What Do You Want To Do When You Grow Up, Part 4: Professor?

Publish or Perish

Note: I wrote about 6000 words for part 4…and instead of pelting you, dear reader, with all 6000 words, I’ll dole it out a little at a time.

There’s a classic scene at the end of the movie “The Candidate” that kind of sums up the feeling I had at the end of my doctorate. Robert Redford has just won an election for the U.S. Senate and he asks his trusted advisor a simple question: “What do we do now?”

That’s the kind of uncertainty I faced when I officially became “Doctor.” Or as some may view it, the fake kind of doctor. I didn’t treat people’s physical ailments. Rather, my job was to educate students on our political system, the ideas that framed them, and the day to day process of governing. Who was going to hire me? I thought job opportunities would be more plentiful than what awaited me. I applied for positions using the Chronicle of Higher Education as my classified ads, trolled for jobs on H-Net, created a profile on Penn’s alumni site, and did what I thought were all the right things when one goes on the academic job market. I wrote letters to academic departments applying for both full-time and adjunct work, I made sure my letters of recommendation were current, and I tried to shop my dissertation around to publishers. I got nothing but rejections. Now, I don’t think that I’m “all that,” but I was fairly convinced that my educational background would be attractive to hiring committees.


You know that phrase “publish or perish?” It’s not something that gets thrown around because it’s untrue. I didn’t know it then, but it seems at that time, newly minted PhDs had to have a publication record:  a book in the works, conference presentations, and papers published just to be considered for the job.  Now, it was never explicitly stated on the job notice that you needed these things, but it was implicit in the feedback I got. The “impressive candidates” had those paper trails that I simply did not have. I remember asking my dissertation advisor if I should be publishing, and his response was “Well, do you have anything ground-breaking that should be published?” Ground-breaking?  Hardly. I tried to send out my master’s thesis — which was novel in that no one had written about the student protests at Penn during the 1960s. All the documents I researched were from the university archives, and I thought it would be publishable. Academic journals, however, can be a microcosm of YouTube comments. Like many people who comment on content on the Internet, peer-reviewed journal readers comment anonymously. The point is that under the shield of anonymity, they can be free to comment in a more truthful way.  That “truth” often means a license to be cruel in ways that don’t involve people telling you to stick your head in a place that is an anatomical impossibility. Academic cruelty usually involves attacking one’s methodology, sources used, and/or fragments of sentences. Basically, these anonymous “peers” attack your intelligence in ways that are long-winded, pompous, and didactic.  It’s supposed to be helpful as you go back and revise what you’ve written, but when you’re first starting out, it’s demoralizing.

I know, “cry me a river.” Writers endure years of rejection of their work before getting it published —  before Amazon and LuLu made it easy to self-publish, that is. However, if you’re trying to build up your academic writing credits, being rejected for what you wrote (by editors) and rejected by hiring committees because you haven’t written anything needed to be considered for a job is a Catch-22 that is more depressing than absurd. I mean, I spent most of my mid-20s and part of my 30s in grad school burning the midnight oil to master not one but three disciplines, wrote a two theses and a doctoral dissertation, and that’s not enough for an entry-level academic job?

I felt like Sisyphus who was damned to roll a stone up a hill for all eternity. Unlike Sisyphus, however, I wasn’t a deceitful person. I prided myself on my honesty, dedication, and hard work. But the rejections and revisions felt like make-work and a punishment. I started to lose interest. My passion for becoming a professor was waning, and I doubted my abilities.

And then I got a call for an interview at a community college for a teaching position.

Click here for part 5