academia, Education, higher, ivory tower, job, life, professor, Starting Over, transition, university

Guest Post: Death of a Soul (On Campus)

Dr. Karen Kelsky, my guest author today, not only left after getting tenure, she left after becoming the head of a department. And she’s even willing to admit that there’s some good in academia, but has no tolerance for delusion — which is why I asked her to post here. She’s also started a business, The Professor Is In, to help those wanting to be successful in academia; I’m sure her perspective as a former admin is invaluable. For today’s post, I asked her to talk about why she left (apropos to the theme of the site), and she told me her story. Don’t worry, it has a happy ending!

Portrait of Karen Kelsky
Karen Kelsky, Ph.D.

This past year I left my tenured professor position and administrative role as a Department Head at a Big Ten Research University.  I was making close to six figures and was in my sabbatical year.

Why would I do something like that?  Why would anyone?  I am obviously out of my mind.

A little background:  I got my Bachelor’s in Japanese Literature from the University of Michigan in 1985. I completed a Ph.D. In Cultural Anthropology, specialization in Japan, from the University of Hawai’i in 1996.  I was offered a tenure track position at the University of Oregon that same year, received tenure at the UO, and was recruited to a tenured joint position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2003.  In 2004 I was made Head of one of my departments.  I was Head for the term of 5 years.  In 2010 I took sabbatical.  During that year my family and I accomplished our long-awaited goal of moving back to Oregon.  I submitted my final resignation to the U of I in early 2011.

As a Department Head of a small foreign language and literature department at a major research institution in the Midwest I made, as I said, an excellent salary.  I had graduate students, generous summer research funding, and few obligations beyond the ones for which I was paid:  holding faculty meetings, balancing the department budget, running searches, meeting staffing needs,  handling tenure cases, filing faculty paperwork, and calculating faculty raises, on the occasions there were any.  Don’t get me wrong, this was a great deal of work.  I was busy, stressed, and I worked hard.  But I was not nearly as busy and stressed as I had been as a new assistant professor.  And I had far more to show for it at the end of the day.  I enjoyed administration.

So why would I leave?

This is a hard question to answer in a single blog post, because obviously, my reasons were many, and unique.  But in the end they revolved around two fundamental problems:  1) I needed to remove my children from a bad custody situation; and 2) my soul was dying at the University of Illinois.

These two problems intertwined over time—the difficulties I faced in caring for my children became so all-consuming that they forced a major life decision:   focus all my non-work energies on my children, and give up research, or continue doing research, and put my children’s well being at possible risk.  I made the decision without a second thought, but the outcome of making my children my first priority, while remaining in an administrative position, was an end to my writing and research.  When the time came to address my second problem — my unhappiness at the University of Illinois –  I did not have a publication record that would allow me to move to another faculty position.

And so, my partner and I made a joint decision.  If she found a job back in our beloved Pacific Northwest good enough to support the family, I would leave behind academic work entirely.

This was not a completely wrenching decision for me to make.  I was ready to leave academia.  I had created a jewelry business and was enjoying building that.  And I was desperately unhappy at the University.  I had reached the unfortunate point where just being on the UIUC campus reduced me to tears.

And this brings me to the crux of the issue:  the whole dying soul thing.  Why was my soul dying in Illinois?  Why was I so miserable?   Why was it so bad that I was willing to chuck a highly successful twenty year career to get away?

People instantly assume it is because Illinois is “conservative” or “homophobic.”  It is neither.  It is a blue state.  It is Obama’s state.  It is politically moderate to slightly left of center in much of its northern half.  The college town I lived in was of course an even more liberal-ish sort of place, with more than its share of progressives and the occasional radical.

And as far as homophobia goes—-that was a non-starter.  From the university to our neighborhood to the kids’ teachers to the plumber who came to fix the toilet — people pretty much took us in stride.  Even the court system, when custody was at its most contested, categorically refused to countenance any hint of a homophobia, or to consider us as in any way less than or different from a heterosexual family.  I won custody.  It was heartening.

No, life in Illinois was bad mostly because of the University itself.  It was a dreadful place.

When I was at the University of Oregon, even as a harassed assistant professor, it was kind of  fun.  The students were curious.  My colleagues were funny and irreverent.  The staff was capable and opinionated.   The administrators were down to earth.  Nobody took themselves too seriously.  We weren’t paid for shit.  It was actually humiliating how badly paid we were — from administration on down.  But people had their unassuming little houses and sweet gardens, and spent their weekends rafting or hiking or biking or driving about visiting wineries.  Nearly everyone had a vibrant life outside of work.   Dinner invitations flew back and forth, and when someone was facing a life crisis, people pitched in.  We organized dinner brigades for new parents, helped out with yardwork for ailing friends.  When I had my kids, delicious home-cooked dinners were delivered to our door every night for three weeks.

I assumed that that’s how campuses are.  I thought they were communities.  In fact, being young, and ambitious, I spent much more time focusing on what I didn’t have at the UO — a decent salary, adequate research funding, status.

So, when the offer came from the University of Illinois, I jumped at it.  I was sure I had made the right decision.  Money, status, research funding…all these things beckoned.

And then I found out.  Found out what it’s like to be at a place where most everyone is convinced, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that they are very, very important people.  Where most everyone is convinced, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that they are doing very, very important work.  Where most everyone is convinced, beyond the shadow of a doubt, they are very, very smart.  That they are, indeed, the smartest  boys and girls in the whole world.

I discovered the unbridgeable, heartbreaking chasm between a place where no one takes themselves very seriously, and a place where pretty much everyone takes themselves very (very) seriously.

A few encounters set the tone quickly:  In the first week when I had my music playing as I unpacked boxes in my office, a colleague came by within minutes to say, “please turn that off; it’s very distracting.”   In the first month or so, when one colleague and I drove out into the country for a secretary’s housewarming party, and discovered, awkwardly, that we were the only 2 of the 20 or so faculty members  invited, who actually had bothered to show up.  In the first semester, when, while teaching a seminar in the department seminar room, the Head burst in to berate me in front of the students for not getting his authorization first.  In the first year, when I entertained colleagues at dinner parties only to have them act as if they had never met me when next I saw them.  When, with painful regularity, the averted eyes and contact avoidance in the hallways made me wonder if Asperger’s Syndrome was epidemic on the campus.

Human connection was virtually impossible  Early in my first summer I asked a colleague in English if she’d be free for lunch one day.  “I’m sorry, I’m on a strict writing schedule.  I only have the nanny from 8 to 5 four days a week over the summer, so those days are out.  I could schedule you in one of my off days I suppose.”

Of course at first I assumed these encounters were exceptions, and that soon I would find the fun colleagues, the ones with a sense of humor, the ones willing to take time for a human connection. But as the years passed by, I was forced to admit, there really weren’t any.  At least among the regular humanities and social science faculty members with whom I mostly interacted.  I found a few friends in the professional schools, and heard rumors of dinners and parties among colleagues in the sciences “North of Green.” And I found one good friend who was non-tenure line.  Even the Jews and the queers, far from being the people with the loudest laughs and the raunchiest jokes, were, with but a couple of exceptions, stiff and self-important.   Self-important queers?  I couldn’t even wrap my mind around that one.

The only thing that people “did,” outside of work, was leave town.  Leave town, that is, to work.  I said we invited people for dinner, but really we didn’t often succeed in that, because most invitations were met with, “Sorry, I’m at a conference that weekend.”

In desperation we started attending a church.  It was better.  Mostly because no university people were there.  But of course, that felt odd too.  My family is half-Jewish.  And we were, after all, university “types.”  I like that whole academic schtick, with the sarcasm and the irony and the obscure references.  The people at church were mostly lovely, but it never really stuck.

The few times I met others on campus also sadly trolling for human connection, they were on their way out.  Nobody who cared about community stayed long at the UI, at least that I could see.  I certainly would have exited within a year or two at the most, had I not been tied down by truly inextricable personal circumstances.

As it was, I stayed and kept trying to make it my home, for far, far longer than I expected.   But in the end, I failed.  Ultimately I too gave up and stopped trying, and became exactly like the others—insular and unavailable.

I, who have lived and thrived in countless parts of the globe, could not thrive in East Central Illinois.
Sure the weather sucked.  But truth be told, I didn’t care that much.  Sure it was flat and ugly.  But in reality, I could live with that.

No, it was the people.  The people on campus.  I couldn’t make it at the UI because of the culture of the UI.  It was a culture organized around ego, self-importance, defensiveness, and pretension.  Nobody trusted each other.  There were no alliances.

At Oregon, the battles around the recruitment and representation of Native American students and faculty had been intense. I had been called on the carpet by Native American students in my classes, and had learned, through hard, earnest dialogue, to be a better, more aware, far less race-blind teacher.

At the UI, such dialogue was impossible.  One of my departments fractured the year I arrived when the Latina/o students and faculty finally lost patience with the institutionalized racism and exclusion of the campus.  Supported by the wonderful then-Chancellor Nancy Cantor (who was hounded out shortly after by the Good Ol’ Boys), they spoke out.  But they were not heard.  There was no way to hear them.  There was no trust or good will.  The black students, the Asian students, the white students, the faculty as an appallingly defensive collective — the department splintered into racialized factions, and never recovered, as far as I could see.

Not all faculty members were politically passive during my years there.  Some worked to confront the racist Chief Illiniwek mascot, just as some worked to unionize.  As I said, it is not a conservative place.  No, in the end, it was something worse, for me.  It was a cold place.  It was an empty place.  It was a place where nothing, not any damn thing, was more important than the next publication, the next grant, the next conference.

And I couldn’t do it.  I could not make it work.   Ashamed of myself, lonely beyond belief, alienated in ways I had never imagined possible for someone as energetic and passionate as I am, I stepped away.  Faced with the choice between money and status there, and no money and no status in the place I’d known before and loved, I chose the latter.  And I have not looked back.

I’m not bitter.  I don’t hate academia.  I know what it means to enjoy an academic job, and I hope that a few lucky individuals still have the opportunity to do that.  To that end, I’ve created a business, The Professor Is In, offering my institutional and practical knowledge to graduate students and junior faculty who need it.

For myself, I feel spectacularly lucky to be back in Oregon, raising my kids, building a business, hiking the trails, and working half-time at the University, this time as an advisor in the McNair Scholars program, which prepares exceptional first generation, low income, and underrepresented undergraduate students to apply to and succeed in Ph.D. Programs. I am in the right place.  I made the right choice, and I’m happy.


  • Congratulations on your new position. It probably feels (and actually is) more rewarding than all of those years at UI.

