school, teacher’s college, or public policy or administration. In fact, I don’t even have a problem abandoning it all and picking up a trade if that’s what will make me happy – and happiness is the end goal isn’t it? I’ll hopefully always have some wiggle room as far as career goes, and I certainly can’t expect to know immediately what to do with my life. Trial and error is necessary. So while I’m still caught in this aporia, I suppose there’s still hope. This won’t be the first time I’ve let go of a major aspiration and it certainly won’t be the last. And maybe the dream is not dead.

Most of all, however, I’ll continually come back to the question of what the hell I’m actually good for and in what way I can really make a meaningful contribution to this world. This was the motivating factor for my original plans of an academic career. My hope was to use my work and teaching to positively influence the lives and scholarship of students and colleagues. Academia was supposedly the fountain of knowledge which would drive our world to progress and betterment. This type of thought seems a little naive now, but the initial desire to actually do something worthwhile with one’s life is certainly worth upholding and in a sense I’m glad to constantly ask myself what that means so long as I am indeed working toward that goal.

I’m surely not alone in this predicament and in that I take some comfort. The image that I used at the beginning of this post comes from another blog post discussing a similar issue, which can be found here. Take some time to read through the comments and see that this is a common crisis. Many of the stories are downright gruesome.

University breaks and changes people in many ways and certainly tests one’s tolerance of anxiety, all while providing a healthy dose of disillusionment. I won’t deny that there are true scholars still around, ones who write brilliantly and manage to still devote time to students and teaching. Whether that small minority can revive my original hopes, however, is something about which I’m still entirely unsure.

Leave a comment


  1. progressivescholar

     /  May 13, 2010

    Hi there, I wanted to thank you for writing this post. I’m sure it was difficult to put all of these thoughts and emotions into words. I have been through the disillusionment that you write about and understand completely how you feel. I am currently finishing my second master’s degree at an American university. After being in the ivory tower for so long, I have gone through the stages of idealism, to contempt and bitterness, and now to acceptance. What I have learned is that higher education is only what we make of it. You mentioned the small minority of true scholars – what I have learned is that they make working in academia worthwhile. I’ve also learned that we can become true scholars ourselves, if we focus on our passions and don’t allow the antiquated expectations rule our decisions. Academia needs more true scholars like this (like us!), not fewer. Unfortunately so many true scholars get scared off or disillusioned and leave higher ed altogether – which only leaves the system broken, with nobody around who cares enough to fix it.

    I have moved from being bitter about the realities of higher ed to being accepting of them, because I have been able to work behind the scenes with some amazing administrators and faculty members. Perhaps I’ve just been lucky, but the faculty I have worked with have shown me how seriously they take their mission to educate students, and just how much time and energy they expend on the multitude of other responsibilities they hold.

    And to be honest, it changed my mind about pursuing a faculty position. (When I started working there I had planned on being an administrator rather than faculty.) I hate tenure more than almost anything else in the world, but I’m not letting that stop my desire to teach. I can teach without going on the tenure track. And if I never get anywhere with my research, I will still know that I have followed my passion for teaching. I feel like I owe it to those few amazing teachers to continue their work.

    • Scholar,

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful response. You are absolutely correct that higher education is what you make of it and that there will always be a few great teachers and researchers who make it all worthwhile. The anxieties are often overwhelming, but these great scholars and my passion for the material have kept me going through all that, and I think it’s exactly the same for you. I’ll fight the disillusionment as hard as I can 🙂

      And yes, tenure is often the root of all evil, but again it’s a matter of you as a scholar not letting concerns about it get in the way of great teaching and inspiring creativity in other scholars. Thanks again for your comment.


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