Monday, December 12, 2011

74. Academic conferences.

The largest academic conferences can be highly depressing affairs involving thousands of participants and hundreds of desperate job seekers nervously waiting to be interviewed in hotel rooms (see Reason 55). Other conferences can be pleasant and collegial gatherings. In fact, the opportunity to attend regular professional meetings might be regarded as one of the “perks” of an academic career. Conferences offer an excuse to travel (and to cancel class), and a few departments still provide funding for their faculty members (and sometimes graduate students) to attend them. The ostensible purpose of an academic conference is to provide a forum in which scholars present and critique research. Rarely, however, is the emptiness of academe put on more public display than in the context of an academic conference.

To the casual observer, an academic conference must appear to be one of the strangest of modern rituals. At various sessions, speakers present their own research by reading aloud to an audience. Someone who has attended a full day of sessions will have listened to people reading for five or six hours. How well do you suppose the audience members are listening? They sit politely and at least pretend to listen, because when their own turn comes to stand up and read aloud, they would like others to extend the same courtesy to them. Sparks fly occasionally during question time, which can be mean-spirited or (less often) enlightening, but decorous boredom is typically the order of the day. The real purpose of the conference is to provide speakers with another line for their CVs, to which they all must add lines constantly (see Reason 38). Before you go to graduate school, attend an academic conference in the field that interests you, sit through a few sessions, and then ask yourself if it still interests you. While you’re there, get a sense of the anxiety among the attendees looking for work. For them, every conference is a gathering of competitors (see Reason 2).


  1. I remember being extremely confused the first time I went to a guest lecture in the humanities and the guy literally just sat down at his desk and read one of his papers. It's not productive and - to be blunt - a shitty way to deliver material to an audience. I've never heard of it happening in the natural sciences. Anyone know why?

    1. While I was a graduate student, I sat through many, many Powerpoint presentations where the presenters (and sometimes lecturers) just read off the slide.

      I also sat through a lot of presentations and lectures in which the international students (and sometimes faculty) presenting were not comprehensible.

      Such is life in STEM.

  2. One of the reasons I haven't pursued a PhD is that I attended two academic conferences. I did so on my own dime; fortunately for me, both of those conferences were near where I was living.

    At the conferences, I saw every psychological distortion the post describes, and a few more. Paradoxically, that is what made so much of the conferences boring, at least to me. (I was married to someone who was bipolar and have dated a sociopath or two, so mental illness holds no allure for me.)

    Furthermore, hearing academic researchers (or wannabes) read papers isn't like being at a reading of poetry or drama, or even of fiction. For one thing, even the worst creative writing is more compelling than academic prose. For another, researchers tend to be quiet, introverted and even timid people: hardly good candidates for commanding attention while reading from an academic paper.

    Finally, I realized that, just as academicians reading academic papers can destroy anyone's interest in the topic of the paper, protracted and prolonged exposure to such presentations, and to academia generally, can take the life out of any subject. Plus, graduate studies (in English and literature, anyway) are not about the subject at hand; they are about studies, commentaries and criticisms of the subject at hand.

    Thanks for this post--and blog. Keep it coming!

  3. I am in sociology and sometimes people read, more often people do powerpoint. My strategy has been to work on collaborative papers, presented by an enthusiastic go-getter, while I stay home, and reap the CV rewards by merely paying the (exorbitant) conference fee. I haven't had a real vacation in the last 5 years I've been in grad school, and I'll be damned if I'm going to shell out big bucks to fly to Asstown in order to get attacked by assholes or snubbed.

    I do this in part because conferences suck, and are a waste of time. The grad students in my program go to many, many conferences in the USA and abroad, in lieu of publishing. It's a CV-stuffer, but I really don't know who they think they're fooling. Our department doesn't fund us to go to conferences, so it's really just another opportunity for the Mom-and-Dad-Pay-My-Bills set to jet off to Italy on their parents' dime.

    1. Yes, it's a huge red flag when someone has pages and pages of conference presentations but no publications to show for it.

  4. When I was an undergraduate at Iowa, I sat in on two or three conferences. I actually thought that some of the presenters were good. They used powerpoint and effectively lectured to the audience. Of course, many of them just indifferently read their papers, but there are good and bad public speakers in any crowd.

    The sadder take-away was just how crowded these rooms were. You don't realize just how overcrowded the marketplace is until you sit in a room of 100+ people listening to a lecture about prison imagery in Victorian novels.

  5. Outsider here.

    The longer I lurk around this forum, the more I think the Academy is just another organized religion and that these conferences are the equivalent of services with the same impact on the lives of the faithful.

    I am required to personally attend continuing professional education seminars (which I resent because they are expensive and any real continuing education could be imparted just as easily online) but at least there, I can attend the seminar with the (faint) hope of learning something useful to my practice. What the blogger describes sounds like the sixth, maybe seventh circle of Hell where there IS no Hope.

  6. 8:04: you can learn quite a bit at the typical conference. Academia, more than almost any profession, requires that you not be jaded. The minute you give in to cynicism, you lose.

  7. This post really seems limited to the humanities. In my discipline, experimental psychology, conferences are where one goes to see cutting edge data. Most people present unpublished research and I've never, not once, seen somebody just drone from a written paper. The closest it gets is when somebody just reads blocks of impregnable text of their slides. It's rare but it happens.

  8. I've attended and presented at many scientific conferences and can count the number of presentations that were worth listening to on one hand. Really pathetic. I would walk out on anyone (and make a fuss in doing so) reading a paper as a form of presentation.

    1. "I would walk out on anyone (and make a fuss in doing so) reading a paper as a form of presentation."

      Says the person who is posting anonymously on an internet blog. I bet it takes you a few days just to build up the courage to leave your moms basement.

    2. You are replying anonymously, hypocrite.

  9. Occasionally I see a historian present by reading a paper (I'm an economist). Very few people can do this effectively I think. Normally, I just end up daydreaming and getting distracted and it is quite hard to follow. Similarly with politicians who read speeches, though those are usually better written. But I've assumed that you humanities guys are used to it and like it that way (as in most social sciences and all natural sciences we just give a lecture off the cuff usually with a bunch of slides). So maybe not?

  10. "(as in most social sciences and all natural sciences we just give a lecture off the cuff usually with a bunch of slides)."

    Hahaha. In sociology all you have to do is ask the undergrads to form small groups and tell each other their uninformed opinions, then come back and share said uninformed opinions with the class while you "facilitate" their discussion. If I were footing their tuition bill, I'd be outraged.

  11. Social science person here, but I actually used to love going to conferences, they would make me feel better about being a grad student. You got to talk to other people who are interested in what you are interested in. People get your jokes about the field, and you felt good about the fact that people were doing interesting things out there.

    But the cynicism that @8:22 talks about set in, and now I can't stand any of it anymore. It's just a bunch of eggheads engaging in social rituals. I should write an ethnography on the culture of academia and present it at a conference and see what happens.

    Also, I have only seen one or two "just read from the paper" presentations in my time, and one was a famous (old) scholar who could get away with it, but I don't think it would be acceptable in my field to do this normally. We almost all do powerpoints.

  12. I just finished a humanities MA. A few months ago I attended a conference hosted by my university. I had not originally planned to go, as the speakers' topics were far removed from my research interests. However my supervisor told me in veiled terms that I didn't have a choice (I found out later that all the profs in our department were forcing their students to go in order to impress visiting scholars with a big turn-out).

    So the day of the conference arrives, and profs, grad students and visiting scholars are all gathered in the conference hall. The speakers start giving their presentations; most were actually quite decent and engaging. About halfway through the presentations I look over to my right and spot my supervisor (who was also head of the department), asleep and snoring a few seats away. Someone had to wake her up at the end of the conference.

    The speakers either didn't notice her, or politely opted not make a big deal of it. But I can just imagine the thrashing a grad student would have gotten had they dared fall asleep.

  13. In the happy land of STEM conferences, most everyone uses PowerPoint and gives a talk based around the slides they are flashing in front of the room. This at least has a chance of keeping the audience awake if the topic is interesting, but most STEM research will put you right to sleep.
    If somebody got up and simply started reading from a paper, I imagine the whole audience would just go to sleep more quickly.

  14. I don't know if this is the right thread for what I'm about to write, but since it's the most recent and therefore probably more active than previous threads, I'll just write it anyway and be disciplined for it later. I'd like to hear a few opinions from folks about my situation and maybe that will help me with some decisions I need to make. Here are the hard facts, and they're not pretty:

    1. I've been in graduate-level humanities programs (history, to be specific) for about 14 years total (this is including time on leave, times when I was not funded, etc.).

    2. I've got a lot of debt. A lot.

    3. I'm not nearly as close to finishing my dissertation as I'd like to be. I'm honestly not sure at this point how much longer it will take. I'm strongly considering setting a deadline of 6-9 months to be done or nearly done (i.e., with a defense in sight an scheduled). If I'm not there by that time, I'm considering walking away from it all.

    4. I'm not as young as I used to be - pushing 40, actually.

    Now, in light of those facts, I'm sure that I'm probably setting myself up for a good deal of laughter from the folks here. Or some commentary to the effect that I deserve whatever lot I get as a result of my choices. All of that may very well be valid, but let me assure folks that no one - I repeat, no one - understands the fix I'm in better than I do. And I've beaten myself up over it far worse than anyone else could do to me. I'm fully aware of mistakes I've made, things I could have done differently, etc.