    I know how you feel, and I hope your “new” life brings you great joy. I know how hard it is to create community at a university (when I was doing my PhD, I bonded with the Masters swimmers, literally saved my life).

    Thanks for writing this.

  • I, too, congratulate you. After 18 years, I chose to walk away from tenure, full professorship, the position of department chair, and a 6-figure salary. “Personality” issues were certainly part of the decision, but administrative philosophies and decisions were the final determining factor for me.

    Early retirement was the best decision I could have made. I am now genuinely content and pursuing a new business that is exciting. May you and your family thrive!

  • Thank you, Lee!

    Thank you for reading and kind comment.

    Masters swimmers… that’s funny and touching.

    My new position is incredibly rewarding. One of the surprises is—how great it is to work with some of the best and most motivated undergraduates. When I was a “big shot” I never paid any attention to undergraduates! And that right there surely is an indictment, not just of formerly (I hope) elitist me, but of the system. There was no reward for attending to undergraduate teaching and mentoring.

    I feel another post coming on. Anyway, thanks again.

  • Retired Prof,

    thanks for this comment! Congratulations on your choice. I’d love to hear more about your decision. Email me at if you’re willing to share.

    It seems to me that you and I both had careers that spanned the final disappearance of the scholarly model, and its replacement with the corporate model, in academia. And we both held the administrative positions that required us to see and acknowledge it, rather than do the typical tenure line faculty ‘head in the sand’ thing.

    Knowing what I did about the corporate takeover of the university made it a lot easier to walk away.

    What is saddest to me is that tenured faculty actually do have choice whether to work themselves to death in the new productivity model…. but then choose to do it. I still don’t quite get that.

    Best of luck in your new business.

  • Thank you for your post. I just quit my phd program in Anthropology. For me it was difficult to do anything else besides work in order to succeed in my program and I became extremely lonely and isolated. I found it difficult to relate to people in my university and your stories of eyes averting in the hallway speaks to me. My supervisor refused to answer when I asked ‘How are you?’ on repeated occasions. I spent so much time in front of my computer and when I began having difficulty with my research proposal I experienced the most severe condescension I’ve ever encountered in my life. It became clear to me that my supervisor did not feel I am ‘cut out’ for what he feels is quality research. So I took a leave and am not going back. I only wish I’d left earlier. I missed doing fun things and I missed my family!
    I’m now looking for some type of career in student support. Your position with the McNair foundation sounds really interesting and worthwhile. Congratulations!

  • Thanks, Monique. I wish you the best in your new life.

    Thomas Benton/William Pannapacker, in his columns in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, talks about how the system creates and imposes an overwhelming message of “failure” on anyone who does not finish the Ph.D., get the tenure track job, get tenure…even as the economic conditions for this career trajectory have almost completely disintegrated. The blame is still totally individualized.

    It takes tremendous fortitude and courage to “just say no” and I admire anyone who does it.

    And, I say this even as I am still dedicated to helping anyone who still feels the passion to try it out.

    Good on you.

  • Your post really resonates with me, which is odd because I haven’t attained PhD status yet; I’m finishing the last chapter of my dissertation but don’t have a defense date set yet. (Monique, it was nice to read your response, as well!) I love my research. I wouldn’t have made it this far if I didn’t. I love talking about my research. I will speak at length to anyone who asks about what I do, and I’d like to think I can spin my work into a fun, compelling narrative based on each listener’s background and interests. But the dissertation experience has been one of the loneliest and most isolating times of my life, and this year I finally made the decision to walk away from the TT dream in search of what is (for me) more emotionally fulfilling work. It’s nice, in a strange way, to know that the feelings of isolation, etc. DON’T (likely won’t) get better…

  • I’m a professor at a small state school, with a heavy teaching load. When I tell colleagues in my field where I work, they always offer their condolences. “It’s such a shame…” they often say. What they don’t know is that I’m so very happy. I love it here. I love the community; I love the students. I don’t do as much research as I like (4/4 teaching load), but I am happy with what I produce.

    I was lucky. I found someplace that makes me happy, and even if I don’t have all the trappings of a more “prestigious” job, I do have a life I enjoy living.

    This is something I tell everyone I know who is still in graduate school: you have to live where you work. If someone needs a vibrant night life and public transportation, then perhaps the small rural college isn’t for you. If cities drive you mad, then perhaps you shouldn’t apply to schools in Chicago and NYC. I’ve seen so many grad students leave before finishing the PhD because they hated where they lived, even if they loved the program and were successful. Similarly, I have seen lots of faculty walk away from academia because they hated the location of their first job, even if they loved the school and were successful.

    In short, I wish more people considering a life in academia would consider the real life issues of their choices. Similarly, I wish more advisors would have their students think about how their choices in grad program and/or job will determine the kind of life they will end up leading. Certainly, given the reality of admissions boards and the job market, this makes the outlook even more bleak for aspiring academics. But maybe that fear is a good thing; maybe more people should be afraid to enter into academia.

  • Dear Midwestern Transplant,

    thanks for reading and commenting. I know this is counter to the alt-university (btw I just made up that term—does it make sense?) narrative, but based strictly on my own personal experience, the Ph.D. WRITING process was the apotheosis of loneliness and alienation, and I found that things did improve afterward.

    So, I feel a little bit concerned to see you chuck it all in right when you’re truly at the most horrid stage of the process.

    But, I would also say, our inner voices tell us what is right. Academia tells us never to listen to those inner voices and to constantly squelch them in a frantic rush to “produce.” So, if your inner voice is strong, then your decision is right.

    Stay in touch and let me know what you end up doing.

  • Hear, hear, poor but happy! If I’d had your wisdom I would not have left my first job!

    It was pretty fun making a bunch of money, though, I must say…. I like money. I think people should make what they’re worth.

    And yes, compensation includes the pleasure of the place in which you live. Best of luck.

  • I need to add this addendum to the post:

    I spent a year basically curled up in a metaphorical and actual fetal position on the couch in Oregon. I could not shake the feeling of “failure,” even when the choice to leave had been completely conscious and my own, and based on excellent instincts of self-preservation. The judgment of “failure” on anyone who walks away from academia is so overwhelming that it is nearly impossible to resist.

    My success in fighting it has hinged entirely on recasting my life narrative away from academia being my one true career, to academia being one stage in a highly tumultuous, many-faceted, mobile, and risk-loving life (which I have yet to write about but will very soon!) Once I understood that I was more than my c.v., it all became rather exciting to start looking up to find out what can be next!

    Which freed me to start a business helping anyone who is still jazzed about academia to make their own best choices! Weird, maybe contradictory, but true.

  • Thank you for this great article. I am in the middle of a master’s degree and am trying to decide whether to pursue a PhD. I find it is difficult to get an honest opinion about the realities of the academic life from current faculty. (It’s kind of like asking parents what it’s really like to have kids. No one actually tells you the truth and then you think you’re a huge failure when you have your own.) Why the hell is everyone so damn tight-lipped? Anyways, thank you for pointing out how the lack of daily meaningful human connection could make life feel so horrible. I know that would be something that would make me miserable as well and will definitely be mindful of it if/when I ever finish a PhD and try to look for an academic job.

  • Loved this post. There’s much to comment on here, but what struck me is how different universities (and neighborhoods) have such different vibes, and are “right” for different people for different reasons. Having moved here from a small university town in NJ — where neighbors knew each other rather well and the kids could walk to their schools, the library, the pizza place, the grocery store, the drug store, their piano lessons, and their soccer practices — we’ve been disappointed that our neighborhood here in Eugene is *less* friendly and less of a walk-about neighborhood than the one we left in busy, congested NJ. The University here is more casual (both a benefit and a hindrance, depending on the issue). We managed to move into the “wrong” neighborhood (for us), and have had to search for soul-enriching friends outside of our immediate environs. (Thankfully, we like the kids’ schools, their friends, and our house.) So, I guess I’ve had your experience a bit in reverse (still glad to have moved to OR, however!). But, paradoxically, I REALLY miss NJ and living in a truly small town. I didn’t think, when I chose to move to green “liberal” Oregon that I’d miss bad ol’ NJ, but I do. I miss the diversity in NJ, which is, frankly, really hard to find here in OR. It’s actually been through social media — not the University itself — where I have found people like you who (I think) are “like” me. :) Glad to hear you had the strength to walk away from academia; your soul is far more important than a salary or prestige or the length of a traditional CV.

  • You’re in Eugene???? Good heavens, let’s have coffee!!! What are we waiting for?

    I remarked in a discussion on the TPII FB page today that actually Eugene feels less jolly than it did the first time around. People are more stressed and insular, for sure. Money is even more scarce. I’m struck how many neighborhoods don’t have kids. I myself am dying with the driving, carting my kids to soccer and this and that all over creation. In Illinois nothing was more than 5 minutes away. And, I…miss…that… there, i said it, there is something i miss in illinois.

    So, I hear you. And that diversity thing… UO is NO PANACEA!!!! Even back in the day I knew a number of colleagues at UO who were miserable and needed to leave for their own mental health. It is truly an issue of match, personal values, and sometimes, luck of the draw.

  • Thank you for your post, Dr. Kelsky. I’m a grad student at UI who’s seriously contemplating a different career path. It’s nice to know that I’m not imagining the pretension, defensiveness, and downright aggression that so marks the university culture here.

    Best of luck to you!

  • Wow, Karen, thanks for sharing this. I feel compelled to post because I think your experience illustrates the incredible influence of department culture. I’m leaving the U of I after 9 years, but the only thing that kept me here WAS the people. CU is not a good place for my husband’s (non-academic) career, but we stuck around precisely because I found my department (Communication) and research collaborators (folks in the Family Resilience Center) so supportive, down-to-earth, and non ego-obsessed. For the record, I’m moving back to the University of Michigan, where I was before I came here, and — ahem — let’s just say that ego issues are pretty big there. In contrast, Illinois has felt like an oasis. I’m steeling myself to go back to a culture that’s much more like you described your department at Illinois.

    It’s awful that you had such a climate in your department. I’ve heard about this kind of climate in other units (that shall go unnamed), and seen some truly excellent people leave. I commend you for refusing to be miserable. Have you read The No Asshole Rule? Fun book, with a serious message: talent and decency should not be inversely related. Competitive, self-centered folks do not a happy department make. :-(

  • Kris, You’re right, there ARE good people in the Family Resiliency Center! :-) Actually, it was that part of campus I was thinking of when I wrote the phrase, “found some friends in the professional schools.” I’m not sure if technically that area IS a professional school per se, but it acted like one, in having a major foot in applied research, in contrast to the determinedly ivory tower dwellers in the soc sciences and humanities. I believe this is a major chasm itself—those who are willing to look outside academia at applied topics are generally less pretentious than those who don’t. IMHO.

