Survival Skills (Academia)


I’m sure we’ve all thought about what else we might have done in life “if only we had known” the things we know now.  Well, my answer springs to my mind instantly.  I would’ve just gone ahead and been a cultural anthropologist.  The only thing that kept me out of that major was the fear of living on grants for the rest of my life.  If I had been alone in the world, that was one thing.  But I had a little boy to feed.  So I shied away from living on grants.

Little did I know!  Academia, which I got into in a whirlwind of happenstance, is pretty much the same thing.  If you’re not an adjunct, with reappointment on a semesterly or nine-month basis, then you’re a low paid faculty member on a nine month or 2 – 3 year contract.  Pretty much the same as living on a grant and reapplying for funds/seeking funds elsewhere!  Oh well.  I enjoy my job.  I survive on the pay, and after a few moves to correct some dumb personal behaviors and some external factors, I might even thrive on the pay. I have, however, learned how to survive on the job, which is a different scenario altogether!

As I’ve been contemplating survival in other ways (pantries, disaster) it crossed my mind that survival in academia is just as critical a skill.  I watch so many folks churn through the system and not thrive at all or crushed under the weight of it all.  Or, stuck in the same boring position they always have been.  Here are a few things I’ve managed to adapt to that have kept me and my little Master’s degree plugging along for a few years now.

(This is irreverent to be sure, so please don’t come down on me like a stack of midterm essays!)

Know thy power structures.  It’s important to know who really does what.  One thing I always told the incoming GTAs was to be good to the department secretary.  When you really need something done, s/he probably knows exactly how to do it, and if s/he doesn’t, s/he will know who will and will probably even call them for you.  Likewise, know who is willing to impart good advice and who is just blowing hot air.  The difference is usually palpable…

Know how crap works around here.  My coworker grossly underestimated the power of this one, even though I tried to explain it to him desperately and kindly.  Your mileage will vary at different institutions, but likely the Dean is NOT going to override the department Chair, even though you’re hoping to use the Dean as a club for that purpose.  Why?  Because a) the Dean realizes you’re trying to use her as a club and b) Chairs are there to deal with things so the Dean doesn’t have to.  Responsibility is delegated.  Do you really think she isn’t talking to the Chair way more than she ever will talk to the average Instructor?  I nearly swallowed my tongue when he said, “I doubt the Chair knows more about this special project than we (Instructors, not Teaching Assistant Professors even) do…”.  What?!  Of course he does.  That’s just How Crap Works Around Here.  Also, even though we all desperately deserve raises, that doesn’t mean we’re going to get them.  It might mean, though, that if you know a Chair or a Dean has a particular bent for certain ideas, you can finagle some summer funding as long as you word it right.  It also sadly means that we have to have a keen sense of our place in the academic universe.  We should all be special and loved for the work we do.  In reality, we’re cogs in a wheel.  I’m not saying things can’t be changed.  But not realizing the cog factor is going to create quite the surprise for you when you’re replaced with another cog…

Faculty meetings are important places to be.  They are also sources of good entertainment, if approached with the proper frame of mind.  They are also good sources of information about what *might* be coming down the pike for your department.  You can take advantage of upcoming situations to pitch what you might be able to do within the department and thus make your stock rise a bit higher in the eyes of the aforementioned powers that be.  Sure, we’d all like to be recognized for the special snowflakes that we are.  But tenure track jobs are few and far between.  Contract work, however, is a dime a dozen.  So spike your coffee and take notes.

Keep calm and carry on!  During every faculty meeting, I keep tick marks of the number of times someone has a complete panic meltdown over some impending issue.  This averages two meltdowns in our department per meeting.  You can recognize an approaching meltdown by the look on the face of the faculty member that renders roughly into the horror!  the horror!  Keep calm and carry on.  90% of the things I’ve seen discussed in fac meetings rarely come about, and the horrific nature of whatever scourge the Dean is about to visit upon your hallowed halls usually does not come to pass.  Now, I’ve known a few cases where it came to pass and worse.  Remember, just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you….But seriously, people.  Keep calm and carry on.  Besides, what else can you really do? Which brings me to…

Outrage is largely useless.  And it truly is.  Unless you have a union that actually has teeth, there isn’t much you can do about it anyway.  I’m not saying the good fight isn’t worth it.  But I am saying that raging into the wind with no clear purpose is counterproductive.  This is where knowing the powers that be and How Things Work come in handy, as the powers that be will usually fight those battles for you.  Usually.  There is usually one documented moment of outrage during each faculty meeting.  Said outburst could also be categorized as “raging into the wind,” or “THE SKY IS FALLING.”  Again, keep calm, and carry on.  Get mad over the things that truly matter.  Your performance will be measured.  Higher ups will sniff over their alleged inability to cough up three more dollars for your paycheck.  This is part of How Things Work.  Channel that outrage into something more productive, like a faculty group that can bring to bear multiple voices to express the problem.  Or, have a Friday afternoon coffee bitching session to clear the air with fellow commiserators.

Teamwork doesn’t always work.  I’m still struggling with this one, to be honest.  I love the concept of group work, coteaching, etc.  What it got for all my hard work over the past four years is a coworker willing to throw me under the bus for a few more dollars and what he thinks is better title recognition — for doing the same work.  Fortunately, I saw this one coming and did not become codependent upon his work in order to do my own.  So, my suggestion is to make sure you can always represent yourself…just in case. Shame, though.  There really are so little spoils to be tussled over.

Adapt, adapt, adapt!  This has been key to my survival.  My coworker only wants to teach one specific sort of thing.  We keep getting offered everything but that.  Colleges are increasingly looking for ways to move forward, to work intradepartmentally, and while it’s important to be true to your own vocational passions (and I’m not judging his), if you want to continue to work in academia, you have to adapt to it as well.  Especially if you work in the Humanities, you’ll often have to come up with lengthy ways to justify your existence to skeptical persons of all stripes.  It’s part of How Things Are.  Figuring out how to adapt to compensate for prevailing attitudes is critical.  It doesn’t always work, unfortunately.  But it’s better than being caught unprepared!

What would you add to this list?


2 responses »

  1. Wonderful post!

    Being a research whisperer, my addition would be:
    Apply for things: There are lots of small grants out there – writing grants, philanthropic grants, community grants, local government grants, seeding grants… You don’t have to jump into the NSF right from the get-go. Refine your idea, create your budget & timeline and then pitch your idea. Partner up with someone smarter than you, but not as motivated, or who works harder, but doesn’t have your knowledge base. You won’t always win, but you’ll have more chance than if you don’t try. And if you ask some of those Powers That Be to give you feedback on your draft, you’ll get brownie points just for trying.

    When it does come off – well, there is nothing like having your own little project to manage.

    PS: Great images. Yours?

  2. I wish they were mine; wordpress seems to supply them at random.

    Good point about the research angle. My letter doesn’t include it, but let’s be honest — you can’t get away from making at the very least some sort of token effort at it. I’d love to give the team thing another go, I’m just a tad disillusioned at the moment.

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