    So, having said that, I'd like to hear some ideas from folks who may (or may not) have been in similar situations about what to do next. Just say "screw it, I tried" and move on? Push through, finish, then assess what to do? Suicide, by the way, is not really an option here.

  15. 10:14, you are not alone by a long shot. If you aren't even close to finishing your dissertation, then I would seriously consider liberating yourself from academia. You might look at the versatile phd forum for pointers on alternate career paths. There's also a leaving academe forum at the Chronicle. Why not walk away now? Would you feel better working on a career path, or plugging away at the diss? Do you want to finish it, or just feel OBLIGATED? If it's mere obligation, then try a week where all you think about is what you'd do if you left. You might find it strangely fantastic and freeing.

    One thing this post doesn't mention is how insanely expensive conferences are. The fact that I have to "pay to play" at academic conferences severely limits my ability to attend them (I live in flyover country). It's pretty sad that people will spend thousands of dollars for the privilege of interviewing for a job it's extremely unlikely they'll get.

  16. "Now, in light of those facts, I'm sure that I'm probably setting myself up for a good deal of laughter from the folks here. Or some commentary to the effect that I deserve whatever lot I get as a result of my choices. All of that may very well be valid, but let me assure folks that no one - I repeat, no one - understands the fix I'm in better than I do. And I've beaten myself up over it far worse than anyone else could do to me. I'm fully aware of mistakes I've made, things I could have done differently, etc."

    People who are eager to mock or discipline others, online of off, aren't worthy of your time or attention. I hope no one here is a big enough jerk to indulge in finger-wagging or sassy quips at your expense.

    I'm in a somewhat similar situation: older than you but not finished with the masters after a very long time.Stalled in part because I don't think I can bear to go on with the PhD after I finish the stupid MA. I haven't made any final decisions at this point, but am trying to set aside sunk costs (gone forever, not coming back) and focus on what I want to do with my life moving forward. The other thing I'm trying to do is stop lying to myself and deprogram from the academic cult. Their values aren't my values--so after all this time, what are my values? If I set a deadline to flip my thesis draft, will I really meet it? If not, why--what's all this resistance really about?

    One question to ask yourself is, if you still value finishing, what can you "get away with" in terms of quality? I know folks who got passed through their diss defense with dissertations that weren't so great (not that I care or am judging--this is just the scuttlebutt). One of my friends had this written in giant letters on a piece of paper taped to her workspace:


    Maybe if you can find a concrete plan (say, write one page a day, first thing in the morning, or late at night) and work things out with your advisor(s), you can just get through and move on to the next thing. Not that one has to complete what one starts, or that quitting things that aren't working is "bad," but it sounds like you want to finish. Breaking it down into small steps and making a manageable plan that you can actually stick to may be the ticket here.

    Good luck, and tell anyone who judges you to go to hell.

  17. At 10:14. I completed a PhD in Biology last year at age 46. I contemplated leaving the programs many times along the way, but continued because I felt obligated to do so and didn't want to fail (in my eyes; the reality is nobody else actually cares). Big mistake as I'm now unemployable. I wish MORE THAN ANYTHING that I had bailed early on. I gave up a nice pre-college teaching career to which I plan to return. I don't need a PhD for that. In the meantime I pissed several year of my (and my wife's) life away. Walk away. Now.

  18. 10:14, You should know how incredibly common your situation is. It's something that people don't like to talk about, but it is everywhere in academia. The feelings of futility and frustration that you have are shared by more people than you would believe. Nobody expects grad school to take 15 years when they start, but that's because we all walk into this totally clueless.

    You might feel a whole lot better about life if you focused on something else for a while. If you found a job completely unrelated to academia, you could ease into a new life, start paying down your debt, and then (if you still felt like it) go back to working on your dissertation in the evenings after work. Doing something else doesn't have to mean giving up on finishing, but it's 100% fine to walk away, too.

    Just know that you're not alone. Grad school is a nasty, nasty business. You just fell into the same quicksand that the rest of us did.

  19. Whenever I'm at a conference, I always find myself wanting to turn to the person sitting next to me and asking, "We're all just pretending to take this seriously, right?"

    In my field, there are a few people who show slides, but most of us read from a script. (I actually think that PowerPoint is looked down upon as a crutch, and I have to admit that all of the worst presentations I have ever seen involved people reading bullet points from their slides.) It really doesn't matter, though, because most of the time you learn nothing at conferences that you can remember longer than the flight home. It's kind of a miracle that we can get away with holding them at all.

    I like conferences, because I get to see old friends and "talk shop," but the idea that we're there for a meeting of the minds and to advance human knowledge together is pretty comical. I know other people who hate conferences and never go to them because they're pointless. There's a certain integrity in that position.

  20. Ah, conferences. I remember the first conference I ever went to. I sat and listened to one talk after another about topics that I simply couldn't understand. As the talks went on, I felt more and more stupid and ignorant about my discipline: I would never make it in academia without understanding all of this stuff.

    Then on the third morning I listened to a talk that made sense, and that I could follow, and that was interesting and fun and made me want to ask a ton of questions. A little lightbulb went on in my head and I realized that almost everyone until now had been a poor or just inexperienced presenter, or was working on stuff that made no sense, or some combination of the two. Now when I'm at conferences, I try to identify people like this great presenter, and just skip everyone else (except colleagues of course). Bonus points if you only attend conferences that are in beautiful or exciting locations, and you can play hooky and do something fun while all the boring people are talking. I'm leaving academia next year, and conferences are something I will not miss.

  21. @Anon. Dec. 12, 6:04

    It's traditional; I think they used to read science papers out loud in the 18th century - by the 20th century that was quaint, so they started doing presentations. The humanities have never changed. What they won't tell you is that it's all a giant excuse to fly to some town where nobody knows them so they can get drunk and possibly laid.

    To the Anon. on Dec. 14 with the sleeping advisor: that's bullshit. She demands you show up, you do, then she sleeps though the BS. Bullshit. Almost as bad as being in Alcoholics Anonymous and finding out that your sponsor had a back room full of booze (and that's actually happened.)

    We live in the 21st century but academia is full of these little leftovers from the eras of divine right or robber barons. There needs to be change.

  22. Conferences are pretty silly, but they can be fun. [NB: I'm talking English conferences, and especially those focuses on medieval studies.] It's an opportunity to hang out with old grad school friends who got jobs and your friends from other universities, and depending on the conference and your period/specialization you might get to hang out with some of the eminent professors of the field (some of whom can be fun to dance and drink with). The line on the cv part is true, and a ridiculous sham. I've heard only a few good papers, and a couple (that's two) exciting ones, and the rest go from the good side of mediocre to the bad side of being alive on earth at that special moment in time. It does help if you can get some money from your department for going and delivering the paper you spent so much time on, but nobody came to. Really, it's been one of the few somewhat positive things about grad school, but it's all about the drinking, and the talking, sometimes the dancing, but not really about the thinking, the discussing, and sometimes the insight... There are still better things to be doing.

    @10:14, You're definitely not the only one. Grad school has a funny way of locking you down. Just when you think you're out, something pulls you back in. You might want to focus on setting up a Plan B as long as you're in grad school. Use the time to apply for jobs, or whatever else you might want to do. Doing an internship (if you can afford the time) with a press, or some other place you might like to work, might be good to do too, just to get yourself going in another direction. Good luck!

  23. Hey, everyone: I was the Anonymous @10:14, and I want to say thank you to all who have shared their opinions, insights, encouragement, etc. I'm still not sure where I stand on finishing graduate school, but I will have an upcoming break during the last two weeks in December, and while I'm visiting family, I'll take the time to think about next steps.

    I should say that my prospects aren't entirely bleak. I'm currently working 3 part-time jobs to make ends meet. The job I most recently obtained is with a consulting company and that job has the potential to become more permanent. The owner of the company has a Ph.D. himself (in anthropology) and so he understands very well the graduate school experience; I think he would be supportive if I tried to finish. So that might end up being my Plan B and it's not a bad option.

    I should make some comment more germane to the topic at hand. I have mixed feelings about conferences. I do think the smaller ones tend to be the more enjoyable ones. I like going to the meeting for the organization in my specific subfield, and I despise the meeting of the large professional organization in my subject (history) for the reasons mentioned in the original post and in the comments. I tend to see conferences more as an opportunity to socialize and make connections; I don't remember a lot of the presentations/papers that I see, although a few have helped me think about my own research in helpful ways. I also agree with Lauren W.'s comment @10:25 about the expense of going to conferences. I simply can't go to a lot of the meetings that some of my colleagues and peers can go to because the travel costs are too much, let alone accommodation. I did manage to go to one this past summer, but that was only because the hosting organization paid all expenses. I'm going to try for another meeting next spring, but again, that one is offering all expenses paid. And I should point out that it's not just a matter of getting to conferences and staying in hotels, but there's also the incidental expenses that you incur. Even though you may as a graduate student or junior faculty member earn a low wage, you're still expected to "present" as solidly middle to upper-middle class, in terms of dress, places you go to with your colleagues, etc. There's ways around that, but it's something you have to learn as you go, I've found.

  24. Good for you Anon 4:01, it sounds like things are looking up. By surrounding yourself with decent people, like your boss, the right decision will come to you eventually. Aside from this semester, I've spent my entire graduate school career working outside of the academy and really valued being able to interact with people in the "outside world."