  • Thank you, thank you for sharing this! Two thoughts.

    1) First, I am struck by a sense of kinship. I think of my time in academia (history) as “dying from the inside out.” I’m also intrigued to hear that you felt a sense of failure despite leaving AFTER tenure. I still struggle with that, almost two years on, b/c I left after some success (some fancy VAPs, postdocs, one TT offer declined) but without ever grasping the brass ring of the TT job. I have no regrets (except that I didn’t leave sooner), but I wonder if it will ever go away entirely.

    And I, too, regard as small epiphany moments the egregious moments of rudeness and self-absorption that epitomized the culture at the various institutions:

    *At a VAP I did at an Ivy, I remember a surprisingly large number of senior faculty responding to my introducing myself with the baffling statement, “We can’t hire you because you’ve taken a one-year post with us.” Trying to unpack that reaction still makes my head hurt. Um, what happened to “Nice to meet you”…?

    *I did a 4-year teaching/research fellowship at an Oxbridge college (though I am an American), where my husband was told, by one of my well-meaning colleagues, that “it would be best if we didn’t see you very much” at lunches and dinners at the college’s “High Table.” [The guy had left his own job to follow me across the Atlantic–there was no way I was going to leave him to heat up a solitary frozen dinner every night. What a suggestion!]

    *Laden with books and passing through the fellows’ parlor (aka faculty lounge–fastest route to the library) I overheard one older gent loudly telling a second (who was kindly holding the door for me) that a Fields Medallist (which he was, the equivalent of Nobel Prize for mathematicians) shouldn’t be holding the door for someone “like her.”

    2) But enough about me. One of the tragedies of academia that continually saddens me is the near-impossibility of moving from an institution or department that is a bad fit. Your story exemplifies that precisely. There are loads of places where you’d make an incredible impact, yet the institution is structured so as to make that nearly impossible. What a waste, not so much for you as for them! Good luck with your new endeavors.

  • As someone who was born and raised in Eugene, I know the desire to get back. I never really desired to return to Eugene because for me the town just represented being unable to find a job, but I do love Oregon and would kill to live in Yachats or Bend.

    Oh, and great post! I appreciate you sharing such wonderful information and reflections. I just left grad school and moved to Colorado from Chicago, so I know the feeling of being back in your element. I hope all goes well!

  • Excellent post. My new chair is very committed to guiding the junior faculty through the landmines of the tenure process. After reading this and reading some of your site, I count myself fortunate (keeping in mind that after years on the search I did achieve the TT job–go me! I’m already fortunate), and it sounds like “Poor but happy” could be sitting in a nearby office. The benefits of the state school where I am is everything is clearly spelled out with respect to milestones and expectations (the politics are a bit of a mystery, but I am a fast learner).

    I can’t stress enough, though, how critical my social support is and how much I want to be living where I live. My new department is full of good, well-humored people, and it’s a friendly school, but I would wither without an off-campus life to keep me grounded.

    A random side thought: When did it happen that it’s expected to have several post-docs and 5 years post-graduate experience to get even a foot in the door? It’s madness. I “took time off” (you can read that as “had a nervous breakdown and fled academia for about a year”) at a time when jobs in my discipline were relatively easy to come by–getting a TT job while ABD was pretty common among my peer group. I estimate it took me close to 8 years doing research, teaching, writing, and post-docs to get back to a place where I was marketable again (note: I have no gaps in my publication record).

  • It’s heartening to see that academics are finding fulfillment outside the traditional (fraying, crumbling?) tenure track. I know I feel more actualized, in control, and productive as a result of challenging myself to think differently about what to do with this PhD.

    I’m an agreeable person, but I do like to do things on my own terms. I gather that’s the case for a lot of us here on WPE. Not questioning academic conveyor belt from grad student to adjunct to visiting professor to tenure track to retirement to . . . is a recipe for disaster, at least for me. I may at some point go that route, but only if doing so will satisfy my own criteria for worthwhile pursuits.

    Friends and relatives outside higher education have a hard time understanding these dynamics and offering support. So a hearty thanks to you both, Amanda and Karen, for the window onto creative intellectual paths.

    Karen, I’m a recent immigrant to the great Pacific Northwest (Portland, specifically), and I can’t imagine a more inspiring and grounding locale. Welcome back!

  • thanks for reading, Jen, and commenting. Your comment resonates with others that have been coming to me through private channels all day today in reaction to the post, leading me to write, at one point, “it’s a cult! it’s a goddamned cult!” Basically, noone will speak these things aloud.

    Academic productivity is a dogma that cannot be questioned.

    I know from personal experience that expressing any such doubts as these publicly, about the academic life, leads to real loss of credibility and status in your colleagues’ eyes. For real, it does! People just won’t publicly admit to the mixed feelings, the sacrifices, the irrationalities, the inhumaneness.

    Sorry, this is becoming a rant.

    Anyway, it really doesn’t always HAVE to be terrible, and if you do a Ph.D. I hope you enjoy it. I wish you every success.

  • Thanks, M. Jordan! I keep finding people here in Eugene who left….only to come back again a decade later. There is something about this place. Anyway, I’m glad you escaped the Midwest too!

  • Caitlin, I congratulate you. You have the best/worst stories of academic self-absorption, self-importance, and` cluelessness I have ever heard. “nice to meet you” ~ “we can’t hire you”?? Admonished for holding the door for you?

    You know, if I’d really tried, I think I probably could have landed a tenured administrative position. I just didn’t try very hard. It became too difficult to imagine a full-time life in any part of academia.

  • One thing I’ll say about both UO and UIUC as public institutions—the tenure expectations were extremely clear and fairly enforced. All of my colleagues at both institutions took the duties of tenure review very seriously and did not sabotage or play politics. I never saw a tenure case go south at either institution. People were told what they needed to produce, and if they produced it, they got tenure. If they didn’t, they didn’t. (There were some cases of denial that were appealed and won, but not in my own departments so I don’t know their details.) In any case, I appreciated that.

    Anyway, good luck and congrats on having tenure to worry about!

  • Jen, I feel like current PhD students are often good people to talk to — I try to dissuade nearly everyone that tells me s/he is thinking about grad school because most of these people don’t actually have a clear picture of what a PhD and life afterwards entails (and what it gets you). If you can get a hold of advanced doctoral students in your field, I highly encourage you to ask them to give you a frank assessment.

  • Congratulations on having the courage to make your move out! My husband and I abandoned tenure in the midwest eleven years ago to live in the Bay Area, and have never once regretted the decision.

    There IS life outside of academia!!!!!

  • Thank you so much for publishing this thoughtful piece, and congratulations on having the courage to assert your humanity and escape! My own story is painful to record, but also involves the inhumanity of Research I institutions: teaching doesn’t matter to them, personal attention to students outside of assigned teaching times matters less, and even if one has a very good publishing record “colleagues” in other departments are happy to eliminate possible competitors rather than respect alternate approaches. Sigh.

  • I think you were extremely fortunate to find the community centered atmosphere in Oregon.

    From my past exposure to academic people, the descriptions of UI sound quite familiar. Self-important, snobs abound. Huge egos, supposedly “open minded, free thinkers”, but they have no tolerance for anyone who would dare to disagree with them.

    Good for you that you got out of that mess. And, I haven’t seen or heard anyone but myself use the phrase “for shit” in years. Well done.

  • Thanks for reading and commenting, Katie. Welcome to Oregon! Portland rocks! I kind of wish I were there.

    It is very hard for families and friends to understand the obscure politics and miniscule yet obscenely magnified stakes of the academic life. That makes it all the more lonely. It wasn’t until I started making and selling jewelry, 20 years after I first walked into a graduate program, that my mother got enthusiastic about how I was spending my time… sigh.

  • LOL, thanks, Brian! Are you from Pittsburgh by any chance? Some of my more obscure language tends to come from there.

    The biggest shock to me was that I went into academia thinking it was about brave people taking intellectual risks, and found out it’s basically about frightened people guarding their tiny fiefs. That was disappointing.

  • Thanks, Karen, for sharing your experiences, and congratulations on making what sounds like right decision for so many reasons.

    For about year now I’ve been flirting with the idea of leaving an academic position at a mid-sized MA-level state school where I have a 3-3, a decent salary, and just attained tenure. for about a year now. The idea about leaving mostly come in a joking way with my spouse, parents, and friends. Of course, that joking is, for me, mostly serious. My wife would be fine with it, she says, though she thinks I’ll miss the intellectual stimulation. My parents scoff at the idea, saying that I’d miss the teaching. Neither of which are true.

    Reasons for leaving are numerous, but the big ones are: the birth of my son, a burgeoning photography career, and a general dislike of doing the work associated with academia: grading, attending meetings, spending hours inside writing and reading academic articles. My partial paternity leave this past semester was like an awakening.

    I’m not sure if I’ll ever do it (I haven’t gotten to the point where I’m in tears yet, though going to campus does fill me with dread—and that’s not because of the hour commute. Ultimately, I feel like there is more to life and creativity than just going through the academic routine. I dunno. Regardless, it’s great reading posts like yours to know that there are people out there who have been able to make that difficult decision and have been happy as a result.

    Wishing you continued success and happiness!

  • Anonymous, this is an intense and important comment and I’d be happy to talk more on email.

    I do not miss research. I do not miss teaching. I do not miss grading. I delight in the advising I do for McNair undergraduate students. But that is not a teaching/ research position. It has been unbelievably easy to leave all that behind.

    I also began to do art, in the form of jewelry making, and it was like an awakening. It was as if I’d been liberated from some kind of mental straight-jacket. I’d always been very crafty, but making jewelry to sell pushed that to a new level of intentionality, and I realized how much it spoke to me, and how starved i’d been in a world where only the left brain has any scope to work.

    But I want to be clear: I managed this move because my partner is now the primary wage-earner in the family! I don’t plan for it to be the case indefinitely, but for now and the foreseeable future, I could not support a family, with benefits, on my income. I am incredibly grateful for this opportunity and know that it is not shared by everyone. And to be sure, when I took the risk and made the move, we weren’t 100% sure we could swing it financially! And it’s still shaky. :-) But if you CAN get into the ballpark economicallhy, and your soul is at stake—do it, brother!

