On the heels of a successful series based on Russell
McCutcheon’s Theses on Professionalization, where 21 early career
scholars weighed-in on a separate thesis, we at the Bulletin would
like to continue with the theme of professionalization as it relates
to mid-to-late career scholars, asking them to name one thing (or several) about
their career (in either teaching, research, or service work) that they
know now but wish they had done earlier on. For other posts in this series, see here.
by Kocku von Stuckrad
Academia is full of clichés and myths. For a group of people whose jobs depend on critical reflection and revision, we don’t apply those skills to the profession itself very often. The fuss about academic exceptionality, the myths of ‘turning your hobby into a profession’ or ‘if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life’—all of this is deeply problematic. It does not benefit us as scholars. It only reinforces the assumptions that we should expect to work more than the hours we’re paid for, that if we work outside the narrow confines of the academy we’ve failed somehow, and many other pieces of tacit knowledge we all have to struggle with these days.
So the most important message I want to convey is that being an academic is a job, not a calling. Our careers are dependent on highly contingent parameters, mainly because science is ultimately social.
Of course, it’s easy to offer advice about not taking it all too seriously when you have a tenured position. I certainly don’t want to minimize the struggles of scholars who are still trying to achieve tenure. I do understand this personally as well; I was shortlisted for 12 professor positions before I landed my first tenured job (which was not even a professorship). Nevertheless, one of the keys is not taking yourself too seriously, in two senses: if you land a tenured position, or a job at all in this market, you shouldn’t think this makes you better than others who didn’t land the same job. At the same time, when you’re the one who’s turned down for that job, you shouldn’t take it too personally. A huge part of academia is chance and luck. Quality is one part of the mix, but it’s in there together with networks, timing, and just plain luck—all factors more or less beyond the control of the person applying for the job.
Science is a social system like any other system. It is dependent on hierarchies and networks as much as any corporate job—and this is not new. My supervisor gave me similar advice 20 years ago, and he in turn referred back to Max Weber, who already understood all of this in 1918. Weber’s Wissenschaft als Beruf is usually translated into English as Science as a Vocation, but this is misleading and revealing at the same time. It is misleading because the correct translation would simply be Science as a Profession or even Science as a Job; it is revealing because it confirms the myth that becoming a professor is a ‘calling’ that we have to follow and not just a job like other jobs. Based on Weber’s lecture, we can conclude that contingency has always characterized academic careers: “Certainly, chance does not rule alone, but it rules to an unusually high degree. I know of hardly any career on earth where chance plays such a role.” And Weber tells the students that “I may say so all the more since I personally owe it to some mere accidents that during my very early years I was appointed to a full professorship in a discipline in which men of my generation undoubtedly had achieved more than I had” (Science as a Vocation, quoted online from H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills [translated and edited], From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, pp. 129 –156, New York: Oxford University Press, 1946).
This is not a problem of neoliberalism, as some critics argue. What is new is the scale of the problem—where university education used to be for the elite, it is now much more democratic. The benefits accrue to more people, but so do the same old problems. The context is different, but the structures are similar. Viewing science as a social system can be revealing both academically and personally. We have to take seriously that the reality is different from the myth. The myth is objectivity, the search for truth, the Protestant hangover of “Here I stand, I can do no other.” Demystifying academia is a key task for scholars. The reality is that academia is steered by social communication, networks, and contingency. This is important not just for academic self-reflection, but also for scholarly understanding of the processes that generate knowledge in this system, and its limitations. And it is important for your personal life.
Taking the reality of contingency seriously, you should always keep an ear to the ground. This is partly about flexibility, about staying in motion, navigating between what you want and the reality of what is available. It’s about being in the driver’s seat, taking control in the face of contingency. If you can generate options, you will not be so much at the mercy of a single job application or even a single career track. It’s not only about being open to change; it’s about actively pursuing it. And this is true at whatever stage of your career you happen to be, whether you’re a PhD student, a postdoc, or a tenured professor.
Muhammad Ali was a champion not only because he could deliver a punch, but because he knew how to take one. One of my favorite childhood memories is of my father waking us up at 2am so we could watch Ali’s legendary fights on TV in Europe. It’s about endurance. The struggle with the system and its representatives is bruising. You have to be able to stay on your feet in the face of contingency and unfairness. But you also have to be aware of your own limitations. A dream that costs you your personal happiness is not a dream worth pursuing.
What it ultimately comes down to is being the director of your own life. It’s not a failure if you don’t make it to that academic dream job. It’s also not a failure if you do. Happiness is in the balance between dreams, possibilities, and reality. It’s not just the values of the academic world that count. There is more to explore, and more to live up to. An academic career is a profession, not a calling. It’s important to go where you’re welcome and appreciated, to work in a setting where not only your expertise but also your vision and your preferred method of collaboration are valued. If you can find that context, whether inside or outside the narrow confines of academia, it will be much more important for your career, not to mention your personal happiness, than the salary you earn or the reputation of the institution that hires you.
Demystifying academia—cutting it down to size—would benefit us no matter where we are in our careers. Academia is just a job. Managing expectations might be our true scholarly vocation.