    Thomas Benton touched on conferences in his first column (though the focus is on how happy he was the leave graduate-school-land behind). It's one of my favorite pieces of writing by him:

  25. Here's something I don't think anyone has mentioned yet: one way that grad students (at least those in my department) use to defray the cost of conference accommodations is to pile as many human bodies into one hotel room as possible. I snore loudly, so I don't have the roomshare option, but I've heard lots of horror stories. In particular, one nimrod was explaining that s/he was staying in a room with four other people (yes, on the couch, on the floor), two of whom were a couple, at least they were prior to the conference. I guess the woman chose that precise weekend to break up with the man. "Jeez, that must have been uncomfortable--you'd think she could have waited," I naively attempted to commiserate. "No," Nimrod explained, with deadly seriousness, "It HAD to be done. It had to be done then." Ridiculous, narcissistic, sophomoric shenanigans. Conferences serve as just another backdrop for grad students' bad behavior.

    Actually, when I think of that particular nimrod, other conference annoyances come to mind--Nimrod wants to hang out in my room for free, borrow my conference program because /she didn't pay registration and hey! can I have X, Y, Z from your conference grab bag if you're not going to use it? Of course none of this is accompanied by a gracious offer to buy me a cup of coffee or similar, it's just "gimme some of what you have, you bourgeois pig!"

    A different conference, one of my first and before I knew better, Same Nimrod calls me on my hotel phone while I'm trying to nap and cajoles me into going back out to the city (via train), despite the fact that I've only just gotten back. Okay, what the hell, I'm supposed to get to know people from my program, right? Horrible, uncomfortable trip during which Nimrod insists we get off the train at the wrong stop, eats my food at the (inexpensive) restaurant and then complains about the prices (clearly visible on the menu when ordering, math whiz), and then proceeds to tell me how uncomfortable I make her/him feel and how I can change to improve myself.

    I hate you, conferences. And I especially hate you, Nimrod, and all the other Nimrods out there who make academia such a torturous endeavor.

  26. I think part of the reason that we in the humanities tend to read a paper is the importance of rhetoric and nuance of interpretation in what we do. Lacking quantitative data, we need to find the precise words to convince someone to our point of view--hence the prepared "script."

    It may be true that STEM presentations seem more spontaneous, but I've never been moved by the eloquence of the speakers in the same way that I have with exceptional speakers in the humanities.

  27. STEM presentations seem more spontaneous, but trust me, they are heavily rehearsed ahead of time if they are given by graduate students, post-docs, or junior faculty.

    The only truly off-the-cuff STEM presentations that I have seen are by the protected/tenured class of professors. They can get away with a lot more (including data that don't really back up the fairy tale they are telling if they are "senior" enough), but if they wander too far off the reservation, they risk not having their next grant renewed.

    Ultimately, somebody better be able to reproduce the work you present at a conference or you will eventually be found out. The atoms and molecules don't care about how good your fairy tale sounds, they just do what they do.

  28. Not wanting to go into academia because you dislike conferences is like not wanting to get a regular job because you think staff meetings and office memos are bullshit. When people meet, the resulting discussions can be illuminating and helpful, but more often than not, they aren't -- this is true of any job, anywhere. Read a typical discussion forum. People are bad at genuinely collaborating in a group setting, as opposed to selfish posturing or talking past each other.

    The real grievance here -- and a legitimate one, perhaps -- is the cost of most conferences. It's an unexpected drain on the budget of any academic.

  29. "Not wanting to go into academia because you dislike conferences is like not wanting to get a regular job because you think staff meetings and office memos are bullshit."

    Okay, sassy. Nobody here is saying:

    1. Sucky conferences are the singular reason that you shouldn't go to grad school.

    2. That academic conferences suck in some completely unique way or that their sucky-ness definitely trumps the difficulties found in non-academic settings.

    All right?

    For those of you who continue to miss the point of this blog:
    There's a lot of propaganda in the academy. This blog counters that propaganda, providing prospective grad students with some insider perspectives that run counter to the overly idealistic picture painted by people who've drunk the Koolaid. A Reason doesn't have to apply only to the academy in order to be a valid Reason to consider doing something else with your life. The problem with the example you provide is that no one in their right minds would extol the virtues of business meetings, yet profs and others connected to the academy wax poetic about conferences, extolling the virtues of scholarly interchange. Pointing out, to those who may not yet know firsthand, that conferences ain't gonna live up to that rep is worthwhile.

  30. 10:31: There's "propaganda" in any field. Your insurance company isn't making a profit on you. They're helping homes and people get back on their feet! They're like a good neighbor, even!

    I've never heard a prof wax poetic about an academic conference. Usually, they will say that some are productive, and some are not.

  31. Wow, 10:40...what? No one who WORKS FOR the insurance company believes that "propaganda"--their advertising slogans (aka "propaganda") target an audience of prospective customers, not prospective employees. On the other hand, many people find leaving academia particularly challenging and painful because they have internalized the idealistic academic messages about the life of the mind.

    It seems like audience confusion is a pervasive problem that academics, here and elsewhere, really struggle with.

  32. No, leaving academia is challenging and painful because there's no obvious way out. Ever since academics were little, the footpath has been right in front of them -- you get good grades, you pass another exam, you write another paper. Suddenly, they're faced with the uncertainty of the real world. You start off at one job and then what happens? Who knows. You could end up anywhere.

    And getting that first job might as well be climbing Mt. Everest when you have no marketable skills apart from some unquantified research and writing ability.

  33. Perhaps seemingly intelligent people can agree that leaving academia is painful for multiple reasons??

  34. Multiple grad students sharing hotel rooms at conferences! Glad you brought that up, Anon 7:30.

    Those are moments of real humiliation when reality really sets in. When you're lying on a bed that you're sharing with some other guy in a room packed with four people in some far away city--the whole reason for this indignity being the presentation that you're going to give in the morning to ten people who don't care (but you're lying awake nervous about it anyway)--it really hits you that this is not the Upper Middle Class tweed-jacket life that you envisioned.

    Grad school is full of those "What am I doing with my life?" moments.

  35. "Those are moments of real humiliation when reality really sets in. When you're lying on a bed that you're sharing with some other guy in a room packed with four people in some far away city"

    Anon 7:30 here--

    I love that you framed that as "humiliation" and "indignity." I agree. People in my program seem to think it's normal, and anything better is "bourgeois." They will actually tell you this, even as they attempt to mooch off you. The aforementioned Nimrod didn't just want to pop in to my hotel room uninvited--s/he wanted to use it as his/her dayroom throughout the day while I was out and about. Too cheap to pay conference registration, but not too "cheap" to attempt to invade my privacy.

    This isn't conference-related, but another grad student in my program, who'd made it clear s/he didn't even particularly like me, approached me about renting an apartment for commuters--a one bedroom to be shared by 7-10 people with sleeping bags on the floor on an as-needed basis. What the other student was thinking: We'll save money! What I was thinking: Yeah, try and pry the shared rent payments and utility bills out of those skinflints--good luck! And I know enough about those pigs to know who would be cleaning the kitchen and bathroom, providing the toilet paper...My face must have showed the horror I felt, because that was the last I heard of that cockamamie idea.

  36. Doubling and tripling up in the same hotel room is never much fun.

    I've seen this sort of thing happen frequently with graduate students and post-docs in the academic sector, and I've even seen a few state-level government sector individuals have to do this (due to taxpayers reluctance to fund "junkets" to out-of-state conferences).

    If you don't like sharing hotel rooms with colleagues, I suggest the private sector.

    One nice thing about the private sector is that when we decide to do something, we spend the required money to do it right without a lot of fussing around applying for grants and such. This "get-er-done" mentality includes funding for travel to conferences and trade shows.

    When individuals from a private sector company go to an academic conference, it generally isn't to waste time pontificating about some arcane topic at one of the boring symposia; rather, it is to sell a product or service at the tradeshow associated with the academic conference. (Academic STEM conferences almost always have a commercial tradeshow associated with the symposia...this is a way that the conference sponsors can recoup some of the costs of the event...I'm not sure whether humanities conferences have any analogous commercial content.)

    Tradeshow booth personnel need to be well-rested and happy to do their sales job. Thus, they generally get to stay in nice hotels in private rooms with lots of amenities. This lets them arrive "fresh" each morning to conduct another day's worth of business with clients. I can count on one hand the number of times that I've had to double-up with somebody else in a hotel room as a private sector employee.

    My advice: Bail out of academia. Head for the private sector.

  37. Humanities conferences often have academic publishers selling books - I'm guessing that the only equivalent. I'm a junior editor at a big university press and have sold books at conferences. I would recommend selling something other than books if you want a cushy experience. And I would recommend interacting with people other than academics if you want to remain "well-rested and happy."

  38. "Humanities conferences often have academic publishers selling books - I'm guessing that the only equivalent. I'm a junior editor at a big university press and have sold books at conferences. I would recommend selling something other than books if you want a cushy experience. And I would recommend interacting with people other than academics if you want to remain 'well-rested and happy.'"

    Ha! Great post. Just curious--did you have to obtain a PhD to work at an academic press? I love editing, and it's a path I've been considering.

  39. 8:54: no, a lot of people at university presses have BAs or MAs. You sure as hell don't need a PhD. you just need connections to get that first job and subsequently work your way up.