  • I read your posting along with all the comments and it is refreashing to know that I’m not the only one who sees acadamia as a really cold place to work. I left a division 1 research school for a tiny (really tiny) private school and love working with my colleagues, the students, and even the administration because we don’t grant tenure (read “no pressure to publish”) and we focus on student learning. I left my last job in year 5 of my tenure track and I’m guessing some thought it was because I wouldn’t get tenure. I think I could have gotten tenure, but I was tired of the fight and didn’t see the benefit in it anymore. I got into acadamia because I wanted to teach, not sit in a library or in front of a computer screen. Life is too short to spend it looking over your shoulder for the unexpected political blow that will kill your career or to work with people who don’t want to be a part of a community. Good for you and enjoy every moment you spend with your children, they deserve it. Thank you for sharing.

  • Wow Karen! I am so happy you are in a better place now. It is a shame that you couldn’t find at least one person (be it a faculty, staff or student) that you found to be warm, witty, and “down to earth”. I work in a Big Ten University. However, I am not one of the people you describe above. Too bad we never connected.

  • May I just say it is Nancy Cantor who left the UI after a short tenure as Chancellor and not Linda Katehi, who was provost, but now is at UC Davis? I miss Nancy.

  • Transplant–

    thanks! But let me clarify, I DID find a few people, here and there, who were trying to live otherwise and who were making an effort to intervene. It’s just…it could never reach critical mass, to where it felt like a community rather than isolated encounters. I did leave a few friends there, and they know they’re my friends (if you’re reading, you know who you are!), it’s just… the weight of the overarching “culture,” for lack of a better word, was defeating, and they and I ended up…defeated.

  • Thank you for this; I spent five years as a graduate student in Illinois in two different programs, and never felt welcomed or included in either. I did have a vibrant and amazing community of graduate students from multiple programs, and we were a family to each other, but I have never once had a solid positive relationship with a faculty member. I left and have never looked back. Best wishes to you in your next journey.

  • I grew up in Chambana and went to undergrad at U of I, so I don’t speak from a faculty or grad perspective. I’m also aware that my position is muddied insofar as I’m writing about the place that I call home. But in my humble opinion, there IS a community of passionate students there, people who care about connecting with others and thinking about social problems and making one another feel welcome on campus. Moreover–and this is tangential–it’s not “flat and ugly” or with constantly terrible weather; the landscape is simultaneously proud and understated, monotonous but calm and unpretentious. It doesn’t offer a climate for weekend wine-tasting or a coastline to hike, but some of my best childhood memories are of camping at Turkey Run or Starved Rock or any of Illinois’ other beautiful state parks.

    Anyway, I’m now a grad student at a private institution elsewhere in the Midwest, and the self-importance and lack of community there trumps anything I witnessed at U of I. The difference, I think, is in institutional norms. There were definitely some really bogus departmental politics shenanigans that left a sour taste in my mouth at U of I. But where I am now, the lack of community seems to be a matter of institutional culture. At U of I, there were pockets of contention and departmental fights, but I don’t think there was a general attitude and norms that encouraged resentment and isolation.

    I do appreciate your perspective, especially as someone who feels increasingly unsure about whether to stay in academia. It’s invaluable to hear about fulfilling alternative career paths when everyone around you insists that the only worthy life goal is tenure. But I do believe that there are shades of gray here; I find it hard to believe that U of I is, as a whole, an atomistic and cold and crappy place. I think it depends on who you’re working with, and when, and how your department is configured, and whether people let themselves get sucked into factionalizing departmental arguments. The social sciences and academia in general lend themselves to this kind of divisiveness, but as far as I can tell, U of I is not the worst example–nor is it *necessarily* like this. It sounds like you had a really, really unfortunate experience, though.

  • Ex-pat Oregonian here, too, and even so, I think this may be the first time that the phrase “would kill to live in Yachats” has ever appeared in print, anywhere. Nothing against Yachats; I’ve never been there. But now I think maybe I should visit?

  • As someone who just got a PhD from one of your departments and was there when you were coming on board, I am so glad you wrote this piece!

    I could never understand why the U of I atmosphere was as cold and fractured as it appeared to be. I thought it was me–maybe I wasn’t smart enough, or maybe they don’t like single moms. Now I see the problem was deeper. I just started teaching at Eastern Illinois University and was almost in shock at how warm the people are, how they seemed to be friends with one another, how faculty would help secretaries move, and so forth.

    The one thing I would disagree with you about is the way the “race” question was handled in the department. Granted, I was absent while much of it was blowing up, but I possess a knowledge of what the grad students were like before and after. Before, we had a sort of community with happy hours, dinner parties, mutual support. After, we were as fractious and suspicious as the faculty, because the students who tried to raise the issues threw their fellow students under the bus. My closest friend received cruel personal insults and malicious gossip for no rational reason that any of us could see. Worse, the faculty never publicly stood up for her. So I would wish to complicate the notion that students who tried to overcome racism in the department (an important goal) were summarily beat down by the powers that be. The most charitable version of the story I can suggest is that perhaps the poisonous atmosphere colored their actions and intentions.

    That said, I think you hit the nail on the head about the self-importance of so many of the academics on the U of I campus. I remember being astounded by this when I first arrived; did they think they were at Harvard, I wondered? What could justify their hubris and ill tempers? :-) I applaud you for not buying the hype and for putting your life and your family first!

  • Dear Karen, As I read your post so many shared experiences resonated. I am so pleased to hear you are happy and making an important intervention as a McNair mentor. I am doing similar things with undergraduates here in NYC. And now that I am here, I have Reclaimed my soul and I dance. May you dance! With much affection to you and yours, Arlene

  • Thank you for this post! I am starting my PhD program this August, and this is a very timely reminder to not lose perspective. There were several programs I applied to (and was wait-listed/rejected) that were slightly more prestigious and such, but if I would have gotten into those schools, I would have spent all my free time attending symposia or some such. I like hearing lectures and helping to organize departmental activities, but I also want a life outside of it! It came down to 2 schools that I loved, and I think I chose the perfect fit (Florida State). The students are incredibly welcoming, the people I’ve contacted in the town seem friendly, and it seems that there are strong connections between students and faculty and a desire to serve the community. I hope that every department I am a part of will be so wonderful, but you’ve reminded me that following my heart to do what makes me happy is something important to consider as I go through my career.
    Unrelated: your CC license at the bottom of the webpage makes me happy. If only all licensing was so delightful!

  • Thanks, Sarah.

    I’m actually really glad to hear about the graduate student life. From my own students and other students in my depts I heard something quite different, but am sure this is really department-specific and also year- and time-specific.

    But I am really sorry you spent 5 years without a single positive relationship with a faculty member. That’s terrible. I’m so glad you weren’t defeatd by that and moved on. Good luck! I’d love to hear what you end up doing.

  • Angela, thanks so much for this thoughtful comment. Yes. I hear you.

    I tried to express in that part of the essay that it really did “fracture,” ie, along multiple planes at once, and wasn’t just a simple racial binary. The ridiculous racist mascot and the clueless upper admin notwithstanding, what really did me in with that was that there was no way to talk across *any* of the divides—of different ethnicities and races, queer-straight, god I even remember the Jewish card being played… (I actually date my soul dying to that exact moment. lol.)

    No need to rehash old events, tho. What the larger part of this comment stream has shown me is that the UIUC wasn’t worse than a whooole lot of other places.

    It’s really not individualized— and that was important to me to foreground as I wrote this post—it’s systemic. And we need to look at the systems of higher ed and academia to figure out how to make change.

  • One of the strange and interesting features of university life is how well all of these things are kept hidden from most of the mainstream undergraduates.

    You really have to have been a grad student or faculty to know what this is about.

  • That’s a cool story, Jay. What would this all look like if there were no more tenure? Would that make it better, I wonder? The Chronicle of Higher Ed had a story a couple months ago that a majority of college presidents oppose tenure. But I doubt that it’s because they’re eager to support a greater work-life balance among their employees!!

  • I just wanted to chime in that this is the most shockingly accurate portrait of UIUC that I have ever read. I fully agree about the coldness, and hope to work someplace that is NOT like here!

  • Oh, but the students in my department are nice/fun. Still, I can practically watch the souls of the young faculty members draining away.

  • Thank you for your posting. While I had not yet achieved the level of success you had found in academia, I have experienced similar feelings of alienation and isolation on Midwest college campuses, both large and small over the past four years. I had thought my experience was due to my temporary status as a visiting assistant professor. Your post reminds me it may just be the job! This year, I will be taking a non-teaching job in Urbana. I am hopeful the church community will be a source of support and community. I am happy you have found a more fulfilling life in Oregon.

  • Julia, thanks for reading and commenting. now I’m going to do that “professor” thing that drives people crazy. I’m going to tell you, “it’s more complicated than that” (god how I hated that phrase by the time I left).

    I’m speaking now as the professional advisor of The Professor Is In: The “worst” schools for human interaction can be (but are not always) the “best” schools for actual Ph.D. job placement. And the “nicest” schools for human interaction can be (but are not always) the “worst” schools for actual Ph.D. job placement.

    Please refer to my post, The Top 5 Traits of the Worst Advisors. The number one worst advisor on that list was the “nice” advisor. (

    This does not mean your decision was wrong, by any means. There are 100 variables that play into the choice of a graduate program. What it DOES mean is you must go in highly alert and vigilant that the Ph.D.s ahead of you in the program are actually getting intensive job-related training, and are **ACTUALLY GETTING PLACED**. If they’re not, then take steps to protect and train yourself. I am proof that this is possible (albeit in a different job market point in time). Helping others do this is what The Professor Is In is about.

    Good luck!!

  • Well, you know what they say about academics: the competition is so fierce because the stakes are so low :-)

    I knew so many lovely people in grad school, but never for a moment have I regretted bailing on an academic life. It seems to me that, except in a few charmed places, the heart has dropped out of it.

  • I always wonder, Dale—was there heart before and it dropped out? Or was there never heart? And can we get heart back? I just don’t know. I am mostly confused by it all.

  • You are so, so right. I tell all the students I work with, who want to go to graduate school, to closely interview the current students at the programs in which they’re interested before making any kind of commitment.

  • Thanks for your superb post! My heart goes out to you and the many others who have had such horrific experiences. I am a full prof. and dept. chair at a small, private liberal arts college in the midwest and can honestly say that we have a campus culture exactly like the one you described in your Oregon position. Granted, we have some self-absorbed and alienating faculty like all academic institutions, but mainly, we are a tightly knit, supportive community in a small, rural town where we focus on providing our exclusively undergraduate students with the best possible educational experience we can. We bring dinners to colleagues who are ill and to others after their babies are born, hang out with each other, and just generally create a warm and friendly climate.

    I’m really sorry that UI didn’t recognize the gem that they had in you, and glad you were able to put your many obvious talents to use elsewhere. Mazel tov on following your dream!

