Jonathan Mayhew has responded to the “What did I give up to be in academia” meme with one of his own. Jonathan’s response is titled “What I Would Have Given Up By Not Being An Academic.” I agree with Jonathan in that the original meme sounds quite skewed without this second part, so here is my contribution to this new meme.
Here are the things I would have lost if I weren’t an academic:
1. Health and sanity. I’m not being coy when I say that no other job would have allowed me to preserve my sanity. I can only function when I can spend a couple of days a week around people and the rest of time on my own. That is how my brain works. Anything else damages me too much. I could have only achieved this schedule outside of academia by working a part-time job, but that would have made me very poor. In my professorial position, I feel both very good financially and stable psychologically.
2. Joy. The happiness I experience when I teach a class or sit down to work on my research is so intense that I don’t have words to describe it. I never used drugs but I think this is what people mean when they refer to “having a high.”
3. Being with people I get. I love my fellow academics because nothing is better than spending your time with people who are obsessed with scholarship, who love reading, who can get extremely passionate about glottal stops or Medieval manuscripts, who are intelligent enough always to have a measure of tactfulness about them, and who get me because they are the same way as I am.
4. Reading. Normally, adults stop reading new books after the age of 31. Only a job like mine gives me the leisure and the excuse to read about 100 new books per year.
5. Prestige. I’m an immigrant with a very Russian-sounding last name. This means that people always look down upon me from the second they meet me. But that only lasts until I mention that I’m a professor of literature with a PhD from Yale with an active research agenda. Even people who don’t understand what a research agenda is begin to treat me as royalty. As an immigrant, I value status a lot.
6. Husband. After my husband lost his job, he ran the risk of being deported within two weeks. However, as an academic, I am entitled to a visa and green-card sponsorship for me and my immediate family. This is something that no other place of employment would have offered me.
7. Security. I don’t have tenure yet, so I can potentially be fired. However, I always get informed of whether my contract will be renewed at a specific time during the academic year. This is a completely different situation psychologically than that of any other employee who can be fired at absolutely any moment and without warning. I have seen what the fear of being fired unexpectedly does to people, and I don’t like it in the least.
8. Vacation time. I have no idea how people manage to survive on 11 vacation days per year. This is a mystery I never want to solve. My academic job gives me a chance to rest, enjoy life, travel. Only this calendar year, I will have traveled to Germany, UK, the Dominican Republic, and Canada. If I can’t travel for fun, then what is the point of such a life?
9. Money. I would not have made the same impressive salary doing anything else in the world. It’s good to know your limitations, so I don’t hold any illusions as to making hundreds of thousands in some mysterious industry. All I know how to do is to read books, talk about books, and write about books. Of course, if no academic job were available, I would have found another way to make money. But nobody makes a lot when forcing themselves to do things they don’t enjoy.
10. Self-worth. Every day, I receive confirmation that I’m good at what I do, smart, talented, valuable, and necessary. Psychologically, it is very useful. Just imagine the difference between this feeling and dragging yourself to work where you don’t feel like anything special just to make some money.