  40. I used to work at a university press, and there were some PhDs there, but they're not hiring, they're laying people off. If you're looking for an industry in crisis, then academic publishing is for you. The presses actually have to sell books, but revised dissertations are not exactly hot items on Kindle these days.

    The big university presses used to have book tables at all the conferences associated with the fields that they publish in, but sales are way down and they can't afford to do that anymore. They sometimes have contracts with companies like Scholar's Choice to display their books alongside books from other academic presses. (The Scholar's Choice employees range from people who would otherwise be attending the conference anyway to retirees looking for something to do with their time.)

    As for editing, it mostly goes to outside freelancers, and it does not pay well.

  41. 10:28: then why do I read such good things about it from websites like the Chronicle? Are they just full of it?

  42. That's a serious recipe for bed bugs...

    "This isn't conference-related, but another grad student in my program, who'd made it clear s/he didn't even particularly like me, approached me about renting an apartment for commuters--a one bedroom to be shared by 7-10 people with sleeping bags on the floor on an as-needed basis."

  43. I'll take bed bugs over grad students any day.

  44. @ STEM Doctor:

    "My advice: Bail out of academia. Head for the private sector."

    Great advice when LinkedIn, Angie's List, Groupon, Zynga, Pandora radio, and facebook all rushing towards IPO reminiscent of the dot-com buddle in the early 2000s.

  45. Anon 10:37, it's entirely possible that the private sector after the "Web 2.0 crash" will be better than present-day academia...

  46. @ Anonymous Coward:

    One thing that a few years of work in the private sector will teach you is the ability to sniff out when your private sector employer is really just a fake company riding on the expanding surface of a bubble. This is a valuable survival skill when working in the private sector because it enables you to head for the exit before the bubble pops.

    The signs of a bubble are pretty obvious to those who have been trained to "think critically" while listening to their humanities professors during their college years.

    You look for the following signs in your company: religious hype coming from the marketing department, product development engineers who are bored out of their brains with nothing new to do, an influx of artificial money in the form of government grants or debt financing, expensive and splashy corporate events intended to keep up appearances, and most of all, no signs of there actually being any customers buying whatever product your organization is selling (i.e., no actual market for your services).

    There, I just listed five early warning signs for you.

    Homework assignment: See how many of those five signs you can apply to analogous parts of the modern academic system.

  47. ^ what kind of work do you want people to do in the private sector?

    Project management, admin bs?

    The problem is all of these grad students in the humanities and social sciences want to be profs... teachers, researchers, etc... doing something "worthwhile".

    once you enter the private sector and encounter these different types of jobs you're taking on a new life and perspective... and a large part of that entails coming to terms with the meaninglessness work.

    and also coming to terms with a larger culture that generally looks down on education anything progressive, etc...

  48. Because project management and admin are the only types of private sector work available.

  49. I'm an attorney who represents plaintiffs in mass torts suits and I feel like my job is worthwhile. Many of the plaintiffs I represent contracted serious diseases that were directly caused by the actions of the corporate defendants, and the plaintiffs deserve to be compensated for the effects of the defendants' actions.

    Many professors *want* to be doing something worthwhile, but the reality, as this blog demonstrates so well, is sadly different. In fact, the worthlessness of much of the work of academia is staggering.

    Becoming an adult involves realizing that work is often just work. When I was a child, I wanted to change the world, too. But you realize that wanting to change the world is rarely possible, and usually not even desirable. "The more things change, the more they stay the same."

  50. At one time or another, probably everyone in any kind of job thinks that some of what s/he is doing is "meaningless work." The longer you spend in academia, the more you realize that a gigantic fraction of what we do - sometimes it feels like everything we do - is meaningless, whether that be research, teaching, committee work, advising or what have you. It's depressing. Whether everybody or anybody in this business "comes to terms" with the meaninglessness is another issue.

  51. My point was that running to the private sector isn't going to do anything. Jobs are scare there too and the nature and goal of work is often different from academia.

  52. This comments thread is hilarious. Every different "reason" seems to attract a new batch of people who seem to think that anybody who goes to grad school knows nothing about the "real world" and thinks the "grass is always greener."

    Awww shucks as a grad student I sure do think the world is full of jobs and none of the complaints I have about work exist outside of grad school! I really hope this fantasy of mine isn't forcibly disabused by the cruel realities of the world! But I bet they won't!

    Give me a break. The things you are saying about lack of jobs, the sometime drudgery of work, the cruelty of reality are not news, even to that strange fool the grad student. So spare me, at least, your wiser than thou platitudes about how tough things are. Tell that to your own kids, and I'll tell that to mine.

    The fact is that academia is like other work, but many of the things you don't like about your job are magnified to an absurd scale. So there's scarcity of jobs and then there's 500 people applying for a 2yr position making $34000. There's drudgery then there's drudgery, there's workplace politics then there's the sometimes absolute insanity of academic departments. Just like there's murder and there's genocide. It's all about scale.

    Just because academics see and talk about how bad academia is, it doesn't follow that we're all childish fools with no understanding of the realities people face outside the academy. Maybe some do think/act this way, but to the rest of us your (I imagine good natured) attempt to disabuse us is insulting and a bit foolish on your part. You might want to do more listening than talking. Maybe then you'll learn something about what academia is like because many of the people in these comments have good things to say and respond to. Respectfully, we've heard your comments many times before (check back through some previous "reasons") and don't need to address them again, every single new thread. You may think you're telling us something new, but you're not. Thanks.

    As a sidenote, it's interesting how many people seem to feel the need to give grad students a "reality check" over the internet. There's a strange fascination with grad school, I think, and for many people it is a fantasy. So they think that the flipside must be true: those in the fantasy must now what's outside of it. The reality is, grad students are not living in fantasy land. When you know the realities of academe, you know it's no fantasy. When you look to the other side, the grass actually is greener because the grass there is mostly dead or dying. So maybe you should conceive of academe not as the fantasy it seems to you, but the nightmare that many know it is (even for those of us who have had a relatively easy time there compared to most). From academia to regular old workplace drudgery looks pretty good to me. It's all about where you're coming from...

  53. JML nails it again.

    Life is difficult. It is just more difficult in academia.

  54. I'm convinced that academic conferences are useless affairs that do nothing more than provide self-validation for people to pursue research that is largely irrelevant.

    Worse, everyone at a conference will feign interest in papers, even really bad ones. The real questions that should be asked are who cares and why?

  55. I like JML and think that most of his/her points are sound. I'm not particularly comfortable with the hyperbole of the genocide comparison, however.

    With regards to 1:44's assertion: "Life is difficult. It is just more difficult in academia."

    I dunno. I'm a deeply disaffected grad student who's worked in several industries, and I'm content to stick with this:

    Academia is bad. Sucky on many levels and in many ways. Here are some of the ways that it is particularly bad (see Reasons 1-100, plus every other postacademic blog out there). Some of these reasons are similar to what folks in other fields experience, others are more unique to the Ivory Tower. In any case academia sucks. A lot.

    I see how hard my partner works and the kinds of shenanigans he endures (and how little he complains). Some things are worse for him; others are worse for me. As a grad student, I don't think I deserve to be shamed, abused, scolded or to be the object of "mansplaining," either online or in "the meat world." On the other hand, if I tried to argue to said partner that I have it worse than him, he'd laugh in my face, and he'd be right to do so.

    I think it's helpful to tease out the ways in which academia is bad. But the constant bickering on this site between those who seem to believe that academia is worse than non-academic jobs, and those who believe that academics are a bunch of whiners and that non-academic jobs are tougher...well, it's unproductive and tiresome.

    To revisit a previous reason by way of example:
    Academia is competitive and there's a lot of rejection. It's worse than many fields in this regard; it's overstepping to assert that it's THE worst of all. For a start, compare the acceptance rates of academic journals* to literary magazines (even the halfway decent ones are WAY under 1% MS accepted, and you may wait a year with no response, or never receive any response at all--visit Duotrope's Digest if you're interested).


    So what? Does that make the fallout from frequent rejection in academia sting any less? No, and academics deserve some measure of compassion for this, as long as they don't ignorantly assert that we're unique in this regard, or have it worse than anyone else.

  56. An old college friend of mine is a professor of mathematics. For a long time, he marveled at my cynicism about academe, but the last time I saw him, he pulled me aside and said, "You know, for the first time, I'm starting to see what you mean."

    Do you know what did it? He was at an international math conference, listening to a paper presented by a professor who made some kind of egregious basic math error in his talk. My friend said that he sat there in disbelief and waited for someone to correct the speaker, but nobody did, and my friend didn't do it either.

    He realized that no one was willing to disrupt the atmosphere of the conference. He didn't know if it was out of politeness, or out of fear, or because no one cared enough to bother to stand up and say something. Whatever the reason, he could not believe that something like this could happen at an event of that caliber. He was just as surprised about his own silence.

  57. Sorry about the genocide analogy, and I certainly didn't mean to imply that grad school is in any way like genocide or that the problems of grad school are even related to something of that scale. It was just the first analogy that popped into my head-yet another lesson to think twice before I go writing off the cuff.