    One interesting sidenote: Your post helped explain the transformation of a former gradmate of mine once he entered the hallowed halls of UI as an Asst. Prof.!

    Thanks again, and cheers to you!

  • It’s ironic that you’re accusing others of being self important and taking themselves too seriously.

  • Thanks, MidwestProf! I’d love to know where you are! I am so glad to hear that life and soul exist there. Is it simply a case of an inverse relationship between size and heart? Maybe it really is just, any institution with an enrollment over 15,000 is going to be inevitably alienating? It can’t be that simple, can it? A rhetorical question…

  • As this post circulates around Facebook I see many comments echoing and aligning with many in academic environments. Satisfaction in higher education and academic research institutions declines exponentially and many are leaving. Those that remain are mere shells of what they once were as they continue on autopilot mode in the halls of former great and productive centers.

    I will be joining the ex-academian rank by the end of the year after 24 years of research (biology). Until the last seven years, my passion for science and education balanced the relatively low salaries. However, the science community is changing as well as the environment that is supposed to foster it, while research and education take a back seat to profit margins and prestige.

    Now it is my turn to give back to that which needs us most: conserving our natural environment and connecting people with the natural world in which we live.

    Thank you for your post. We are growing in numbers, and strength. Let our voices be heard.

  • I also wanted to add that reading the comments about Eugene, OR, surprises me. Having spent 12 years on the faculty at OSU in Corvallis, and raising my family on a small ranch seven miles away, our campus was analogous to a large family in a small community. After transplanting to Texas in 1999 and experiencing the polar opposite, I am still periodically stung with a sense of ‘homesickness’. My years at OSU and in the Corvallis area remain a personal reference for academic and higher education environments.

  • Hugs to you, Karen. Thank for sharing your story and I’m glad to have stumbled across it. Pretentious bastards, every one. Your beautiful spirit and intelligent mind are missed in IL.

  • I am at the verge of leaving academia. My work discusses the abuses suffered by people enslaved all over the world and when I get a lazy student coming to me to lie about how hard they have worked while I can track in Blackboard that they never logged in,…I am just dejected about this work. The poor stay poor and abused while my dept. makes unreasonable demands (such as teaching several classes above my contract while publishing). Recently I got sick and they were the most unsupportive people I have ever met. They actually said I should have notified them before I got sick that I was going to be sick. ??? I just don’t know how to step out towards something else, but I can’t find meaning in this. There is no room for being socially conscious in the rat race. More and more it seems like a make believe world where a few wield power arbitrarily over newer faculty etc… and students are encouraged to “pass” and claim entitlements, not to think. This makes me so sad I don’t even know how to explain it.

  • Dear Macrobe (love your nom de plume!)–i really like this: “we are growing in numbers, and strength. Let our voices be heard.” I think it’s true! I really do. But do our ravings on the internet really reach the hallowed halls? That I don’t know.

  • Eugene is still totally delightful. I adore it. If you visit The Professor Is In Facebook page (—which I hope you will!!!—you will see a photo album of what I call “The Professor’s Muses”—the deer, raccoons, owls, squirrels and rabbit who inhabit my property, walk by the windows looking in, and make life that much more interesting.

  • I obviously know you….. Email me and tell me who you are!!!! A PhD student on campus told me she’s studying the comments to reveal the dramatis personae!

  • Sofia, Thanks for reading and commenting. I’m really sorry to hear of your struggle. A couple days ago I actually a new page to my The Professor Is In site called “It’s OK to Quit.”

    It came from reading some of the comments here and stories like yours. It’s ok to leave. Amanda is right. there is a whole lot of life outside of academia. And a whole lot of leaving left to do.

    Best of luck.

  • Thank you so much for this passionate, candid account of your experiences! I’m currently doing my PhD at a university said to be one of the best in Britain, and it’s exactly like what you describe: ‘It was a culture organized around ego, self-importance, defensiveness, and pretension. Nobody trusted each other. There were no alliances.’ Additionally, we have misogyny and petty jealousy and a culture for PhD students which rewards only mediocrity. Needless to say, the student community mirrors the dysfunction of the faculty. Can anything be done be done to change this sort of culture? Or is the only solution to, as you did, get out?

  • I was a lecturer at one point and was in the hospital for delivery of my ten week early preemie. The chair of the dept. Was calling me to dictate exams over the phone. I am now a happy, poorly paid adjunct, although i could not afford to live without a spouse!

  • No position, job, career or situation is worth staying in- no matter how much money you are making- if it is killing you, and you have somewhere else to go. It’s the 21st Century, we’re in the Good Ole USA, and we ain’t digging coal in a mine and buying canned food with credit chits at a company store… Escape is possible, if we desire it deeply enough and are willing to take the leap. I’m glad that you have recovered your well being and managed to make your way Home in the process.

  • In terms of just natural beauty, it’s pretty amazing. I also like to kid myself in loving seclusion, but I do enjoy people a little too much so it make take some time.

  • You’re talking about Trinity, aren’t you?

    Never mind…don’t answer that. I have similar stories, and I’m still a PhD student!

    So sorry to hear you didn’t stick with what sounded like a promising career! I do hope you find career fulfillment elsewhere.

  • I plan to spend my summers as field biologist in Oregon beginning next year (winter homebase is in the desert of SW Texas) and hope to include a visit to friends in Eugene sometime.

    Just visited your FB page and your website. Your blog contains fantastic tips and information; I have forwarded a link to several post-docs and colleagues.

  • I doubt internet ravings do reach the sacred halls of academia. However, the scattered correspondence in scientific journals relating disgruntled experiences and calls for re-evaluation of academic systems might. Personal letters to administrators and media could add to the momentum.

  • I agree completely that this petty, vindictive snobbery is counterproductive to real scholarship. It keeps people isolated in their own small niches, and prevents them from free-ranging thought. No wonder people in the “real world” think that academics are a bunch of obnoxious jerks. So many of us are…

  • Sue, I don’t know if we can change it. Actually, I kind of think that the disappearance of tenure will change it to some extent. The passivity and entitlement and lack of accountability will not exist without the protections of tenure. I don’t endorse doing away with tenure, but I think that it is on the horizon, and will not be entirely a bad thing if and when it happens.

  • I think the hard thing about academia is that most of us feel we don’t have anywhere else to go. I really appreciate the blogs like this one that send the message—yes there is life outside academia! Be brave, be bold, make the leap! But it’s hard, when your whole career has been oriented around one definition of success and one definition of failure.

  • But isn’t every career that way? Whatever we choose to do, if we are working for someone else, be it a single proprietor or a faceless bureaucracy, our career path and what passes for success is always dictated by the needs and whims of those in power over us.
    I wonder whether the sad statistics on the longevity of retirees from the workforce isn’t related to having someone else tell us what to do and inform us of success or failure. With no one giving them orders, maybe some people just shut down and die for a lack of constant supervision.
    (Disclaimer- That won’t be me- I’m really looking forward to the day when I don’t have to order people around anymore!)

  • I enjoyed the post, but I wanted to say as a former faculty member at the University of Illinois that I found my department to be warm and a real community. Indeed, I came there in large part because my previous department was a pit of vipers, and the UI Department was better academically, was better run, and was much, much friendlier. I left for a variety of personal and professional reasons, but I still have many friends left in my old department who still seem to acknowledge my existence. However, my department wasn’t in the humanities, so I can’t really speak to the author’s own experience. I’m sorry it didn’t work out for her, but these Big 10 universities are huge places, and each corner has its own culture. Possibly things were even worse in Agriculture, a hundred times better in the Music School, and so on.

    In any case, I just wanted to go on record as saying that the UI is not completely filled with arrogant jerks–there are occasional pockets of supportive and friendly colleagues. It’s too bad that there are any departments or areas that are otherwise.

  • I worked at both Oregon and UIUC and both my departments were quite congenial and social. But I’ve worked other places too, and studied at some large universities. I should write a post on how to find community, as I seem to be some sort of expert at it.

    Rule 1: don’t depend on the department or the university for social life. It may offer it, which is great, but don’t expect it. Many of your colleagues want to get away from work at the end of the day so don’t take it personally if they don’t invite you.
    2: get on a university level committee so you meet people in other departments. It doesn’t have to be a high work committee. You get service points but the real objective is to know people you can ask for information from and perhaps become friends.
    3: take a recreational class off campus or through the extension, art or whatever you like. It’s a social outlet and you may make friends.
    4: check out, and organizations like the Sierra Club that will give you hiking partners. You’ll have things to do and meet people.
    5: consider a small volunteer type job, in an advocacy group or something where like minded people will be.
    6: if you have a religion you like, explore churches and join one.
    7: join a gym.
    8: find where the music is and learn to go out alone for its sake and not to “meet people.”
    9: now that you have a salary, learn the art of the modest weekend away.
    10: take a full 24 hour period off each week to do some of these things.

  • P.S. Down here the social experience described at Illinois would be considered an invention of cold hearted Yankees and there is something to that. I’m in Spanish and Portuguese.

    I liked Oregon but when I left I got good-by cards from people who said things like: “It was so nice to have you here, even though I never really got to know you, because to me and everyone you smiled and waved every time you saw us, even if we weren’t tenured or tenure track.” This said a lot about their experience, obviously.

  • Ah yes, it is me. I’m at the UGL and its good. :) I switch to nights in a couple of weeks. I’m hoping that goes well too.

  • Z, your top ten list of how to make community is great. As a peripatetic individual myself, I know how well those methods work. Oregon, as I said, is no paradise. It just works a lot better for me, and i find that the methods on your list “bear fruit” here in a way they never did in Illinois.

  • Good to know, MGS. It’s critical to read the campus climate correctly. Sometimes, though, you can’t. It looks one way when you visit, and then you discover it’s something else entirely…

  • This was actually very refreshing to read. It made me realize how wonderful my current department is. I’m a graduate student where everyone gets along – faculty come to student events, students attend faculty parties, our faculty has weekend dinner parties and kayaking trips together…and all of them respect my partner and I… thanks for reminding me to appreciate that…

    It sounds like you really did make the best choice for you. This was a great post.. Thanksto both WoPro and Dr. Kelsky :)


  • Nice job! You exactly hit on the problem with Illinois – everyone there thinks they are the most important people in the world.

    I too was at UIUC – I was an assistant professor who lasted a mere three years before it became obviously apparent to me that this place (not just my department, but the whole damn place) was seriously dysfunctional (I am now at another Big Ten U where it is the complete opposite and I got tenure). My department prided itself on the number of people who DIDN’T get tenure. The goal was to scare junior faculty into working non-stop only to be told that they weren’t doing enough. The fact that the department was male-dominated made it even worse. Women were clearly second rate and treated as “daughters” to be talked down to.