  58. Anon @ 12/16 at 5:52 wrote that those of us in the private sector must come to terms with "meaningless work" and also, more generally, "a larger culture that generally looks down on education anything progressive" (I've done a bit of paraphrasing and quote mining here)

    Since the founding of our nation, we (in the USA) have been taught to put great value in our personal ethic of productive hard work (farming, industry, creativity), and that ultimately (not immediately), we would reap the benefits of this hard work in a directly personal way (and, indirectly, there might also be collective benefits for the nation as a whole). We were never taught that such productive work was meaningless.

    I think the "meaninglessness" creeps into your work when you feel you are "owed something" by society as a result of your intellectual brilliance, proper schooling, etc. You are not owed anything. The reality is that you have to work to eat. Having the proper educational credentials won't save you from that hard fact of life, and you may not always get the kind of work you want.

    The larger culture doesn't look down on education (for heaven's sake, look at how much money we dump into K-12 public education per student). What the larger culture looks down on are people who feel they are owed something. And the way in which the higher education academy conducts itself these days just feeds the meme that folks in the ivory tower believe they are owed something.

    You are in America. You have the right to work. You have the right to eat (after you have worked). You don't have the right to be paid by others to sit at a coffee shop and pontificate all day long unless what you have to say is so absolutely fascinating that people will pay you to do so. Like being an NFL quarterback, only a few will achieve this level. The rest work "meaningless" jobs.

  59. @ Stem Doctor: I agree with your comment in general, but as a veteran prole in the private sector who long ago decided not to join academia, I would make one small correction to your argument.

    Jobs can be meaningless. Work is not. People have forgotten the difference between the two.

    No employer can offer you a meaningful job. It's up to the individual to add meaning to their life, according to their own definition. What an employer can do, what I point out when discussing such things with people we're interviewing, is offer you a job where you can do meaningful work if you choose to show up and do it.

    A career filled with meaningful work can be the foundation of a good life. A life filled with lots of pointless jobs can be one filled with regret.

    Unfortunately, that normally goes over their head. Then the little pluggers ask about how they can get a six figure salary working at an NGO. I wish them well.

  60. So over the weekend I was at a rock club watching these bands play and seeing the whole scene; I thought of this thread… Looking around, I wanted to reach out to the person next to me and say… “This music blows doesn’t it. Its boring… What are we doing here?” but I didn’t. Lol, you have to respect the scene and not throw off its covers. Depending on where you go… lots of music venues are really scenes that celebrate themselves. The audiences are musicians who go to see other musicians… and god forbid anyone say anything critical.

  61. 5:44: the problem with these "scenes," like academia, is that there is no money in them. At least with a scene such as mine (plaintiff's side mass torts litigation), everyone has a vested interest in one thing -- money. There's an objective determinant of success -- making money, and lots of it.

    This all comes back to the problem of perception. Once you take money out of the equation, a lot of objectivity is thrown out the window, and there are massive inefficiencies in how people conduct themselves. Academia seems to suffer, for instance, from an inflation of cheap talk -- any professor can call an undergrad their "brilliant little pet," and endless papers can be "brilliant." But these professors never have to put their money where their mouth is and award a "brilliant" qualifier to, say, only three or four papers.

  62. ^ right, in these broken systems (education, arts, etc...) status seems to take the place of real material gain.

    Which explains how a "sucessful" musician or artist can still be broke and struggling...

  63. "5:44: the problem with these "scenes," like academia, is that there is no money in them. At least with a scene such as mine (plaintiff's side mass torts litigation), everyone has a vested interest in one thing -- money. There's an objective determinant of success -- making money, and lots of it."

    Just because success has been operationalized as "money made" or even "cases won" doesn't mean that your operational definition is valid. In other words, don't over-invest in the "objectivity" of your scene. It's as shaky a foundation for self-esteem as holding on to being called a "prodigy" by some well-meaning, lonely undergraduate professor.

  64. 10:34: that's the entire point. I don't need to base my self-esteem on it because it's all about the money. If I fail at this scene, I still have a decent amount of money and useful legal work experience. If I fail at being a musician or academic, I have nothing but a bunch of wounded pride. And if I succeed, I mostly have that, too.

  65. wow, it sure sounds like legal work is great. boy am i dumb for going to graduate school in the humanities/social sciences. thanks for the schoolin', mister. now it's time to receive my shaming lecture from some STEM grads...
    duh duh duh

  66. 11:54: I'm not saying you're a dumb person. I'm saying you made a dumb decision. I have nothing against humanities/social science grad students -- I think they're some of the smartest and most talented people I've come across. They just chose to invest that talent and intelligence in a place where it often goes sadly unappreciated.

    1. While working for General Electric in the early 1950s,
      chemist Howard Tracy Hall discovered a process for synthesizing diamond. This discovery made billions of dollars for GE, the company that refused him the $1000 funding and access to the company machine shop to develop the press in the first place.

      Hall's reward was a $10 US savings bond.

      Disheartened, Hall left GE but found that the press he had developed was now labeled "classified" by the US government and no longer available for his use. He developed an alternative process which was promptly also labeled "classified." After several months Hall was allowed to use his new press.

      I would have liked to have thought that STEM rewards talent and intelligence. I now firmly believe it does not. Anecdotes like the story of Hall's invention are far too commonplace.

  67. "right, in these broken systems (education, arts, etc...) status seems to take the place of real material gain."

    That's an interesting point, and one that goes a long way to explain the disagreeable personalities in academia. Nobody has a lot of money, so they depend on the weird status markers that apply only in academia for their sense of self-worth. Senior faculty lord it over junior faculty who lord it over TA's.

    Then they all look out at the world, shaking their fists with disapproval, while secretly envying the expensive suits and nice cars that they see out there in the real world.

    The poor adjuncts, meanwhile, wander around with a glassy look in their eyes, wondering what went so horribly wrong...

  68. To Anon @ 4:52 PM:

    That was an excellent comment.

    Bringing the discussion back around to that of "academic conferences", it is clear that these pointless and useless conferences serve as one of the "weird status markers" that you mentioned.

    At conferences...

    1) People get excited about hearing (or being) the plenary speaker.

    2) People get excited about receiving one of the many awards given at such conferences.

    3) And most of all, people get excited about whether or not they got to rub elbows with (or go to lunch or dinner with) some "important" luminary or award winner or other such person from the "in" crowd.

    It is like high school all over again.

    And, with a nod to Anon @ 9:28 AM and 10:36 AM, there clearly isn't any money to be had at these conferences. The fortunate few have their travel expenses covered by a grant or their department, the others scrape together the funds from personal finances and stay in lousy hotels. Nobody actually earns money at these conferences.

    Contrast this with major events like the commercial electronics shows in Vegas or the automobile shows in Detroit or even the tiny little fisherman's boat show at your local venue. At these "real world" events, there is real money is being exchanged because these events are tied to the actual economy. Exhibitors don't come home from these events with any weird status markers. Instead, they go home with a solid sense of whether they were successful (having made a bunch of sales) or a failure (having an unpopular product). This kind of clear economic marker is a nice feature of the private sector.

  69. Outsider here:

    "Nobody has a lot of money"?

    Not so, not so at all. Just take a look at the athletics department salaries and the total comp packages for your high level university administration officials. When you are able to draw breath again, surf over and see what they pay medical, law, and business professors. No, indeed, SOME people in academia have LOTS and LOTS of money.

    1. What is sad is that the people making the real money in academia are not academics themselves, and it ultimately costs the students.

  70. Anonymous at 10:14 (from December 13) --

    From what you've said, it sounds like you could put another 6 to 9 months into this and still not get the degree. That would be a really terrible outcome. Before you commit any more time to the dissertation, it might make sense to sit down with your advisor and figure out exactly what you need to do to get it in shape to be approved. Then you can set up a schedule with deadlines based on that (which may help you get it done on time), or you can drop it now if it turns out that there's more work to do than you thought. If your advisor won't even do this much for you -- help you figure out where the goalposts are and how to reach them -- then that, in and of itself, might be a sign that you're better off stopping now.

    Best of luck with whatever you decide.

  71. "11:54: I'm not saying you're a dumb person. I'm saying you made a dumb decision."

    Do you really think that my (admittedly feeble) attempt at a little broad humor means I lack the analytic finesse to make this distinction? Current grad students who are miserable enough to take time to post on this site instead of, oh...doing anything else with our time don't need a smug outsider to browbeat us about our decision-making. You may have adopted a more moderate tone since your initially incendiary posts (when, for example, I was the bleep invited to suck your bleep), but your message remains the same: You were bright enough to be a grad student like us, but you made a better choice and now you're sitting pretty while we're reaping the rewards of our stupidity. We got the message about 20 posts ago. No need to repackage it repeatedly. Yup. Got it. No really. WE GOT IT.

    I know you like to have the last word, so I'll look forward to ignoring your response.

  72. 8:07: I'm not sitting pretty. I'm just doing okay. And I post here because part of me wonders: could I have done it? I had over a 4.0 and recommendations from a few leading scholars, all of whom were full professors. I also wrote a few papers that faculty suggested I send to conferences, or use in order to apply to graduate school.

    My best paper was on Hegel, narrative theory, and George Eliot. I earned not just an A, but an A+. And yet how many students all over the United States wrote papers that were equally as good? 500? 1,000? The number is probably much, much higher. There's no penalty for giving out many grades that are too inflated. And it doesn't take a genius to write an obscurantist piece that makes some obvious observations with the use of theory.

    So part of me wonders if it was all just b.s.: if I actually was above average at best, and would have ended up at a middling grad student and struggled.

    Most of all, I feel duped. I wonder why the professors did as they did. Why did they call me a genius?!! A prodigy?!! Why?!!! I feel like the once benevolent, noble professors that I admired were nothing more than snake oil salesman and I -- I was a naive kid who couldn't get laid to save his life who had nothing to do on Friday nights but read Chaucer and get wasted.

  73. Listen lawyer guy, we've all been there. My chief recommender was a Harvard PhD. I got straight A+s (course grades, not papers) in my first major and in half the classes in my second major as well (at a top 5 school in my major). So what? Can we finish boasting now? Everyone in grad school is of this caliber--that's the point.

    You have no legitimate grievance with grad school or academia. You (or your parents) paid yer money and took yer chances--got your BA and strokes, then leveraged that experience to move on to bigger and better--a top law school by your own account. You're reasonably bright, but you're no genius or prodigy--we already read your cute paper excerpt in a previous post (no repeats, please). It WAS all just BS, and I think you know that. Professors are lonely losers who will latch onto any UG who can construct a paragraph with less than a dozen typos. It allows them to continue kidding themselves that what they do for a living is worthwhile.

    Why are today's young people so narcissistic? You're not Special Snowflakes, unique in all the world and deserving of lifelong kudos. Get over it and grow up. Or, write academic papers on the side. I notice you haven't bragged about any scholarly publications. Go write and submit some. Either way, no one here wants to hear it any more. I think it's clear that you know that too.

  74. I considered a PhD for a while since I wasn't sure what to do, and websites like this really showed me that it wasn't an option. I'm lucky that I had a few good options and comparing those to a PhD were a no brainer, yet really liked this site and have kept reading.

    Just want to say I feel for you guys, and it really frustrates me that there are some things are government prevents people from doing, especially at young ages (gambling online, drinking, etc) yet you're free to rack up huge amounts of debt at a very young age. It really sucks that so many people did "everything right" according to what they were told they needed to do and they just ended up getting burned. If you rack up $70k in debt in education which turns out to be useless, you're out of luck. Rack up $70k with reckless spending as an irresponsible adult, and you can file bankruptcy. Very frustrating to think about and I'm not even in one of those positions, but unfortunately most people just don't think about things that don't directly impact them so there's no huge outcry about how silly this system is.

    Try to remember that most of you are still relatively lucky compared to most people in the world and keep your spirits up. Good luck to everyone and stay classy.

  75. Staying classy is exactly what perpetuates the system.

    The older I get the more I realize that we're all contradictions.

  76. 5:14: intriguing. Explain.

    Also, I wrote a book in case anyone is interested:

  77. Academia is not a "scene" like a small club in your town/city is. That is ridiculous. Academia is worldwide, and involves the lives of many many people. Everybody goes to college; everybody does not go to the club to see a no-name/half-name band.

    The thing about academia is that the work is worth doing. It's worth it to teach students the things we want to teach them, and it's even worth it to try to hunt down knowledge and ideas wherever you can find them (even down avenues of inquiry that turn into dead ends).

    The problem here is that we have a system that everyone agrees is terrible and even damaging. This system touches a great many people. Yet, no one can do anything about what everyone agrees is seriously flawed.

    And there is money bound up into it. That's why student loan debt now exceeds credit card debt. The problem with academia is not that grad students are the ones getting screwed.

    Grad students are the canaries in the coal mine here. This is one seriously problematic "scene."

  78. Grad students aren’t canaries… grad students are the mentally challenged with blinders on who decided (and / or were privileged enough) to rush into the coal mine looking for a great time.

    Grad students are workers, issues concerning workers have been around forever…

    Musicians are workers too.

  79. 10:00: Academia may not be a scene on the STEM side of things, but it certainly is a scene in English and many other Humanities departments. Judith Butler is a hipster at this point -- she's relevant only to those who make it a goal to read her in order to feel better than other people, and totally irrelevant to the outsider. The same goes for many of the academics that English chooses to celebrate, including, but not limited to, Spivak, Derrida, Foucault, and Gramsci. How different is that list than saying that you're into Band X, Y, Z that no one has ever heard of? "But, no, man. Derrida like totally revolutionized the way we are the subject in the modern world." "But, no, man. You haven't lived until you've listened to Kraftwerk. They like, totally revolutionized electronic music in the 1970s."

  80. Love it, 7:01. But your list of irrelevant theorists is also embraced in the soft social sciences. With the possible exception of Derrida, all of the above Fancypants Numbskulls get lots of play in sociology these days too. It's the worst of both worlds, in my opinion, because not only do we have to grapple with ridiculous theory, but then we have to somehow map it on to real-world phenomenon (in the form of data which we must painstakingly collect). Christ.

  81. My point is that while these departments like English, cell-like and seemingly disinterested in their pursuit of knowledge, are not like the local music scene in your town. That's because the local music scene doesn't have wide-ranging effects. With something like the department of English, probably very very many of the ~40% of Americans who have college degrees past through English on their way to whatever degree they got. And they likely ended up with a lot of loan debt by doing so.

    So the comparison of your $10 to go see a no name band and the money you spent on credit hours for a single English class are not at all comparable. And while English departments do have a "scene," it's a little more serious a situation than you make it out to be comparing it to a local music performance. So all these things that this blog is talking about and more are not just little workplace annoyances or kooky quirky things foolish professors do. They affect the quality of higher education in a major way in the US. I'm not sure how you can see it any different.

    That's how the "scene" of an English department is not like your local music scene. And here's how grad students are canaries in the coal mine: nobody sees this from the inside out, and thinks (is forced to think) about the system as critically as a grad student can. Many people see these academic departments from the outside in, and from that perspective they don't seem all that bad. Spend several years of your life there, and you start to see all these problems and you begin to connect the many dots that amount to something you should take seriously if you're at all concerned about education, and not only humanities education. So when grad students start talking about how seriously screwed up academia is, that's more than just people complaining. You might want to take the situation more seriously and stop diminishing it by comparing it to some nondescript workplace or a silly local music scene. Know somebody in college? Plan on sending kids there one day? Have any student loan debt? I'll bet you do, so when everybody is talking about how broken the system is and grad students/adjuncts (about 3/4 of the teachers who actually teach class in universities in this country...) start bringing up serious issues about labor, quality of education, the skewed priorities of departments and administrators, etc., you might want to listen rather than trying to swipe these things away with a smug laugh at the poor foolish grad students and a flimsy analogy.

    [Also, for all you guys out there who want to talk about Spivak, Derrida, and even Foucault as the demi-gods of the trendy academic scene: you're about 15 years (more really) behind the curve. Now it's all post-human, thing theory, ecocriticism, postcolonial (still going strong!), the politics/poetics of _____, etc. Derrida is no longer the ultra-fashionable theorist that everybody and their mother must know; nobody reads _Of Grammatology_ really anymore. This despite the usefulness of some of Derrida's thinking about the way language works, if you can peer through the jokey Academicese that's way too content with itself for its own good...]

  82. ^No.

    People from the outside know that higher edu is screwed up for the reasons you listed... many people have come in contact with it...

    The problem is that there are few alternatives that don't present more problems. There's no easy solution.

    So everyone keeps doing the same thing. The canary died long ago and everyone knows that.

    Its like capitalism... its not perfect but its the best that we have... so shut up.

  83. "~40% of Americans who have college degrees past through English on their way to whatever degree they got. "

    Precisely the problem. If only undergraduates had "passed" through instead, their literacy wouldn't be a mere artifact of the "past."

  84. I think you're both right! (Are there more than two people in this discussion?) JML, there's no denying that the problems of academia are huge and have major negative consequences on the lives of millions of people (undergrad students, grad students, adjunct profs, alumni, you name it). Things are bad and they're getting worse.

    I like the local band analogy, though, because it captures the silliness and pettiness of so much of what goes on in academia. In keeping with the theme of this thread, is there anything more ridiculous than conferences? Isn't there something intrinsically hilarious about a bunch of stony-faced people listening to someone drone on about "ekphrasitic mimesis" as if it meant something important?

    There are people at those conferences who can't afford to be there, who spent hours writing inconsequential papers when they had piles of tests to grade, and who don't know if they have a job next semester. There are adjuncts there making four-figure wages while their lives are complicated by administrators making six-figure salaries. There are tenured faculty there who left their students to watch movies in class so that they could hob-nob with their old pals at another conference.

    It's all a mess, but you have to let yourself laugh at the stupid parts or you'll go crazy.

  85. 5:03: I am currently staring at a 1995 bottle of Chateau Ferrand Lartigue. It's a very high quality Red Bordeaux wine.

    Last night, I went to an NHL game where I had (two) third row seats. Their face value was $140.

    Did I pay for either of these luxuries? Of course not. My bosses gave me both items as tokens of appreciation for my hard work. We do great work that affects great clients.

    I have never heard, in all my years in academia, of any professor doing that for a student. That shows you just how much they care. Hint: they don't. You are their slave. You are completely fungible to them. And why? Because, simply put, if you quit, it wouldn't affect them. Employees acquire important skills and become essential to the smooth operations of a business. When they quit, the business suffers (sometimes immensely). Grad students and professors just linger on. That's why the system sucks.

    What does it matter to a professor if a first year edits his article?

    Or teaches his class?