    I was at a cocktail party for a departmental function where all the faculty were standing around talking about how late they each stayed up the night before working on that proposal or manuscript. One would mentioned 1:30 am and the next would counter with 2:45 am and the next would say 2 am every day this week. It was like they were comparing the size of – well – you know.

    Incidentally…at that same cocktail party our department head actually told a visitor that the University of Illinois is the “Harvard of the Midwest”.

    Enough said.

    Best of luck to you and thanks for the great post.

  • UIUC cold and unfriendly? Shocking! I got a fabulous education from UIUC, but I was completely miserable for the first two years I was there. Maybe it’s particularly miserable and soul-less in FLB because it’s so ugly and a lot of the offices don’t have windows??

  • Bill, that party story is hilarious and painfully familiar! Thanks for sharing it. I might have to quote that on my blog someday! You’ve obviously BEEN there! Congrats on getting out and getting tenure!

  • I had the most gorgeous office in FLB as Head…. Amazing view of the Quad. Now I’m in an effing basement at the UO! And still wouldn’t trade it for the world!

  • I totaly understand what you mean. At the UofC it isn’t any better. I went to talk to one of my professors once after class and he looked at me like I was about to give him syphillis. What the eff man? I just wanted to talk to him about his lecture. It’s a shame that he is the norm. But I really appreciate those few professors who go beyond and really care about students and collegues alike.

  • Dear Karen

    I spent some years in Urbana getting my PhD. As a grad student, I was lucky to have a gorgeous, fun, community of US and International students. We got together not only for fun, but also for “night writing parties” (i.e lots of coffee and writing, and sharing our work until dawn). So the life as a grad and a faculty member at UIUC is surely quite different.

    But be assured we also felt that “soul-less, cold” side on the part of many of our Professors. We felt they were great researchers, excellent professors, knowledgeable people…but we barely “knew” them as people. I loved and still love my advisor, but we barely met in person for other than talking about the big D. Once, when I was already done with my Dissertation, and I had accepted a position, I was invited to have an informal lunch in a restaurant close to campus, and I said “great, can I bring my [significant other]?”, and found a “we’ll really talk about the Dissertation, so maybe it’s better if it is just you and me” as a response. It shocked me.

    At the beginning we, graduate students, enjoyed attending departmental events. But they often became competitions of knowledge, publications, work schedules…and many graduate students were there merely to try to talk and impress the faculty…”I think I will finish 2 PhDs in 3 years” kind of conversation. Those of us being there for the fun of meeting YOU as a PERSON, were discouraged and stopped attending. So, you should have looked for the “fun” somewhere else outside campus (because we were out there waiting for people like you to leave that room and come join us).

    I am sorry you felt that way. But I am happy to read this experience. Because for many years, many of the souls in my Department started dying more and more each semester…and we thought we were alone.
    Even our Head would not even acknowledge our presence in the hallway (passing by next to me with his/her “head” oh so high, his/her chin raised, his/her eyes focused on the end of the hallway not distracted by the presence of the lowlife grad student (it was not only me, it was a feeling and observation shared by 95% of the grads). Just to tell but one thing…

    I am now a happily tenured professor in an institution far from the Midwest where, since I arrived many years ago, I go grab coffees with my undergraduate students and my graduate students to chat about their lives at the campus coffee shop, where many Faculty members from different departments take students from across departments on field trips just for the fun of it, and students constantly stop by your office to say Hi, share a smile, and Ask you (the professor) how you are doing (because it is obvious in this campus that we care for them).

    Funny thing: we have a heavier teaching load than that at UIUC, and some of us have in our CVs more book and article publications than many of our professors in UIUC.

    I always miss the UIUC QUAD, the beautiful campus, my students there, friends from grad school….but I NEVER miss the atmosphere of threat, competition, discouragement, hostility, the “cold, lonely and distant people”, being looked down on by our Head or other Professors. And (sadly) sometimes by other grad students infected with that disease. And I hear much of the same from many Illini who studied in different Departments.

  • Wow, these are the words of someone who truly knows. I’m glad you got out soul intact! Congratulations! It seemed to me that grad students had about a 50/50 chance of doing that successfully. And your last point about the teaching load:publications ratio? Yes, I know! True, there were some ultra-producers. But there were also a lot of people who didn’t even produce all that much, and still acted like that! It was so odd.

  • Hi Karen,

    I am kind of sleepy right now, but I didnt want to leave this website without expressing some of my thoughts.

    1) I admire your courage in taking such a huge decision: leaving such a prestigious institution and profession after so many years of hard dedication. I am currently looking for a faculty position, and I have never been more confused with what I want in life. I want to teach, i want to be a professor, but I also want to have a life, to spend quality time with friends, family, meeting new people, relaxing, watching TV, etc,… in brief, JUST HAVING A SOMEHOW normal life. I dont want to go to my son’s baseball games and grade papers/exams while he plays or go in vacations and be connected to my email 24/7. I have engraved the image of those professors (mostly assistant) working nonstop… I have the images of myself as a grad student and now as a postdoc working day and night, while many of my professional friends in industry can enjoy their nights and weekends. As I am searching for a job, i feel more and more incline for smaller, less prestigious, and more teaching focus universities. In the end, I got into grad school for the love of teaching and not for the love of writing proposals and papers that some competitive “colleagues” will eventually find not good enough.

    2) I completed my PhD in Electrical and Comp. engineering (ECE) at UIUC less than a year ago, so I am very familiar with the place and its culture, and I must said that it varies among departments. The electrical and computer eng. graduate programs are Top 5 (the undergraduate top 3) in the nation, which means that the expectations on students and faculty run high. However, it is a HUGE department, and I must admit that I barely felt the competitive side. My experience was a pleasant one. Among so many students, you pass unknown to most of your own colleagues and the people at my group were very into their own stuff. I am very independent in my work and the last I want is someone from outside trying to obtain information he/she doesnt need about my academic and research-related stuff. I also had friends in civil engineering (top 1 or 2, depending on the year) and in mech. engineering and most of them can testify a similar experience. However, my friends in the material science as well as in chemical engineering, two very small departments, have very different stories. Stories that sometimes include sabotages. So, i guess it depends on the department and doesnt hold for the entire university.

    3) Pardon me for what I am going to say, but I have the feeling that you were looking for “friends” in the wrong place. My so called friends (with one or two exceptions) were all students from other departments. Most of them in engineering, but one or two from my own program. They were people that I could relate to, but we didnt have to compete or have jealousy issues. It had its drawbacks, they couldnt help me with homeworks, research, or exams. I didnt inherited old homeworks and booklets of old exams. But at least, I could have a life (occasionally) outside of school. Now, in the new institution I am, I havent try to make “friends” within the department. I prefer to keep my personal life private within the school and my work. I do have very nice and friendly relationships with almost everybody I work with (we sometimes go for lunch), but when I want to go for drinks or dinner, I called friends that are in no way related to the university. So, far it has kept me sane.

    4) It is definetly really really really sad how being succesful has become synonymous of having a large number of publications. I must admit, I have been drawn into it. But I guess I need to keep playing such a game and adhere to such metrics if I want to obtain a faculty position.

    I wish all the best, and I am pretty sure you have found happiness and meaning in what you are doing now. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  • Karen, Thanks for sharing your story. I come from a background of undergrad work at PSU (Another very chilly campus)and more than a decade living in the Portland area. Got married to a girl from Colby College and ended up as the husband of a cultural anthro grad student at UIUC. We found most of the campus community to be as cold as you have described. We suspected that you would not last due to your previous life in Oregon. We did have a great group of grad student and faculty friends, and some friends from the local community who were wonderful people. Fortunately, our years at UIUC were punctuated by long breaks involving research in Japan and a few other locales (including Western Oregon). Generally, we did not find the UIUC community to be a vibrant and nurturing community, and we didn’t want to bring our children up there, so we headed out of town as soon as my wife could secure a reasonable academic position. Now, some years later, we’ve found a home in the Pittsburgh area and while not as much fun as most west coast locations, it’s light years ahead of the other places we’ve tried to settle. The UIUC community isn’t the only disappointing game in town, but it sure is at least near the top of the list in our book. It’s good to hear that you have moved on to a place where you’re appreciated. Having a brain that thinks in anthropological concepts helps, but…I would like to try another one of those Green Phosphate drinks from the Courier Cafe.

  • Karen,
    This is an amazing and inspiring post! It illuminates so much about a difficult relationship I have with a faculty member at UIUC, and it also reminds me to have hope about landing somewhere that is much warmer in terms of institutional and intellectual climate. That is, just as I’m losing my will to continue in the pretentious, self-important, downright anti-social world of Academia, I realize, after reading your post, that it’s not like this…there are some good places. It reaffirms my top priority while on the job market: Finding a place to land where I LIKE my colleagues. Collegiality is fundamental to a rich teaching and research life, in my opinion. Thanks for writing! I think your mentoring work is amazing and I continue to learn from you.

  • One of the weirdest things about UIUC, and something I still think about a lot, is its “two societies” model. North of Green and South of Green were different universes. For those not familiar, that means the sciences (including Engineering) and the social sciences/humanities, which were housed in different parts of campus more or less separated by Green Street. Prior to going to UIUC, I honestly believed that humanists were the people on campuses with the intellectually vibrant lives and the curiosity and the fun and edgy social lives. Wow, was I schooled! The sciences and the professional schools and the massive Engineering universe were, as I came to understand it over time, really pretty happy places full of people mostly enjoying their lives and believing passionately in their work, and building communities around it. The humanists, by contrast??? Good God! What a collection of sour, bitter, insecure, anxious and defensive over-compensators! Gheesh. It made me look very, very seriously at what the humanities mean in the current moment, and how they operate. Because they have devolved so thoroughly into “critique” (which incidentally is something I used to champion), they seem to shape their practitioners into people who can do nothing else. It is a negative, not a positive, ethos. Granted, I resist the urge to generalize from UIUC humanists to the world at large. But, it gives pause. It really gives pause.

  • Yay Pittsburgh! That’s where I’m from of course, and THAT didn’t help. Pittsburgh is all about the “nebby” as I’m sure you know. it’s warm, and in your face, and down to earth, and totally unpretentious and intensely neighborly. (Granted, I was never in the academic world there, so there might be a town-gown thing). Anyway, you can have a really good life in Pittsburgh (well—it helps if you’re white, and stay out of the cops’ way…).

  • Thank you so much Karen. I saved enough money to carry me until I find my way I turned in my resignation. This work was killing my passion for making things better. Thank you so much for your kind and supportive words and the link.

  • Karen,
    Your post made me wonder how many unhappy residents of C-U could be happier if they knew how to get connected. Our years there must’ve overlapped but we never met. I spent 5 years in a humanities grad program at UIUC and was disappointed by the same things that you also found to be terrible. In my department, I had to justify it if people found out I’d spent an evening or a weekend not working, and was made to feel guilty, like a slacker, like I was somehow cheating and not intellectual enough. My interest in things outside my area of study surprised people all the time. The pressure-cooker atmosphere and the competition made me depressed; I was filled with self-doubt despite receiving excellent feedback and fellowships. When I reached ABD status in summer 2008 and fled, I came up with the phrase “fetishization of stress” to describe what it was I hated so much. I’m now working on the dissertation from far away, and after taking some time off.
    Some of the self-generated stress at UIUC came from a desire to compensate. People always talk about UIUC being “geographically challenged”, to put it nicely; research success and admiration can make one feel better about living in a place that loved ones have to be cajoled into visiting. Some of my profs worked like mad to get tenure and get out; others didn’t try to make any other kind of local life for themselves. People came up with individual ways of dealing with living in a place whose geography and accent they hated, rather than teaming up.
    Two things saved my sanity during those years. One was a friend who helped me get connected to a social scene dominated by internationals, who generally had a better work-life balance than the North Americans I knew. The other was that I knew enough engineers to get a lot of laughs – the North of Green, South of Green divide that a few people have mentioned in the comments here. Finding a connection to the engineers was lucky, and happened through my church congregration.
    Like many people you knew, I also left town for as much of the summer as I could. I thus deprived myself of a more self-determined life there, which was possible outside the semester and which I now regret.
    Good luck!

  • I really appreciate what you’ve had to say here – thank you! I just want to ask that you reconsider the Asperger’s comment – it’s really not appropriate.

  • I did a minor in EALC at UIUC and I really have no idea what you are talking about. I found my professors at UIUC esp in the humanities to be warm, kind, and friendly. Perhaps they just didnt like you?

  • I liked UIUC as faculty but it wasn’t my first job, I had worked at places that were outright hostile, not just big, I am comfortable in big impersonal cities, so I’m OK with big campuses too, and my department was friendly at least by my standards. I loved it just because it was neutral and non abusive, unlike other places I’d worked; when I got home after the UIUC gig people remarked on my glow and non-beleaguered air.

    However, I am now reviewing applications for a national fellowship and I am shocked at the evident lack of guidance the UIUC and UIC students have from faculty. The applications from these two places are really poorly done compared to everywhere else including nameless schools, and they do have to go through a faculty advisor on their home campus before going to Washington. It is really giving me pause about the University of Illinois as an institution.

    I hope this isn’t indiscretion or slander — I hope the batch of applications I have isn’t representative of a larger reality — but it really does seem that these students haven’t gotten their tuition’s worth in advice. It’s as though they ought to have hired outside consultants to help them write these grant proposals, when all other students, from all other institutions, have evidently had advice from faculty.

  • @Karen – very interesting about humanities; it may be that this is what I don’t like about being faculty generally, at least not in US.

    @Wouldbe – fetishization of stress is a good term. Geographically challenged, I never considered UIUC to be that because it has Chicago just 2 hours away by train, and because those are old towns with institutions like the Urbana Free Library. But I agree that living places where you’re not happy really is an impediment. I appreciate where I live but it isn’t enough me for me to be able to just settle in and work. I think one of the pieces of academic advice we get, that if we are serious we will not care where we are, is really destructive.

  • I think it will get worse. There are huge amounts of non tenure track people where I am and this means there is a lot more politics — because criteria for rehire off the tenure track are so much more political.

  • I guess a lot of people feel they don’t have anywhere else to go — this is something I’ve only recently come to understand.

    My complaint is, academics feel you’ve betrayed them if you think you have somewhere else to go, so it’s dangerous to feel you have anywhere else to go or let on that you even think of it.

    I have a friends on the market – the academic market – who is terrified about campus visits since sooner or later his colleagues will find out he has the possibility of leaving, and will be mortally offended and take revenge.

  • Dear Karen — I am presently a faculty member at UIUC and feel compelled to respond to some of your points about my (and your former) institution. (I arrived here via the Chronicle where you were recently quoted concerning
    academics on welfare.)

    A brief few words of background about myself: I work on “your” side of Green, but have never met you. You mention that you were “one generation” away from steelworkers. I don’t know what that means exactly, but I was the child of blue collar, college uneducated immigrants (read: not a trace of white). I hate bullshit like you. I have two kids.

    I agree with many of your claims about UIUC, but not your conclusions! First, yes, professors are busy — working, raising kids, teaching, going to conferences, etc etc? So what? I don’t see how that makes people here believe they are *so* special. Indeed, the academic totem pole (not to mention comparative salary) already makes it clear where one is on the external prestige ladder. I for one work in the way you criticize because I like my research and job and want to progress my field and represent the common community of striving at UIUC.

    If I heard you playing music loudly in the department, I’d be pissed too. The department isn’t a dance club. In fact, at another big 10 school, I was confronted when speaking to an academic visitor “too loudly”. (I don’t condone the latter.)

    If you really hated bullshit, you would have never attended church as a fully grown and educated adult.

    From your own remarks, UIUC treated you well from what I can see. They made you department head after all! This usually comes with a good salary bump. From your CV, it seems that you were not promoted to full professor. You don’t mention this point in your synopsis either here or on your own website. Did this contribute to your anger towards the school? (It would for me.) Was it that people who seemed to have no time to hang out were being promoted to full?

    Summarizing, having worked at a bunch of institutions (both in the midwest and on the coast) I think of UIUC as a place where what you see is what you get. People come here to work hard, not to dick around.

  • You left pretty much when I got to UIUC and yes we know each other, but yes department life is stilted here. And that’s good. I don’t want my senior colleagues as my friends. They’re neurotic and way too conservative. I like that I see them only occasionally. I am too busy with my writing, my thinking, and my family to deal with them. I have been at other places on postdocs and UIUC is friendlier than they were. We know it is vulgarly racist, and the power brokers are incestuous and conservative, despite their claims to the contrary, but this I don’t has to with the department. It is the disciplines and perhaps others as well. As anthropologists we know larger structures inflect know production—don’t we?

  • Seems to me that what you’ve done in this post is to (1) validate her claims about the typical faculty member at UIUC and (2) attempt to explain why they are true. Unfortunately, explanation doesn’t equal excuse, and in your post you come across as a rather obnoxious very defensive jerk who I wouldn’t care for working with either. Perhaps next you’d like to tell us all how late you were up last night working on your next irrelevant project?

  • I used to teach at UIUC and the last thing I wanted to do in my free time is to hang out with my dept. chair. Why? I saw my colleagues everyday at work, at faculty meetings and at campus talks. I would run into colleagues at the grocery store, the farmer’s market, at the movies. Some of us need “private time.” The pressure to socialize and fit in was too much. Now I teach where there are no expectations to ‘hang out.’ I don’t have to hear about the messy divorce, the ugly custody battle, the affair with the grad student etc . . .

    Yeah, maybe I told a few people I was busy because after a long week of teaching, I just wanted to chill out at home.

  • At heart, that was why I left the University of Sydney from a senior lecturer position and Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies. I took a 50% cut in pay and am back where I started – teaching EAL in Grade 4. Every day for me is now authentic.

  • Thanks so much for sharing your experience, it was good to read what I’ve been unable to fully articulate. I relate to this completely but I’m not an academic and I’m not currently working at a university either. I work at a prestigious publicly funded media organisation and the people are exactly as you describe! Thought you might be interested to know that this culture is not exclusive to the Academy. The people around me are self-styled intellectuals obsessed with awards, conferences, and take themselves far too seriously. There’s little warmth here, and they see the younger generation with new ideas as a threat. I’ve been here for a bit over a year and find the arrogance pretty suffocating. I’ve always wanted to work here and I’m glad that I got here – just so I can see that I’d be more than happy to walk away from the prestige and find a more humble and warm work environment instead.

  • This is totally hilarious. Aggressively unpleasant person defends institution that encourages aggressive unpleasantness. Full marks!

  • I am with you KK. However, UIUC was EXCEEDINGLY homophobic if you were vulnerable, as I was. I was there as a Ph.D. student in the early ’90s. If you were there, you may remember that horrid rag funded by D’Nesh D’Souza, the Orange and Blue? Well, I was teaching Rhetoric, discovering queer theory and doing well–I had given several conference papers and had one published before my M.A. Then, someone got a hold of my syllabus (with Malcolm X and Adrienne Rich assigned, among many other of the Rhetoric textbook, Rereading America), and the O&B reprinted it and publicly outed and attacked me, calling for me to be removed from the classroom. So, no, maybe if you look “normal” for the midwest you may not experience homophobia, but if you look queer, as I did, you are a moving target (even in the courts there, as I experienced first hand). I took a terminal MA and drove to San Fran where I hid for six years, after recovering from the article and the anonymous hate mail and rape threats that followed (well, I am not sure if this is a threat so much, but I will always have the quote burned into my memory for life: “If all women were as fat as you, men would stop raping.” Sorry I can’t replicate his violent drawing of me here).

    So please, be clear, you had some level of protection as faculty, etc, that others did not. I lost six years of my academic career that I am struggling to catch up with; I went back to grad school, completed my PhD on the East Coast only to land a m-fing job on the midwest! The midwest is utterly soul-crushing in its ubiquitous neoliberal norms of “tolerance” and utter sameness. Radicals, of any stripe, alterity, difference are not tolerated, conveyed in very consistent passive-aggressive codes. So, to Andrew, UIUC does not treat its grad students well (still teaching 2/2 are they? –I only had 1/1 at my next institution–also a state-funded R1 by the way, though higher ranked), does not treat non-breeder Jewish atheists well, queer activists who dare to wear “Silence = Death” t-shirts at the height of the AIDS crisis well, political activists or just women well (again, RAPE threats, and can we talk about the BS “please pick up your rape whistle” letters sent ONLY TO WOMEN students, who, in said letter, are told their education comes first, their physical health, second? I am not making this up. (I can only hope they don’t send those letters anymore).

    So, Andrew, I worked very hard at UIUC, teaching 2/2 and taking full course load (with a nearly perfect GPA), and my physical safety was threatened. My dept really never spoke to me about it, but they felt free to gossip. I was told by a visiting prof and very dear friend to leave bc the gossip was so awful about me–circulated by tenured radicals who knew nothing about me and didn’t care to ask. And, the very fact that you never mention the quality of life of the grad students, something KK is actually dedicated to, shows me not much has changed.