    As opposed to a sixth year ABD student?

    It doesn't.

    Starry-eyed leftists have always failed. From academia to the failed states of North Korea and Cuba, there is something inherently oppressive in trying to live up to the expectations of an entire academy, an entire state, an entire populace. The person is never created to serve the state; the state is created to serve the person. But these regimes managed to stay in power, much like academics, by brainwashing their populace into thinking this was the only way to live. They used ideology. Well, guess what? You should be MAD AS @#$@ and ready to march into your adviser's office and say this:


    Say it with me now.


    And then get ready to show the world that you can and will get better.

  86. @5:25

    A job is rare enough nowadays. A job where the boss gives out freebies is rare indeed.

    Good job winning the work lottery.

    Thanks for making the rest of us unemployables feel like waste.

    Brother, can you spare a lump of coal?

    1. Anybody notice how these days many of the chosen elite really excel at putting the "dick" in "Dickensian?" Also I'm amazed how many of them (despite the party rhetoric) are Democrats.

  87. Outsider here:

    There is one thing that has always kept me somewhat in awe of a graduate research degree holders. Graduate students and professors are trained to identify and accept "facts". Understand, please, that the ability to determine and respect a "fact" is rare and becoming rarer in American society. Instead of "facts" we prefer assumptions, (un)reasonable conclusions, prejudices, attitudes, ideology, religious belief, and "common sense". All of these things bespeak intellectual sloth when they don't represent something worse. Sometimes FAR worse.

    I can't think of any human activity of greater importance. I can't imagine that anyone possessed of this training and discipline can't make a successful career in something, whether inside the academy or out.

    1. 'Graduate students and professors are trained to identify and accept "facts" .'

      In my humble opinion, nothing could be further from the truth. Academics are every bit as gullible as anybody else - they may have developed some of the apparatus for sniffing out truths, but more frequently than not they just don't use their critical faculties.

  88. 5:25 is a troll on a website easy to troll. The whole North Korean-Cuban spiel gave away the game, that and his bullshit came out of nowhere. He reminds me of the "world travelling law student", a super-troll over at the anti-law school blog Third Tier Realities who was so dedicated to his BS that he started a counter-site to debunk TTR! Both he and his site are long gone.

  89. Actually, that should be Third Tier Reality; WTLS' site was Third Tier Realities.

  90. I presented at a conference once and my department offered me limited funding, that didn't even cover all of the costs. I ended up staying at a pretty nice hostel in the city. The department thought it was really weird, but I couldn't afford to stay at the conference hotel without paying out of pocket. There weren't many other students from my department going so room-sharing wasn't an option (it was in Canada).

    Now here's the thing - if work wants me to go on a trip, and I have to stay at a freaking hostel, something is dreadfully wrong.

    Contrast that to my Real World Job now - I just got back from a trip to Abu Dhabi where my employer put me up in a really nice hotel (they get good rates, but still). If work wants me to go, they pay for it.

  91. 6:31: exactly. Always pay close attention to how your employer treats you -- it gives you the best insight into how the business is performing, as well as your status in its hierarchy. When your job is giving you gifts, you're good. When they're telling you to stay in hostels because they aren't willing to cover the costs, then it's time to look for something better.

    But what about the "life of the mind"?! Or so some of you ask. I got news for you: it's all ideological b.s. designed to make yourself feel better about your situation. Ever wonder why not-for-profits try to make their employees feel like they're "making a difference"? It's the same sort of b.s.

    1. When you are a grad student, your department isn't your employer, per se, but rather your institution of training. Obviously, grad students aren't going to get the travel funds that faculty members get (in my grad department, a ratio of 3-to-1 in favor of faculty), but complaining about this makes no sense. This isn't the life you choose by going to grad school; you choose the life 10 years from now, so evaluate in light of what that might look like.

  92. Conferences are not pleasant, but no one forces you to attend every session, and if you're selective, a session can be productive. I usually attend one or two sessions where there is a core group of us working on similar problems. For fifteen years now we have been meeting each year, so that we have an ongoing dialogue, and often I will give a paper that is a critical response to one given the previous year. This situation is exceptional, however, and we formed the working groups precisely because we thought we had to do something about the abysmal state of our discipline (cultural history). In general I would have to say that at the present time I can't see how anyone in his or her right mind would get a graduate degree in the humanities.

  93. "In general I would have to say that at the present time I can't see how anyone in his or her right mind would get a graduate degree in the humanities."

    While you're at it, add qualitative social sciences to that list of insanos.

  94. Despite having a PhD and a decent paying non-academic job, my brother makes more as a high school teacher. He also gets summers off.

    1. I guarantee you, if your brother works as a high school teacher, he doesn't get summers off.

  95. Soooo, what do you academics do for fun? You go to a conference with a bunch of others who all study the same field, and you can't enjoy it? At least I would expect that you'd all go out for a cold beverage and debate some current topic in your field. If not, what's the point?

  96. "Soooo, what do you academics do for fun? You go to a conference with a bunch of others who all study the same field, and you can't enjoy it? At least I would expect that you'd all go out for a cold beverage and debate some current topic in your field. If not, what's the point?"

    What's YOUR point? That we're all dummies? Thanks, Troll.

  97. 1:59 PM, the comment to which you're responding was not trolling. It was a totally valid question. Asking what the point of attending a conference is if you're not at least getting some intellectual stimulus out of it (which does seem likelier in a less formal setting, based on many of the earlier comments), hardly implies that you're "all dummies."

  98. C'mon, use your noggin. We go to conferences because we're expected to by our mentors and departments. They don't care that we can't afford it or that it's a waste of time. But believe me, faculty members will be the first to cancel their presentations if their departments don't fund their conference travel. Conferences are just one more site of academic hypocrisy.

    End of story.

  99. I used to go to academic conferences because I was told - by professors - that it was beneficial to an academic career.

    In hindsight, I now realize that conference presentations only really benefit students at the undergraduate level, and only for those who want to build their CV, maybe acquire some public speaking experience. Conference presentations have next to zero benefit for grad students - it's all about publications.

    Faculty, on the other hand, use conferences for self-promotional reasons.

    The best description I ever read of an academic conference:

  100. Thank you for this post. Conferences are dreadful.

  101. I really feel sorry for you, guys. Academic conferences in my field (Organic Chemistry) are very often interesting and stimulating. Granted, not every talk is great but many ARE interesting and educational. One just needs to choose right (easy for those who reads scientific literature).
    I don't know about humanities, but in chemistry conferences one can ask questions and offer your critique after the presentations. It takes guts to do it but, if you can, the conferences are really fun.

  102. I find conferences quite pleasant, actually, and I enjoy going to them. Admittedly, my experience is somewhat different because I am a social scientist and nobody just sits there and reads from a paper at the conference (although some presentations are, of course, better than are others), but there is nothing mandatory about going to every session. My conference experiences have been about being in new places, hanging out with others in my discipline from around the country, networking, some session attendance at which I learn new things or can engage an intriguing topic in real time, and a bit of self-promotion. To a degree, conferences are what you make them to be.

  103. Geez, what do you expect at a conference? To sit around singing kum-by-ya? Figure out who the stars in your field are, and go to their presentations. Meet people. Have drinks with other grad students. I usually have a blast at conferences.

  104. Reading these comments, I feel very sorry for the current fate of graduate students attending conferences. I went to only 3 conferences as a graduate student, and gave a presentation at one, the smallest and most specialized of these. It was rather rare for graduate students to present at conferences back then, and as a result one didn't have to sit through umpteen grad student papers, either (I'm sorry, folks, but most of them are not exactly ground-breaking). I still have fond memories of these conferences. It was exciting to listen to papers presenting new ideas (even when they were just read out), and to talk to people with similar intellectual interests. Writing a doctorate can be very isolating.
    Now I'm a full professor, and go to fewer and fewer conferences myself, because they are crappier and crappier. The quality has declined at the same time that the events themselves have multiplied. And graduate students being forced to waste their time giving half-baked papers when they should be researching and developing their ideas is one of the reasons.

  105. Worked at a conference during the first weeks of my first (and only) semester running the projector. 8 hours of academic one-uppery discussing topics I thought I would find interesting, from some of the best and most well-respected scholars in my field. Only ONE presenter managed to make their presentation mildly entertaining and easy to follow. It was then that I started to see the writing on the wall. In the end I'm glad that my professor asked me to help out. Now I'm out and happy I got out early.

  106. Most academic conferences today are a total waste of time and effort. Many are also far too expensive and way too large to be traditionally effective in terms of actually having your ideas heard, and meeting and conversing with individuals of interest to you.

    Having attended several conferences over the course of the last 15 years, the overall impression I have received is that almost no one cares what you are doing or what your findings are unless they happen to conflict heavily with the status quo or something someone holds as sacrosanct. Then you are likely to be browbeaten into seriously modifying your ideas as you are told how wrong and misguided you probably are.

    Instead of generating controversy, many researchers tend to take the safe route by presenting relatively inoffensive fare as well as material they have been flogging for years (and everyone knows it--BORING!). This tends to be highly disappointing for anyone expecting to be introduced to new and dissenting ideas which tend to be few and far between at these events.

    As suggested by others above, I think the main purpose of conferences today is to provide authors and presenters with yet another publication for their CVs so they can continue to be competitive in the numbers game that is modern academia. All they are really expected to value is that extra entry on their publication list.