  • You seem to be relating experiences as a graduate student, who would generally be seem as “harmless”. A few years after I got my PhD, I ended up at the same university, but as faculty. I was astonished by the view and conditions on the other side.

  • Karen–we must have crossed path. I worked as assistant professor in the same building as you for 5 years from 2007 (you can track me down from my email address :-)). What you are saying is so, so, so true. In that building, I felt pretty much alone. Sadly, I didn’t know who I could trust and who I should not trust, and those I did trust ended up one way or another making me wish I hadn’t. I ended up being able to find a sense of community, but that was in another department and building altogether. I left U of I last summer for another assistant professor job that is a much better fit for me, also in an R1 institution. This was the best thing that I could have done. I left because this new department was a better fit, but within only a few weeks I realized that there was also a strong sense of community in this new department, something that was clearly lacking in FLB.

    Students shouldn’t get discouraged from a career in academia because of your post. Too many of them (in the above comments) seem to take this as evidence that all R1 institutions are like this, which is not true at all. I am now in another Midwestern institution where I am so much happier. We do not have quite as much funding as U of I does, but our working environment is so much more pleasant and supportive. My tenure clock got delayed a bit because of this move, but it was completely worth it.

  • Karen-you are God sent. I am currently finishing my last leg in a postdoc and am applying for academic positions. I am at the point where i do feel drained, from even the graduate school process, and trying to figure out if i want to go to a research based university, or just a liberal arts college…or honestly changing career paths…I’m leaning towards the latter, and a little of the liberal arts experience.
    What you have mentioned about the sense of community, or lack there of, is so true…as professors/educators in the research atmosphere in these departments are all about grants, funding, publication…money, money, and more money. they don’t seem to believe that there are other aspects of life to consider, like having a balanced life…hell, a loove life for that matter..
    But as you pointed out and others, you have to find the best fit for you. And not all academic institutions are like that (though most are in my opinion), you will need to find your niche, and be happy. In our society, especially with academia, it’s put forward as having money, prestige, and residing at a R1 instution means your life is better than the next person, and you are happy…this i know is farthest from the truth, as misery and unhappiness drives a porsche too…and if they are so happy, they need to smile and fix that frown…

  • My soul died a little at UC Berkeley. Same thing – everyone thought they were so very very important, and no compassion or thought of the student. I am a teaching school now, and I love it. So much happier. Glad things turned out for you. I question whether higher educaiton would be better if we just separated the research schools and let them research and let other schools actually teach. Students no longer get the education they deserve at most research ones, which live on the legacy of their names and grants.

  • I only just came upon this post, send around by disgruntled McGill faculty. I have taught in the US, UK, and Canada and academic jobs are going downhill everywhere as far as I can tell. The only issue I have with this account is that it doesn’t put enough stress on the SYSTEM. The problem is not selfish or egotistical individuals. The problem is that universities have become so corporatized and bureaucratized that most academics are under enormous stress (it’s the same at McGill; it was even worse at University of Manchester). In order to protect our sanity we withdraw into what may seem like egotism or lack of collegiality. I experience the same disappointment at the lack of sharing work and ideas. However, I see my colleagues not as being egotistical but as desperately trying to maintain a sense of integrity in relation to a crushingly stressful system that continually ranks and tests us, continually makes demands, and rarely provides a supportive or nurturing environment. In the corporate mindset that is now the university, it is up to faculty to make everything work for administrators. The students are treated even worse.
    The SYSTEM needs to change. People can be more friendly and collegial without the hostility of such an environment.

  • I am an older PhD student who has entered this as a second career. Relocation will be a hard decision for my partner and I, so I wondered what signs of community friendly faculty to look for during a job search.
    We are queer, so we are limiting my job search to states with more friendly policies. Fortunately, there does not seem to be a problem finding a job in my area of study. If the University where I end up does not have a great community, we hope that we would be able to connect with the queer community in the area since there is typically a queer community in the greater university areas.
    In addition, I am the first person in my family to go to college at all, let alone get a PhD. I have been very fortunate. There are a lot of extremely intelligent, yet less educated people out there in the non-academic world. I often get annoyed with academic elitism, despite my experience that most of the faculty here are quite down to earth even though many of them are internationally known and the program is consistently ranked as first or second in the nation. So I can imagine that I would get extremely annoyed with egomaniacs at a place less prestigious.
    Are there signs to look for regarding the academic culture in the initial job search? If you look back on the choice you made, were there indications that you ignored when you changed positions?

  • Monique, your post gave me a major flashback, as I also left my PhD program almost a year ago. Thank you for sharing your experience. I (as an immigrant student), too, totally became lonely and isolated in the program. And Karen’s astute description of the “culture organized around ego, self-importance, defensiveness, and pretension” struck quite a chord with me. The sense of self-importance in particular, I think, is so contagious that it is perpetual not only among the faculty but also among the students. The heavy air of who’s worth getting the anthropology professors’ attention and who deserves the anthropology degree turned the students into competitive monsters. When that air with the dust of subtle ethnocentrism/racism started suffocating me, I took a leave of absence. I eventually decided to stay away from the burning airplane for good, even though I felt compelled to go back because I had spent so much time, money, and energy to get on the plane. The injury from staying on the plane too long isn’t easy to heal, but I’m slowly shaking off the fear and loneliness, and finding myself creative and motivated. I’m learning that I actually do get along with people – something I forgot about myself! I hope many people will tune in your website, Karen, and there will be more professors like you. And I wish nobody else would have to go through what Monique and I experienced. Thank you for the great post!

  • Like Paul, I have found similar problems at the University of Sydney. I left a job at a smaller, less prestigious technology university to take up a position at UoS in the hope of furthering my career. My previous job was not perfect, but it used to be fun. People would actually talk to each other; I used to go walking at lunchtime with a colleague; and there was even flirting at the Christmas party (HOORAY!). But since coming to UoS, I find myself totally isolated- there’s no joking, no enjoyment, everyone takes themselves too seriously, and the Christmas party is simply an excuse for management to wax lyrical about the yearly cost saving initiatives. I’ve applied for a job at my former employer, and will be back there in a second if I’m successful, even though I will have to take a $20K a year pay cut.

  • Never give up! Everybody has a soul somewhere!

    Growing up in a nuclear research town, the Big-Bang Sheldon’s married earthy girls with lots of emotions to have a converter to a soul.
    As a the same Swiss-Army-Knife-Guy I worked for 40 years in technical service, R&D prototyping, consumer, industrial and commercial electronics. Making their (and my)ideas practical from installation, start-up to operator training was fun even they had a robotic, logical, cold behavior.
    In their defense, they have often no idea to leave the Ivory Tower because it resembles still their mothers womb!
    Normal is that your perversion matches the people pool’s ones who live in.
    In the old country many of us learned first a trade. As an apprentice you learn to be humble and take set-backs.
    Your can repair washers, radios and heaters in peoples home.
    You detect if their books are worn, sorted by subjects or just impressive, expensive, never touched sorted by thickness, heights and color.
    Looking back I received from several “very important patent holders, researchers and Nobel Prize candidates suddenly a truck load of their notes.
    Why? The thank you notes said:
    “We know you are a crazy Forrest Gump, funny guy. You never gave up on us, regardless how frustrating the situation was. At the end you made it work and the customer was happy. You deserve my notes because you are a natural hybrid bringing humanity together building bridges and opening doors.”

    With the rapid development of control technology for buildings, manufacturing and communication equipment we hands- and mind-on Edison’s, Packart’s, Ford’s, Nobel’s, Daimler’s are open to anybody joining in.

    The inner works in our SELF is:
    The S in us wants praise
    The E in us wants control
    The L in us wants to be social and humane
    The F in us wants facts, structure and privacy

    Tweak each SELF a little every day and find joy where ever it comes from.

    We in it together, all of us to complement each other with the talents we have. Garbage collectors, janitors, dish-washers prevent illnesses. Honor them as you go as your VIP’s.

    In the spirit of my fellow partner Vulcan Dr.Spock

    Live well and prosper

    Doc Hecky McCoy DIF
    Doctor of intentional fabrications to give love and life a purpose in technology! 1/6/2014

  • What strikes me in this excellent essay is the focus on the self-importance of the faculty as the cause of the soulless atmosphere on campus. Working at a place where people feel unimportant, disrespected and unappreciated, I find the same soulless isolation happens. The reason is different…instead of being too important to take the time to talk to others, people are so miserable and down in the dumps that they can’t spare the energy to engage with others (at least that’s my impression) and attempts to connect end up being reinforcing sob sessions. At the “important” school up the road, people are also miserable and it seems in a manner similar to the people at UI as described here. In my efforts to connect with people in that (awful) place, I’ve been rebuffed by comments such as, “well, I never thought anyone from -that- school would ever come here.” Whether focused on teaching or research, on self-importance or unimportance, the outcome is the same. I think it has to do with the place–which is America.

  • Your piece is right on the money. I recently left my tenured position for a job in the private sector. My only regret is that I didn’t do it years ago. I am happier and physically healthier than I was — the stress caused by all the ridiculous personalities at my institution (the University of Missouri-Columbia), combined with the downward spiral of state universities nationally, was taking its toll. I wish more faculty would realize that there is such a thing as life outside the ivory tower. Perhaps if there were more defections from the university, there would be a chance that the culture might improve.

  • Thank you for your essay. Your experiences at UIUC mirror those at my R1 university in the Northwest only too well. Sometimes I wonder why the overblown egos of many faculty “leaders” on campus don’t simply explode, like Mr. Creasote in Monty Python’s “Meaning of Life”. Narcissists find each other, network together and always rise to the top here. To your theme of “self-importance” I would add “getting along by going along”. I have chaired university faculty affairs committees and grievance committees but have nearly never encountered faculty members willing to think independently. As your contrasting experiences at UO and UIUC make clear, academic cultures can be so varied. I sure wish I could have had some way to gauge the cultures at institutions that made me offers to me before accepting here. It ain’t just the salary or lay of the land. How to do that for future aspiring academics?

  • Laughed alot at this
    ‘And then I found out. Found out what it’s like to be at a place where most everyone is convinced, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that they are very, very important people. Where most everyone is convinced, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that they are doing very, very important work. Where most everyone is convinced, beyond the shadow of a doubt, they are very, very smart. That they are, indeed, the smartest boys and girls in the whole world.
    I discovered the unbridgeable, heartbreaking chasm between a place where no one takes themselves very seriously, and a place where pretty much everyone takes themselves very (very) seriously.’

Comments are closed.