    From the standpoint of their use in disseminating information, academic conferences today are highly anachronistic and redundant and could be easily done away with if it were not for the need for people who have bought into this crazy system to knock off yet another quick publication.

    I suppose there is some money to be made for the organizing bodies, some socializing and carousing to be done and some economic spin offs for the hosting community, but these alone hardly constitute acceptable reasons for holding conferences of this nature.

    I have come to the conclusion that most of the apparatus and procedures of modern academia, including conferences, are at best an annoyance, and at worst a complete hindrance to what should be the true goals of
    these pursuits, namely the continued acquisition and greater comprehension of human knowledge.

    Until we stop going through the motions and get rid of our antiquated hierarchical systems of academic indoctrination, don't expect anything to improve.

  107. All of this depresses the shit out of me.

    I'm going to become an independent biographer. Fuck it.

    Thanks for the reality check.


  108. I finally figured out how to do conferences so they don't suck.

    1) Present at it; add it to your CV.

    2) Avoid all other paper sessions except the one you're in. They are ALWAYS boring.

    3) Go only to roundtables, panel discussions, or workshops, preferably with people you already know are good.

    4) Spend at least 40% of your time actually enjoying the city you're in and ditch the conference.

    5) Walk out of a session if it sucks. I sit toward the back and on an aisle so I can do this in between speakers. I will only listen to one boring presentation then I'm out of there.

    I always stay at a non-conference hotel within reasonable public transit range of both the conference and the city's sights.

    1. 4:14, I think you hit the nail on the head. I'm an undergrad, approaching 40, and have already presented at undergrad, grad, and soon to be postgrad conferences ranging from right down the street to the other side of the world. The last one was in Washington D.C. Out of the 100 or so presentations, I listened to 4 not including the panel of four that presented with me. My CV is growing and that has been and continues to be my main focus. Going to places I've never been is a bonus. I get to see things I've never seen before, which is exhilarating. Half of these conferences are fully funded is further incentive to continue. When the funding runs out, and when I have visited all the places I want, I'll likely stop. Until then it can't hurt. Sure, the majority of the conferences are, for the most part, boring. And yes, too many "scholars" read their papers or flip through boring slide shows. So what. I'm not there for them. Call me self-centered, but I'm there to present, which is like falling off a log for me (a minister). And like I said, I'm there for the experience and to travel. After I gain my degrees, I'll have a lot better idea of what areas of the world I would like to further explore for pleasure as opposed to academic CV padding.

  109. After going through and reading almost all of the comments, I can say without a doubt that most of you don't belong in grad school, and I'm glad you want to leave or left. You're not real enough.

    Yeah there are a lot of problems with grad school and academia - hell, I almost lost my life due to nasty interpersonal politics and people wanting my position. But I stuck with it because I believe in the value of my subject and I believe in the value of teaching and reaching those few students who need and are willing to hear what I have to teach. The write lesson to the right person and the right time can change the world in very significant ways.

    I'm a teacher - it's in my blood and essential nature. Academia is a great place to teach. Most of the bad people you talk about in these posts are -not real teachers- who don't -care about their subjects enough to have a right to teach them-. It sounds like you care more about money than anything else. While this is a reasonable focus, don't try to destroy academia just because we're not out for the same thing you are.

    I love conferences. I learn a lot at each conference I attend, small or large. Yes, many of the presentations suck. Yes, if you don't really care about your subject they can be meaningless. But this really says more about you than it does about conferences. If you had a genuine deep interest in sociology, anthropology, history, or whatever subject you would go out of your way to try to attend as many conferences as possible, because there is no place better to be exposed to such a wide range of new ideas and speakers. It's like 3 or 4 days of interesting (and sometimes bad) 20 minute classes on your subject for adults and professionals in the field.

    I become a better public speaker every time I attend a conference because I listen to so many different speakers with so many different styles. Public speaking is the art of leadership and the art of teaching. If you aren't interested in becoming a great public speaker you probably aren't a teacher or even a leader. Again, so why are you in grad school?

    Conferences also provide a sense of family and connection for people who have dedicated their lives to particular subjects. You may not see the relevance but then again are you really dedicated to your subject? No. Come talk to me when you are the real thing, then I might listen.

  110. Ah, the fanatic finally emerges. It's obvious you find this post threatening because your entire identity as a human being is wrapped up in your academic persona. This is a sad phenomenon among grad students, but a common one. If teaching was truly 'in your blood' as you state in such a cliched manner, perhaps you would be open to criticisms and be more willing to improve a system that is, in the end, detrimental to teaching? Others do in fact see the 'relevance' of the entire enterprise. Evidently, they see it better than you do.

  111. In my academic discipline, there is a lot of fighting, grandstanding and backstabbing... also too many papers are ill-prepared and dull. It's a shame, but there is only one sensible solution to this anachronistic tradition. As Anon 4.14 indicates above, the best solution is the 'SISO' method of 'sign in and sod-off', only present your paper first.

  112. If everyone abided by Christy Wampole's Conference Manifesto the world would be a better place:

    The best line: "I will strive to maintain a certain compassion toward my captive audience."

  113. Loserville--CONferences. more of nothing.

  114. Most academic CONferences are a joke. A bunch of young eager beavers clueless trying to impress the bossman/womyn or some other pseudo-luminary. A mini holiday whereby you pop in/pop out, and play pretend. Such is life. The illusion, the delusion, the sham scam of 'work'.

  115. Facts: sharing the a low end hotel room with 2-3 others, traveling to asstown, ass-state, ass-country in the middle of nowhere in some souless convention centre that has not been updated in 30yrs+, listening to redundant, non-provocative, me to, happy talk, neutral BS with clapping, smiling, and nodding. Nothing really interesting or thought provokingly different, lame socially ackward cocktail/cheese on toothpick receptions with losers, geeks, and mentally deranged narcopaths trying to one up each other; ackward luncheons with narcopaths who cannot talk about anything other than work--how americant, staring at their phones every 2minutes, and a goody bag filled with abstracts, proceedings, future sign ups, and propaganda swill.

  116. "networking" LOL. Most conference attendees have no money, or want something for nothing--US way-- it's a brain picking (FREE) fest. Business cards exchanged, emails etc...nothing comes of it except hope, dreams, and delusions. Passive aggressive/polite exchanges worth nothing. Waste of time.

  117. wow--who goes to these things other than clueless grad stupdents, brain washed polly anna poorfessors, and hustlers/opportunists looking to dupe the guillable, uniformed, misinformed? you're paying to give a talk via registration fees, hotel, airfare, transfers, food, etc....who in their right mind would do this? mentally ill guillable folks, or being coerced by the tormentor poorfessor requiring stupdents to warm seats and act like they give a sh-t.

  118. Gave a talk, 7 sheeple in the room (3/7 were presenters yet to go on. One was a young green horn eager beaver gal, all excited, the other, a foreigner who could barely speak English, then a morbidly obese individual who was giving the usual common sense speech--water wet, winter, cold. She is funded of course as whatever is neutral, status quo is held sacred in the failed nation.

  119. I'm ambivalent about academic conferences. I enjoy visiting cities I've never been to before, but the costs, the grandstanding, and the presentations are not worth the hassle. I'm also part of a discipline where 95% of the presenters read from their papers in a monotone voice, as if they've never learned how to give a presentation.

    Also, conference interviews need to die. Due to the adjunctification of academia, job candidates do not have money to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars for a mere interview. There's Skype, Google Hangout, and other video chatting programs - academia needs to utilize those more. The conference in my field is in Montreal this year and I live on the West Coast. It would have cost at least $1,500 for me to go. No thanks.

  120. I have been to quite a few conferences. I found them all depressing, lonely experiences. I only went to them to add a line to my CV, as the article says. Now that I have a proper job, I will never go to a conference again.

  121. We attended a few conferences; however, they were really bad. All that was discussed was the same old stuff, badly aging boomers, and ambitious 30somethings. Regi fees crazy, pricey hotels, airfare with fat folks in seats, pricey cab rides. No thanks.

  122. Another are the phony awards to the same old same old (company man/or yes womyn etc....). They CREATE these BS awards to appear relevant or create lists to create anticpation or sales (just like usa uni "rankings"). The academic scene was a brotherhood of losers.

  123. I went to conferences simply to add a line to my CV. As soon as I no longer needed to do that, I stopped going to conferences. I always found them to be depressing and boring affairs. There are a huge number of academic conferences, all around the world, every year, and they are all depressing and boring affairs. They represent an enormous waste of time and resources. They should be banned.

  124. Before I left academia, I went to many conferences. I never learnt anything useful from any of them, and I am glad I no longer have to go to them. I learn more from the first paragraph of a wikipedia article than I have ever learnt from a conference, and I am sure most other people who have attended academic conferences would find the same thing.

  125. I note that "networking" is not a reason to go to a conference. In fact, there is far too much emphasis on "collaboration" in academia. Science and other knowledge progress when a new very smart person makes a brilliant individual contribution, like Newton or Darwin or Einstein, which happens about once a century. Most people who are "academics" are just making a living from it, rather than doing anything profound or worthwhile. And it's a poor living to make, since it involves temporary job contracts, relocations, and low pay.

  126. Although the lockdowns and other restrictions on people's lives in recent times represent dreadful and pointless tyranny, they have saved people from physically attending equally pointless academic conferences.